The Pitfalls of Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

freelance writing pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is home to lots of creative types!

Freelance writing in Pittsburgh isn’t always perfect. In fact, it can be full of pitfalls. But what if there was a cushy landing waiting at the bottom? I love doing freelance writing in Pittsburgh. Over the past four years, I’ve enjoyed working the organizations like Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, Cancer Be Glammed, and teli. Right now I am enjoying my freelance writing work with Farm to Table and Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, as well as writing for national magazines.

Why I love Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

I have learned a lot in my time as a freelance writer and not all of it pertains to writing. There are lots of extras, both good and bad, that come with a corporate position. Here is a quick list of seven potential pitfalls of doing a freelance writing in Pittsburgh that aren’t so bad after all.

  1. No organized community service. I miss blood drives! In my previous work in the non-profit world, the office manager always organized the blood drives and volunteering was part of my day job. It was easy and a no-brainer. Now that I’m a freelance writer I have to make my own volunteering opportunities. That could be a con, but now I have a chance to pick which causes really matter to me. I’m starting a creative writing club at our elementary school, I’m volunteering with the Food Bank and promoting healthy eating for kids.
  2. No office kitchen. I have no where to take leftover party food! When I worked in an office, I could keep extra sweets and snacks out of my pantry by donating it to the office kitchen. Problem solved. Now as a freelancer, a lot of those leftover pieces of cakes and cookies stick around the house. But as a freelance writer, I’m also not tempted to eat treats brought in by other people. No 4:00 sugar rush! And I can usually avoid the guilty obligation to buy popcorn and chocolate and wrapping paper from co-workers who are fundraising for their kids.
  3. No chit chat. Not working in an office means no water cooler talk. That’s good and bad. It means I don’t have people to bounce ideas off of easily. It means I have to use the phone, social media and scheduled meetings to share ideas and get feedback. That does require extra effort on my part. But losing the water cooler means also means I get to avoid hurtful gossip and misinformation. A definite pro!
  4. No suits. Working from home means there is no need for a business wardrobe. This feels like a real pro for me most of the time. I can do my freelance writing in my workout gear and make sure I have no excuses when it comes to running, cycling or lifting weights. It does make it hard sometimes when I need to dress for a presentation or networking event, but I think this feature has helped my budget and my overall health. I haven’t worn high heels in several months and I don’t miss that at all!
  5. No sick days. As a freelance writer, I still have to work when I’m sick. I’ve taken time off when I’ve felt really bad, but if it’s a bad cough or a sore throat, that doesn’t stop me from writing. That mean seem like a con, but the good part about not working in an office is that I don’t have to work around other sick people. Why do people insist on coming into work sick? No one’s handing out medals for coming into work on your deathbed! And since our nation has really failed to support families with excellent parental sick leave rights, I can now stay home with my sick children and keep working. That’s a real pro.
  6. No carpool. I don’t have anyone to carpool with to work. No HOV lanes for me. When I do have to drive somewhere, I am on my own. But I also don’t drive to work everyday. There are many days I don’t drive at all. That has to be a pro.
  7. No trivia club after work. It is harder to socialize now. It’s very easy to stay home, tuck into my work, and neglect personal relationships. But I am a social person and I make an effort to get out to different kinds of networking events and community activities. And I’ve also tried to prioritize friendships with people that really match my personality instead of gravitating towards someone who just happens to work in the next office. It’s been good to meet a variety of new and interesting people through my numerous freelance writing contracts but it’s also been good to explore friendships that are not related to work. I think in many ways, non-work friendships can be healthier and less stressful. There are so many great people in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I’ll ever truly lack for excellent socializing!

Creative Writing Ideas

Some people have difficulty accepting input on their creative works, especially creative writing. I think they worry that if they incorporate someone else’s idea, the work isn’t their own. But I really love getting creative writing ideas from people, especially children, mine or anyone else’s kids.

