Category Archives: Interviews

Writing as a microbusiness: An interview with Adam Westbrook

 

Today I am pleased to host an interview I conducted recently with UK journalist Adam Westbrook. Adam, a reporter who also works as a video producer, an instructor, blogger and the owner of his own series of writing-related microbusinesses (the concept of which will be explained in a moment), is one of the best documentarians of the entrepreneurial spirit manifested by today’s most successful nonfiction writers.

Adam is confident, focused, and excited about the future of journalism. After you read this interview, and perhaps some of his blog, you will be too.

Tell us a little bit about your background as a journalist.

After training at City University in London, I started my career as a radio reporter working in different cities in the UK. Over the next three years I covered all sorts of domestic and international stories and spent a short time reporting from Iraq.

At what point in your career did you realize that the journalism industry was undergoing substantial changes? How did you respond?

When I was training it felt very much like we could see storm clouds on the horizon, but none of us could have predicted how much the industry was going to change. In my years as a reporter I continued blogging about my work, and eventually started getting more involved in social media. It was around this time (in 2008-09) that I found my work online excited me more than working in broadcast news.

Then later in 2009 I decided to take a leap and quit my job to become a fully independent multimedia producer, and haven’t looked back.

You spend a lot of time on your blog writing about how journalists can (and should) create microbusinesses or other entrepreneurial ventures. Why do you think this is important?

I don’t necessarily believe everyone should start their own ventures -it is not for everyone. But at the same time, creating and publishing content on the web has become so much cheaper and easier, and the audiences bigger, that it seems to me to be a shame not to explore its possibilities. It’s also far more exciting (I think) than mainstream media because the rules haven’t been written yet, so there’s great scope to create the work and career suited to you. Meanwhile, starting a business involves a much lower overhead, and more people are finding it brings them freedom and creative satisfaction.


In your mind, how might the approach taken by a proprietor of a journalistic microbusiness differ from the way an old-school freelance writer looked at their sources of income?

As a freelancer, despite how much freedom you have you are still selling your time in return for money. So you are at the mercy of client wants and needs, and you are only making money for yourself. Entrepreneurship is about creating a product or a service that does not involve selling your time, but something else (that is) distinct from you; it also has the potential to generate wealth, jobs, etc.

If you’re just starting out, a freelance business is much easier to set up, so it’s definitely worth beginning down this path, but if it’s career freedom you want, you should investigate product or service ideas alongside.

What skills should writers trained to write for print consider adding to their professional toolkit at this point in time? How can they leverage what they already know?

There are so many, but don’t worry about becoming a “jack of all trades and a master of none.” If you want to make a living writing online, you ought to have an understanding of online publishing – so learn how to self host a WordPress blog and do some basic HTML. The great thing about the web is it is so easy to learn new skills, whether its video, data, graphic design or web design. I wouldn’t say professional training is necessary either. Just start practicing and get your questions answered online.

Why did you choose to make one of your latest projects, Inside the Story, a fundraiser for Kiva? How did that end up fitting into your professional/business plan?

The Inside the Story was a project idea I had running around my mind for a while, and when a gap came up at the start of 2012 I thought I might as well get busy and do it. I always imagined the book raising money for a good cause, and in retrospect it wouldn’t have been possible to get the caliber of contributors on board if it had been for my personal profit. In terms of my ‘business plan’ it didn’t cost me anything but my time, which I know how to use well, and was a good profile raiser. But mostly, I believe that generosity is a really important part of business online: you have to give lots away. It’s what I do with my blog every week too.

You’ve talked a lot on your blog about building a “portfolio” career. What did you mean by that, and how important is it in terms of managing one’s career as a journalist these days?

A portfolio career basically involves having more than one form of income to support you. Again, it’s made possible by the time and energy savings of working online.  So I make most of my income as a multimedia producer making films for clients; but I also lecture in journalism, do training and consulting and sell books. It’s got better variety and means you’re not reliant on just one job. Every business has a by-product, and there are always other ways to make money from the skills or products you already have.

