Books on Writing

I guess it’s no surprise there are so many books about writing. We writers need something to write about, and some of us write about writing. And then the rest of us read about it.

Writing is a craft that I continually work at. In college I majored in journalism, and since then I have continued to take writing classes (both in person and online), participate in professional writers’ groups and online forums, and sometimes in local writers groups.

And I also read how other people have succeeded as writers. How they do it. Their tips.

They’re just like us, most of those other writers. We’re all just people sitting in front of a yellow pad of paper or a laptop, starting with a blank screen and a head full of ideas. Reading about how some people have accomplished what they’ve done has, over the years, helped me set goals for my own writing, and reach high.

I could read about writing, instead of sitting down and actually writing, until the cows come home. (“What cows?” asked my four-year-old with a puzzled look when I used that expression the other day.) It’s a terrific means of procrastination.

Here are just some of the books on my shelves, which I’ve loosely grouped into categories. Some of these books are better than others. Many I’ve reread, and learned from or been inspired by.

BUSINESS

You are only a hobbyist, and will get nowhere as a freelance writer, until you accept that it’s a business and you need to be businesslike (in setting goals, where you focus your efforts, calculating your overhead and knowing how much to charge, protecting your copyrights, handling accounting, paying taxes and much more). Some creative sorts have to really force themselves to buckle down and learn the business aspect of being a self-employed writer. Here are some books that can help: 

  • The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, ed. by Timothy Harper
  • This Business of Writing, by Gregg Levoy
  • Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, by Jenna Glazer
  • Six-Figure Freelancing, by Kelly James-Enger

 

BY WRITERS ABOUT WRITING

I don’t know how to group these books, some of which inspired and convinced me I could quit the day job and live happily as a writer.

  • Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  • The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  • If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
  • Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
  • Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • No Mentor But Myself: Jack London on Writing and Writers, ed. by Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman

 

FICTION/NOVEL WRITING

What pondering these titles from my bookshelf tells me is that I have long wanted to delve more into fiction and novel-writing. But I knew that already. Maybe I’ll reread some of these and get started soon.

  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
  • Writing the Novel, by Lawrence Block
  • Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway
  • How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen
  • The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, ed. by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron and the editors of Writer’s Digest

 

MAGAZINE/NEWSPAPER WRITING

I have done an awful lot of this. I started out writing an occasional freelance piece for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and then got a regular freelance gig working for Hilo’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald, where I wrote features and entertainment articles every week. Like most newspapers it paid poorly but, in retrospect, it was terrific in teaching me how to just sit down and do it. I also got over my reluctance to call people when I had several articles due each week. That was worth it all right there. 

After that I started writing for magazines. More interesting, more in-depth, more time for craft. Yet it still doesn’t pay enough to pay the bills. I know there are a few people who only write for national magazines and make a good living, but that’s not the norm. If magazine freelancing is your plan, you’d better have some other income, too.

  • The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William E. Blundell
  • Writing for Story, by Jon Franklin
  • Creative Nonfiction, by Philip Gerard
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, ed. by Jean Fredette
  • You Can Write a Column, by Monica McCabe Cordoza
  • The Renegade Writer, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  • Travel Writing, See the World, Sell the Story, by L. Peat O’Neil
  • Literary Journalism, ed. by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer

 

MEMOIR

  • Living to Tell the Tale, A Guide to Writing Memoir, by Jane Taylor McDonnell
  • Inventing the Truth, the Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. by William Zinsser

 

ON WRITERS

It’s aways fun to read how other writers do it. Computer? Typewriter? Pencil and pen? These books are much more than just that, though.

  • Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the New York Times
  • The Writer on Her Work, by Janet Sternberg
  • The New New Journalism, ed. by Robert S. Boynton

 

COPYWRITING 

A lot of my work these days falls under the category of copywriting. These books were somewhat interesting as I started out writing for businesses, but I’ve found that I figured out a lot of it by myself, along the way. The Well-Fed Writer is currently a bible to some copywriters.

