From Writer’s Digest to Harlequin Romance: Finding my online writing community

Damask rose

“If you want to make money as a writer, write romance novels,” my Creative Writing teacher said, even suggesting we could write under a pen name.  As for me, if I’m going through all the trouble of writing a novel, my name is going to be on the thing.

So, why doesn’t romance get any respect?  Is it because some of it can be labeled as purple prose, the genre is predominantly written by women, or both?  I’ll just pull a Nicholas Sparks and call mine love stories.

As much as I enjoy the poetic form, it is more something I publish on my blog for fun to build name recognition.  Though there is a huge market for poetry, I’ve found that the kind of poetry I like to write (and read) often isn’t the kind being published, which is far too abstract for my taste.  This is what I like:  Saturday Evening Post Limerick Contest.

In all the poetry I’ve submitted, I’ve sold one poem: (Seven Wonders in Every Wonder), and it was published in a magazine (Bella Grace) that I enjoy reading from cover to cover.  Too often, I’ve read poetry journals, wondering what the hell some of it even meant.  I have much better luck with short stories and creative nonfiction (which take me a lot more time to write). 

That’s not to say I’m eschewing writing poetry to submit for publication altogether—I’m just reassessing what I spend my time writing for publications other than my own.

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Now, I’ve gone and joined the Harlequin Writing Community Facebook page.  What’s great about this group is how supportive they are (men are welcome, too!).  They have  flash-type (400-word) writing challenges every couple of weeks or so, with some pretty stiff stipulations (which only makes it more challenging); moreover, they only give you a couple of days to write them.  The only two I’ve written so far have been historical (maybe they’re looking for a historical fiction writer?), for which I set my scenes in Ancient Greece and in South Carolina during the Civil War.  The best thing is that you get feedback on what you wrote—and not just comments from other writers but actual feedback from editors—like the type I get from my Creative Writing teacher.  I never got this with Writer’s Digest, so if you’re interested in writing romance, check it out:  So You Think You Can Write.

As for the Facebook page, I feel that I’m a better fit for that community.  I’m not just writing for a hobby—I want to make it my career.  Many of us are in the process of writing a book to submit to Harlequin.  I’m not there yet because I don’t have time for a large project (70K words), though I am in the stages of outlining it. 

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Though I miss writing book reviews, I don’t have time to write a full-length one anymore, especially with as much as I read; I also quit the university newspaper, as half the articles I wrote never got published.  Though I respect the editor’s decision not to print (or rather, post them), I spent too much time conducting interviews and transcribing audio for them not to get published.  I was graciously invited by the adviser to submit an opinion piece, so that is something I may consider after I finish this American Lit class that’s kicking my keister. 

Rather, I’m making the push to write more short stories (I’ve been reading everything Shirley Jackson has written and rewatching most of The Twilight Zone series—the legit one with Rod Serling; however, if the episode is about Nazis, boxing, or set in the Wild West, I skip it).  I got too hung up on writing novels (with short stories, you get paid once; with novels, you get royalties), but some stories just aren’t novel length.  This realization has opened up a whole world of possibilities for many of my ideas, which have remained dormant for years.  I’d been writing poetry and working on my novel (Because of Mindy Wiley) for so long that I’d forgotten how great short fiction (and creative nonfiction) can be. 

For now, I do expository writing for the Medium publishing platform: Medium/Sarah Richards, in addition to reposting my best blog posts.  I still have a couple of other accounts where I post short works that will eventually end up on my blog (I am planning an ebook on the writing craft, but I need to become more published to have credibility; I am also planning a book of short poetry for people who don’t like poetry), so it’s a two for the price of one deal.  I feel like I’ve finally found my writing niche, as well as future homes for my writing. 

Taking a college-level Creative Writing class, joining the Harlequin community, and letting go of some other things that were no longer paying off (but were, nevertheless, part of the process), has helped me reach this point. 

15 More Things I’ve Learned (so far) as Editor-in-Chief of the Student Newspaper

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Collaborations can be cluster!@#$s. Just as too many chefs spoil the stock, too many writers (not editors) can be confusing. It is better to give a cub (i.e. newbie) a small feature that requires little writing and have someone mentor them than have them share a bigger story that is perfectly capable of being done by one seasoned reporter. My job is to get the paper out, however I can make that happen.  Plus, who the hell wants to share a byline?

Create a mock layout for your layout editor. It serves the same purpose as the outline of a story and will make their job much easier.