Want to learn more from Adam Westbrook? He offers several e-books on journalism topics, including one that’s free!

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“Your story is your power and your truth” – Author Gloria Feldt on advocacy writing

Photo of Gloria Feldt courtesy of MaryAnneRussell.com

Today we present an interview with Gloria Feldt – an author, blogger, and advocate for women. I met Gloria through my work at Arizona State University, where she teaches a course each spring relating to women, power and leadership.

Gloria is a former national president of Planned Parenthood, and author of the books “Send Yourself Roses,” co-authored with actress Kathleen Turner; “Behind Every Choice Is a Story”; and “The War on Choice.” Gloria’s most recent book is “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” which recently came out in paperback. In that book, Gloria interviewed dozens of women politicians, business owners, and activists and concluded that the doors of opportunity are wide open today, but too few women are leading the way to claim their power and reach parity with their male counterparts. To counteract this, her book provides 9 practical “power tools” that help women to embrace their power in their relationships and at work, in order to lead unlimited lives.

In today’s interview, Gloria discusses how writing can be used to fuel one’s social activism, and how writers who want to change the world can make a living doing that sort of work.

You can keep up with Gloria’s writing and advocacy work at her website.

Give us an overview of your career, and the place of writing within the work you were doing.

I knew when I was five that I wanted to be a writer. I carried a notebook and pencils with me at all times. My teacher shared a poem I wrote about Halloween with the whole class and kept it to teach future classes. That sealed the deal.

But life intervened. As a teenager, I drank the cultural Kool-Aid and focused on being popular, especially with boys. After marrying and having kids, I fell into my career first as a Head Start teacher, then leading Planned Parenthood affiliate offices.

Though writing was always a part of my work, it wasn’t till I was 60, national president of Planned Parenthood, and had a board chair who made my life miserable, that I decided I had to start writing books or I would die inside. So that’s when I wrote my first book, “Behind Every Choice Is a Story.” Then a few years later, after writing “The War on Choice” and realizing that its thought leadership was greatly appreciated by the general public but not so much by those inside the organization, I knew it was time to speak in my own voice. It was time to free that five-year-old to fulfill her original vision for herself.

What was the first piece of advocacy writing you had published in the media? What did that experience teach you about yourself as a writer?

The now-defunct Phoenix Gazette published an opinion column I wrote exhorting moderates to get as passionate about advocating their beliefs as the zealous right or be steamrollered by policies they don’t support. That must have been in 1979, not too long after I became the CEO of Planned Parenthood in Arizona. The experience taught me the value of devoting the time and effort it takes to do cogent opinion writing.

And by the way, I was right.

Which of the “power tools” discussed in your book No Excuses involve writing?

All of them. Over and over, depending on the day. You write the book you need to read.

Certainly, writing is a part of

  • Employing every medium to get your words out,
  • Wearing the shirt of your convictions,
  • And it plays a role in telling your story, using what you’ve got, knowing your history, embracing controversy, carpe-ing the chaos, and defining your own terms.

Even in the case of the power tool of creating a movement, which seems like a communal act, writing plays a role, because advocacy always involves joining with others.

Yes, they all apply. They are versatile tools and tips to help anyone use the power of her or his words.

How does writing empower women?

Your story is your power and your truth. Women are too often looking for external validation. Writing is its own validation. It comes from inside.

How have your professional writing assignments changed over the years? What has stayed constant?

Blogging didn’t exist when I started out. Now I am asked to blog by many outlets and that has opened up new opportunities to showcase my thinking, though not necessarily to earn money.

What has stayed constant is that I write nonfiction, mostly opinionated in some way about the current social and political issues as they apply to women. I love controversy.

Has there been a new form of media or a new genre that you’ve found particularly daunting? How did you eventually master it?

I break out in a cold sweat about writing book proposals. I can write the book but the proposal daunts me. I have not mastered it.

What new writing projects are you most excited about now?

My next book, but I can’t talk about it yet.

