3 Lessons Learned From Assignments I Hated

For some writers, we’re able to make some type of writing our day job. So long as this much writing doesn’t “kill your creativity,” as Kerri Majors says in This is Not A Writing Manual, it can be great. But no matter how great it is, you’ll probably get stuck with an assignment that makes you want to claw your eyes out. After years as a writing student, a blogger, a journalist, a public relations writer, and now a tourism marketing writer, I’ve begrudgingly had to acknowledge how some of these assignments I hated came in handy.

1. IMITATIONS OF STYLE

Lesson taught: senior year of high school, various fiction and creative nonfiction classes in college

“Imitations of Style” was a pain for everyone. You take the piece of writing you want to imitate, and you type out the whole thing verbatim. Many of my classmates copied and pasted from the internet to save themselves from a little tedium. After the whole thing is copied, you write your own imitation piece. Depending on the class, you either wrote an original piece in the other author’s style, or you rewrote the author’s piece in an alternative style.

From E.B. White’s Once More To The Lake, I wrote a memoir piece titled “Lost and Unlost.” From Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I wrote the short story “A Rose of Success.” There are half a dozen more imitations on my computer. One of those pieces reached publication, but otherwise there were no benefits.

Lesson learned: working in public relations

In PR, my duties varied widely. When writing press releases, everything had to be in the company’s branded voice. For certain individuals, I had to draft their quotes for press releases, blog posts, and responses to emails. Every blog post had to have the brand’s voice, but different from the press releases.

There was no manual on how to do any of that, let alone what distinguishes each voice. I had an assignment and an immediate deadline. So I did the first thing that popped in my head: pull up old press releases/articles where person X is quoted/blog posts, and retype them. Doing this gave me a feel for the voices I needed to write in—cadence, sentence structure and length, type of vocabulary, and what sort of information they wanted to highlight. Once I picked it up and practiced, it got difficult to pick out which parts I wrote from the rest.

Always smiling, no matter what. Image via IMDB.

2. FRAME EVERYTHING TO SOUND POSITIVE

Lesson taught: working in public relations

This was always a pet peeve of mine. I would receive edits on blog posts that said to make everything sound more positive. Make it more peppy and upbeat. A coworker used to do this by adding puns and snappy final lines while I continued banging my head against a wall. Everything had to sound like the best thing since macaroni married cheese.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

While writing a brief guide to beaches in the area, I had to include some of the most important rules visitors should know. Some beaches allow dogs or alcohol while others don’t. Several prohibit glass containers of any kind, and violators face huge fines. But one beach has more rules than the others. My first few drafts sounded like, “This beach does not allow fun of any sort between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., but it’s here if you’re into that sort of thing.”

It took some finesse, but I described the beach as the ideal location for people who just want to swim or relax in the sun without having to worry about getting hit by a frisbee. Thankfully, I managed to do so without a single pun.

3. TRANSCRIBE THE WHOLE INTERVIEW

Lesson taught: high school and college journalism

At my college journalism job, a writer desperately needed help editing her article. I asked for her interview notes and transcription and was shocked to see that she hadn’t taken any notes during the interview. Worse, though, was her transcription. Instead of typing out what her source had said, she made bullet points and summarized what she felt had been important. The worst was that she had made up the majority of quotes she’d used in her article.

With our deadline upon us—hers to finish writing the article, and mine to edit and post it online—there wasn’t much I could do besides take over. I put on her headphones and transcribed every word her source said. After pulling all the information the article needed and the best quotes, it took 20 minutes to complete the article. It has always been my method to write articles this way, but I do so because it works for me.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

During my time in PR, sometimes there wasn’t time to record and transcribe a whole interview or presentation. I relied only on my notes. During an interview for one of my first articles, I got my source comfortable by asking him about the history of the building he owned. The first 45 minutes of our recorded interview was full of the building’s history, some personal anecdotes, and several first- and second-hand accounts of ghost sightings. This is Savannah, after all.

That put all the facts I needed for my article in the last 15 minutes of our conversation. It took me about four hours to transcribe the interview. Maybe I could have saved time by skipping past the ghost parts. Part of me wondered if there might be some place for those stories in my article. In the end, I transcribed them because I thought they were amazing. When I related some of the ghost stories to a coworker, she was ecstatic. Local ghost stories are perfect for our publications.

