Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Suicide Notes: Notable Writers Who Committed Suicide

"What do you write?" Any writer will tell you that this is the first question asked when people find out what they do for a living. It's not like identifying yourself as a doctor because most doctors will indicate their specialty, such as "I'm a cardiologist," or "I'm a chiropractor." But when writers' tell people that they are a writer, they prepare to explain what kind of writing they do.

My writing career can't be pigeon-holed because I write both nonfiction and fiction books as well as articles. "I've written two novels and am working on my third. Oh, and I'm ghostwriting four books for clients," is my current explanation-in-a-box.

It's easy to forget that authors started writing out of their known genre as well. Stephen King submitted several short stories to publications and tacked the rejection slips to his wall for several years before selling his book (and later the movie), Carrie. His book On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, now in its 10th anniversary, intertwines his biography with advice for writers that many wannabe writers pay hundreds of dollars to learn in workshops. Very few people knew that lawyer turned author, David Baldacci, was writing a novel until he had already signed a contract with a publisher. He was a closet writer who spent much of his childhood and "free" time while in law school writing stories. Later, he penned Absolute Power late at night and on weekends. Even now his work is published in several different genres...there is no pigeon-holing David's work.


Every writer's story about their struggles, their early days, and when they broke through varies. Sadly, some became bigger than life authors after their lives ended. Sylvia Plath's work shadowed her husband's, Ted Hughes, until after the event of her suicide. Sylvia's suicide brings up an interesting reality -- Wikipedia has a link that lists hundreds of seasoned writers who committed suicide. One of them, Jean Amery, penned a book titled, On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. In 1978 he followed his own advice and suicided. Evidently the philosophies on the pages he wrote were validated in his mind to the point of taking his own life.

In reading about the lives and deaths of the writers in this category, the reasons for suicide were evident -- medical or mental. I suppose that would be true of anyone who suicides, yet in reading the biographies of these writers, many of them felt that they set themselves free when they died. Some were unable to continue writing due to their medical or mental restraints; therefore, perhaps, they felt their lives were not worth living beyond that point, as evident in the letters they left behind. (I now wonder if any writer who has suicided did not leave a written note?)
My first novel, Whispers from the Heart, portrays a high school English teacher who copes with the suicidal death of one of her students. She uses journal writing in the classroom as a tool for the students to heal and try to understand why someone with so much life ahead of them would cut it short deliberately. This is a question rarely answered by the people left behind to grieve. It becomes about coping more than understanding.

In Sylvia Plath's case, she fought clinical depression for several years, but before ending her life, she realized and admitted to a friend that through her thoughts she created the distressing aspects of her life. In the biographical movie, Sylvia, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Sylvia and tells her friend, "You see, if you fear something enough you can make it happen." Unfortunately, she felt she learned this lesson too late.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

If Everyone Is Working for Free, How Is Anyone Supposed to Earn a Living?

Have you or your company ever hired someone from a website such as Freelancer, oDesk, Fiverr, eLance, or another popular site for outsourcing gigs? Alternatively, have you or your company offered services on one or more of these sites? If so, you are a part of the Global Online Employment trend that has been booming for quite a while now.

I personally have used a few of these sites as a resource to clients seeking a ghostwriter for their books and bios. Yet, I found that the competition was too willing to bid low dollar amounts for their work or they lived in areas where the cost of living was significantly less than mine, thereby being able to bid lower and still earn a significant living. As such, my bids were frequently four and five times higher than most (except on Fiverr, which is a fixed amount). Sometimes I landed the gig anyway, sometimes I didn't.

I also recently posted a photo captured in a chain restaurant and Tweeted it via Instagram. Within moments, I heard from the restaurant, which wanted full rights to my image to use for their social media campaigns. The catch was, they didn't want to open their wallets to pay me for it. My thought was, "I go into their establishment and open my wallet for their product. They come to my establishment and request full rights to my product, but don't want to pay me for it?" As a professional photographer, this aggravated me. So, I began to question, If everyone is giving away their work, how is anyone supposed to earn a living?

To find the answer, I reached out to Freelancer's Nikki Parker, Regional Director, North America & Oceania.

Photo Courtesy of Freelancer
Q: Let's start with some statistics. How many people actively use Freelancer?

Freelancer currently has 10.7 million members. The term "active" varies for each user, as we have people who spend their entire work day bidding on projects or we have employers that need to use Freelancer.com at specific times of the year, e.g. tax time, end of financial year, annual reports, etc.

Q: There are many websites like Freelancer that create a marketplace for creative entrepreneurs. How have they impacted the way entrepreneurs earn a living?

Thanks to the internet the way that we connect, collaborate and work has changed quite dramatically and it is opening up a world of new opportunities.

When working online in a global marketplace like Freelancer.com there is the opportunity for employers and freelancers to barter and enter into an agreement to work on specific projects that suit both parties. An employer will choose to work with a freelancer after they have weighed up the freelancers skill, past experience, online reputation, length of time required to complete the project and the overall price and a freelancer can decide what projects they work on.

Q: How do creative entrepreneurs compete in such a competitive environment?