I’m starting to blog for ForbesWoman.com, which is exciting because it puts me in contact with women in the business community and expands my knowledge of their concerns.

What tips would you give to readers interested in using their writing skills to advance a cause?

Think first of being a thought leader and second about being an advocate. It’s a subtle but important distinction. How can you write about your advocacy topics in a way that is fresh, persuasive, interesting? Where should your writing appear to influence the people you want to influence?

How can advocacy writers make a living with their craft?

Think as you write about how you can parlay your writing platform into paid speaking opportunities and articles. It took me years to realize that you have to think about the marketing of a book with the same intensity as you think about its content. They are inseparable.

Also, know that most advocacy organizations and political leaders are desperate for great writers to help them with speeches, op-eds, books, and media messages.

INTERVIEW BONUS – For those of you who are members of the She Writes community, you will want to check out the “Countdown to Publication” blog series Gloria wrote before the initial publication of “No Excuses” in 2010. It’s a great look at what she went through to prepare the book for publication!

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Making a Statement Without Saying a Word: One Very Awesome Book Trailer By Jessica McCann

Novelist and nonfiction writer Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann has written for the magazine I edit at my day job. She’s interviewed me for an article on the college and university magazine market. I’ve interviewed her about writing fiction and nonfiction on this blog.

But the reason I’m posting today is to introduce you to the book trailer that Jessica developed for her novel, “All Kinds of Free.”  Book trailers are increasingly becoming an integral part of selling a book, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. The trailer for “All Different Kinds of Free” is an incredible demonstration of how to repurpose compelling material from print into a multimedia format and create a persuasive video to sell a historical novel.

Even more inspiring to me is the fact that Jessica made this trailer almost entirely by herself. In an interview on the Wolf and Redhood Media blog, Jessica revealed that she made the trailer herself, using Windows MovieMaker and photos and music from istockphoto.com.

Here’s what she had to say about how she crafted the trailer:

“The text for the trailer came from a variety of materials that had been written over the past couple of years – from my original pitch letter to my agent all the way down the line to the current back-cover copy. Writing and editing those types of materials helps you hone down to the key points in a small amount of space.

“For the trailer, I just whittled it down a bit more, while still hitting the highlights with fewer words. Then, once I had all the pieces in place in MovieMaker, it was a matter of tweaking the timing. I’d watch the trailer and take notes about which slides seemed to linger too long, which ones flashed by too quickly, if they seemed too copy heavy or took too long to read. I’d watch, then fine-tune, watch again, and fine-tune some more. Then I had a test audience (my husband and two teenage children!) watch and give me the same type of feedback, which led to still more fine-tuning.”

Writers of every genre can learn something by watching Jessica’s book trailer. And there is a bonus to going and watching the trailer on YouTube: If you leave a comment, you may win a copy of the book! The publisher will begin giving away one copy of the book to a random commenter when the page reaches 500 views and the book give-away will continue with one book given away for every 500 views until the trailer reaches 10,000 views or Dec. 31, 2011, whichever happens sooner. You can review all the details of this give-away on Jessica’s blog.

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for September 6, 2011

Photo courtesy SXC.

Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide | Nieman Storyboard

English Professor Ben Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo, a journalist, address the sticky question of accuracy in memoir writing and offer a rating system for “truthiness” and charts evaluating the honesty and readability of a number of modern and classic memoirs – everyone from St. Augustine to the reviled James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces.”

Quote and Comment | Realities and appearances, arguments and facts: Scheme for better political news.

Jay Rosen of NYU provides a handy way for reporters to sort out political news and commentary. Starting with honest-to-goodness facts and ending with phony arguments, the chart cuts through invective and is a superb head-clearer for anyone involved in covering politics.

Brainstorming strategies to combat writer’s block | PR Daily

A guest post from Mark Nichol of DailyWritingTips blog, which provides several great time-tested ways to get started or moving on writing assignments, including cubing, freewriting, listing and mapping.