People new to writing often say, “I shared this story with my kids and they loved it!” Unfortunately that phrase smacks of amateurism. It’s great that your kids love it, but your kids also love you and kids can’t often separate their feelings for a person from something the person creates. Most adults can’t even do that! So while it’s great to ask kids for their opinions and creative writing ideas, it takes time to learn when their advice is valuable.

Brainstorming and Creative Writing Ideas

So while I refrain from mentioning if my kids like something I’ve written, I’m pretty shameless about working with my kids for brainstorming and inspiration. They have some great creative writing ideas. But I don’t stop there. I use other people’s kids, too. Just yesterday I called a friend’s third grade son and he really solved an obstacle I had in my app idea.

Recently my middle son had a friend over and they kept shouting “Ho, Ho, Ho, oh no!” That phrase sparked a story in my brain about either a clumsy Santa Claus, or a not-so-helpful assistant to Santa. Over dinner I shared my ideas with the boys and we decided to write a story about Santa’s new puppy who gets into all sorts of trouble.

I like Snowball and Blizzard. creative writing ideas

I like Snowball and Blizzard.

 

 

My kids really got into the story development process. My fourth grader brainstormed character names for the puppy. He did this on his own, without me asking. I love that he knows I will listen to his ideas and that he cares enough about my writing to contribute and make it stronger. I also love how he knows not all of these ideas will work. That’s a big concept for a young kid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good titles are hard for me. creative writing ideas

Good titles are hard for me.

 

Not only did my middle son and his off hand comment turn into a creative writing prompt, he suggested alternative titles. I was calling the story “Santa’s Best Friend” but I really like “One More Helper.” Titles are so hard for me but titles and cover images sell books and stories. I love how he suggested more than one alternative title.

 

 

The boys also suggested topics for other stories. They are little generators of creative writing ideas. The middle one wanted to read about an apple seed, so that became “Root Camp.” And again, the middle one wanted something about salt and pepper, so I am in the process of writing a kid’s mystery about which seasoning pushed pepper out of the spice cabinet.

The older son gives me great critique on my middle grade work. He tells me if he understands the dialogue and if it sounds real or not. He also tells me what doesn’t make sense to him when I describe action. He’s doing a lot of text analysis in class right now and his critique skills have definitely improved.

I don’t ever mention to editors or agents how my children feel about my work, but that doesn’t mean I’m not asking them. I value their input and their ideas. But I also involve them in the creative process and share my struggles and confusion with them. I let them know when I’m stumped and if they help me figure out a missing piece of the story, or fix that line that doesn’t rhyme in my story about dinosaurs rocking out I give them full credit.

It can take awhile for a child to learn that not all of their ideas will be used. And it can also take awhile for people to accept input on their creative works. But it can be so effective to get outside input. In this Publishers Weekly podcast, author Holly Black described how she develops some of her works by sharing rough drafts and general ideas with her critique group. Her process sounded really familiar to me and really validated my ideas that getting input can make a better final product.

Are there certain people you trust when it comes to contributing creative writing ideas?

Are there certain people that you never listen to?

 

Notes for NaNoWriMo (Write)

Started these notes on Nov. 7, one week into NaNoWrIMo.

– Write.

– Use those 15 beats. Write out several versions of the story you think you want to tell.

– Work on those character descriptions early in October. Know those characters before hand and your story will flow.

– Read great books all month.

– Definitely block that time off on your calendar. That is working great!

– In October, start minimizing meetings that you accept in November. Get work done in advance whenever possible.

– Still schedule in your running and exercise.

– Journal the month before.

It’s now Nov 30, and I finished NaNoWriMo on Wed, Nov. 26.

– Don’t worry too much about exercising but a good walk helps.

– Don’t try to avoid caffeine by drinking that herbal tea called “Easy Now.” You may be allergic to the flowers in it. It gave you vertigo, possibly.

– Absolutely respect the time you have blocked off to write. That worked perfectly.

– Write scenes even if you decide not to use them later and even if they don’t make sense with previously written scenes but you think they may fit with the story after you revise it.

– You’re going to feel bad about your story at some points. Keep writing anyway. You can revise it!

