When writing doesn’t pay the bills


A few months ago, a high school girl told me she wanted to become a journalist when she got older and wanted my advice.

“Don’t,” I said, and immediately laughed.

I did give her some honest advice: get a great education. Intern. Get lots of experience. Learn the industry.

Also, be prepared to work a second job; journalism is undergoing a shaky transition from print to online, and many jobs do not pay well. (Try to freelance, and you will see exactly what I mean). And if you ever get married, I told her, make sure your husband makes a good living.

Even if you don’t work in journalism or have a paid writing job, you can still blog. And journal. And write down your thoughts on whatever issues tickle your fancy. Maybe you won’t be published today, this week or this year, but perhaps someday that can happen.

Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

Writing when it hurts

In my personal life, I have been going through what look to be some very personal, painful changes. In the past few weeks I’ve felt a lot of heartache, sadness and grief. There are a lot tears built up inside, but they have yet to be released. I think there is too much disbelief, astonishment and regret for them to flow yet. Perhaps they will.

I’ve written many thoughts into a journal, most of which will never see the light of day. Far too personal. I’ve also written angry thoughts that I have since deleted.

Writing when you’re hurting can be a very cathartic experience as you take the bitterness, sadness and anger you feel inside and transfer it down to paper or to a computer screen. When you’re done, perhaps you feel better. Perhaps there is a future story that will be told along with the lessons you’ve learned by the mistakes you’ve made or the signs you missed or the things you’ve been discontent with but never had the sufficient self-respect to assert yourself and speak out.

It’s been too many days since I updated my blogs, and I have come to this conclusion: I am a writer. My job is to write. While I am hurting, I must compartmentalize my sorrow and grief and not allow myself to wallow in self-pity to overpower me. While this hurts, life does go on. I must write and continue telling stories. I must continue to chronicle my writing life, to give my opinions, to give encouragement and to make people laugh.

Now, back to work.

Post comments here or e-mail Richard at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Just this Side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine’

I’m not an expert in Byzantine-style of writing, but from what little I gather, it’s a very ornate style of writing. It sounds like a style very different from Ray Bradbury’s. Some have asked me how I’d describe Mr. Bradbury’s style, and, again, I think Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

That being said…

When I was younger and an even worse writer than I am now, I often would try to write fiction using strict outlines. I think it came from the times I’d occasionally get 15 minutes at church to preach miniature sermons. I’d take a story idea, outline it and then write according to the outline. Whenever possible, I’d employ alliteration.

Don’t misunderstand–there’s nothing wrong with writing by outlines. If you’re a very organized person, perhaps it’s the best way to go. In many ways (especially in my journalism and freelance writing careers) I still like to do that as a way to have a starting point that points towards a faint, distant, illuminated end of the tunnel. But there are many times when writing fiction where it’s sometimes best to go with the flow and write as the spirit moves you. Let your imagination guide you.

Mr. Bradbury notes that even at an early age his preferred style of writing was word asociation. Take a story, write down as many words that come to mind and then write the story based on the word list. Before this, he used to “beat, pummel and thrash” an idea into existence. He believes that word association allows you to write faster as the ideas flow much better.

To illustrate this, he explains the term “Dandelion Wine”, which he would use in a collection of his published short stories. Dandelions sprout in the spring (as they will very soon do here in Michigan), and each dandelion represents a fascinating story idea. As for the wine, oenophiles tell us that the best wine is properly aged. Take a story idea and allow it to age, breathe and build up color, aroma and flavor in a cask and then in a bottle and soon you have a story that people will pay good money to read.

That gives me hope, when you consider the unpublished short stories I have that I hope someday will see the light of day: Why Are You Here So Soon? (a young man commits suicide out of despair, gets to heaven and sees how God could’ve richly used him had he not ended his life on a lark); God’s Final Call (a young man raised in a Baptist church knows he’s not really saved and has a decision to make: become a Christian or ignore God one last time); Dear Billy, Sincerely, Billy (a time travel story involving bullies, new opportunities and receiving a letter from yourself in the not-so-near past). Perhaps these dandelions will someday soon turn into very fine wines.

Mr. Bradbury notes how some critics who, aware of his humble childhood and some of the perceived ugliness of that area of Illinois (such as the trains, boxcars and smell of coal) wonder how he could convey excitement about these. It’s all about perception, he reasons. A carnival or railyard deemed ugly by a dignified, stuffy Byzantine person is, to a Midwest boy who grew up in the 1930s a paradise.

To Bradbury, his humble surroundings were Byzantium: a wonderous, exotic, beautiful place very ornate and rich to him.

Finally, Mr. Bradbury talks about the pear-shaped, red, white and blue-striped paper balloons filled with hot air during 1925 Fourth of July. They floated and seemed to have a wonderful, mysterious life of their own. I wonder if these balloons were the inspiration for his short story The Fire Balloons (which can be found in his book The Illustrated Man).

