Thursday, November 30, 2000
MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l00+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.
Karen is Karen Hammond, a national speaker and teacher. She has written fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and books, winning several awards for her writing. Through many seasons of life, no matter the circumstances, Karen has found time to write and things to write about, then got those things into print.
Names in blue are viewers who had questions.
Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.
Moderator: Good evening! Welcome to tonight's Professional Connection chat room where we'll be interviewing Karen Hammond on the subject of "Write Time." I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Karen has written fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and books through a variety of "seasons" in her life. Tonight she'll be sharing tips for juggling writing and families, finding ideas no matter where you live, and getting those ideas published. Welcome, Karen!
Karen: Hello, everyone. Thank you for inviting me to drop by. It's a pleasure to be here.
Moderator: Karen, where and how did you get started writing?
Karen: I have always loved writing. Even as child I was always writing stories, poems, and so forth. Just don't ask me about my math grades!
Moderator: How did you know it was "the write time" to begin?
Karen: I began writing seriously in college. Fortunately I had a good mentor who encouraged me. I wrote and sold a few small things. Then I got a job at a publishing company and that put me in the company of serious writers and editors and opened up a whole new world. I knew then that I wanted to write for a living, and I began writing more and more. Eventually I was able to quit my day job and write full time.
marnieh: How do you recommend finding a good mentor?
Karen: Good question. There are many ways. You might find one in a college writing course as I did or through a correspondence course. Or in a writer's group. Of course if you know a working writer who is willing to look at some of your work, that would be great.
Moderator: Let's talk about some specific situations now. What about people living in small towns or in the country? Where can they find ideas for writing?
Karen: I can speak from experience about that! I live in a tiny fishing village. The year-round population is about 100 people. Really, where you live makes no difference today. Technology has made it very easy to communicate no matter where you live. As for ideas, I find that editors love to find writers who live in places other than the big cities. There are many writers in NYC, for example, but far fewer in rural areas throughout the country. If you live in one of these places, you have access to story ideas that others may not have, but that are of interest to editors. So, it can be a plus! It's important to look around you all the time, and observe through the eyes of a writer.
Kevin: In small towns, what might you find that would interest an editor (besides nostalgia type pieces)?
Karen: Profiles of interesting people. Local history. Indigenous crafts. A little-known but excellent inn or restaurant. These are just a few possibilities, for example. I would say first think about some of the things you like to write about and think you can handle well. If you enjoy cooking and eating out, for example, you might be just the person to alert a travel editor to a wonderful restaurant in your town, even if it is off the beaten track. Remember when a new restaurant opens in Boston or NYC, many writers know about it. You might have an exclusive on the one in your town! Same with profiles. Many celebrities live their private lives in small towns around the country. I'm not talking about just movie stars, but people who do interesting things in their lives that others would like to read about.
james55clinton: Isn't research more difficult in rural areas?
Karen: It certainly used to be. Today, if you are wired into the Internet, you can live anywhere. And to be honest, it would be difficult to make it as a writer today without that kind of access. But you needn't be a computer guru. It doesn't take a lot of time to acquire the skills you need to conduct research on the Web.
AnneKelly: Do you recommend working at a publishing company to make contacts or find a mentor?
Karen: I think if you are holding down a day job and writing on the side, it's great to do as much on-the-job writing as you can. It will certainly help you develop your skills. But that's not possible for everyone, and certainly not every aspiring writer is going to get a job in publishing. I just happened to launch my own career that way. Any job you hold can provide you with insights into people and give you ideas for future articles and stories. I do want to note that it isn't necessary to have a formal mentor. You can learn a lot by joining writer's groups, attending writing conferences and so forth. You can make very good contacts that way as well.
Moderator: What if you're elderly and living alone and can't get out? What kinds of writing can a person like this realistically do? I guess housebound people--even moms of young children--are in the same boat!
Karen: Elderly writers tell me that the Internet has lengthened their careers indefinitely and I'm sure that's true. And of course they have a wealth of living and experiences to draw upon. The nostalgia markets are very big right now, so there is room for reminiscences as well as articles about hobbies, crafts, being a grandparent, second careers, etc. Young moms are at the other end of the spectrum of course, but they too have so much to write about: pregnancy, parenting, finding a part-time job, re-entering the work place. A look at the magazine rack will show you all the publications out there for parents! Nearly all of them rely on freelancers.