– You love parts of your story. You’re going to feel so good you sat down and wrote this. You can revise it!

– Telling people, out loud, that you’re going to win, helps.

– Write with a friend. Write by yourself. Write in the morning or the evening, or both. Write a lot. Write!

Winner-2014-Web-Banner write

(I hope I remember to come back and read this in late September 2015!)

The Mom Con in Pittsburgh

the mom con Pittsburgh

Nov. 15 – Don’t miss this!

There’s buzz, no doubt about it, surrounding The Mom Con happening in Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 2014! It’s going to be a great event this year and although I’m not able to attend as a vendor for family reasons, I have to say I’m excited to still be involved and learning from the organizers.

The theme for this year’s event is “Inspiring, Connecting and Empowering” and frankly I’ve felt all of those things even before going to the event! I’ve been learning about the businesses and vendors that will be there and I’ve been inspired by the founding moms. I’ve connected with other moms at pre-Mom Con events. And I’ve felt empowered to reach out and try some new events outside of my comfort zone.

Check out this list of speakers  and the schedule. There are still tickets available and if you haven’t gotten yours, I suggest you get them soon!

 

 

Too Many Critique Groups?

critique groups

Drafts & Revisions

Are you a in a critique group? I am – actually three critique groups! I think critique groups are truly invaluable to any serious writer and not just for works of fiction.

I meet regularly with a friend I met through NaNoWriMo (coming very soon!) to discuss non-fiction queries, article ideas and fiction ideas. We also discuss whether certain writing contests are worth the effort. Having a writer friend as a sounding board is a great asset, and it helps when the writing friend has a different approach than you.

In addition to meeting with my friend, I also meet regularly with two formal critique groups but both have different vibes.

Last summer I learned about the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Editors and attended their summer “critique-nic.” This picnic plus critique group combined my love of food and writing perfectly and following that event I joined an SCWBI critique group in Cranberry. This has been my most successful, continual critique group ever. We have a great chemistry and really work hard to help each other produce our best work.

Joining this SCWBI group has kept me on task and provided good moral support. This group was especially helpful after I had a negative experience at a writing retreat and was accused of being a rude, harsh, inexperienced critiquer. (I’ll have to share more about this story later.) After the retreat, I returned to my familiar group and shared my unhappy story. They reassured me it was probably a misunderstanding or a just a really negative person. This group is a great mix of writers with diverse experience, too. I definitely want to be in this group.

After attending – and loving – my first Penn Writers conference, I learned about a critique group very convenient to my neighborhood and requested to join. I was pretty surprised to learn I had to audition to join this group! I sent off my writing sample and felt very lucky to be accepted. They keep a strict six-person membership limit and while the group meets for an epic 5 hours once a month, they work very hard to give detailed feedback and stay on topic.

I’ve had one meeting with this group and found it to be really engaging and informative. I’m excited to bring my MG novel “Dare Club” and work on revisions with the help of this group. Each person is writing something so different, I also feel like I will learn a lot from each of their works. I definitely want to be in this group, too!

There’s a third critique group that’s still in the growing stages trying to meet every other Wednesday at  Coffee Buddha, a coffee shop also in my neighborhood. Growing a critique group can be pretty hard when people haven’t made the commitment to clear the space on their calendar and prioritize being there. New critique groups are always working out who the leader is, how many people are needed to meet, how often to meet and working to build a comfort level with each other. This is probably the hardest one for me to commit to, since it’s still growing. But I feel responsible for it some reason!

I think two critique groups plus a writing mentor is enough, but three is too many. But I can’t let go of the guilt of abandoning a group of writers looking for support in their community!

Do you belong to one or more critique groups? What’s the best part? What’s the worst?

Kids Ebooks Project

kids ebooks dinosaurs

Kids roar for dinosaurs

I’m working on a new kids ebook project and it’s part bucket-list, part platform builder. I’ve created kids ebooks before, but for this project I felt it was important that the ebook exist as a standalone app and not get buried in an e-reader. I’ve also always wanted to create an app and I’ve had several simple ideas but I don’t have the skills needed to program an app. To be honest, I also didn’t want to spend the time to learn how to program an app using even the simple toolkits available online – and there are some good ones! I’d much rather learn the steps overall process but have people really skilled in certain areas complete the tasks and pay attention to details I would overlook.

