COM011: Blog Post 6: How Writing Contests Can Help You Get Published

CBC contests are one way to get your stories noticed.

CBC contests are one way to get your stories noticed.

Contests are a great way to get your writing out into the world. Thanks to a contest by the Canadian Authors’ Association, I’ve had a short story published in an anthology. Thanks to a screenwriting contest by the CBC, I’ve had a short film produced and screened at two film festivals, including the Ottawa International Writers Festival. And, as a finalist in the 2014 Writing for Children competition by CANSCAIP and the Writers’ Union of Canada, my manuscript has been sent to three Canadian children’s publishers, along with those of the winner and eight other finalists. This means that my story has made it to the top of the slush pile, which is huge when you consider that publishers receive hundreds, if not thousands, of unsolicited manuscripts each year. As well, thanks to this contest I am now represented by one of the oldest and most respected literary agencies in Canada.

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of contests!

Here are my top five tips for choosing and entering writing contests:

1. Be picky. Be sure that the contest is not just a money grab, and more importantly read the fine print to ensure that you retain the copyright to your work. Check out this article on writing contests to avoid.

2. Be a perfectionist. This must be your mantra for all of your work. It’s critical to have a professional proofread your writing. Why? Because many contest judges remark on the number of entries that contain grammatical and spelling errors. Those manuscripts are the first to be set aside and they save the judges time. Don’t let yours be one of them!

3. Promote yourself. If you are a winner or runner-up, be proactive. Call your local or community paper and announce the good news. Include your good news in your submission letter to publishers. When my short film was produced, I contacted the Shadows of the Mind Film Festival and they screened it.

4. Keep writing. The next contest is just around the corner. Extra bonus, contest deadlines are great for helping writers finish that draft story or screenplay they’ve been wanting to write for months (or years – guilty as charged!). Stories can be as long as a paragraph. Check out the postcard story contest by literary magazine Geist.

5. Stay local. There are the big national writing contests, such as CBC’s Canada Writes, which is amazing, but keep an eye out for the smaller contests in your own community or region.

Have you had success with writing contests? Share your story!

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Blog Post # 6 COM0011: The Fake it Till You Make it School of Writing

Writer? Yes!

It took me a long time to respond “writer” when people asked what I did for a living. I had to force myself to give myself that label, even though I had only a few pieces of work “out there” and no paid writing gigs. It felt strange. Unnatural. Boastful. Most of us are not conditioned to self-promotion. “It’s not nice to brag” is a common message we receive through childhood. So that was a hurdle I eventually had to overcome. Here’s where the expression “fake it till you make it” helped a lot!

The road to becoming a paid writer isn’t (for most of us) easy. For a long time, I felt like I was pushing a boulder up hill. I’d make phone calls every day. Send out as many queries as possible. Only to sit and wait. I wondered if I’d ever get that call to say we need your writing services. Basically, I spent my mornings marketing and my afternoons tearfully watching Law and Order reruns.

For a great take on how it feels to wait by the phone and a few clever strategies to get you through it, check out this humorous blog.

What are your qualifications? Well …

In my opinion, the most important qualification for being a professional writer is loving to write. If you love to write you have an advantage over, I’d guess, 75% of the population. Better still. Work will never feel like work (well, most of the time). The next is to be a good writer. Unfortunately, this is where the expression “fake it till you make it” does not help. You have to be good.

Here are four skills that are non-negotiable:

1. You must have an excellent grasp of grammar and punctuation, while knowing when it’s okay to break the rules (for more on this, see my previous post on speechwriting).

2. You must be able to deliver quality writing on time. The ability to meet deadlines is critical.

3. You must be able to write lively, engaging text.

4. You must be able to put your ego aside, accept feedback and rewrite. As one of my mentors says: Writing is rewriting.

Build your portfolio

I hadn’t followed the usual path towards becoming a writer. I hadn’t pursued an undergrad or Master’s degree in English literature or communications, though I had taken many university level courses in English and American lit. Without these credentials, I had to find a way to market myself so that potential employers and editors would overlook these missing pieces and recognize what I could offer. I had to define and demonstrate my skills and talents and build relationships of trust from scratch.