Well #?^%: That BEEP-ing Goodreads app

Incredible how it’s been almost a year since my last Well #?^% post. I gave up on numbering them after I realized I skipped a number here and there. But it’s nice to get back to some classic content and write a good old fashioned rant. This one is about my least favorite part about Goodreads‘ smartphone app.

Mostly, I use the app whenever I’m browsing a bookstore or the book section at Target. After reading the back and inside covers of books that catch my eye, the app is a convenient way to check reviews and what else the author has done. Maybe the best part is that it helps keep me from impulse-buying every book that dazzles me. And if Goodreads hasn’t talked me out of that dazzling book, I use the app’s handy barcode-scanning feature.

As much as I love that tool, it is also the reason for this post. Even if my phone is on vibrate, the app makes an obnoxiously loud BEEP every time I scan a barcode. If I was the kind of person who maybe only scanned one book, maybe I would hate that noise a little less. I could scan my book, then run away before anyone could catch on that I was the cause of that awful BEEP.

Roadrunner, looney tunes, beep beep
My visits to the bookstore sound very much like the Roadrunner. Image source: wikia.

At minimum, I scan two books. I want to keep track of everything that I want to read. Books I saw promoted on Twitter three weeks ago that now sit on a bookshelf in front of me. BEEP. Books by authors I love. BEEP. Books with crazy awesome cover art that I will read regardless of the premise. BEEP.

I become the weird person pulling book after book off the shelves, holding it up to my phone, and making that ungodly noise. It’s not so bad that I stop using that feature on Goodreads. I could simply type in each book’s title and accomplish the same task. But some part of me just loves scanning books. If that BEEP could be removed, I would love it even more

BEEP.

Recommended Reads: This Is Not A Writing Manual

writing reference; This Is Not A Writing Manual; Kerri Majors
Book cover image from Goodreads.com.

Despite the title and the text on the back cover, I fully expected Kerri Majors’ This Is Not a Writing Manual to have a few lessons on how to write. Instead, Majors offers advice on how to be a writer. Even when she directly addresses the teenaged writers she expects to pick up her book, her insight is a soothing breath of fresh air to those of us out of our teens, but still reaching for publication. As a writing reference and as unlikely source of support, this book is invaluable to any writer.

Majors clearly states in the introduction just what kind of writing book this is: “This book is just you and me, in writing therapy together, so we can talk about what it means to be a writer and why the writing life is worth living.” That statement hardly does the book justice. With the tone of a friend paddling in the same canoe as the reader and her years of experience as a writer, as well as Editor and Founder of the Young Adult Review Network, Majors expertly delivers the message so many other writing reference books muddle: Being a writer is hard, but we can do it.

That sounds like an obvious takeaway. Many established writers make the same point in speeches and lectures. Majors doesn’t make the point and move on; every page reinforces it. Right after reading the chapter on bosom writing buddies, it’s clear that the entire book is meant to be the reader’s writing buddy. Maybe the book doesn’t comment on or edit our work, but it certainly commiserates and captains our personal cheerleaders. If only every other writing reference could do that.

While some of her advice might induce a few sighs because of how often they are repeated by others — such as the importance of disciplining yourself to write every day — Majors’ take on the information is more forgiving. Other writers momentarily acknowledge the conflicts with a daily writing schedule before sternly telling you to do it anyway. Majors highly recommends a schedule, but doesn’t shame the reader into it. It may be the same advice we’ve been hearing and reading for years, but the delivery is key. Some people need to be shamed into good habits. Others need a ray of sunshine like Majors to coax them into removing their coat and getting to work.

Consider adding This Is Not A Writing Manual to your list of writing references to read. The combination of writing advice and memoir makes it a welcome break from sometimes drier content. Writing is a craft that can often feel lonely and isolated. Majors cannot receive enough credit for how this book eases that loneliness.

Revisions and revisions: A never-ending cycle

Happy Easter, my friends! As I mentioned in my last blog post, revisions for the next draft of The Thieves of Traska are currently underway. It’s been a little tricky to find time to write and edit now that I’m working 30-40 hours a week at the patisserie. I’m still rearranging a few things so I can write every day and (try) to blog every week. I think aiming for a blog post on Mondays will work better. Fingers crossed!

A week ago, I had no idea how I was going to revise Thieves. I had a list of problems, courtesy of my beta readers, and a vague idea of what would fix them. But I also had a list of responses that I wasn’t sure what to do about:

  • “The chapters feel too short.”
  • “I’m not sure why Garrison sticks around.”
  • “It doesn’t feel like anything connects to a bigger scheme.”
  • “Not enough really happens in the beginning to compel me forward.”
  • “The pacing is too slow.”

