Whenever I get this question, I cringe. The first thing I know right away is that I'm going to have to turn the person down. The second thing? Awkward!
I've got to be honest. When I'm asked to write someone's story, I immediately feel uncomfortable and slightly insulted. Would you go to an established artist and ask them to paint your idea... free of charge? Would you walk into a restaurant, ask the chef to prepare their signature dish, then not pay the tab and pass the recipe off as your own? In other words, I'm gearing up to say no.
When someone asks me to "write their story" what I hear is this:
Here's the deal.
I'm not a biographer. Anyone asking me to "write their story" is in effect, asking for a biographer. Unfortunately, doing research on finding and paying someone to pen their life's story sounds like a lot of work and a hefty investment. What's not such hard work? Finding out what kind of writing I do. All you have to do is ask.
I'm not a publisher, either. Information on publishers is as difficult to get as heading to your nearest library for some research. Pen in hand (or ready with change for the copier) you can look up which Writer's Market literary genre your story would fall into. The alternative is to self-publish. Don't have time to do the legwork on those options? Gee, that's too bad.
Nope, not a literary agent! Literary agents come a'knockin when you've published enough and/or you've gotten a big enough fan base. They're the ones who negotiate book deals, tours, and the like. They're the ones who help you get what you want. They're also the ones who help you handle everything from fan mail to negotiating with publishers. It didn't take much searching for me to find an excellent blog post by Neil Gaiman titled, "Everything you wanted to know about literary agents." It's a great, informative read.
I'm not a charity. Sure, I do volunteer work here and there. But, I don't live on an ethereal cloud of rainbow-farting unicorns who clothe, shelter and transport me anywhere I want to go. I live in the real world where there are bills to pay, and time is money (especially to a freelancer).
I'm not a developmental editor, either. If you have done enough research to know what different kinds of editors and writers there are out there, that's great. One of the reasons I love to write and edit is because of the research involved. Seriously. It's like going on a treasure hunt. I had to amend this post here once more to include information on developmental editing. What is developmental editing, exactly?
"Developmental editors help you develop your project from an initial concept or draft, and can consult with you before the writing even begins. Developmental editors can help plan the organization and features of your project. They may make suggestions about content and presentation, write or rewrite text, do research, and suggest additional topics for you to consider." - Northwest Independent Editor's Guild.
* I'd like to learn more about developmental editing in the future. At the moment though, it's not part of my writing repertoire.
Finally, what I do for a living is just that, a living. It's not a hobby; it's my career. This blog post? This was work. Drafted and revised work that I enjoy doing, and it takes about three to five revisions for me to be satisfied enough to share it publicly. My work might suck, or it might piss people off. It's the risk I'm willing to take because I love what I do. It's worth the risk, every time.
What you won't get to experience if I "write your story?" The many hats a freelance writer has to wear. A writer needs to think up, write, edit, vet, revise, pitch, follow up on, negotiate, submit, publish, get paid for and get credit on published work. Freelancers are their own administrative assistants, accountants, researchers and tech support too.
You won't feel the stomach-churning nervousness that accompanies waiting for work to be accepted while wishing you could have done just one more revision. The insomnia that follows when your work is accepted and you're waiting for feedback is a given.
When you the writer submits a piece, you're at odds with your own perfectionist scrutiny. The part of you that worries about the backlash of a badly-written or incendiary piece is the same part of you that hopes your piece gets enough attention to generate a conversation. Oh, and the free publicity of backlash may not be so bad, either.
You won't have to deal with conflicting drafts. You'll miss out on the crashing computer, the layout changes that won't take, and the plethora of calls you have to make and follow up on. You won't be on the receiving end of the dreaded "endless draft" because self-promotion is a static state. The dynamics of a perfectly-told tale can change from one minute to the next thanks to simply being alive.
You won't get to experience the frustration of having to turn down attending social events and missed business opportunities because you were too busy. You'll get to sleep through the night undisturbed by all the unfinished work yet to be done.
If you're still convinced that I (or any other writer) should "write your story," maybe it's best to think of your inquiry as a type of interview first. Publishing is a business, after all. Think of it this way:
So, before approaching a working processional with a proposal like "write my life's story," be ready. Ask yourself first if you'd sacrifice a quarter of the preparation and work it takes to consider such an undertaking. If you're still compelled to express yourself no matter what the obstacles are, then congratulations! That there is inspiration.