So, here are the steps I’ve taken in creating my new kids ebook project.

 1. Identified the topic. I’m working with dinosaurs because my oldest has loved them since he was a baby and because lots and lots of boys and girls throughout the world love dinosaurs. I like kids ebooks that utilize take a familiar children’s song or tune, so I started there and added a dinosaur element. I brainstormed three ideas and then started doing some research on artists, copyright law, musicians, and app developers.

2. Commissioned the artwork. Finding the artist came quickly. I’m working with artist Felix Eddy and her unique creations are both reasonably priced and beautifully done. She created the initial seven images I asked for to start the book. Right now she is on hold while we decide file formats and how many additional images I need to complete the project.

3. Learned about copyright law. So, my first ebook idea is had to be taken off the list. I can’t do a work based on the Hokey Pokey because that song is owned by Sony/ATV Music Publishing and the idea I had was a derivative work, not a parody. Big publishing houses have the resources to use copyrighted material in kids ebooks, but not self-publishers like me. So I’m exploring options two and three which I think are also strong.

4. Find a musician. Thanks to a conversation with my friend Shawn, I was connected with Scott Imblum, who owns a music school and also worked with the Pittsburgh Technology Council. He is ready to help me with the audio portion of the ebook as soon as I get to that stage. And he also helped an incredible amount with finding a developer!

5. Developers are tough to find. They are out there, but this is a small project and not likely to earn a lot of money, so I’m looking for the perfect combination of a developer who’s willing to work on kids ebooks for a rather small amount of money but still has the skills I need to create a really great user interface. So far I’ve talked with two sets of people who connect me with developers and I have a phone call with a third person this coming week.

In a future update, I’ll share some of the simple app development toolkits that developers have shared with me and talk about the Kindle Kids Book creator program. I’ll probably use that to release a version of this book and see how easy or hard the process is.

What projects are on your bucket list?

Creative science writing

creative science writing

Inspiration from nature

Creative science writing, not exactly science fiction but fiction based in fact, is one of my favorite kinds of writing. Recently I finished a fun story about a worm who saves a compost pile. Lots of creative science writing in that tale.

And earlier this year my middle son asked me to write a story about a certain type of bee he invented. I was delighted with his character but struggled to come up with a story. So this week I grabbed a large stack of non-fiction children’s books about bees from the library. I have learned so much amazing detail about the lives of bees. There is fodder there for at least three different kinds of stories and maybe two decent poems. I have big dreams for this creative science tale, like middle grade novel or maybe even graphic novel length. If only I could draw!

Following along science-and-nature inspired creative writing,  I have rediscovered the most amazing book that I bought for my boys but selfishly I am now claiming for my own. The Tree That Time Built: A Celebration of Nature, Science, and Imagination (A Poetry Speaks Experience). Seriously. Even if you claim you don’t like poetry, you must get this book.

What’s a book, story or poem that you love that is an example of creative science writing?

Tomboys or Sissies: Which do you want?

boys sculpture tomboys

My boys view Miro’s sculpture “The Caress of a Bird” described as a “totem of female sexuality.”

“I’m pretty sure my daughter will be a tomboy,” my friend, father of a nine-month old girl, proudly announced. I automatically smiled, because I think my friends would describe me as more tomboy than girly-girl. My sons are often surprised when I wear a dress. Because girly-girls wear dresses, right?

But then I started thinking about my three boys – and how the male equivalent of the word “tomboy” is not nearly as kind. If I said to another parent, “I’m pretty sure one of my boys will be a sissy!” I doubt they’d smile and congratulate me.

Books for Tomboys? Or Sporty Kids?

Recently I received an email from Kara Thom, the author of Hot (Sweaty) Mamas: Five Secrets to Life as a Fit Mom announcing her new book series Go! Go! Sports Girls! The series really interested and excited me, but it also made me wonder what comparable series would be written for boys.