Mom of 3: How do you verify information you find on the Internet?
Karen: You do have to be careful, particularly if you are writing about issues that can have an impact on someone's life, such as a health topic. I always run such things past an expert in the field. Great as the Internet is, it's true, there are a lot of inaccuracies out there. After a while you will find web sites and data bases that you feel comfortable using.
skelly: How do you decide what topic to write about at any given time? I find a lot of ideas 'floating' around in my mind, but can't seem to pull any together coherently.
Karen: The fact that you have all those ideas is a good sign! It shows that you are thinking creatively. Definitely keep a journal. Not a diary in which you record what happened today, but a writer's journal in which you write down those ideas, thoughts, etc. If you write fiction, you can use it to record snippets of conversations, descriptions of people you might use later in stories, and so forth. Then choose one idea and develop it. The first few times you may have to force yourself to focus, but do see what you can do with your idea. See it through from start to finish. Maybe you'll want to send it out, and maybe not, but the act of developing it into an article or story will give you confidence to move onto the next piece.
Moderator: Did you raise a family while writing, and if so, how did you juggle your time when they were babies?
Karen: I have two children who are now young adults. I was writing when they were babies. In fact, I remember proofreading a story when I was in labor with my first child. I don't necessarily advocate that! I made time where I could. My kids took lots of naps! Being a night owl helps. I've always worked well at night when the house is quiet. But a morning person could just start the day earlier and carve out an hour. Easier said than done, I know, but writing really can be relaxing if you love doing it.
Moderator: Now that's the mark of a true writer! (Proofing when in labor!) Karen, did your coping strategies change when the children started school?
Karen: Definitely. On the one hand I had more time, but on the other there were more demands. I have a daughter who danced and a son who played every sport known to mankind. So some nights it was tutus in one hand, soccer cleats in the other, and the phone in my ear trying to do an interview. But every mom has to juggle time like that. I tried to set my priorities. It's not easy, but if I had been working in an office job, it would have been a different set of challenges. Certainly I tried to use the time that they were in school to full advantage and that meant (and still means) setting aside regular time to write, and not chatting on the phone with friends during the day, and so forth.
Moderator: Many writers have a hard time writing when their kids hit the teen years, partly because they're exhausted from being up till all hours waiting for kids to get home, and partly because the teen years are so stressful many times. What are some specific tips for writing with teens in the home?
Karen: Well, on the plus side they give you plenty to write about! I found that teens really kept me in touch with the world in terms of what was trendy, what people were interested in, and so forth. You can learn a lot from them! As always, you do have to establish the fact that writing is your job and ask your family to take it seriously. Again, I tried to do most of my writing when they were in school and at their many after-school activities. That's truly one of the best things about a freelancing career for women, I think. It gives you a lot of flexibility as long as you don't take it too far. You can't take it to extremes so that you're never writing.
Moderator: Writing during the "empty nest" sounds like it would be ideal. Are there any special pitfalls to look out for here? If so, how did you cope?
Karen: Life has a way of throwing curves at all of us. My last child left for college and two days later my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. So the long unbroken stretches I had looked forward to were not to be. By then, I had learned time management, so I was able to keep my career going through it all, even though we had to move her near us and I was primarily responsible for working with her Drs. because my husband travels a lot. She has passed away, and now my own elderly mother lives with me. The point of all this is that there is never a "right time" to write. If you wait too long, you may never get to it at all.
ninacs: You seem like a very positive person - solution oriented. Have you always been that way or did you cultivate it to help you be successful?
Karen: Gosh, hard question! I feel really fortunate to have been able to do what I want for a living and I guess being organized has helped me write, and writing has helped me become more organized. I come from a very modest background of hard-working people (but no writers! I'm the "odd" one in the family) but I was raised with a good work ethic, for which I am grateful. And yes, I guess I'm a pretty positive person, most of the time anyway.
cmckinney: It seems that situations are always occurring in my life that I think are interesting, but I am not sure they would be so to anyone else.
