Perhaps because I am nosey by nature, one of my favorite elements of writing is the interviewing process. I have no formal training in this arena, but my natural curiosity and talkativeness has helped me out, as have my roles as English teacher, yearbook advisor, freelance writer, blogger, newsroom receptionist, and college-level writing instructor. For the last year in my role as a contributor for The Village News, I have conducted interviews on a regular basis–and love it. If you’re about to embark on an interview, here are four tried-and-true tips for you.
1. Be Prepared
Come with a few questions prepared and an angle in mind, but also be prepared for the story to reveal itself as the interview unfolds. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions that weren’t part of your original plan, or abandon some questions altogether. I typically end up asking all the questions I came with–and then some. In some rare instances, I didn’t prepare questions at all. Instead, I was prepared to let the conversation unfold completely organically. Usually, I find the theme of the story reveals itself as I interview my subject. By the end of my interviews with several students in and a sensei of a special needs karate class, I knew my theme would be smiling despite trials and tribulations, but I did not start the interview with this message in mind. See what threads you notice, and follow them.
This spring, I interviewed the sensei of a special needs karate class before observing the class itself. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.
This spring, I interviewed participants in a special needs karate class and observed their class. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.
2. Get the Basics
Sometimes, I get so lost in the stories my subjects are telling me, I forget to note down the fundamental facts of those stories. Make sure you get the basics–dates, job titles, full names, ages, spellings, locations–whatever might be relevant to the subject matter. I’ve learned to do this up front. I begin by asking as many basic, formulaic questions as I can think of, and when my subject tells me about something that happened, I have learned to immediately follow up with whatever who, what, when, where, why, or how I might need when I sit down later to write the story.
3. Respect the Silence
Sometimes, you’re going to ask a question that your subject isn’t going to answer right away. It may feel awkward, but if someone is silent for a long time after you ask a question, respect the silence. Let them be silent. Sit in it. Let them think. It may be you’ve dredged up an emotionally charged memory and your subject needs a moment to compose himself before he can answer. It may be you’ve asked a question that requires your subject to delve deep into the recesses of memory, retracing facts and dates, before she can respond adequately. Wait. Be patient. The silence will yield to conversation again in due time, and the answer you get after a prolonged silence is likely to be a better one than an answer you prodded for.
4. Be Clear
Always be clear with your subjects about what is on the record and off the record. If a subject says something that you’re not sure they want published, ask. If you want to ask a question you know isn’t relevant to your story, let your subject know you’re asking “off the record.” If a subject precedes a statement with “not for the story” or “don’t print this,” don’t even take notes about it. This will help you avoid inadvertently including it, having forgotten your subject told you in confidence.
No matter how strong a writer you are, to write journalistically, you must also be a strong interviewer. In fact, over the course of the last year writing for my local paper, I’ve learned that if I conduct a good interview, the person I’m talking to essentially writes the story for me. I just have to put it all in the right order to convey the theme I need to communicate.
During a recent visit to the Northern Neck, I found myself sitting across from my aunt at a Mexican restaurant where we had met for lunch, along with my uncle, my husband, and my parents. As we noshed on tortilla chips, waiting for our burritos and fajitas and taco salads to arrive, she observed, “So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.” Her observation is completely accurate. (And, if I know her, she’ll probably take credit for inspiring this blog post–as she should.)
While writing itself often requires at least some solitude, “no man is an island.” Since I’ve gotten more involved with Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) and James River Writers, my writing has taken off, and I am learning more than I ever knew there was to learn–about writing, publishing, networking, motivation, you name it.
One of the benefits of becoming involved in–or at least aware of–the various writing groups in your area is learning about opportunities to enter contests. The Poetry Society or Virginia (of which I am also now a member) holds a contest I learned about when I attended the James River Writers Annual Conference. I entered several poems, and one earned second-place sonnet in one category of the contest. Not only did this success bolster my self-esteem and increase my enthusiasm, but it also meant I got to attend an awards ceremony and luncheon at a nursery near the mountains, where I not only had the opportunity to read my poem to an audience of fellow poets, but where I also got to sit in a greenhouse on a hillside and listen to dozens and dozens of other poets read their winning poems. I left the awards ceremony inspired, awed, and filled with creative energy. (I also bought a dragon plant I’d been eyeing in the greenhouse throughout the readings. It’s my poetree, and since I brought it home and re-potted it last April, it has grown and thrived in tandem with my writing practice.)
