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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment 274

Updated on September 16, 2019

Stories Are Everywhere

As many of you know I took a short weekend road trip to Oregon a couple weeks ago. It was an eight hour drive one way, so I had tons of time to observe my fellow man and toss around writing ideas. That’s what I do, by the way, in most settings: I think about writing!

I pulled into a rest stop somewhere south of Portland and got out to stretch my legs. There was a bedraggled young woman, early twenties would be my guess, sitting against the rest room wall with a sign that said “Need money for gas or a ride to Salem.” She was a pretty girl, slender face, slender body, unwashed, her long auburn hair tussled and un-kept, wearing an old Army jacket, a “Peace Out” t-shirt, and jeans with more holes than material.

That was, at worst, a short story sitting there and, at best, a novel.

Writers are not only writers but observers. I will never understand the concept of writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t think it exists; I just can’t comprehend how it happens. My brain is flooded with ideas, like a daily storm surge after a hurricane makes landfall. I can’t shut it off.

I gave the girl a couple bucks and wished her a good day. No way was I giving her a ride. My paperboy, growing up, was Ted Bundy. My trust in my fellow man only goes so far.

Let’s do this!

The Mail Room!
The Mail Room!

No Shame at All

From Eric: “Now not enough for a mailbag answer but a bit ago you suggested/nay demanded that if you use a numeric - 1 in numbering in the same work you should not use a "one" either or. I have decided this is wrong. Emphasis baby emphasis. Similarly I am deciding on contractions of not and words that get a red line like "ain't". I am also toying with not doing the capital on the first word of a sentence. Maybe you could drop me a line not so public if you think you might shame me too much in answer. I love Mondays. I do the calendar when Sunday is last and Monday is first.”

Eric, I never know if you are joking or you’re serious. I’m going with semi-joking today.

I don’t care what you do with the rules of grammar, and I don’t mean that as a snippy answer. Creative writers are allowed to be creative. Creativity is a free-flowing river. It is not a set of rules.

I will say this: if you are a freelance writer, writing for pay, you will most likely do better if you pay attention to the rules. If you are just a creative writer, I think you should experiment with the rules. Toss them away completely if you want, but just remember that your readers have to be able to understand what you are trying to say; if they can’t understand your written message then the message has been wasted and you might as well just keep a diary of your thoughts.

Best Way to Ask a Mailbag Question

From Louise: “What’s the best way to get a question to you for the Mailbag?”

You have two choices, Louise: drop me a question in the comment section below, or send me an email at Either way works and I have no preference.

Should I Write for No Pay?

From Lindsay: ”I’m just starting on a freelancing path, and I’m wondering if I should write an article or two for free just to get my name out there in the marketplace. What do you think of this practice?”

This is the tricky one, and I can see the pros and cons of this discussion. I really don’t think there is a “right” answer to this one.

I get it; it’s hard to break into freelancing, so many have the tendency to give away work and thus get a foot in the proverbial door. I’m in the other camp which says my writing is valuable, and I’m not giving away my talent. The only situation which would convince me to give it away for free is if a client wanted a specific piece written for a sample of my work i.e. 200 words about conservation, or 300 words about charter schools. In that case I might relent and give them what they are asking for.

You’ll have to make up your own mind about this one. I don’t think this is a question which someone else can answer for you.

Be wily like a fox regarding payment for your work
Be wily like a fox regarding payment for your work

Audio Books

From Anna: “Someone commented on one of your Mailbags about turning your novel into an audio book, but I can’t find the comment. Do you know what she said, or who it was? It was recently, but I don’t remember her name.”

The person you are asking about is named Heidi, and she is a marketing expert/guru . . . also a good online friend of mine. Her comment was in response to a question about writers marketing their work, and here is that comment:

Re: Marketing Yourself. Yep, writing and publishing your work is your best marketing tool. If people can't find and see your work online, you're finished these days.

Re: eBooks, Print Books, and??? Yes, print books are still strong, but that doesn't mean that the print and bookstore business is strong. eBooks have slowed down a bit. But where the surge in growth is occurring is audio books with double digit growth year over year. We need to be multi-format authors.

How to Begin a Novel

From Barbara: “How do you begin a novel? I have a lot of ideas to write about, but I’m not sure how to actually translate those ideas into an opening chapter.”

Barbara, first I’ll refer you to the introduction of this article. That young hitchhiker was a novel waiting to happen, and that is how I begin novels. I will see something or someone, and then I start randomly putting them in situations. My novel “Resurrecting Tobias” began as a writing exercise, a seedy old guy walking down a seedy street, in a rundown section of town. What did he see? Who did he see? Why was he there? Where was he going?

Once I had answered all of those questions, I not only had my opening chapter but I also knew where the book was going.

Anyway, that’s how I start most of my novels, but my way isn’t the only way. Ask for more advice, or try my method . . . go take a walk downtown and start playing the “what if” game with the first interesting person you see. I think you’ll enjoy the exercise.

What Words of Advice Do You Have?

From Pete: “I’m just starting out. I’m twenty years old and I’m set on being a writer. Do you have any words of advice you can give me?”

Well, Pete, first of all, good luck, and I’m not being facetious when I say that. I wish you well.

My facetious answer would be “don’t quit your day job,” because writing doesn’t pay well when you are starting out, but I’ll give you my serious advice instead.

Remember what your job is as a writer. If you are a creative writer, your job is to entertain. If you are a content writer or an investigative writer or any other type of non-fiction writer, your job is to inform. Do not lose sight of those goals, and in a perfect world, when you are really humming along on all cylinders, you will entertain and inform all at the same time, and when that happens you can give yourself a pat on the back.

The world needs you, so don’t give up!

Drink from the Fountain of Success and keep writing!
Drink from the Fountain of Success and keep writing!

Two Weeks Later

Two weeks have passed since I saw that girl in that rest stop, and I’m still thinking about her. For a writer that was a profound scene. As a caring human being it was a bit frightening. I wonder about her and hope she is safe. There are so many out there like her, and it’s such a big world, scary at times, harmful at times, dark at times.

Wishing you all a great week ahead.

2019 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”


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