To be fair, Thom does state the series is for children – not just girls. And my boys willingly read books about boys and girls, so they’d probably love the books about soccer, swimming and running, three sports they really love. Here’s what Go! Go! Sports Girls! is about, according to Thom:

The 32-page illustrated books explore social-emotional growth through sport in engaging stories that empower children to “Dream Big and Go For It!” The titles are:

Soccer Girl Cassie’s Story: Teamwork is the Goal
Swimmer Girl Suzi’s Story: Winning Strokes
Runner Girl Ella’s Story: Family Fun Run
Gymnastics Girl Maya’s Story: Becoming Brave
Dancer Girl M.C.’s Story: One Step at a Time
Cheerleader Girl Roxy’s Story: Leading the Way

This project has been a passion for me as I raise three young athletic daughters, but also because I’m part of a movement to give girls better choices. Girls need more than the stereotypical options packaged in pink, as well as options other than over-sexualized toys such as Bratz, Monster High, and their ilk.

Go! Go! Sports Girls are age-appropriate, proportioned to a real girl’s body, project a positive image, and deliver a healthy message. The Go! Go! Sports Girls better reflect our family’s lifestyle and values. Girls play sports and so should their dolls. My daughters McKenna, Kendall, and Jocelyn have grown up playing with Go! Go! Sports Girls, and still do. I might add that my son, Blake, who has no concept that his mom is the author, is a fan of the books as well.

To be clear, I completely agree with Thom’s goal of motivating and inspiring young girls in a different way than lots of popular media representations of girls. But what about my boys? How can I encourage them to follow their interests and passions if those interests aren’t typical “boy” activities? And how come we don’t have a cool word for boys who act like girls? It’s so unfair that girls can be cool tomboys but boys acting like girls is labeled an insult.

I’ve been trying to come up with examples of behaviors that are frequently seen as feminine that I’d want my boys to feel free to adopt in a world without gender stereotypes. Maybe being more empathetic? I wasn’t sure that what I thought was feminine was feminine, by social standards. I found this on Planned Parenthood:

WORDS COMMONLY USED TO DESCRIBE FEMININITY
dependent
emotional
passive
sensitive
quiet
graceful
innocent
weak
flirtatious
nurturing
self-critical
soft
sexually submissive
accepting

I wasn’t really thrilled when I read some of the items on the list. Because I’m certainly not graceful or quiet. But I would totally love it if my boys learned to be quiet sometimes! Maybe that would be one of the books in my series about boys exploring new behaviors: Little Tommy Learns Not to Scream Every Word! I could get behind a book for boys focusing on that. But I’m not really thrilled about a lot of those qualities on the list. And I think that’s why lots of parents are proud of having ‘tomboys.’ But they wouldn’t love it if their boys were described as weak or passive.

To be fair, Planned Parenthood didn’t make that list to say how women should behave. They follow the lists with this:

“Clearly, society’s categories for what is masculine and feminine are unrealistic. They may not capture how we truly feel, how we behave, or how we define ourselves. All men have some so-called feminine traits, and all women have some so-called masculine traits. And we may show different traits at different times. Our cultures teach women and men to be the opposite of each other in many ways. The truth is that we are more alike than different.”

What could we write?

But I’m really serious in my question here! I’m all for tomboys and girly-girls doing what they love most. And I love that these books for girls are about social-emotional growth through sports (traditionally and still a heavily male arena) because sports and physical strength are a key part of my happiness.

What series of books could we write about boys embracing traditionally female activities for social emotional growth?

Favorite Bedtime Books

I recently joined the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and my first few meetings have me thinking about my favorite bedtime books. I have a quite a few. In fact many of my favorite bedtime books have no words! But instead of making a list of which books I love, I am actually going to discuss a style of book that I don’t really care for from the perspective of a parent at bedtime: the list book.