By all means approach me or other professional writers whose work you've at least read some of first. Lead in by asking if the writer would be interested in collaborating on a biography or ghostwriting project. Tell them what publishers or self-publishers you've looked up that best meet your needs, genre-wise and otherwise. If the writer expresses interest, supply a list of literary agents you've contacted - or better yet, the ones who have contacted you. Give the writer an idea of the project's scope and some of your end goals. That is something a writer can wrap their head around. It lets us know that you're serious.
If not? Don't bother us. We're too busy writing our own damn stories.
When you're a creative, there's a fine line between genuine interest and condescension. Maybe I'm biased by thinking this, but among people who make a living doing non-corporate, freelance-based work writers get asked redundant questions the most.
A disclaimer: I know that as a rule writers don't generally make a lot of money. I think one thing people don't get is that many creative professionals have a borderline compulsion to do what they do. This impetus is what pushes creatives to soldier on. Long hours, uncredited work, shady prospective clients and the inevitable slew of redundant questions... it's all worth it and more.
That said, I woke up this morning with a plaguing thought knocking around in my head (it's usually the intensity of a thought or idea that literally wakes me up most mornings). The thought? How to reply to the question, "Are you published" without coming off like a defensive harpy.
I guess my recent inspiration stemmed from this article I'd read last week, titled Forbidden Phrases When a Writer is in Residence or Top 20 Things to NEVER Say to a Writer on the excellent blog The Write Conversation.
In the blog post, author Edie Melson puts this one right at the top. There's a reason for this, folks. I've emulated her eye roll response several times. The problem? I don't always have the luxury of answering this question with an eye roll. Sometimes, the people doing the asking aren't in the same room with me.
On the surface, it's a legitimate question. After all, many people call themselves writers. It's a bullshit filter. I get it. Where it gets tricky is the why. Why is someone asking? Is the person asking genuinely interested in reading your work, showing support as a fan, or hiring you?
That there? That's MY bullshit meter, and a gauge on what response you'll get. To my students (all of whom are not in the same room with me, much less the same country) I tell them "I call myself a writer because I've been published AND paid to to what I do. Besides, I love doing it." 100% true, and something of an over-share.
To those snarky people who just want validation for their contribution to a conversation by being the FIRST PERSON EVER IN HISTORY to ask a writer that question? I reserve my New Yorker-honed sarcasm just for you.
So far, my responses have ranged from:
Are you a publisher / prospective client and interested in hiring me?
Are you genuinely interested in reading my work?
Check out my website and take a look at my portfolio!
To my favorite reply:
Go ahead, it's my byline!
Modern Vintage Magazine, Issue 8 - Cupcake Burlesque
Writers and other creative professionals will tell you; one of the most difficult aspects of being your own boss is to gain recognition. For writers, having a byline can (and often is) a game changer. The more your name is out there, the more recognized you'll be as a professional in your craft.
Click on the gorgeous two-page spread featuring Jenna Beth Smith, founder of the Cupcake Burlesque troupe to read the article:
Adventures in social media
Wearing ALL the hats can cause a headache sometimes...
But that's part of the adventure of being a freelance writer. The keyword here is "freelance." After all, it stands to reason that a woman who's always marched to the beat of her own drum would go this route.
Being my own boss means exactly what it sounds like. From invoicing to time management to project prioritization to tech support, I have to figure out a way to well, figure it all out.
After three years of research, bootstrapping and building, I hit a brick wall with social media. I wanted what every one else in my position wants - scintillating, frequent blog posts sent out via professional (yet not ostentatious) social media pages that would make the right people and organizations go, "Wow! She'd be perfect for this project! Let's shower her with money because she's so savvy!"
Except for one thing. Facebook thwarted me at every turn.
See, here's the thing. There are tons of great books, blogs and organizations that tell you how to accomplish the goal of becoming a freelancer. Sure, just go on (insert popular blog site here), create a blog and VOILA!
Well, there's marketing. And creating a Facebook business page. And a supporting Twitter page. And reaching a wider audience. And showing prowess with social media by having it all be tied together with a nice. big. bow.
Wearing all the hats means sometimes holding one out for help. The more I tried to do with my business page on Facebook, the more I realized how utterly lost I was. I tried a general search for my page, I tested receiving messages, I tried tagging businesses with relevant or shared professional interests. Nada. So I conducted a search online for help on forums. And fell into rabbit hole after rabbit hole until I was dizzy.