On Freelancer.com there are freelancers who are charging an hourly rate significantly higher than those they could command in their countries and for freelancers from the developing world they are able to earn their weeks wage in just one hour. Freelancers working on Freelancer.com certainly do not give away their work for free, in fact, it is quite the opposite and they are able to sell their services and work with global clients they would not previously had access to. Freelancers working on the site are not only able to make a living for themselves, but they are also able to lift their families out of poverty. A freelancer can choose what work they bid for and work on and if they deem a price range too low for that service they can focus on other projects.

Q: Isn't this highly competitive environment more difficult for those who live where the cost of living is higher? 

We are seeing a lot of savvy entrepreneurs and business owners who have typically sold services, e.g. web design or development, and have now realized that there are others around the world who are offering more competitive rates. Rather than see this as a challenge they are seeing this as a huge opportunity. They are now outsourcing pieces of work to global freelancers and refocusing their efforts elsewhere, e.g. building up a client base, sales or marketing for their business.

Businesses who recognize that the way we do work is changing and who adapt to these changes will be able to take advantage of the world of opportunities and a global workforce that they have at their fingertips.

Q: Is there a place in Freelancer.com for entrepreneurs who are accustomed to billing higher dollars for their work?

Yes I definitely see high quality freelancers charging well above the "average" bid price and landing the job! Ultimately if I need to get work done as an employer I have to pick someone who can do the work, irrespective of price. I genuinely believe marketplaces like Freelancer.com are opening up incredible opportunities for both freelancers and employers to get great work done, earn a good income and collaborate with clients from around the world.

I admit that Nikki opened my eyes to a different angle. However, I still won't give my photographs away for free to an establishment that will profit from them, and yet where I pay (make that "paid") for their products.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Is Your Author Bio Up to Par? 10 Tips on How to Write an Author Bio

Kind of like kids knowing they need to eat their veggies, authors know the importance of a well-crafted bio, but that still doesn't mean they like writing one.

Several years ago when I taught writing workshops through Barnes & Noble in Charlottesville, VA, the first exercise I had students do was write their author bio. The cringing, seat shifting, pen-tapping task gets them every time, and every single one of them groaned in unison. And yet, by the end of that first class, they proudly took home a well-crafted bio to stick on their refrigerator. To my surprise, each one returned the next week to see what hoops I'd make them jump through next.

That teaching experience taught me that authors really, truly despise writing their own bios. To help the medicine go down a little easier, I came up with my top 10 tips for writing a quality author bio:

1. You will need up to three versions of your bio. (Yes, I thought you'd love to hear that!) Write an extended bio for your website, proposals, interview sheets and media kits; a medium length bio for queries, guest spots on other websites and shorter marketing material; and a brief bio as a byline or for limited character social media websites.

2. Go ahead -- brag! Start with your greatest writing achievement. As an aspiring author, even one published article in the local paper counts and should be highlighted.

3. Leave your demographics for the end and keep it brief. Though the mere fact that you were born is awesome, as a new author, it's more important to establish yourself as a writer first.

4. When listing book publications, should you have any, italicize the title and do not put in quotation marks. Include the publisher and year published in parentheses after the title: i.e. Title of Your Book (Publisher, 20_ _).

5. Refer to yourself in the third person. On the longer bios, I personally like to interject "Heather" a few more times rather than using the pronoun.

6. The credibility an award gives a book can change the life of it! However, note only awards that are relevant to your writing. For example, if you write nonfiction gardening books and you won an award for your outstanding garden, then brag about it. Alternatively, if you won a blue ribbon for your brownies, but you write science fiction, leave out the blue ribbon (but feel free to send me the brownies!). Be sure to update your bio as the awards come in. When two of my books won awards within the same month, I immediately updated my author bios on my website and other places.

7. BS? BA? BIS? MBA? Ph.D.? When it comes to education, much like awards, if your degree is relevant, then note it. If you have a Ph.D. in psychology and are writing a book on teenage bullying, then certainly note it -- it's a credential. Alternatively, if your degree is in architecture and you changed careers to write children's books, unless your book is about how to build the coolest Lincoln Log cabin on your block, you can leave the degree out (especially in the short bio). I have a BIS degree in English and Secondary Education from the University of Virginia. These credentials support me as a writer, writing coach and workshop instructor, so I use it in my long bio.

8. Your bio will change dramatically as your career advances. In that same Barnes & Noble class, I showed student my 2007 bio and my then 2010 bio. It's amazing what a difference three years can make. I started my 2007 bio with the fact that I "reside in the midst of the Blue Ridge Mountains" because I thought it sounded really cool and literary at the time. I learned that where you live isn't so important. It was my publishing credits that advanced my career and changed my bio. Think of it like this -- it's not where you write, it's what you write!
Bonus: If you haven't read Stephen King's On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, I highly recommend it.

9. If you can, have a professional (or at least a really good) photographer take a quality author photo of you. I used a photographer in Colorado and it took more shots than words on a page to capture the perfect shot. Once you have it, use it shamelessly. Most authors are not recognized by what they look like unless they're John Grisham, who resides here in the midst of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and author of dozens of books including, A Time to Kill: A Novel and Rogue Lawyer. But, an author photo is needed for your book's jacket, your website, social media and press kit (at the very least). Take the time to do it right. (You can read my previous article titled "The Relevance of a Professional Author Photo.")

10. Browse the Internet and look in the books on your bookshelves for ideas. Especially read the bios of authors who write in your genre.

11. Bonus tip: Read your bio aloud when you finish writing it. You'll know immediately if something doesn't sound right.