In addition to the opportunity to enter and maybe win writing contests, becoming involved with writing groups gives you the inside scoop on classes, workshops, and conferences. I learned about the year-long novel-writing class I enrolled in at VisArts at
the James River Writers Annual Conference. Had I not joined that group and attended that conference, I never would’ve learned of or taken that class. Had I not taken that class, I can almost guarantee you I would not have finished my second manuscript, and if I had (which is unlikely), it would not be nearly as strong as it is (though it still needs some work).
Participating in the class at VisArts not only ensured I completed my manuscript, but also allowed me to meet several other really talented writers, people I learned a lot from and who are still helping me with my writing today. And if that isn’t enough, it was through taking this class that I was asked by a classmate to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show with her. (Shameless plug: The next one is this Wednesday! Topic: How to Write a Killer Synopsis.) This opportunity has been priceless, and we’ve only just begun. Already, I have met so many intelligent, literary people; learned a TON about the writing industry; and been inspired over and over again. My involvement in James River Writers paved the way for me to take the VisArts class, which in turn paved the way for me to become more deeply involved with James River Writers.
My involvement in VOWA may also soon support my role as co-chair of The Writing Show. Yesterday, I attended VOWA’s Annual Conference. One of the panel discussions centered on how to please an editor. It just so happens the May Writing Show topic centers on how to make freelance writing financially rewarding. My hope is to contact one of the editors I heard speak to VOWA yesterday about speaking at The Writing Show in May.
“So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.”
Finally, I learned about Life in 10 Minutes at a James River Writers class a few years ago. Since learning of Life in 10, I have taken several of their workshops, attended a one-day event, and taken a class. These experiences have produced several pieces of writing, a few of which have gone on to appear in sweatpantsandcoffee.com, Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and more. I even got to interview Valley Haggard for a blog post, which was later republished in WriteHackr Magazine. The same class where I learned about Life in 10 Minutes was also the reason I finished my first manuscript.
Joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.
Joining writing groups and participating in their contests, classes, conferences, and workshops is not the only decision that has helped support my writing–my family, fellow writers, friends, and colleagues have also played a role–but joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.
I hadn’t run the first mile of this morning’s run when my mistake occurred to me, striding into my consciousness as clearly as the morning sun shone through the frigid air. I stopped mid-stride and unlocked my cell phone, accessing my e-mail.
“My pre-morning run mind must’ve been misfiring,” I typed as fast my thumbs could dance across the screen, in an attempt to explain the initial, embarrassingly erroneous e-mail I had sent not 20 minutes before setting out for this run. My mind, unaware of its own cloudiness before my run, had suddenly cleared as I ran. As my body warmed up to the run, my thoughts, too, became more awake and fluid and ran through my mind freely, unencumbered by any morning fog.
We all know people who live by the mantra: “But first, coffee.” I feel a similar sentiment, but my coffee is a morning walk with my dogs or a morning run (or, on a particularly good day, both).
I don’t do anything important before my morning dog walk (I mean, besides breakfast–the most important meal of the day). I don’t have the mind for it yet. I need the time to move around outside in the fresh air and quiet, to gather my thoughts from wherever they roosted for the night and sort through them. My day–at least, the productive part of it–cannot start without this ritual: breathing the morning air, communing with nature, watching the morning roll in as my morning mind-fog rolls out. My body burns the calories and my mind burns off its fog.
I find the act of walking or hiking or running outside integral not only to my preparation for the day, but also to my writing. My personal essay “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, to be released April 9, was
Several years ago, I read a profile of a poet in Poets & Writers Magazine. I wish I could remember his name and the exact quote, but what I do remember is this: He loved to go for walks. He explained that he would begin a walk, his mind full of worries and stress over his own and the world’s problems. By the time he finished his walk, the
problems were still there, but the worry and stress were gone. A walk’s ability to peel the worry way from problems allows us to think about them more clearly. This holds true not only for problems in our lives, but also for obstacles in our writing. I don’t typically begin a run or walk or hike with the intention of unraveling the knots in my tangled plot or finding a word to rhyme with “marathon” or “silver,” but often, the solutions and ideas simply present themselves as I move, as if the unrestrained movement of my body also releases my thoughts to wander my mind without hindrance or boundary.
