Thursday, December 23, 2010

On the Origins of My Life as a Copywriter

Did I ever tell you guys the story of how I decided to get into copywriting for a living? I didn't go to a fancy college to study writing or plan on doing this from a young age. I don't come from a family of copywriters or folks in the publishing business. (Actually, to the best of my knowledge, I'm the only professional writer in the family.) Oddly enough, I got the idea from a movie I saw a few years ago of all places.

It's called The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio and it is sincerely one of my favorite movies. I really wish more people had heard of it. It's also (along with Julie and Julia) one of the movies I find most inspirational, just speaking as a writer who got into the business by following an unconventional path. I still put this one on relatively often... especially when I feel like being inspired all over again.

It stars Julianne Moore as 50's-era housewife Evelyn Ryan. She's married to this shiftless, alcoholic, good-for-nothing husband who pisses away his paycheck at the liquor store every week despite the fact that they're struggling to raise a fuckload of kids. I don't even remember how many, but it's a lot of dang kids. Before she got married, she was a journalist of some sort, so she makes money for the family by entering contests -- contests that call for the writing of advertising jingles and pay out big time if yours is chosen. She wins a lot of them, too. When she wins items like cars and such, she sells them and her efforts are what keep the family fed and afloat. Her writing skill pulls the family out of hot water more than once, too.

The coolest thing about all this is it's a true story. It's based on a real woman and real contests. I was honestly really blown away by that... and Evelyn's story really made an impression on me. I saw how Evelyn was so talented and found it easy to beat out the competition. I saw how awesome her attitude was and was inspired by how she never gave up no matter what happened. I looked at her and thought: "I can do that. I'm that talented and always have been. I'm also used to being able to easily beat out competition just by doing my thing. I wonder if there's any way a person can do what she's doing in this day and age."

At the time I first saw this, I thought there were only two ways to have a career as a professional writer. I thought you could spend thousands of dollars and years of your life earning a journalism degree or something and then go write for a newspaper or a magazine... or you could roll the dice at novel-writing and hope some publisher somewhere thinks you're the next Anne Rice or J.K. Rowling. This movie introduced me to the idea that perhaps success could come simply from being talented and ultra-resourceful as far as finding avenues for your talent. Maybe it didn't have to be about luck or a fancy degree that I'd never be able to afford. Maybe it could simply be about talent, drive, and the way with words I've always had.

So I decided to look into the possibilities and see what I could make of my writing. I started writing informative content basically on a whim and I made a concentrated effort to get really good at it. When I thought I was good enough, I tried submitting a couple of articles to publishers and actually sold them... so I did it some more. Then I started answering ads on freelance job boards from companies advertising for freelance writers... and I got hired over tons of other writers who wanted the same positions. Then I did such a good job that I got hired again. Now I have a thriving business and many clients... and I have Evelyn Ryan to thank for it.

So thank you, Evelyn... wherever you are! You'll just never know how much you inspired me. As for those of you who haven't seen this movie yet, you need to put it on your Netflix list or something. That goes double for anyone else who can appreciate the writing angle to this. It's very, very inspiring and makes you think about just how much a person can accomplish if they put their mind to doing so.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On the Pros and Cons of Ghostwriting

People seem to be of two minds when it comes to the idea of ghostwriting. Either they approach it from a purely practical standpoint and see it as a great way to make money or the idea of writing anything that they can't take credit for makes them sick to their stomachs. The truth of the matter is that ghostwriting is like anything else. There are both positives and negatives to it for sure. How you personally feel about the idea probably depends on what kind of writer you are and especially on your reasons for writing in the first place.

The Good Part

I would say that probably the strongest pro to being willing to take on ghostwriting work is that there is honestly plenty of it, because most people looking to hire freelance writers are looking for ghostwritten content. If you're good at generating advertising copy or informative content and you're capable of mimicking many different writing styles and voices, then there are a lot of potential clients out there that would consider you an absolute godsend. You can trust me on that one.