Podcast Interview — Latest changes to the Associated Press Stylebook | Copyediting Blog

Grant Barrett, contributing editor for Copyediting blog (and newsletter) had a conversation with Associated Press contributing editor Darrell Christian about all the changes to the 2011 AP Stylebook. Here’s your chance to catch up on the finer points of style without getting your hands dirty!

Secrets to a Successful Fake Twitter Character | Fast Company

Adam Penenberg interviews the anonymous satirists behind @TheBillWalton, @FakeAPStylebook, and @NotBurtReynolds to find out how they have managed to garner a quarter-million followers between the three accounts.

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Listen up: my podcast on writing careers today

Photo courtesy SXC.

I don’t often talk specifics about my day job, but earlier in the year, ASU Magazine, where I work as managing editor, published the winners from its first-ever writing contest. That experience could easily be a post in and of itself (or may worm its way into my memoirs) but one of the more interesting off-shoots of the experience was that I produced a podcast that featured interviews with two of the judges for the contest: novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes and journalism educator Dan Gillmor.

The podcast, which is part of the ASU Alumni Association’s official iTunes channel, The Alumni Experience, focuses on what fiction and nonfiction writers need to know in order to thrive in today’s rapidly changing media marketplace. Both Gillmor and Rhodes were a delight to interview, and no matter what genre you write in, you will learn something.

To access the podcast:

Visit The Alumni Experience page via  iTunes or the ASU Alumni Association’s podcast page. At both sites, you will want to select the podcast entitled “ASU experts discuss writing careers today.”

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Biography of a biographer: Marshall Terrill on writing about the lives of others

Celebrity biographer Marshall Terrill

Today I present my interview with celebrity biographer Marshall Terrill. I happened to know Marshall slightly through my day job at Arizona State University (where he also works), but did not know until recently about his sideline of writing celebrity biographies – or the incredible dedication he has given a craft that is, in his words, an “expensive hobby.”

His interview provides a very candid look at his book writing career, and offers lots of specific advice to writers who are interested in pursuing this nonfiction genre.

Tell us about your professional background and your introduction to writing nonfiction.

My introduction to writing came as a result of unfortunate personal circumstances.  Let’s just say my writing career was as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone else.

In the late 1980s I worked in the mailroom for Phoenix businessman Charles Keating, who was later sent to federal prison as a result of a savings and loan scandal.  At the time I worked for Keating I was attending college, studying business and was in the first year of my marriage.  I had hitched my wagon to his star in hopes that one day I would work in a higher job capacity for him when I graduated college.  When Keating went to prison, I was out work and my future looked bleak.  Because of the stress, my wife left me and so I was very much at a crossroads in my life.  My father called me from Washington D.C. and said, “Well, you just lost your job and your wife left you.  What’s your next trick going to be?”

What I said took us both by surprise. “Actually, I want to move back to Washington D.C. and write a book on the life of Steve McQueen.”  The Library of Congress was not far from my parents’ home, which is where I conducted a majority of my research.  My dad said, “Why on earth would you want to do a thing like that?  I could barely get you to read in high school.”  I told him that I had always wanted to write a book on Steve McQueen and that something had compelled me to do this.  He thought for a moment and said, “Well, you might as well do it while you’re young because if you fail, you can recover.”  So that was it.  I moved back into my parents’ home at the age of 24 and stayed there until I was 28.  “Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel” was published in December 1993 just as I turned 29.

What motivated you to write your first book?

I had read other books on McQueen and felt they focused on the bad-boy behavior, the man on the motorcycle if you will, and zipped through his film work.  They had only covered parts of his life, but largely ignoring his acting.  There was not one all-encompassing biography of his life and I felt the market had demanded it.  I’ve always felt he was a terrific film actor, perhaps the best of his generation, and was greatly underrated in his lifetime. Turned out I was right.  Every co-star I interviewed said McQueen was gifted and that he was the best actor and they had ever worked with and had this incredible screen presence.  What’s amazing to me is that his legacy grows with each passing year. Today he is the most emulated actor in Hollywood and in the last few years, he’s made Forbes’ Top 10 list of dead celebrity earners.  Not bad for a guy who died more than 30 years ago.