This past summer, a neighbor let me borrow her copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Now, several months later, one aspect of the book I remember most vividly is Murakami’s conviction that he runs so he can keep writing. And indeed, there are many parallels between running a long race and writing a long work.
“Don’t talk to me; I haven’t had my coffee yet” has never held true for me (which is good, because I don’t drink coffee, so I would be decidedly anti-social if it were true), but the same concept does hold true if I haven’t been outside for a walk yet.
As writers, we like to tell stories. Unfortunately, some of the most frequent stories we tell ourselves are probably about how we don’t have time to write. Or how we’re stuck in a rut, the dreaded writer’s block having taken hold. Or we’re no good at writing. Or we don’t have any ideas worth writing about. The list of stories about why we’re not writing–even though we love to write–is a long one. But these aren’t the stories we have to tell ourselves, and they’re certainly not very fun stories to write (or read). Even when you’re busier than busy, battling writer’s block (or letting it win), feeling insecure, or facing a seeming dearth of ideas, there are lots of things you can do to maintain your cherished identity as a writer, and flex your writing muscles.
Story No. 1: I Don’t Have Time
Once upon a time there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me!). She brought home hours of papers to grade almost every night, trained for half marathons, cared for her dogs, managed her household, volunteered once a week at a local no-kill animal shelter, and worked part-time at a local YMCA to supplement her income. You might imagine that Mrs. Creasey found little time for her writing, and you’d be right; it felt like a leisure activity for which she simply did not have the time–but she wished she did. Despite being so busy, Mrs. Creasey often missed writing, and lamented the months that would pass between even her diary entries. Truly, it was shameful. Fortunately, Mrs. Creasey eventually realized there were lots of ways she could carve out time to make writing a priority, and she still does–to this day.
Get your MFA or MALS
When I realized I was no longer making time for my writing, and how much I ached to do so, I decided the best way to make it a priority in my schedule was to get my graduate degree. If I had money wrapped up in it, and homework to do–I would make time. And I did. Earning my graduate degree in creative writing forced me to make time for writing in my busy life–and I was happy to do so. My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me. As an added bonus, my income slightly increased once I completed the degree.
My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me.
Take a Class or Workshop
If earning your degree seems too big a commitment, you might consider something a bit less demanding, like a single class or a workshop, which can yield some of the same benefits. Participating in a class or workshop provides you with a structure in which to write. If your daily schedule seems to make carving out writing time difficult, taking a class or workshop gives you the peace of mind of knowing that on Tuesday nights from 7:00-9:00 (or whenever your class/workshop takes place), you will be able to dedicate two (or however many) glorious hours to your craft.
It’s amazing what you can find time for if you’re getting paid to do it and you love to do it. One way to make yourself make time for writing is to find a way to get paid for it. Check out platforms like Contently, subscribe to (and read) the Freedom with Writing e-mails, contact your local newspapers, network with other writers, take a class on freelance writing… There are lots of ways to make a little (or a lot of) money with your writing.
Story No. 2: I have Writer’s Block
In a land far, far away, there was a writer who couldn’t write. She had ideas–lots of them, but putting them into words–turning them into stories or poems or books–was a task that seemed impossible. She begged her muse to help her, but her muse seemed to have been on vacation for a long time. A very, very long time. Eventually, she realized that she was going to have to write–muse or no muse. And she tried some of the tactics below.
One way to write even when your muse seems to have deserted you is to keep a diary or journal. Don’t burden your entries with purpose or expectation–just write about your thoughts, feelings, or day.
Attend a Conference
Attending a conference can have a way of summoning your muse right back from wherever she has been hiding. Some of the most inspiring events I have attended include those put on by the Poetry Society of Virginia, and the James River Writers Annual Conference.
Once upon a time there was a woman named Jane Doe (I know–not very original). She used to write, but over the years, the practice had simply slipped from her routine, and though she sometimes thought about picking it back up, she didn’t really think she was that good at it, anyway. She had taken some writing classes in college, but mostly, her classmates and instructors focused on how she could improve, and while that was helpful, it also made her feel like maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a writer after all. Nowadays, her writing was confined to e-mails and memos at work. But a small part of her still missed writing–stories and poems and personal essays. If only she were good at it…
Make Creative Friends
Making creative friends is a great way to nurture your own creativity. Fellow creatives can support you, point out what’s good in your work, and give you feedback to inspire your progress. You can also share your work with each other. Surrounding yourself with people who believe in you is a surefire way to make yourself feel more valid in your craft.