  • The $100,000 Writer, by Nancy Flynn
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman
  • Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Bob Bly
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Bob Bly

 

RADIO

This is one of the few books from my long-ago college journalism days that I’ve kept. I have worked in public (and commercial) radio a little bit, and really enjoyed it. I keep the book in case I get back into it one day. Cool book.

  • Telling the Story, the National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism

 

LASTLY

And, my favorite title of all though (to be honest) I don’t remember a thing about the book itself:

  • Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous to Steal, How to have a great life as a freelance writer, by John Clausen
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Advanced Freelance Writer Organizational System

How do you keep papers organized when you’re working on 10 or 15 freelance jobs at the same time, or more, all at various stages?

I do it with file folders. That title above is tongue-in-cheek, of course. My system is pretty basic, but it truly helps me keep my head well above water.

Whether it’s a client I’ve just met with once, and the file merely holds some handwritten notes and a fee quote, or it’s someone I’ve worked for years and a specific folder holds their October newsletter notes and copy, or a specific press release, it’s all about the file folders.

I have a big box of 100 of them sitting on the bookshelf near my desk. I make myself take the time to write the name of a project on the front and on the tab, even when I’m busy and overwhelmed with papers — especially then — and then stash all papers relating to a certain web copy job/ad/newsletter issue/blog series/business profile in its appropriate file. Otherwise I am always hunting for things instead of working.

Making myself slow down and store papers in their folder keeps my sanity. 

I have a standing, upright file box on my desk, where I keep active folders. When I finish a project it gets filed away.

Sometimes it feels wasteful to go through as many file folders as I do. I label them in pencil, so I can reuse them later, but first most get filed under the company’s name and year in my file cabinet for awhile. Every so often, I go through and purge folders I’ll probably never need to find again. Old jobs I might need to look at again get purged from my active file cabinet and moved into a reserve file (box) for awhile, and then eventually that too is moved on.

Some people do the same thing but they keep their “folders” on the computer. They have paperless offices. Are they truly paper-free? I imagine their desks must look tidy and lovely, but I can’t imagine it.

Going without paper is not a goal of mine. I need to hold things in my hands when I’m working on them — move them around, mark on them, consider them while standing them on end and neatening them into a tidy pile.

We writers, we like paper and I can’t imagine working without it. I’ll just continue on, making my little stacks of tidy file folders, watching the papers escape and comingle and try to hide under other papers, and then putting them back in place — which keeps my head in order, too.

It sounds like such a simple thing, but having a simple file folder system makes all the difference to my productivity.

How do YOU do it?

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I Married The Photographer

I have an essay on the last page of Hawaii magazine’s August issue. It’s about living here in this beautiful place.

My husband Macario is a professional photographer who, among other jobs, shoots a lot of Big Island photos for the PacificBasin Communications magazines. So they called him to photograph me for the article. (How convenient is that?!)

And so we went down to a nearby river and we both stood in it, pretty much. And here’s the side of the photo shoot you don’t usually see — because the set-up for a photo shoot takes awhile, and I get restless. And then I start taking photos of the photographer.

Here’s another article Macario and I both worked on. That one, for Honolulu magazine, is about the 6.7 earthquake that hit the Big Island a couple years back, and how clean-up was looking one year later. 

People often say something along the lines of, “Wow, a photographer and a writer. Perfect!” It is fun when we occasionally get to work together. We didn’t meet on a job, surprisingly, but rather at a baby lu‘au where he was friends with the baby’s dad and I was friends with the mom.

It was just a tidy coincidence that our work interests were so compatible. It’s a fun partnership all the way around.

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Freelancing in a Poor Economy

Someone told me recently about her son, a graphic designer who works full time for an agency and does freelance jobs on the side. She said he has considered leaving his full time job to freelance full-time, but worries about doing that in this poor economy.

Here’s my response to that:

Especially in this poor economy, I feel much more secure working for myself — my pay flowing in from many different clients — than being at the whim of only one employer. 

In these uncertain economic times, a full-time job can disappear at any moment. But if you’re good at what you do, work hard, and especially if you already have a stable of jobs going on, leaving the uncertainty of a full-time job for the freelance life seems like a no-brainer to me.