Sticking to deadlines will help separate the wheat from the chaff.

If you love to create and tell your own story, you’re a writer; if you love to gather data and tell the stories of others, you’re a reporter.

Don’t contribute to “fake news” by giving people credit who did not contribute to the final product or service; contribution can be as small as editing a story, selling an ad, or even delivering newspapers. Coming to meetings does not count. (We don’t get paid for coming to them.)

AP (Associated Press) style needs to adopt the Oxford comma for clarity.

E-mail to set up a time to do interviews, not conduct them. Giving people too much time to think about what to say takes away from the immediacy.

The newspaper is not a newsletter (i.e. lists of names, calendar of events, et cetera). It should tell stories with words and pictures (which is why captions should accompany all photos).

In the Arts and Entertainment section, covering actual events on campus, like plays and concerts, are far preferable to reviews about random things. Reviews don’t require any legwork, and the Internet is flooded with them. A humor or opinion piece that ties in to the school is much preferred.

Group shots are unavoidable; action shots are preferable. The former says, “We were there”; the latter says, “We were there doing this.”

Steal from your competitors, then elevate what they have done. For example, a competitor that shall remain nameless has a page called “The Briefs.” We upgraded ours to “Pirate Briefs” (the pirate is our mascot)—a photo collage of unrelated events (with captions, of course).

Give your photos a name, so they’ll be easier to find (no IMG_2020).

A few of us conducted a poll/survey of at least 75 students (100 is optimal, but hey, we’re short-staffed) for an infographic. We could’ve just included boring statistics, but we decided to humanize our findings by including student comments. This is a fantastic way to get student names in the paper (btw, headshots NEVER belong in an infographic), because don’t many of us, when reading a controversial blog post, go straight to the comments section? (After reading the original post, of course.) What’s more, when we conducted these polls, many of us asked professors’ permission to use a few minutes of class time to get a bunch of these surveys filled out at once. That said, in the interest of a diverse pool of respondents, we only did this in classes where the course was a general requirement, or where all the majors weren’t just English or healthcare or cybersecurity. (In other words, don’t get a bulk of responses from a poetry or creative writing class.)

If your newspaper has a Facebook page (if it doesn’t, get it one), you probably won’t have enough content to post daily, but if you have archives that aren’t available online, repost covers, stories, et cetera, that tie in to current events (if possible). This is a great way to utilize content that is otherwise sitting in a storeroom. https://www.facebook.com/eCorsair/

Create a reference book (both physical and digital) for the next Editor-in-Chief, with the newspaper email and passcode, ad brochures and contracts, How-To’s (i.e. screenshot tutorials on how to upload PDFs to the site), et cetera. This will help with a smooth transition. 

10 Things I’ve Learned (so far) as Editor-in-Chief of the Student Newspaper

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1. We like to write about untrue things, in the truest of ways. Our college has over 26,000 students and there are only 29 journalism majors. That’s less than one percent. I’m thinking the percentage majoring in English is much higher. (I’ve only met English majors on the newspaper staff, never journalism ones.) Perhaps this is because there is more of a focus on academic writing (a term I use loosely) in high schools, rather than what I call “career writing,” which I label journalistic or technical.

2. Don’t wait till you have the perfect-looking brochure to sell ads. If all you have is a flier that is decent and accurate, go sell ‘em. More ads=more pizza. (At least for us.)

3. Keeping meeting notes isn’t necessary, but meetings can be. I prefer to contact people individually, only sending the occasional general email. I’ve also embraced texting.

4. Not everything is a story. Sometimes it’s just a picture (and doesn’t that equal 1000 words?).

5. Certain features, like recipes and reviews, can serve as online content, where there is endless virtual real estate. (However, they still need to be written well.) My rule is that if you can find it on Google, it doesn’t belong in the print edition. Student names, student faces—that’s what needs to be in the newspaper. It’s like this: One student’s opinion of a video game < coverage of a campus event.

6. Always bring an audio recorder. I used the audio recording app on my cell phone and it worked fantastic. (You don’t have to look all Lois Lane with a complicated audio recorder that you have to take the SD card out and all that). With my phone, I press two buttons and can play the audio back immediately. I got many more quotes (and accurate, at that) using this device. However, I still scribbled on pen and paper as backup, just in case of technical difficulty.