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer who blogs, works in journalism, writes fiction and essays. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Thoughts on the ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ chapter ‘The Joy of Writing’

Please keep in mind that this is not a critique of Mr. Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing. This blog posting is simply what I’ve gathered from the book and how I think I can apply it to my own fiction writing career. It’s also my motivation to finish this book and to move onto others.

I’ve often wondered how to best describe Bradbury as a writer to those unfamiliar with his work (my two favorite Bradbury books are The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451). Perhaps Stephen King said it best: with Mr. Bradbury, everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

“The Joy of Writing” chapter

Mr. Bradbury believes it’s imperative to write with zest and gusto. Writing should be pleasurable, so have fun with it. This type of mentality helps a person put out 2,000 or so words a day. If you find it a burden, then you may have a problem. The same rings true for other professions. To be a successful chef, Gordon Ramsay has said you must a passion for cooking. Actors have told me that getting in front of a camera or on stage requires a love for performing; if your motivation is fame or fortune, forget it.

What should a person write about? Things that you love or hate. One example Mr. Bradbury references is seeing a photo in Harper’s Bazaar that used Puerto Ricans in the background as “props”. Upset by this, Mr. Bradbury wrote a short story where a Puerto Rican man taunts such a photographer by always appearing in his photographs and making some type of gesture that ruins the picture. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King recounts working at a mill and hearing a crazy story about how giant rats lived in the cellar of a decrepit building. Wheels spun and soon King wrote the creepy short story Graveyard Shift.

Sometimes we write about our fears. One short story I’m working on focuses on one of my worst fears: having an automobile breakdown in the summer heat in the middle of nowhere. The main character is on the run from the police but has his car break down in one of the more rural areas of the country: West Texas.

Sometimes, Mr. Bradbury feels writing a story can be as simple as finding a character who wants or doesn’t want something with all their heart. Give them orders, let them go and follow them and write what you see happening. Darn the outlines and character profiles, full speed ahead!

Writing also requires a person to read voraciously and diversely. Books, magazines, anything you can get your hands on. Myself, I suspect much can be learned even by reading bad prose. You learn how not to write and what doesn’t work. For me, what comes to mind is one particular sci-fi novel written by a scientist who simply wasn’t a good writer. Another involves a curious delve into trasy western paperbacks where the methaphors are so bad they’re comical. Obviously, this is best kept at a minimum while energies should be focused on good writing and what does work.

Finally in this chapter, Mr. Bradbury reminds us that life is indeed very short. Write. A writer writes now. Procrastination is the death of writing. This is indeed something I can relate to: my twenties flew by and now, at 37, I’m beginning to wonder what happened to my thirties. If only we lived on a planet like Pluto, where the days are six days long instead of a measly 24 hours.

Up next, the chapter “Run Fast, Stand Still”.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer. He’s worked as a journalist and columnist and also blogs and writes fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Some potential clients require strange formats

One was a King James Bible website (I prefer the King James but know of wonderful people who use other versions) and another is a site where you use keywords and write detailed articles. The Bible site wanted trivia questions written in an Excel document while the other client wants files written in an .rtf document. Others insist on .pdf.

Perhaps I’m stuck in the 1990s, but what on earth is wrong with a Microsoft Word format? Or how about just copying and pasting the text into an e-mail and sending?

If anyone can, please feel free to enlighten me.

Richard Zowie has been a professional writer since 2000. He’s been a journalist, columnist, blogger, copy writer and even fiction writer. Post comments below or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Is a story really ever finished?

One famous musician said they could work on an album forever but that at some point you have to let it go to live its own life.

The same, no doubt, rings true for writing.

I have many short stories I’m working on, both in the rough draft and final draft phases, along with a novel I’m trying to finish the rough draft on. It’s amazing how you can look at a piece of fiction work, think you have something brilliant and return to it a year later and think of all the edits that still need to be done on it. Maybe this comma needs to be deleted, this dialogue needs to be modified or this scene needs to be cut completely.

If George Orwell were alive today, I wonder if he’d look at his books Animal Farm, 1984 and A Clergyman’s Daughter and be tempted to make any changes to them.

Richard Zowie’s been writing professionally since 2000. Post comments below or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Adventures of a freelance writer

Freelance writing, with the countless websites offering jobs, could take all day. Even then you still probably wouldn’t scratch the surface. I have a few sites I go to and try to on a daily basis look and submit to which ones sound good. Sometimes it’s tantamount to being one of thousands of fishers at a giant lake the size of Lake Superior, vying for those two fish who are swimming around somewhere. You have to use the right bait, jerk the line at the right time and hope to reel in the fish.

I recently applied to become a blogger at a New Year’s Resolution site, and hopefully the story I told them (a true one) will help me get that gig. Then there’s the TV blogging, the proofreading, the web site content writer and so on.