Karen: They would be. You just need to find the right slant. For example, if you solve a problem with one of your children in a creative way, readers would be interested in that. But they will be much more interested if you provide advice to them on solving a similar problem with their own kids, rather than just recounting your own experience. Any life experience that you can use to inform or amuse a reader is probably the basis of a good article.
skelly: I have a child who has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, so I sure understand 'working with Drs.' Tell us what you did to stay focused on your career, as there must have been times when you were mentally exhausted.
Karen: Let me wish you well dealing with this. I know it is very difficult. It's also important to carve out time for yourself, as I'm sure wiser heads than mine have told you. Keeping a journal can be very rewarding, and sharing your experiences can be very helpful to others. Two things to keep in mind. First, sometimes we have to get some distance from things before we can write about them. I didn't write about Alzheimer's until my mother-in-law passed away just because I was too close to it to be objective. This might be the time for you to write about other things in your life--a favorite hobby, for example. Or try some fiction. Also, from time to time you may need to take a short break altogether. We're all different. For me writing has always been almost an escape from stress, but I know that's not true for everyone.
diane lehr: How did you keep your dream/ambition alive when life just seemed too busy to write?
Karen: I always found the time. It meant giving up some other things...like a spotless house or joining clubs, and so forth. After my family, it was my priority. It's easy to put writing on the back burner. But if you want to make a go of it, you really do have to treat it like any other job and be as dedicated as you would be if you were working in an office 9 to 5 and hoping for a promotion!
Moderator: One "life transition" that is difficult to write through is losing a spouse, either to death or divorce. How can someone possibly keep writing during this time? And what can they write about?
Karen: I haven't had this experience personally, but many writers have, of course. Again, it might take time to get over the initial pain before one could write about the event itself, but certainly these are topics that affect many readers and there are many options for writing about them when one feels up to it. I would think keeping a journal would be very helpful under these circumstances. It's such a personal thing. One writer might find it helpful to keep regular hours while another might need to change her routine--write at night, for example, if she finds that the most difficult time to be alone.
Moderator: Karen, you touched on this earlier a bit. Many writers are dealing with ongoing health concerns, both chronic (like migraines) and short-term (like children with chicken pox). What are some tips for writing during health crises?
Karen: Chicken pox passes, and I think most moms will take some time off and focus on their sick child, just as they would do if they were in an outside job. The only difference is that the writer-mom will get a couple of articles out of it later! So my advice there would be to think about the pieces you can write when the immediate health crisis is over, such as the new chicken pox vaccine (is it effective? is it safe?) or seven ways to amuse your sick child or a humor piece to brighten the day of another mom who is home with an itchy child. People with ongoing health concerns tell me that the Internet has been a blessing for them as well, allowing them to do research when they feel up to it, even if it's the middle of the night. Many lovely, touching, and useful pieces have been written by people battling serious health concerns who still found time to reach out to others.
cmckinney: I am a single working woman. I don't have the luxury of only writing for a living. I have to work it in. Comment?
Karen: I know that's difficult. I'd just suggest thinking about your priorities outside of work. If you want to write, it may mean giving up some other outside activities. Dropping a club meeting or an aerobics class, for example, could give you a couple of hours in which to write.
Moderator: Why do you think you've been successful as a freelancer when so many people are not?
Karen: To be honest it's a case of more perspiration than inspiration. When I began, I had no particular talent and no clue how to market my work, but I learned by studying and through trial and error, gathering my fair share of rejections along the way. I just didn't give up, the one thing all working writers have in common. I see so many writers with potential who just give it up after they get a few rejections and that's a shame. It does take perseverance, and it's not like an outside job where you get regular performance reviews and so forth. I expect that many people find that frustrating, especially if they have worked in an office environment in the past and gotten accustomed to that kind of feedback.
Moderator: You've written in so many genres. What is your opinion about specializing vs. being a generalist writer?