Ghostwriting may be for you if the primary purpose behind your writing is making money, as opposed to collecting kudos and pats on the back for what you've done. It's not a shot in the dark or a crap shoot like novel writing is. It's pretty much a sure thing that there is a huge amount of demand for. Once you establish a name for yourself as a ghostwriter and build up a work history, you will pretty much always have as much work as you want. You may even wind up having to pick and choose the way I'm having to now. I don't have the time or energy to take on every project I am offered by potential clients, but I personally see choices as a good thing. It allows me to spend more time writing content I find interesting and less time churning out boring drivel just to keep the bills paid.

Ghostwriting also offers writers who are new to the publishing scene or the idea of professional writing to get their feet wet in the industry and make connections. You'll learn what works and what doesn't as far as all sorts of content. You'll find out tons about advertising, SEO, web marketing, and lots more as well -- all extremely valuable subjects for serious writers or bloggers to understand. You'll also have many chances to learn about yourself as a writer -- what subjects you actually do and don't like to write about, for instance -- so I personally consider ghostwriting a great way to play the field for a while and decide where you might like your writing to go in the future.

The Not-So-Hot Part

Well, the major downside to ghostwriting is that you will probably rarely get any sort of credit for your ghostwritten content and when you do, it will most likely only be as a contributor or co-writer. If you're the sort of writer who slits open a vein and marries every word they produce, you may have a hard time with this. Ghostwriters really need to see their writing as a product they're producing for someone else for the purpose of making money and nothing more. Otherwise, they're probably just going to feel used or taken advantage of.

As a ghostwriter, you will also really not have much opportunity to express yourself or get your own ideas out there through your work. I'm lucky in that I do have a couple of clients that are hiring me just as much for my expertise and vision in regards to certain subjects as they are my writing talent. However, that is not the typical norm at all. Most clients in search of a ghostwriter have their own ideas and visions they want to put out there in print. What they lack is the writing talent to actually do that themselves and that's where you come in.

The Importance of Finding a Balance

It's actually perfectly possible to be happy as a ghostwriter and some writers choose to do that for the rest of their lives. However, many ghostwriters are using what they're doing as a stepping stone to something else or will decide at some point that they would like to move on. That's why I think it's important to devote at least some of your energy to writing the type of content you really want to be producing and finding ways to get it out there under your own name even if it doesn't make you a lot of money at first. Just do it in your free time.

Focused blogs on subjects you're passionate about are great places to start, as are publications and sites looking for providers to write columns on various subjects. If you want to be a food writer, for instance, you should have a food blog where you write exactly the kind of stuff you feel is missing on the web and give it your own spin. You should also keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on as far as the established food sites out there. Many of them advertise for contributors from time to time or have a way to submit some of your work for consideration. Make sure you apply!

If you want to be a creative writer, then it's important to make time to work on your novels, poetry, short stories, or whatever it is you like to produce. As a hard-working ghostwriter, this will become a challenge after a while, which I know all too well. Yes, I am telling you to do as I say and not as I do, because I almost always prioritize paying work over my creative writing and it's pretty difficult to get any truly creative tasks accomplished that way. If you want to be a published novelist someday, you should be regularly submitting queries and content to publishers for consideration as well.

Ghostwriting is great for the money, but if you dream of doing something else someday, it's very important that you not forget to also produce some writing that is about you and your vision for your writing now and again. No one is ever going to give you the column of your dreams or a book deal if they don't know you even exist.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chit Chat: Shannon Dawn Hilson


The following is a copy/paste of an interview I did for recently. You can either read/comment on it here or where it is posted at the original site here. I do so love doing interviews. It means the world to me that people care so much about my art, because art is certainly something that is important to me.
Your Full Name
Shannon Dawn Hilson
Tell us about you.
I’m a full-time freelance writer, artist and spiritual counselor from Northern California.
I run my own writing, design, and consulting business called Shannon Hilson Creative. When I’m not busy either writing or making art, you can probably find me reading, cooking, or playing the piano. I also love gaming, going on long nature walks with my fiancĂ©, and simply enjoying life to the fullest any way I can. Art is a lot more than simply a way to make a living or pass the time to me. It’s also a way to express myself and share stories, lessons, and personal symbolism with other people in a way that seems to get my meaning across when words alone cannot.
It is hard for me to imagine life without art as a huge part of it. The art I’m doing these days can best be described as digital mixed media. It incorporates many techniques including digital paintwork, 3D imagery, and photomanipulation. My current professional life as an artist covers many bases. I take on private commissions, as well as illustrate for my clients. Sometimes I also do graphic design. Often, I have clients who require both writing content and artwork from me, so I get to combine my passion for multiple forms of creativity quite frequently. This is truly what I was born to do and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for me.