As I practiced writing, I sought out potential publishing opportunities that would help me build my portfolio. In fact, just a few weeks ago I was surprised to come across a short piece in my filing cabinet that I had written in 1999 and that was published on an on-line writing blog called Inkspot that same year – yes, there were blogs in 1999! This was one of many unpaid writing gigs, but they all counted in helping me establish my reputation as a competent and skilled writer.

Always look for the next opportunity

Stay nimble. My 10-year plan is to be able to write from anywhere in the world. This means building new skills and a portfolio for the on-line world. It’s new territory for me. Another boulder to push up that hill, yes, but another fresh start. It’s exciting, and a little nerve-racking, as every good new beginning should be!

Have you ever sat by the phone waiting for that new opportunity?

Take a Zen approach to speechwriting

Take a deep breath, and then start writing!

Take a deep breath, and then start writing!

Whether it’s for work, a wedding, or accepting an award (lucky you!), writing a speech can be nerve-racking. Listeners decide within one to two minutes, max, if they’re going to stick with you or drift off into their own thoughts. No one wants to see their audience dozing off or checking their smart phones.

These six tips will help you stay calm and get your speech off to a great start.

1. Put your audience first. If you’re speaking to a business or non-profit organization, check out its website, YouTube channel, Facebook page and/or Twitter feed. What’s new and interesting that you might want to include in your speech? The more interested you are in your audience, the more they’ll tune in to what you have to say.

2. Ditch the big words. Shorter words paint a picture. They pack more punch. Use them. Here’s a perfect example:

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3. Break the rules. Forget about grammar and punctuation rules. Listen to how people talk. We rarely speak in complete sentences in natural conversation. Instead, we use speech fragments. How many times today have you started a sentence with, “And”, “But” or “So”? Read a screenplay for an even better idea of how we speak, and then write that way.

4. Watch the clock. If you’ve been asked to prepare a five minute speech, aim for 500 words. In general, 100 words equals a one minute speech. Use your word count tool to keep you on track. For the fast talkers, aim for 120 words per minute.

5. Read out loud. Sometimes what looks good on paper or on screen sounds awkward when said out loud. Are you stumbling over words? Take the time to fix what isn’t working before delivering the speech.

6. Keep it short. Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address was less than three minutes long. Enough said.

Do you have any tips for writing a winning speech? Please share!

Making connections that make a difference

 

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We raised over $2000.00 to help a child with cancer.

Early this fall, my colleagues and I were told that our co-worker’s little girl had been diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer and had spent her sixth birthday receiving chemotherapy at CHEO. She is one in 35 out of seven billion people in the world with this form of leukemia. In the weeks to follow, we received little additional information about her condition or how we could help. We felt frustrated and helpless.

How one Facebook post changed everything

One night, I came across a shared post on Facebook for a t-shirt fundraiser in support of this same little girl. I quickly did a Google search and discovered that other fundraising efforts had been taken up by neighbours in the family’s community and their community newspaper provided information on other ways to contribute, such as donating blood. I immediately shared the post with my Facebook friends and others at my work. Sales for the t-shirts shot up and we began planning our own fundraising activities in our workplace. A the same time, we connected with our co-worker’s neighbours. In late November, we held a silent auction of over 30 holiday wreaths at our workplace and raised over $2,000.00. Many of us also donated blood. Donating blood is a great way to help

Social Media is an effective way to galvanize a caring community

My point in sharing this story is to underscore the power of social media in bringing about real action and change. In general, people want to feel some sense of control in a world that often feels out of control. We crave community and we want to make a difference. Social media helps us meet these needs. For this reason, I am grateful for networking sites like Facebook.

 

COM0011 Blog Post #2: How popular do you need to be?