Which ones do I skip? The ones where the ads are badly written with lots of misspellings. I realize they may need writing help, but such an ad just looks unprofessional and suggests you might get scammed for your services. Others that are a red flag are the ones that say something like this: “We don’t have any money to pay you, but we can compensate you by giving you a byline on our website.”

Big deal. 

Unless you’re desperate to get your name out, I’d recommend you avoid this. Often, this type of policy comes from a site that’s not really even that well known and one that, chances are, will be gone and inactive in a year or so.

So, the best thing to do is keep plugging away and be persistent. Every once in a while you apply and get something great.

Richard Zowie blogs at several websites, including three other blogs on WordPress. Contact him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

My Writer’s Digest submission; a delve into comedy writing

NOTE: Like all writers, I tend to be a little biased about my work–especially if it’s fiction,  which I love to do. Below is a submission I made to Writer’s Digest for a writing prompt challenge they had a year or so ago. It actually comes in at 767 words now after a few edits since. It didn’t win the contest, but I had lots of fun writing it and think it’s pretty funny.

Yes, it’s also very autobiogaphical.

750 words: Start your story with “When I first told my family about ________, they didn’t believe me.” End your story with “And that’s how I ended up ________.”

By Richard Zowie

Birch Run, Mich.

When I first told my family about my obsession with pens, they didn’t believe me. Well, I didn’t exactly tell them. They figured that out on their own. Every time I went to Wal-Mart, I would immediately bolt to the stationary section and see what the latest offerings were from my favorite pen company, Paper Mate. Usually, I’d come home with one of many Paper Mate products. Sometimes I’d buy to acquire a new brand and try it out. Flexigrips and Pro-Fits are my favorites. G-Force isn’t bad. Others, like the Apex, are ok. Other times I’d find a pen I liked and buy up as many as possible (including primaries I’d use, backups, backups of backups and backups of backups of backups). These aren’t easy to find, and I like them, I’d tell my wife, reasoning with her that I like to have back-up pens in case my primary ones ran out of ink during a crucial doodle.

And, of course, my obsession hardly ended whenever I’d head to department or drug stores. At yard sales I’d find myself looking at vintage pens. Ones that looked like they needed a home amongst the 29 cups I had in my office that housed the 1,915 pens I’d acquired. Sometimes they’d be novelty pens like the one advertising the Dallas Cowboys, my favorite team. Other times they’d be the fountain pens that I’d read about and just had to have, even though I knew there was no way I’d be able to master the art of fountain pen writing.

Finally, Judgment Day came. In my office I was organizing my pens and trying to decide if I should sort them (by favorites or by color) when a knock came at the door. My wife entered with my three sons, my father-in-law, mother-in-law, three brothers-in-law, my parents, two sisters and their husbands and my 15 or so nieces and nephews. I even noticed a few people I’d never seen before in my entire life. Each carried with them a box. One by one, they dumped each box’s contents onto the floor.

Thousands and thousands and thousands of pens cascaded onto the floor, dully clattering against the thick carpet. Red pens. Black. Blue, purple, green and even a few colors that I never really even knew existed. Almost all of them were Paper Mates.

My heart skipped, and my stomach felt as if a giant ulcer was taking control. I was as if one of my children was deathly ill. My wife had discovered my secret stash: pens I’d secretly purchased but had hidden from her out of a fear that she’d be angry and ashamed with me, as though I was hording porn instead of pens.

“Rick, we have a problem,” Jennifer said. “You have TOO MANY STINKING PENS!”

“Don’t talk about my pens like that!” I snarled, clutching the three in my breast pocket. They were in danger of confiscation.

Jennifer, the chief of the Pen Police, sighed. Her father patted her on her back. “See, that’s what I’m talking about,” she said. “You have this obsession with pens! You need help! I swear, you love these pens more than me. In fact, you probably even talk to them. I’ll bet you even have names-”

“Sir Inky Winky! I’ve been looking all over for you!” I blurted, picking up a blue Dynagrip off the floor, miraculously being able to spot it among the thousands of other pens there.

Jennifer sighed and gave me an ultimatum. Seek professional help or get out. Pick about 30 of my favorite pens and give away the rest to Goodwill. She even had the names of a few psychiatrists written down and said she’d even called Dr. Phil’s producers. She was about to call one of them when I snatched the phone out of her hands and called U-Haul. I would need a big truck to haul away all of my friends. The thought of the task caused my breathing to become very shallow, to the point where I was hyperventilating. But before I could find a paper bag to breathe in, the world faded.

And now, here I am in this white, enclosed room. I can’t get out of this confining jacket, which is a shame since I have no way move my left hand to hold a pen and write. I am told that I will be let out of this jacket in three weeks with good behavior or whenever my wife comes by the divorce papers-whichever comes first.

And that’s how I ended up in this mental hospital.

Copyright © 2009 by Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or republished without permission.