How did you settle on biography as a nonfiction writing genre?

Because I think like most non-fiction readers do – if you’re going to take the time to read a book, you might as well learn something.  Fiction to me is more of an escape and if I wanted to escape, I’ll go to the movies or rent a DVD.  There’s so much you can learn about life when you read non-fiction.  You can learn about history, human behavior, psychology, triumph and tragedy, and invaluable life lessons.

What is the greatest challenge in writing a good biography?

The monumental effort it takes to put it all together.  It’s the ultimate jigsaw when you really come down to it, and you never know what challenges or roadblocks you’ll face.  I wrote a book with boxer Ken Norton that I thought would take maybe a year at most.  However, before I met him, he was in a life-threatening car accident and his memory was completely wiped out. So instead of him telling me his story, I went to the library and researched his entire life, which took almost four years.  As I began to outline his life, I had to repeat back to him his life story, which triggered his memory.  It was a very strange experience, but luckily we pulled it off.

Another interesting experience that took me much longer was the seven years I spent “Maravich” (a biography of basketball legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich co-authored with Wayne Federman) but two of those years were committed to transcribing 300 interviews.  That is a very tedious process.  On top of that I spent another few years culling other information that included newspaper and magazine articles, official documents, memorabilia and interviews with people who knew the subject.  When you’re done with the research, you have to assemble all of that information together to tell the story.  It’s a Herculean effort.  Then there’s the post-production process: editing, trying to find an agent/publisher and finally, promotion.  You can write the greatest book in the world but if no one knows about it, you’ve simply wasted your times.  Those are all skills learned along the way that aren’t taught but are self-learned.  You either sink or swim.

You’ve managed to write 15 books over the past 20 years, often while holding down day jobs that involve writing as well. What are your tips for managing one’s writing time effectively?

It all boils down to dedication, which is 90 percent of the battle.  People always ask me, “What’s the secret of getting published?”  I tell them there’s no real secret to writing a book – you get on the computer and you write.  I mainly see two big problems: 1.) People give up way too easily.  Are they willing to put in the time that is required to finish the task?  Sometimes that task is a year; other times it is seven years.  … When I wrote the first book, I worked 8 to 10 hours a day for three-and-a-half years straight.  You have to have that sort of dedication to get a book published or it’s just not going to happen. 2.) The other problem I see is a form of self-sabotage and it happens more often than not.  I’ve seen many writers start a book, write about half the manuscript, then drop that project and start another.  Or they’ll write a chapter and then go back and edit it to the point where they can’t go forward.  They think this is perfectly normal.  I don’t.  I say finish the first book to the point of perfection and then move onto the next project.  I’ve seen so many stalled careers because the writer can’t complete the first project.

Set aside a time each day and write.  What worked best for me was to write an hour a day before/after work and four to five hours on Saturday and Sunday.  Someone who has kids is going to have a harder time, and that’s the harsh reality.  I don’t have kids and a very understanding wife, who made a lot of sacrifices so I could write my books.

How have your day jobs augmented your career as a celebrity biographer?

It took a while for me to get it through my thick head that I couldn’t earn a living at simply writing non-fiction books.  I dedicated 10 years of my life to make it work and I just couldn’t.  I owned a house and took in boarders (that’s a book in and of itself!), took part-time jobs to bring in some sort of income to pay the bills and I was financially treading water the entire time.  That gets old after a while.  Unless you are selling millions of books, it’s just not going to happen because of the way book that deals are structured, which is always in favor of the publisher.  And that’s not a negative – the publisher is putting up the money and taking the risk, so they should be rewarded.  For example, a typical hardback book will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 to produce.  The publisher sells that to the wholesaler/retailer somewhere in the range of $12 to $15.  The publisher makes somewhere between $7 and $10 per book and the royalty for the writer is around $2 to $3 depending on what you’ve negotiated.  Everybody thinks they’re going to get on Oprah Winfrey and sell a million books, but that’s not reality.  It’s like banking your future on winning the lottery.