Some time ago, I was lucky enough to meet Emily Taffell, social media guru and owner of Mugsy PR in the best way we could have met - by jointly collaborating on a fund raiser event. Having not yet met in person, we quickly realized we worked very well together. I wrote press releases, Emily showed me how to use social media and public relations to make the event a success. And it was.
It was through Emily's knowledge of social media that I was finally able to get answers to all my unresolved Facebook social media questions. Social media consulting is one of the many awesome, business-saving services she offers.
Thanks to her, I now have a searchable Facebook business page, know how to tag people and businesses, and know to what limits I can use my Facebook Business page. My hat goes off to you, Miss Taffell. Thank you.
Writing one's own biography...
Has been my singularly most difficult challenge, more so than overcoming my fear of exposing my written work to the public eye.
I have been writing, revising and second-guessing every aspect of my bio for more than a year. When I got started on my seemingly easy task (write a synopsis describing yourself; no more than three paragraphs) all I had to go on was "write in the third person."
I know it's the industry standard, but I think it's stupid. A writer. With a bio. Written in the third person. You KNOW that more than likely they wrote it themselves. Here's the catch-22: NOT writing it in the third person is a BIG HUGE CARDINAL NO-NO. Pfft.
Biographies are as variegated as the carbon-based populous of this planet (yes, including non-humans). Advice from respected colleagues and peers contradicted what I saw when I went on to writers' websites. Write in the first person - no, write in the third person. Write a short bio/long bio/multi-lingual bio...
I can write well enough in Spanish but won't attempt to commit my thoughts to print in my very rusty Portuguese. Here's the thing - how the hell do I get all those accented thingies and the upside-down punctuation marks without using MS Word? Shrug.
My head was such a tangle with information overload and self-abnegation that I just stepped away from it. I was finally able to commit something to print yesterday, after countless revisions, comparisons, and "oh no that's just not right, try this" pieces of advice.
My bio is short, sweet, and chock full of both personal and professional information. It's not so specific that it alienates, not so formal that it reads like an obit, and not so casual that it makes me look like a buffoon. I hope.
For the last month and a half...
I've been going through the intermediate growing pains of running my own little business. It's not easy, but it is infinitely rewarding.
I'm trying to set up my home office. I'd already had a setup, but then I realized sitting in a plastic chair set in front of a too-high desk was extremely uncomfortable. More on that later.
I'm also working on what is probably one of the most dreaded projects a writer can work on; their own bio. I'll admit it, I was embarrassed to even mention that I was struggling with it on my professional website. I thought that by publicly stating writing my own bio presented a uniquely difficult challenge, it would be like openly admitting I'm a bad writer. Not so.
Apparently, writing one's own bio is probably one of the toughest projects most writers will ever have to do. Of course, this doesn't go for all writers; some of my peers seem to have had a much easier time about it than others. Still, the shame of not having produced my bio gnawed at me. That is, until I saw a discussion and "how to" pointers crop up on one of the writer forums I belong to.
Learning that other writers have the same problem definitely eased the stress (of how I'd be judged by my peers). Now, I was able to talk about it openly. When I searched online for "bio" and "how to," I stumbled onto a plethora of other writer web pages where they explaining they'd gone through the same thing.
What's stumping me? Well, first of all, try to speak of yourself in an objective manner without sounding like a pompous ass. Personally, I feel guilty heaping praise on myself. It feels like cheating somehow, even though it's not (in this case, as applies to my career).
The second and more important roadblock, is figuring out how to word one's own bio. Do I write it in the first person or third person? I spoke with my peers about this; their responses confused me even more. One friend (whose professional opinion I highly respect) told me that under no circumstances should I even think of writing in the first person. That was tantamount to a cardinal sin in the publishing industry. Well, guess what I came across when I looked around on the internet at other writer's bios? All the best bios (in my opinion) were written in the first person. I also enjoyed reading first-person bios a heck of a lot more.
Finally, a (very successful) journalist friend of mine gave me the best advice. He said he'd written his bio both in the first and third person. In the long run, that didn't matter so much as writing a GOOD bio. The rest was a matter of personal preference.
Which brings me to the conclusion of this post. My foray into becoming a writer was out of personal preference. My continuing on to start my own business was out of personal preference. So, it stands to reason that my bio should reflect my personal tastes, and not an industry standard (which as I saw, it actually wasn't).
Now all I need to do is stop procrastinating and get. to. writing. my. bio.
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