Another way to prove to yourself that you are, indeed, a “good writer” is to submit your work to journals, contests, and publications. Admittedly, this practice also opens you up to significant risk, but it gets your name out there and helps you feel validated. Plus, the recognition you earn when a piece is published or wins an award is rewarding, to say the least. And even if you meet with rejection at first (or often), I find that having work out there gives me hope. The more pieces I send out to publications, the higher their chances of finding a publication home (in my mind, anyway). I like the feeling of my work floating around out there. I like the anticipation. The fact that I have writing to send out means, at least, I am writing.
Story No. 4: I don’t have any Good Ideas
Once upon a time, there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me again!), who had a sticker on her classroom door so she would see it every single morning when she unlocked the door to go to work. It read: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” (Sylvia Plath). Mrs. Creasey loved this quote–for her students and for herself. Another of her favorites? “It’s not what you write about, but how you write it.” Both of these quotes hold true for anyone who wants to write. You can write–you have the ideas. You just have to, ya know, do it.
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath
If you seem to be suffering from a dearth of ideas, take a notebook with you everywhere and write things down. Write anything and everything down. All your observations are fodder for future pieces. Notate your observations in nature, things you hear or overhear, ideas you have, questions you have, names you like…
Story No. 5: No One Wants to Read What I Write, Anyway
Once upon a time, there was a writer who loved to write, and who wrote all the time–but who often felt discouraged because he was certain that despite his best efforts, no one actually wanted to read what he wrote–even if it was really, really good. It seemed no one cared. And besides–writing isn’t like a painting or a photograph or a sculpture, easy to display and share. It requires some effort on the reader’s part, some willingness to invest time, energy, and thought in the piece. Who was going to do that when they could simply watch TV, play games on their smart phone, go to the movies, or do any number of easier activities?
Start a Blog
One way to combat the sense that no one is interested in your writing is to start a blog. At least a few people will read it, and that’s nice. Plus, maintaining a blog can help hold you accountable to your writing. Knowing you have even a small audience who might be waiting for your next post can be motivation to write the next post. Besides, it feels empowering and validating to have an online presence, albeit a small one.
Use Social Media
Using social media outlets such as Facebook or Instagram can help grow your audience for your blog–or any other writing you do. Just be careful not to allow your social media accounts to steal time away from your actual writing.
And They Lived Happily Ever After…
While the above advice is nice, and can prove productive if you need a pick-me-up or a way back into writing after a hiatus or a blow to your confidence, the most important thing you can do for writing is actually write. It will be a struggle sometimes, but nothing worth doing is every easy (at least not all the time).
Earlier this month, I posted a piece about what to consider when you prepare to submit your writing to literary magazines and/or writing contests. Now, let’s focus on considerations you should make depending on the type of writing you do.
Rules of Thumb
Before we break down what to do when submitting poetry versus prose, there are some general rules of thumb to follow for any genre. The following tips come to you from Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. In April, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop she led in Richmond. She provided some really helpful advice.
Research your opportunities. Figure out what publications or contests are out there, and which might be the best fit for your work. After you’ve done that, tier your top choices and start high! When you applied to college, you likely applied to a dream school or a reach school, as well as several backup schools. When you submit your writing, you can use the same principle. First, submit to your absolute top choice contest or publication, but have some second and third choices in your back pocket.
Keep track of your submissions. Some publications allow simultaneous submissions. Some don’t. Even those who do will likely request that you let them know if your work is accepted elsewhere. For these reasons, and others, it’s important to keep records of where you’ve sent your work, and whether or not it was accepted.
Decide on a budget for each piece. What are you willing to spend on submissions in total, and on each individual piece?
Compose a cover letter. Keep it short, and be specific to each publication or contest. If you’re submitting to a journal or magazine, you will also want to devote one or two sentences to explaining why your work is a good fit for the magazine.
For most journals or contests, select three to five poems of various tones, lengths, and topics. Some journals and contests require a specific number of submissions, or cap the number of submission you may send, so be sure to read the submission guidelines carefully.
When you submit a batch of poetry, think of it as a whole, and organize your submission wisely, with your best work at the beginning. Think of your first poem as the hook that will get the reader’s attention, and entice her to read more.