7. When conducting a poll or survey, it’s a good idea to arrange a time with the teacher before their class (at least 15 minutes) to see if you can survey their students, because disturbing people in the library when they’re trying to study or stopping them on the green on their way to class might piss them off. Also, bring plenty of pencils. Make it as easy for them as possible. I was able to get over 30 in one day. One thing I did make sure of though, was that the class was diverse enough in what they were majoring in, because you don’t just want a bunch of people majoring in the same thing commenting on something—you want a cross-section of the campus.

8. Targeted recruitment for guest posting opportunities will get you more nibbles. (Still waiting for a bite.) Extending an invitation to “guest post” will keep people from thinking they have to make a commitment to produce more than one piece. Somehow, I don’t think it’s my job as Editor-in-Chief to recruit people, but what kind of world would we live in if everyone had the attitude that they wouldn’t do any more than what their job required?

9. Captions are easier than you think. It’s basically a summary of the picture in two sentences. Never say “poses for a picture.” No shit he (or she) is posing for a picture. Tell the story behind the picture (but in less than 1000 words, which means if the caption is 20 words, the picture should be worth about 980). This is proof that math is still important in journalism. Even though I wasn’t the editor at the time, when I told someone in the Math Lab that I worked for the student newspaper, they recalled a pie chart that was over 108%, which they laughed about for days.

10. The student newspaper means it is run by students, not faculty, and this is why:  http://principalsguide.org/the-first-amendment-and-student-media

I’ll Take Two of Everything

I hadn’t planned on getting two degrees when I decided to go to community college for my Health Information Technology degree, but with the Allied Health classes being hard to get into, to make up for what I thought at the time was wasted time (time spent learning something worthwhile is never wasted), I started taking writing and literature classes so I would still qualify as a full-time student and be eligible for all the scholarships I had already applied for.

I hate to say that such classes boost my G.P.A., and it’s not that they’re easy, they’re just fun for me.  They require work, sometimes a lot of work, but it’s fun work.  I try not to inwardly roll my eyes when people talk about their 3.9999999 G.P.A.s when they majored in English or History, because I might have much closer to that if I hadn’t had to take Pathophysiology and harder math classes (okay, hard for me).

But maybe I’m just whining.

So would I go back and change my major if I could?  No, because I need job security, and the healthcare field is where it’s at, but the journey has taken a lot longer than I thought it would, and a lot longer than it should have.  I won’t say that I’m a professional college student (a la Diane Chambers), but rather, a lifelong learner.  (I will graduate no later than spring of next year, one healthcare class, of course, being the hold-up).

Life is funny in ways.  It was because I could only get into one class in my major one semester that I ended up taking Creative Writing.

It was because I was one credit hour short of being a full-time student (the medical internships/practicums being only two credit hours) that I ended up in the one-credit hour College Publications course, which turned out to be the The Corsair student newspaper class.

And taking those classes led me to taking other classes, some of which led to scholarship awards, which enabled me to take even more classes, so I was building toward an A.A. before I realized I wanted one.

So circumstance kept pulling me in a direction that I knew wasn’t the most profitable, but led to the richest experiences. I didn’t become something else, I became more me. It was a creating as much as it was an uncovering.  I could write, but I needed focus and polish, and my college experience has given that tremendous gift to me.

I am incredibly blessed.

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When I took two maths this last semester, it made me realize that I had no desire to build onto my A.S., but an A.A. Life was too short to spend in the math lab (clocked in 80 hours last semester, btw).  I will never be a scientist or a mathematician, but simply, a writer.  Creative writing won’t pay the bills (at least not anytime soon), but technical writing will (or working for myself as a writing tutor).

Sure, women in STEM is a Thing now–it’s all about breaking glass ceilings, but I don’t care about breaking class ceilings, only my own records. That’s what makes me happy.  That’s what some women who broke glass ceilings fought for–for women to have a choice in what they wanted to do with their lives, and writing is what I want to do with mine.

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This semester, I am preparing to be the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper (promoted from copy editor), as well as a student editor of the college’s annual literary journal, Hurricane Review (which I did last year).  I’ve been prepping stories and materials for the fall paper, as well coming up with posts for the Review’s Facebook page and designing the website (https://pschurricanereview.wordpress.com/).  It’s still in its infancy stages, but I’m hoping to learn some graphic design skills in the meantime.

I was reticent about becoming the EIC, but a part of me wanted to give back what I knew I could bring to it.  I really am Sarah Eagle-Eye when it comes to proofreading other people’s work, and, to a certain degree, my own.

What a way to end my community college journey, doing what I love.