Most of my books sell somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 copies, depending on what kind of publicity I get and if the timing is good (most of my books are timed on anniversaries and key dates so I have a news hook to pitch to the media).  Realistically, I make between $20,000 to $30,000 a book, and keep in mind royalty checks are spread out six months apart.  It’s not as if the publisher is going to let you have all that money at once.  But if you weigh the paycheck vs. the time I’ve put into writing the book, money spent on editors, travel, postage, research, long-distance phone calls and office supplies, it’s literally pennies on the dollar.  It’s supplemental income at best, but the work is full-time.  I call writing my “expensive hobby” because it costs money to write a book.  Ask any published non-fiction writer if it cost them money to pursue their books and they’ll be able to show you their tax receipts.

After 10 years of writing books from home, I decided it was time to get a job because I didn’t want to be 40, have no pension or a big hole on my resume.  So when an opportunity arose at a local newspaper as a journalist, I took it.  It was a practical decision because it’s what I loved to do and I could continue to write my books on the side.  I would have remained a journalist for the rest of my life but then the economic crash hit our country, and I could see the handwriting on the wall.  Newspapers got hit very hard and so I made the switch to the other side – public relations.  I knew how to get publicity from my books and what made for a good news story, so it was a very easy transition.  I work now for Arizona State University in Public Affairs.

Your website mentions you write your books with Cheryl Hosmer, a developmental editor/writer. How does your partnership work?

I instinctively knew that a big part of my success was that when I turned in a manuscript, it was fully edited.  Many reasons why other writers don’t get published is that their manuscripts needed a lot of editing.  This is where the ego gets in the way.  I’ve talked to many young writers who say, “I’m such a good writer that I don’t need editing,” or they didn’t have the money to pay an editor.   I’ve been in publishing now more than 20 years and most of my manuscripts have at least two editors, sometimes three and four.  If you write a 150,000 word manuscript, there’s bound to be mistakes, typos and grammatical errors.  My first draft always has mistakes, and it’s simply a part of the process to clean it up.  I also like to have input and the very first thing I tell editors is, “Don’t be afraid to tell me when I’m wrong or off base.”  Just because I’ve had success getting published doesn’t mean I’m perfect or can be wrong.

Every finished manuscript will have mistakes.  Publishing houses no longer have line editors who will comb over your book looking for mistakes.  They expect your manuscript to be near perfect, and they don’t have the time or money to help you clean it up.  So that’s why I’ve formed a partnership with Cheryl Hosmer, who has edited several of my books. So we offer these editing services to writers who are serious about getting published.  And of course, they get to pick my brain on the publishing industry. I’ve helped many people turn their manuscripts into books.

What are some benefits of writer-editor collaborations such as the one you have with Hosmer?

Many benefits come to mind.  The first is that I am not alone in the writing process.  I have a sounding board in case I am way off.  The trick is to find someone you completely trust, someone who will tell you the truth but not step on your creative toes.  I recently read a great book called “Starting Over,” a book by Ken Sharp on the making of John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy.”  The producer of that album was a veteran named Jack Douglas.  Douglas said Lennon was such a force of nature that his job was to sit behind the recording console and not get in Lennon’s way.  That’s what a good editor should do.  Stand back, let the author do his/her thing, but be ready to give advice when called upon.

What writing projects are next for you?

None in the foreseeable future.  This last book, “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon,” took a lot out of me in terms of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.  Each time I start a book, it’s like going to literary boot camp for five years.  While I like the end result, the experience isn’t always so pleasant because of the intensity of what I have to go through to get published. I’m not saying I’ll never write again, but I’m taking a very long break.

Any advice to nonfiction writers in today’s unpredictable market?