Spreading your work (and income) around to many clients is the smartest kind of diversification. You’re not relying on one employer, one company, one industry. Not putting all your eggs in one basket and all that.

I’m not suggesting anyone quit a steady job with some vague dreams about freelancing. It’s serious business. Learn what you’re doing first, and work up to it. Make sure you have what it takes.

But if you know what you’re doing, have clients lined up, and work hard, it’s very doable. Even in this economy. Especially in this economy.

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Freelance Writing & Kukui Nut Trees

For lunch today, I had a picnic with my husband and little girl in the shade of our big old kukui nut tree. We brought along my daughter’s Bob (learning to read) books, and decided we will call it “The Reading Tree” and sit there sometimes to practice reading. She loved that.

After we ate and read and played some little kid horseshoes, I lay back on the green- and blue-striped picnic blanket and watched a white, cottony cloud barrel across the perfect blue sky. After awhile, my daughter and husband wandered off and I actually napped briefly. When I woke up, it was to the feeling of warm sun on my face when the kukui leaves momentarily parted. It was excellent.

It was a work day.

Oh, the freelance life is definitely not all sitting around in pajamas and watching Oprah, let me tell you. 

If you’re good at what you do, and busy, it’s really an awful lot of work. I can remember, years ago when I started freelancing, being surprised at how hard I was working. (Maybe I had been expecting pajamas and Oprah.)

It is, of course, a real business with real work that needs to get done, well and on time. In addition to the interviewing, writing and revising, there’s always marketing that needs to be done, to keep the work coming in, and then invoicing and estimated taxes and lot of other paperwork, and keeping up with supplies, because nobody’s filling the supply cabinet but you. And a whole lot more.

Generally I keep regular work hours, which is what works best for me. I don’t sleep in on a work day (unless I’m sick, and then the flexibility is lovely), and I don’t chat on the phone during work hours. There is work to be done.

Once in awhile my regular work hours just aren’t enough, and there have certainly been times when I’ve worked into the wee hours, or pried myself out of bed much, much earlier than my body appreciates to squeeze in a couple extra hours.

But then again. Then again — occasionally I take the time to do something like have a lovely, relaxing picnic with my family in the middle of the day.

And then I am reminded of how much I appreciate the freelance lifestyle. The work is interesting, I have total control over how my career progresses, and I can sometimes take a little time off to do what’s important to me and my family — like picnicking and then napping under a kukui nut tree. I can’t imagine living any other way.

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Hamakua Springs: The Blog

One of my jobs these days is to blog for Hamakua Springs Country Farms, a 600-acre, progressive hydroponic farm here on the Big Island.

We started that blog more than two years ago. That’s when the farm’s owner, Richard Ha, hired me to create a website, and then a blog, for Hamakua Springs. My husband Macario, a photographer, did all that website’s photography, and that’s how he and I got to know Richard and June.

The blog is called “Ha Ha Ha!,” which is meant to represent the three generations of the Ha family who farm there. We have some fun with the blog while also tackling some big topics.

Richard and I have posted to his blog three times a week for more than two years now, and it is one of my absolute favorite gigs. He is a gem to work with. He is an amazing person who is using his very successful business not merely to make as much money as possible, but to do good for his community. That sentence may sound trite, but know that I don’t at all write it lightly.

Here is just one recent example. There are many, many others.

It is such a rare pleasure to work with Richard Ha. He is truly a man of character and he radiates ethics in everything he does. I know he doesn’t realize how much I’ve learned from him — about business, about community and relationships, about life. He is one of the best people I have ever met and I am honored to be a part of his trusted team.

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The “Intended Effort” Phenomenon

One of the aims of this blog, beyond writing about what I love, is to market my writing business.

Now, what I’m about to tell you has happened before, and it’s happening again right now. I find it so interesting.

The minute I decided to start this blog — but before I’d actually done anything about it — my phone started ringing, much more than usual, with offers of work. 

My phone does regularly ring (or, perhaps more accurately, the email “bings”). I do have steady work. 