Before submitting a short story to a contest or publication, make sure it features a strong beginning, or hook. A strong start is absolutely critical, as you’ll need to get and keep your reader’s attention. After all, she likely has a stack of other stories waiting for her time and focus. Ms. Isokawa suggests two effective ways to craft a strong start: Begin with action, or write with really strong voice.
When you submit a novel excerpt, your chosen piece should be able to stand alone. A flashback or decision scene might work well. You can also consider adapting an excerpt of your larger work by taking out references to parts the reader won’t get to read.
Should you be fortunate enough to find a publication home for your work or for your work to be honored with an award, be sure to thank the editors, and share the journal, publication, or contest on social media. They’re helping promote you; help promote them.
If your work is not accepted, you might still be lucky enough to get a rejection with feedback. If an editor is kind enough to provide any feedback at all, say thank you–don’t ask for more feedback.
If you ever resubmit to a publication that has previously rejected but offered feedback on your work, be sure to mention their note with your new or revised submission.
Don’t allow rejection to discourage you. Try again. Even the most celebrated writers have dealt with rejection, and many still do. To help combat the temptation to give up, always have a piece of writing “in waiting” or “on deck,” one you can send out to contests and publications as soon as its predecessor gets rejected.
If you’re a writer and you submit your work for publication with any sort of regularity, you’re probably pretty familiar with rejection. In fact, sometimes it feels like being a writer is synonymous with being really, really good at handling rejection. Our resiliency may make us seem like gluttons for punishment, constantly risking our art and our hearts only to be told it’s just not good enough–if not in kinder, more professional words. Fending off discouragement can be daunting, but if we’re lucky, our well-practiced resiliency allows us to persevere with a kind of cultivated optimism–that shoot- for-the-moon-even-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-among-the-stars hope we read on inspirational posters in our high school classrooms.
This spring, my perseverance paid off (as it does, every now and again–though not as often as I’d like). Typically, really exciting successes spread themselves out over rather vast expanses of time, but this spring, I experienced two back-to-back successes, one in March and one in April.
In March, I was thrilled when the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA), a professional writing group I recently joined, recognized my piece, “Rescued bird teaches lesson on where to find home,” originally published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, with second place in the Outstanding Column category of the Excellence in Craft Contest. My parents and husband were able to celebrate with me on March 24, joining me at a lovely awards ceremony held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we were treated to a delicious lunch and several writing and photography presentations.
On April 28, two of my close friends, my parents, and I (my husband had to work) made the trip to Somerset, Virginia, to savor the beautiful scenery at The Market at Grenlen, the perfect setting for the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Contest Award Ceremony and Poetry Reading. I was so excited for my poem, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” to receive second place in the Nancy Byrd category of the contest. I was honored to be given the opportunity to share my poem with fellow poets, winners, and their families and friends, as well as breathtakingly impressed by the other winners’ poems. It was truly an inspirational, enlightening event, and I will be thrilled if I am ever invited back again, not only because it will mean another of my poems will have been recognized, but also because it will expose me to the stellar work of some of the most talented poets in the state.
Salem’s Indifferent Ox
I’ve stood in my pasture watching for days
as the townsmen with hammers, they pounded,
until from the ground a wooden platform was raised
and the drumroll, through the village sounded.
Then they fetched me—how could I be involved
in this mysterious venture of theirs?
But I plod through the town, no question resolved,
Wondering at their strange mumbled prayers.
The wagon is heavy, my cargo, it weeps
with the people standing by in the crowd.
I watch as they climb the handcrafted steps,
clinging to dignity, proud.
Then they clutch at the ropes—tighter and tighter—
and on my way home, my cargo is lighter.
To view the reading of my poem on April 28, 2018, click here.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I’ll admit it’s in part because I’m proud and excited and I wanted to brag. I mean share. But it’s more so because these two consecutive successes with mere weeks between them had an unexpected effect on me. Instead of
stopping at pride and ecstasy and validation, these two experiences made me feel like I can’t just sit back and rest on my laurels; I have to keep going. Instead of just basking in the warm sunshine of success, I feel the need to pursue more opportunities to achieve it. I think the only achievement that might satiate my hunger for further writing success would be holding my two manuscripts after they have been reborn as books. Yes, the pressure is on to continue to perform at this level–even though I know what I am really asking for is more rejection with a few successes sprinkled in between.