I don’t mind these books during middle of the day quiet time, car trips, in waiting rooms, etc. But I do mind their lack of plot, story arc, characters, and most importantly the lack of an ending. At bedtime, I need stories to end. That’s one main reason the Can You See What I See and Where’s Waldo books – while fun!- are not approved bedtime reading, at least with me.

Reasonable Bedtime Book

a good bedtime book

An example of a good list book

Some list books are great. For example, Richard Scarry produces the absolute best and manages to incorporate a gentle, funny storyline that guides readers through his adorably illustrated pages.

Here’s an inside spread from The Best Word Book Ever. I love breakfast, so I chose this particular page showing Kenny Bear waking up and enjoying a hearty meal to start the day. Delightful!

Scarry’s other books, especially Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, do a nice job of combining huge lists of recognizable objects and easy words for children to learn with an entertaining and light-hearted storyline. If I were so inclined to write a list book, this would be the style I’d choose.

Ridiculous Bedtime Books

Here are two examples of list books that drive me crazy:

children's bedtime book about cars

Don’t touch the flaps.

not my favorite bedtime book about cars

Sparkle no substance.

In the first book by Fisher-Price, we get to see toys in action in a little town. There’s barely any text but there are lots of flaps to lift, pull and tear. My kids do rip the flaps and then cry and beg me to repair them but later they pick at the tape and tear them again. Also, struggling to open the flaps prolongs the agony of reading this list book at bedtime. (And I absolutely cannot help my child lift the flaps or they freak out because they want to do it themselves!!)

The second book is irritating to me from the perspective of an aspiring writer. Some publishing company out there (more than one, truthfully) churns out these books and sells them to kids and grandparents who can’t resist the sparkle and cashes checks. While many writers I know work hard to get their excellent writing  recognized. And writers like me wonder if there is any hope for a good storybook in today’s market.

My favorite bedtime books don’t just keep kids busy and they don’t push learning shapes, colors and numbers on kids – but there is a place for those kinds of books. Just not at bedtime.

Truly, my favorite bedtime books capture the imagination but also speak to what a child really knows and feels in their world. It’s an art and it’s magic and it sends them off to sleep and dream, while I head off to write and dream!

Are there books you absolutely won’t read to your child at bedtime?

 

 

 

Fiction Writing Contests

fiction writing contests are a great place to get feedback

Many of my stories begin as handwritten entries in my journal.

Fiction writing contests are a great way for me to work under pressure of a deadline and to learn about new fiction publications. While many literary journals and publications will pay writers when their work is accepted, fiction writing contests come with a fee. This fee goes toward the prize money for the winners and frequently to produce a special publication of winning entries.

Some fiction writing contests also offer the opportunity to receive feedback from the judges in the form of a detailed critique. These critiques can require an extra fee but it’s usually not exorbitant. I try to enter a contest each month. I’ve never had any wins, until this year!

Recent Awards

Recently, I learned I was a finalist in a contest from Writer Advice for my short fiction story “After Cake.” While I didn’t win an award, it was great to hear from the contest host that my story “stayed with her.”

I’m also pleased to announce that I was awarded an Honorable Mention in poetry from Spark! A Creative Anthology in their second contest. I typically do not write poetry. But my entry, “Protagonist,” was a story that had a very poetic soul. It just would not be forced into a traditional prose format. So I took a risk and told the story in the form of a poem. The gamble paid off and I garnered my first award recognition for fiction writing!

Online Critique Groups

Spark has strong ties to an excellent writing and critique website called Scribophile. I love Scribophile. I have received incredible feedback on work I’ve posted and read some incredible things posted by other writers. If you have stories you want to tell – fiction or not – I highly suggest joining the site. Post something that you might want to enter in a contest and get it proofread and polished.

Even if you only consider yourself a fiction writer as a hobby, take a risk this year and enter a fiction writing contest. But don’t get discouraged if you get tough feedback or no awards. I’ve been entering contests for a long time, several years in fact. And this year I feel I have finally developed the skills to draft, revise, seek feedback, revise again and finally find the right contest for the story I’ve nurtured.

So put your work out there. And don’t forget to come back and tell me if you win!