In your opinion, what would be the secret ingredients to become a great digital artist?
Staying true to yourself is the most important thing – putting out art that conveys the message you want to get out to the rest of the world and not letting anyone tell you should be doing differently. Also, attention to detail and loads of practice are essential.
Where are you located?
Monterey, California
What is the most fascinating part of being a digital artist?
Being able to imagine and then create these amazing worlds that you can then invite others to be a part of. I love being able to share how I see and experience things with the rest of the world. I’ve also truly enjoyed some of the connections I’ve made because of my art. I’ve met people I probably never would have any other way.
Where do you get inspirations from?
Anywhere and everywhere. A lot of my inspiration comes from dreams I’ve had or stories I’ve written. Other times, inspiration can be triggered by something as simple as a conversation with a friend or a single image from a movie. Once you learn to think like an artist, everything becomes inspiring.
Do you promote/ sell/ showcase your work? If so, how?
Right now, I sell and showcase my personal work primarily online, although my work has also been seen in conjunction with CD designs, role-playing games, and the like from time to time. I have an account on DeviantART where I get a lot of exposure and sell my prints. I’m also an active blogger, so my blogs and social networking connections have been huge parts of how I promote myself and expand my audience. Then there is the way my professional work helps me reach people in yet another way.
If you have a long range goal in your life. What is it?
My ultimate dream is to be making my full-time living solely via my personal creative work. I’d love to be a best-selling novelist or poet who also illustrates her own work someday. I’m happiest when I can write and make art in tandem like that.
What types of assignment/ project are you attracted the most? Why so?
My forte is fantasy, gothic, fairy tale-related, or mythology-based work. I tend to get most excited about illustration projects that allow me to work with this type of subject matter or else projects related to new age spirituality (tarot decks, astrology, and so forth). I have an overactive imagination and a great love for symbolism. I’ve found that these types of projects really allow me to play to my strengths, indulge my passions, and really shine as an artist.
Who is a digital artist that you look up to? Why so?
I most admire digital artists like Natalie Shau or Marta Dahlig, as they tend to work with symbolism, bright colors, and female forms the way I also enjoy doing. They’ve also each achieved considerable success with their work the way I would one day like to.

Describe a difficult work/ project situation and how would you overcome it?
As both a commission artist and a professional illustrator/graphic designer, I am constantly running into situations where the client doesn’t quite know how to put what they want into words. However, I am very good at helping people figure such things out by asking the right questions and simply being intuitive. I’m proud of the way I’m able to help bring someone else’s visions to life with the same level of accuracy that I can my own.
What do you think about the Internet and how it is affecting our lifestyle?
I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have achieved the level of success and exposure I have without the internet, so I naturally think it’s wonderful. Offline, I’m very introverted and shy. I’m not good at knocking on doors or pounding the pavement and shaking hands, looking for opportunities.
However, online I’m really in my element, as I get to communicate mostly through writing, which is a great strength of mine. Web marketing and internet-based networking are two more things I am very good at and have been able to use to my advantage. Sometimes I’m still taken aback by how much the internet has brought to my life and allowed me to achieve.
If you could turn back time, how would you do things differently?
I got into what I’m doing now a lot later in life than I would have liked. I didn’t see art as a truly viable career choice for quite a long time and thought of it as more of a hobby only. However, once I realized that people really are interested in my work and willing to pay me good money to make it, I thought differently.
I suppose I’d choose to have started my business years ago instead of relatively recently. Who knows where I’d be by now if I had! I would also choose to explore digital art earlier on in my journey as an artist. I used to work solely in traditional media, and I still enjoy doing so, but there’s just something about digital mixed media that is such a perfect fit for me.