Karen: We're in an age of specialization, but personally I think many writers specialize too soon. They don't give themselves a chance to explore various kinds of writing and see what they might be good at. For example, I have a friend who was having little success at selling her articles and asked me to look at them to see what was wrong. They were OK, but what struck me was the dry wit that ran through them. I suggested she try writing some humor pieces. She didn't think it would work, but she sent out a couple of humorous essays, and she was on her way. She still does some other things, but humor opened doors for her. Many people specialize and become experts in their field, which can open doors to other things, such as consulting, etc. which can be lucrative. It's certainly a good option. I like to write about a variety of things, so I'm more of a generalist, going after any story that I find interesting. But even so I don't write about everything (technology is out..remember those math grades?) Also, like many writers, my writing interests have changed over the years as my life has changed and I have had new experiences. Being a generalist gives you more flexibility, and I like that. I do write some fiction as well as nonfiction, and a lot of poetry, which is a fairly odd mix, I suppose, but it works for me.
diane lehr: What writing genre has been most financially profitable? Enjoyable?
Karen: Nonfiction is definitely easier to market and therefore easier to start making money at quickly. A vast market exists for articles on parenting, women's health, food and wine, and travel, which are what I primarily write about. Corporate writing is also very lucrative, and for years I did that as well. I will say it's easier to do that if you live in a fair-sized city. When I moved a few years ago I reinvented myself and set off in new writing directions. Of course novelists, if they strike it lucky, can make enormous amounts of money. Short stories and poetry are written for the joy of it.
skelly: Do you believe that you will do a better job of writing about something that interests you rather than a topic that may be a hot item?
Karen: Good question. Sometimes if something is "hot" I just get interested in finding out why and then I get an article out of it. I do try to stay away from things that I know will bore me. It's harder to get up enthusiasm to write about them well.
Mom of 3: How do you take a 15 second idea, and turn it into a story worth the reading?
Karen: You need to think about your market and your audience. Focus on informing or entertaining the reader. When I teach seminars I usually suggest that writers avoid first-person pieces for a while. It's easy to fall into the trap of telling what happened to you personally and never really developing a slant. Such pieces are hard to sell. If you go through a messy divorce, for example, readers would be much more interested in "Ten Things to Ask Your Divorce Lawyer" than they would be in an article about your arguments with your ex.
NQuintero: I've read that a person should always write on a daily basis in a journal. What do you recommend as the minimum?
Karen: Rather than trying to write X number of words per day, I'd suggest setting aside some time to write in your journal, even if it's just 15 minutes. There may be days when you have nothing to write and that's OK. The next day you may use all your allotted time and put something else on the back burner so you can jot down more ideas. By the way, I always suggest keeping a small notepad with you. Ideas can strike at the strangest times! You can tear the pages out and glue-stick them to your journal when you get home.
Moderator: Many writers hate rewriting. Once a piece is written they don't want to look at it again. Isn't it the editor's job to clean up the little things so that we can go on to our next articles or stories? How can you make revision fun?
Karen: Rewriting is so much more important than writing. It's just a fact of life, but one that many writers don't want to hear. All successful writers rewrite over and over again. If you can't stand looking at a piece after you've done the first draft, put it away for a day or two. Work on something else, and then go back to it. You'll probably be shocked at how much work it needs! Editors expect tightly written copy with a minimum of minor errors like typos. The days are gone when editors held writers' hands, I'm afraid. It's important to learn to self-edit and send in the best possible work.
Moderator: If you could give the viewers some quick advice to take home, what would it be?
Karen: First, know the market. That's critical. So many writers write good things and send them to totally irrelevant markets. Studying the markets is vital, part of the business of being a writer. The second thing is to hang in there. Many people think writing has got to be an easy job until they try it. It takes time and effort and perseverance, but the rewards are many. Where else can you go to work unshowered and wearing your sweat pants?
kmadsen: Is there something that you would have done differently in regard to writing if you could go back and do it again?
Karen: I probably would have been more daring earlier in my career in terms of trying new things: new genres, etc. I was always a closet poet, and when I started sending poems out they clicked immediately, and to my amazement were published and won some awards.
Moderator: I'm sorry to have to stop now, but we're out of time. Karen, thank you for coming tonight and for your encouraging advice on how to find time to write, no matter what our life situations are.
Karen: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on December l4 when Mary Emma Allen will be with us to discuss "The Self-Publishing Option." Self-publishing has become a popular and credible method of getting your book into print. Come and learn why self-publishing works for many authors, either as a print or e-book, and what techniques may help you promote your books. Mary Emma Allen has self-published three print books as well as working with royalty publishers, and she's well qualified to answer your questions about this exploding new publishing phenomenon. And now, good night, everyone!
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