Know the market, know what publishers are looking for, and know who your readers are.  Publishers certainly care about the writing, but they care more about the number of books they can sell.  Not only do they want you to tell them why it’s a great book, but they want to know how you’re going to sell the book, who is the market, why readers will buy and how many books will they sell.  It’s a tough business and failure is not an option in these fiscally tough times.  Learn how to write a killer proposal and take the guess work out of it for publishers.

Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?

I don’t want to come off as sounding very negative because that’s not my intent.  My intent is to paint a very realistic picture of what a writer goes through in order to get a book published.  Everyone seems to think it’s a glamorous profession or something they can do if they don’t want to get a real job.  The reality is that it is extremely hard work.  People think that writing a book is a warm and fuzzy experience and an easy lifestyle.  If you talk to any published author, you’ll find that’s not the case.  I once interviewed Jackie Collins and I asked her about her work ethic.  She puts in 8 to 10 hours a day on the computer.  I hear Steven King writes 12 hours a day.  And something needs to be explained here –writing is physically and emotionally exhausting.  It’s a serious workout.  When you are finished, you are absolutely wiped out at the end of the day.  Needless to say it’s a lot of hard work, sacrifice and time spent alone.  There were many times when my wife had to eat dinner by herself, or spend weekends with her friends because I was working.  I’ve also had to sacrifice time away from my dog, a bike ride around the lake, or an evening with family and friends.  However, there’s a positive here – my work has granted me friendships and life experiences I would have never otherwise had, and worldly experiences that can be taught in a textbook.

My final piece of advice is to write every book with the idea that it’s going to be a labor of love because most likely there won’t be a financial return.  And if there is any return at all, then it’s all gravy.  The only reason you should ever write a book is because your heart and soul is aching to do it, and you can’t move on in life unless you do.

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Marshall’s latest book, “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon,” is available on Amazon and at major book retailers.

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Writing in Two Worlds: An Interview with Novelist and Journalist Jessica McCann

Novelist and nonfiction writer Jessica McCann

We have a real treat today: I recently conducted an e-interview with Jessica McCann, a magazine writer and freelance editor whom I’ve worked with several times over the years. She’s also a budding novelist — her novel “All Different Kinds of Free” is due to be published in April of next year.

Her story of how she got her start in nonfiction writing, and how she reclaimed her childhood love of fiction in order to start writing it, is inspiring and contains valuable lessons for any writer would would like to work in both fiction and nonfiction.

Write Livelihood: How did you get your start as a nonfiction writer?
McCann: I’ve worked at least part-time as a freelance writer since I was 17 years old. I started freelancing as a high school senior for an amazing group of women in the communications department at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Each of them mentored me in their respective areas — external communications, media relations, community outreach and employee communications. They exposed me to so many types of business and journalistic writing styles and approaches. I consider the time I spent there to be my formal education in the writing profession.

A few years out of high school I landed a full-time job in communications, then as went on to work as the editor of a regional business magazine, and finally editor for a custom-book publisher. To make extra money and build up my portfolio, I continued to freelance on the side. In 1998, I quit my editing job to freelance full time, and I haven’t looked back since.

What role has fiction writing played in your development as a professional writer?
Fiction didn’t have a role in my professional writing career for a very long time. When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a novelist. In eighth grade, a misguided English teacher told me a short story I had written was lazy and unimaginative — that he expected more (out of me). Maybe his assessment was accurate. Maybe he was hoping to fire me up and get me to work harder. But all he really did was crush my confidence.

It took me 20 years to work up the courage to dabble in fiction writing again. I focused instead on nonfiction and built a successful career as a business writer and journalist. Once you’re on a certain path, it’s pretty hard to find the motivation and courage to wander off into the dark scary woods in search of something different. So for a long time, I stayed with what I knew I could do well, stayed with what was safe.

What inspired you to write your debut novel, “All Different Kinds of Free”?
The work was inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842. I first read about it when I was doing freelance copyediting on a book for MIT about Supreme Court justices.  The case  appealed the conviction of a bounty hunter charged with kidnapping Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color who was alleged to be an escaped slave. The court case focused on state’s rights, and the ruling represented the first time a major branch of the U.S. government made a proslavery stand. But I was most interested in Margaret and what became of her.