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I’ve been reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. Of all the books on our recommended reading list, I’m enjoying this one the most, so far. They introduce some interesting ideas in Chapter 2: Make Your Own Game:

1) Friends and followers:  Will I Get One Million Followers? is the question posed by an article on-line by Wired.com. It’s easy to believe that the number of friends or followers we have on social media equates to our success, but the writers state that this is not necessarily true, and more pointedly that it’s not considered a good metric of feedback. Their reasoning is that it’s just too easy to accept followers or friends. I was wondering this myself as I’m a newbie to Twitter and have so far amassed just over 50 followers. How do I judge what this means? Does it mean that people find my tweets interesting, or are they looking to amass more followers for themselves and follow me in hopes that I will follow them? Apparently, some of the newer social media networks encourage “having a small, intimate, actionable list of connections …” The writers conclude by saying: “No matter whether you have lots of connections or few, don’t use this as a measure of your success online.” Whew!  So much of the hypeout there suggests the opposite.

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2) Secondly, the writers link success in business (or whatever your chosen endeavor) to games, but more specifically, to the fact that the games people enjoy the most are those that have goals in mind. “Seeing life as a game allows you to see the map, to see where you’re going,” they write. I particularly like the example of Michael Jordon and basketball. “‘I’m good at basketball because I practice shooting.'”, meaning that it’s often the slow, daily practice that leads to success, rather than a quick shortcut, that makes progress happen. It’s the old tortoise and the hare story, and it even applies to the fast world of social media 🙂

I think what this all comes down to is that human beings, by nature, are attracted to substance over style. Ultimately, we all seek meaning in our lives. Most of us have a fairly good eye for separating treasures from junk. It’s nice to know we can relax a bit from the pressure to attract a mass following and, instead, focus our energy on our goals and the quality of our contributions.

COM0011 – Blog Post #1: Social media and my ten-year plan: Dream big!

Two months ago I was inspired to write a 10-year plan. At first, the task felt overwhelming. I could only imagine myself in the same place, doing the same job, only 10 years older. Not very exciting. But, when I started to give it more thought, when I allowed myself to dream big, ideas started flowing. I realized that my big dream is to one day be able to write and make my living from anywhere in the world. Suddenly, I could see the possibilities and it became easier to break down the big dream into tangible goals and steps to help get me there. One of these steps is taking this course and completing the Social Media certificate program. The other is starting my own blog as a marketing and learn-as-I-go tool.

In the past few weeks, with amazing ease, I’ve registered for wordpress.org, signed up for a hosting service, learned the basics of writing and posting articles and how to link those articles to other social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin, using Hootsuite.

Blogging for newbies

I’ve started reading Groundswell and in the book’s Groundswell Technology Test, one of the questions to consider with new social media technology is: Is it effortless to sign up for? Meaning, can the average person, with no programming skills, sign up and start sharing? In my experience with wordpress.org so far, the answer is yes! It’s also a lot of fun.

Writing a blog is one thing. My big question is how to get my blog “out there”? How can I attract readers? This is something I’d like to understand better as we go through the course. If I can get answers to these kinds of questions here, then I’ll be able to provide advice to the clients I hope to have in the future. So, far I’ve been using the WordPress plug-in Yoast to increase my SEO (search engine optimization). See what I mean about quick learning? Just a few weeks ago I had no idea what a plug-in or SEO meant. I realize now that if I’m stumped, a simple Google search will lead me to a solution. There’s a generous community out there that makes things a little easier for newbies like me.

Has anyone else started a blog and, if so, have you found ways to attract readers?

The following on-line resources are great for blogging beginners:

http://www.wpbeginner.com/blog/

http://lifehacker.com/5365600/the-beginners-guide-to-tricking-out-your-wordpress-blog

Sites I use for my blog:

www.bluehost.com

www.wordpress.org

www.hootsuite.com

You can visit my creative writing blog at: www.louisebradford.com.