How do you keep your work fresh? Do you need to consciously adapt your style or does it progress naturally?
It’s a natural process for me. My artwork is very personal, so I find that as I naturally grow and evolve as a person, it grows with me. Keeping things fresh is thankfully not something I need to worry a lot about.
Name 3 of your favorite (art) books/ magazines.
As far as magazines go, I love ImagineFX and Photoshop Magazine for the incredible tips on digital art technique. However, I really enjoy looking at fashion magazines for inspiration as well – especially some of the ads. They’re just amazing. Vogue features especially artistic spreads that totally satisfy my need for eye candy.
What is your life motto?
Always follow your heart and the universe will take care of you. Whenever I listen to my heart and follow my instincts, things work out for me. Life is really very simple when you make the choice to live this way.
In what kind of a work environment do you do your best work?
My favorite place to work is honestly at home on my own computer at my own desk, surrounded by my own things. (I’m a homebody, so it comforts me to be at home.) I love to work in the midst of relaxing sounds and smells as well, so I often burn essential oils or candles as I work or listen to music that matches the mood of the piece I’m working on. Sometimes in the evenings if I’m working on a special project, I like a mug of tea or a goblet of good, red wine while I work, too.

What do you like the sound of? Why so?
Aside from just the sounds of my favorite music, I love weather-related sounds like wind. My favorite is rain falling… or thunder. Something about wet, rainy weather makes me feel super creative. I also love the way I can hear the ocean and the sea lions at night if I leave the window open. I find it comforting to be reminded of my connection to nature and to the earth this way.
If you have online portfolio, what is the URL?
Right now, I’d say the best place to see a good, comprehensive collection of my artwork is my DeviantART page which can be found at
. That’s where my prints and art products are for sale as well.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

So How Did Everyone's NaNoWriMo Go?

Mine was kind of mixed bag for a number of reasons. To begin with, I have to confess to my readership that I never actually crossed the finish line and I would be lying if I said that that didn't bother me more than it probably should.

I was doing pretty well during the first week of the month or so. However, it is important to note that I had no work assignments or other obligations demanding my creative attention at the time. I went into this afraid of what would happen if when work assignments began to fill my plate again and require the lion's share of my time and energy... and my worst fear pretty much came true. Work took over my schedule and hijacked my creativity, leaving me with very little to devote to my novel at the end of the day and the rest is history.

The thing is most writers really do dream about being able to earn their living doing what they love most in all the world. However, what they don't bargain for is what that does to their ability to consistently produce personal writing. I may not be able to speak for other writers, but I use the same mental muscles to write for my clients that I do to write for myself and after a long day of writing informative content or ad copy, the last thing my mind is able to do well is write creatively for myself. Maybe if I'm lucky, I can eke out a couple of updates for my blogs if I'm feeling energetic, but that's typically about it. Naturally, this began to become a problem for me this past November.

I was faced with a decision to make and I really did agonize over which would be the right one. I could force the writing out of myself and probably wind up with a less than satisfactory product that I'm no longer excited about and don't want to so much as look at again after November. Alternatively, I could just write what I could when I could and see where it took me. I chose the second option, of course. It cost me my NaNoWriMo win, but I think it did wonders for the preservation of my excitement over the plot, characters and direction the whole project is taking.

Normally, after a NaNo win, the last thing I want to do is keep working on the same piece of writing and I typically wind up abandoning it. However, with Prophet Birds, I find I am still excited about it and still interested in continuing. I also have come up with a number of very cool art concepts that I'd like to do in regards to this novel. I actually don't think it will be a problem finishing this novel the way it has been with NaNo projects past and that is kind of a breakthrough for me. I wanted this NaNoWriMo to be different and it was... just not in the way I expected.

That said, I am beginning to wonder if perhaps I am outgrowing NaNoWriMo. That's a very sad thought that I don't want to have because of how much I enjoy the event and love participating. However, it is likely that unless I suddenly start making an unheard of amount of money doing my professional writing -- enough to barely work -- I probably no longer have the time or creative energy for such things. I still very much enjoy creative writing and want to have published novels out there one day. Nevertheless, it seems like I have passed the point where I need NaNoWriMo in order to produce and really, that's what I needed it for in the first place.

I guess we shall see. I am by no means saying that I won't ever do another NaNo. These are just some thoughts I'm throwing out there after the event as usual. It will depend largely on how this new rhythm I have struck throughout the writing of Prophet Birds so far works out for me and, of course, what my November schedule looks like in individual years to come.