Alright, redistributing where the chapters begin and end wasn’t too hard. I wrote out all the events on my whiteboard and figured out where it made the most sense to put breaks. That left a few blanks to fill in, but I’d figure that out later.

More than a few blanks, since the picture I took before erasing my board is a little fuzzy in spots. (Spoilers all over that board.)

Why does Garrison stick with Claire? According to enough of my readers, it had to be because he has a crush on her. Since that is not the real reason, I need to tweak his dialogue in places so that it becomes clear. I’m still bouncing ideas off of people on how to make it make sense.

Those last three comments drove me crazy. Nothing connects to a larger plot?! Nothing happens in the beginning?! What is wrong with the pacing?!

Asking my readers didn’t offer any clear answers. It wasn’t until I started poking around at what other people said about the pacing in YA books that I got to the heart of the problem.

Everyone in The Thieves of Traska has a personal goal driving them forward. It’s great for their motivation, but it’s not enough for the story. There’s no common goal any of them are working toward together that relates to the overall plot. Sounds like a pretty big thing to be missing from a sixth draft, right? But it’s not entirely missing. There are plenty of little actions that could be connected to something greater if I just add that central point.

So what do you add to The Thieves of Traska to make all the petty crimes Claire commits connect to a bigger picture? Why not some sort of heist? Sure! Now the revisions will include a heist.

What about the lack of events in the beginning, and the slow pace? That one was trickier to figure out. It’s not so much that nothing is happening; the stakes just aren’t high enough in what does happen. For example: when Claire and Garrison are on the road to Traska, one of the highlights of the trip is when they’re attacked by bandits. That’s exciting! But buried beneath a lot of uneventful walking.

Now, instead of mutually deciding to journey together, I have Garrison unaware that Claire is following him. These revisions help build up to the solution to the “why does Garrison stick around” problem. And, by adding the risk of discovery, the stakes are just a little bit higher.

It’s not such a boring walk anymore, is it? If I take the same approach to every chapter, perhaps the pacing problem will be fixed, as well.

New job! New drafts! New projects!

Everything is NEW this month! Last month was all about panicking as the job hunt continued to be fruitless. Then I happened to walk into a French bakery and café almost two weeks ago. It had such a snug, welcoming atmosphere that I could see myself being a part of. On impulse, I asked if they were hiring. An email and an interview later, I had my first shift less than a week after I set foot in the bakery for the first time.

Now, I have a steady job. The panic has died out. I’m making food and money, and I get to practice my French. If I could stop accidentally echoing my boss’s French accent even after I leave the bakery, that would be great.

But the job isn’t the only thing that’s NEW! Following some feedback from beta readers, the next draft of The Thieves of Traska is in production. There are many little things to change, and then new sections to write, and then the entire division of chapters needs to change. It sounds like an exhausting amount of work, but I am excited.

What’s getting me even more excited is the new first draft of the second installment in the series: The Raiders of VaskegonI started and restarted this one about eight times now. As the story progresses, I find little gaps in Thieves to fill in. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I’m eager to keep exploring all these new questions I have to answer. It’s why I wanted to have at least a first draft of all three books before the first one is even close to publication.

And finally, the NEW projects. Two of them. One is a Western narrative inspired by an undergraduate project from a few years ago. Depending on how well it goes, it may be a good length to publish as a serial right here on my blog. If not, maybe it just sits on my computer for all eternity.

The second new project: another YA fantasy series. My crazy brain decided shortly after I got the job at the bakery: screw it, we’re writing another series. And this one’s going to have maybe 10 books in it. Why not?

Within a day or two of that thought, I had my premise figured out. I shared a glimpse of the opening on Instagram. The response was positive enough that I decided to continue with it. It still doesn’t have a working title, but that’s okay. At least I finally found a place for a character name I’ve been dying to use for over a year.

So it’s April. Everything is NEW. And, because I now have the song stuck in my head, everything is also awesome.

Scam alert: Falling for a false offer

Over the last month and a half, the job hunt has been a little slow. I’ve finally learned to engage in the practice of applying to as many openings as I’m able. As expected, some of the responses have included “the job posting has closed.” Some applications have yielded no response at all. Until last week, I had yet to fall for a scam offer.