My original goal was to write a biography, and I spent about three years researching her life — or, at least, attempting to research her life. The sad truth is that Margaret and her fate were irrelevant at the time. The issue for most people in the mid-1800s was much bigger than one woman’s fight for freedom. Yet, to me, it was all about Margaret. When I realized I didn’t have enough facts to write a biography, I was devastated and grudgingly packed away my research. Then my mother-in-law loaned me a book, a fictional biography about George Washington, by Mary Higgins Clark. It was a fun read, and it gave me the idea that a fictional biography might be the only way I could tell Margaret’s story and really do it justice.

At what point did you decide the novel might be publishable?
In its earliest stages, I never really believed it would ever get published. It was just a story I felt compelled to write, and I was enjoying the creative process. Then I entered the first few chapters in  some writing competitions as a novel in progress. I didn’t win, but I received semi-finalist recognition in two respected contests. That’s when I started to believe I might have the chops to actually write a novel that people would want to read. When All Different Kinds of Free was named a finalist in the Freedom in Fiction Prize, publishing my novel was no longer just a fun dream. It became a tangible goal that I wrote  into my business plan.

Does your writing process differ for writing fiction?
Not much. I enjoy the research phase of writing. That’s often what fuels my creativity, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction. The interviews, digging through articles and books at the library, searching online for little-known facts and resources — it’s a process that helps ideas form in my head, helps me arrange the pieces of my story to create the picture I want my readers to see.

How does writing fiction impact your nonfiction writing, and vice versa?
As I mentioned earlier, for many years I was quite literally afraid to try my hand at fiction and was content writing magazine articles and corporate work. Then, after more than 10 years freelancing for the same clients, I hit a sort of road block. I was bored out of my mind, to be blunt. My clients were still happy with my work, but I felt like I was writing the same old articles again and again. I could do it with my eyes closed.

I felt stifled creatively, felt I was doing my clients an injustice, and felt it would soon catch up to me in a bad way. So I started writing short stories based on writing prompts, just to flex my creative muscles and work my brain in a different way. A couple of amazing things happened. One, I remembered how much I enjoyed writing fiction; and two, I realized that good fiction writing isn’t a whole heck of a lot different than good nonfiction. Being efficient with the language, using vivid imagery, telling a compelling story — these are universal to good writing, regardless of the genre.

Going forward, how do you see your fiction writing fitting in your career overall?
I would love to become a full-time novelist. It’s a challenging, slow transition, but that’s the ultimate goal. My debut book releases April 2011 from Bell Bridge Books, and I’m deep in research for my second novel.

What advice would you have for nonfiction writers who’d like to get started writing fiction?
Just get started. Start small to build up your confidence if you need to — write a short story or two, enter a contest here and there, research literary journals and submit your work. As you gain momentum, the fiction writing will start to play a bigger role in your writing life. If it’s important enough to you, it will eventually take on a life of its own.

Any final thoughts or advice for writers who work in both genres?
Be brave. Keep writing. That may sound trite or hokey, but for me it’s that simple. Look to other writers for inspiration, encouragement and motivation.

The following quotes in particular have come to mean a lot to me recently:
“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” ~Anne Rice

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” ~Mark Twain

“The one talent that’s indispensable to a writer is persistence.” ~Tom Clancy

“Forget about becoming a great writer. Work instead on writing great stories.” ~William Tapply

That pretty much sums it up for me. Writing is scary. When you’ve already experienced some measure of success in one type of writing, switching genres and starting from scratch is even scarier. You’re putting yourself out there, vulnerable to fresh criticism, with every new thing you write. Why subject yourself to the hard work, the anxiety and the potential rejection again and again? Because you have a story to tell. So tell it, in whatever genre does it justice.

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You can learn more about Jessica’s work by visiting her website.

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