But it’s almost funny to me how everytime I intend to ramp it up a bit, but haven’t yet, the heavens open and the work falls on my head in amazing amounts. I can’t explain the timing, except as some sort of “intended effort karma.” Which I just made up. I think.

For instance, this time it began the day I started working on this new blog, but before I posted anything. RING! BING! DING!

Now it’s been three or four days later and I’m still smiling to myself each time I answer the phone or open a new email to find someone offering me work.

(Which is not to discourage you from being in touch should you need a writer.)

It’s a phenomenon. Does anybody else recognize it? If it doesn’t already have a name, it should. What shall we call it?

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Health Insurance for Hawaii’s Self-Employed

My eyes almost fell out of my head when I read a June 27, 2008 article in Pacific Business News with the headline: For Solo Operators, Insurance Deals Grow.

It was about medical insurance — which, of course, is tricky business when you are self-employed.

From the Pacific Business News article by Linda Chiem: 

Hawaii’s major health insurers, pushed by health-care advocates and solo business owners, are expected to launch a pilot program that would give sole proprietors and the self-employed the chance to buy health insurance coverage at a group rate traditionally offered to small businesses and employers.

The effort was made possible by a new law, which takes effect July 1, that is seen by its supporters as a first step in reaching Hawaii residents who are working but cannot afford insurance.

Hawaii is the only state that requires employers to offer health insurance to all full-time employees.

But sole proprietors straddle the line between employer and employee, which leaves them with limited options when it comes to buying health insurance at an affordable rate.

This is absolutely amazing news to me, yet other than the Pacific Business News article I’ve heard nothing about it. It’s shockingly progressive! Humane! Business-friendly!

Some self-employed people, of course, take on a second job primarily for the health insurance benefits. Others have a more “traditionally-employed” spouse who has health insurance at his/her job. 

The rest of us struggle to find medical insurance at all if we have just about any pre-existing health condition. And if we do find coverage, the amount we pay would make your socks crinkle and fall right off. 

Or we just go without medical insurance. Not me; I’ve held a six-figure hospital bill in my hand before (it wasn’t mine). But some people — who, I guess, haven’t — just take their chances.

I’ll look into this some more; maybe I can wheedle down the stunning amount of money we pay for health insurance each month. I’ll let you know what I learn.

Or if anybody out there has more information on this, please leave a comment.

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Let Me Introduce Myself

Here in Hawai’i, we introduce ourselves when we meet by telling who our family is and where we’re from; we put ourselves into a context, and try to establish some sort of a connection to each other. It’s traditional among Hawaiians. So let me tell you who I am.

My name is Leslie Lang and I am a freelance writer living near Hilo, Hawai’i. That’s on what we call the Big Island of Hawai’i, on the east (windward; rainier; lush) side of the island.

My father’s family is from this island. Some go back to the beginning, when Polynesians first landed on this island and eventually evolved into Hawaiians, and others were English and Chinese.

My mother’s English/Irish family is from West Virginia, deep in the most beautiful hills where the trees turn brilliant reds and oranges and yellows in the fall, and where they make really good cornbread in a skillet in the oven. I do that too.

It’s a pretty diverse genealogical background, huh? I love it all.

My family lives in my grandmother’s wonderful old rambly home in the country. It’s a good life.

I have a lot of stories to tell and some other things to say, and I am a writer, and so, voila! A blog.

I’ll post here about:

  • Freelance writing (Who, what, where, how and probably even why)
  • Being self-employed (Coming soon: Is it riskier, in this or any economy, than working full-time for one employer? Or much, much safer?)
  • Living in Hawai’i (It’s a pretty great place to live)
  • Historic Hilo town (I wrote a book recently about beautiful Hilo and its history)
  • and, I’m sure, how all these subjects intersect in my life

Whether you are looking for a writer, are yourself self-employed as a writer (or want to be) and are interested in how others do it, or are interested in Hilo or Hawai‘i in general, I hope you’ll check back! Or even subscribe to my feed. I’ll try to keep it interesting. And please, always feel free to continue the conversation by leaving a comment.

You can also always contact me at leslie@leslielang.com.

Aloha,

Leslie

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