I received an invitation to apply to a freelance job on Upwork.com. I did, and almost immediately received a response. We took our conversation to Google Hangouts, where I received more information on the company: Alembic Pharmaceuticals. After IMing back and forth for a couple hours, my interviewer showed my responses to the head of the department. He returned with positive news! I got the job!

false website, scam, alembic pharmaceuticals
It’s sad that I didn’t notice the “a 100 years” until uploading this picture.

But there were enough things to make me think this was a scam. For one thing, the company was apparently based in India. And as happy as I was to immediately get a job that paid enough to cover my bills, it was unusual to get the offer so quickly. I held off on a grand social media announcement that I was employed again, but I told a few friends and family members.

Those friends and family members had serious doubts. To them, it was an obvious scam. It was just too good to be true. Since I’m staring down student loans, doctor bills, and all the other usual money-sucking obligations, I was willing to overlook a few oddities. Like how they were going to send me a check that I was to spend on purchasing equipment and software for a home office before I could start working.

However, caution started to win out. I forwarded the official job offer to my dad and asked his thoughts. At first, he seemed just as convinced as I was. We chatted on the phone, and he suggested I call the number on their website to verify the offer. I was hesitant to call an international number, so he suggested I call the number for the office in New Jersey.

That threw me off. Nowhere on the website I was looking at was there a mention of an office in New Jersey. Everything I saw said India or Mumbai. We discovered we were looking at two different websites. The site the interviewer had directed me to: alembicpharmaceuticals.com. The site my dad found: alembicusa.com. When comparing the two, the first thing I noticed was the company logo. It was a near copy, but not exact.

graphic design, logo scam
The scammer site is on top; the real Alembic is below. If not for my graphic design background, I might not have noticed the difference.

So I called the New Jersey office and got ahold of the hiring manager. She confirmed in under a minute that the offer was fraudulent. Sad to say that means I’m still unemployed.

I tried to email the real Alembic company with the details of their imposters, but their only listed email account has a full inbox. In hindsight, it was 100% obvious this was a scam. But staring down the barrel of all those bills made me want to believe otherwise. Thankfully, I caught wise before I could give up any crucial information. I wanted to share this story so I could ask everyone else on the job hunt to please be smarter than me and not fall for these kinds of tricks.

Progress: Getting organized after losing a job

This little reunion was one of the best ways to start the new year.

Over the last month, there was a lot for me to be happy about. Christmas with the family had been wonderful. Progress on The Thieves of Traska was in an excellent place. I went to Albany to see a friend and go to a concert.

For a little while, I got a better handle on my stress at work. Some good opportunities were headed my way. I was even going to resume my classes in the spring. And then I lost my job last week.

It shocked many, but surprised very few. All the well-wishes and support I’ve received from friends and family have almost entirely included some form of congratulations. It’s been no secret how much stress I’ve been under.

Just before all this happened, I’d read Tee Morris’ blog post 3 Tips on Getting Back on Track When Life Knocks You Down. His post was so helpful in calming me down and finding what I should do next, I emailed him a thank you. He was kind enough to reply with another invaluable blog post: 5 Things to Do After You Lose Your Job.

His point about avoiding a social media meltdown made me reconsider whether or not I should write this post. But I’m not here to rant or make my former employer look bad. In fact, I still have a lot of love for the company. I want to follow in Tee’s footsteps and use this experience as a chance to maybe calm someone else down and help them figure out their next step.

Both of his posts stress the importance of getting organized again. I’m not sure it’s what he had in mind, but my first step was moving my furniture all around and sorting out my physical space. At the very least, I got to use up some energy shoving my massive dresser back and forth across the room. Progress is progress, right?

Then I reorganized my time, taking some of my old routine to structure a new one. Bianca gets her insulin shots at the same times as before. I start the morning with a cup of tea, then work on writing for a few hours. Just before noon, I get coffee, take care of a few chores, and then turn to the job search. I trade off days searching and applying. At 3 p.m., I get the next cup of tea and start catching up on reading news and blogs. After 5 p.m., the focus is on dinner and relaxing. I can read, watch a movie, catch up on a TV show, play video games, or work on some art.

Bianca’s just happy I have more time to rub her belly.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of creating this kind of schedule is that it cuts down on panic. Every time your brain starts demanding when you’ll have a new job, you can calmly remind it, “We found some excellent opportunities yesterday afternoon, and we applied to them today. Tomorrow we will find more.”

One of my favorite professors always talked about the importance of self-discipline. It’s what makes you consistently early to class or work. It’s what keeps you from binging articles instead of writing or applying to jobs. It keeps you making progress.