Opportunities — It’s a charming word for distractions. If only opportunity really did knock once… and then go off to pester someone else. I get offers for contest, fellowships, publication, and gigs every day. The problem is not finding chances to get published, paid, or recognized, it’s selecting opportunities that actually matter. Even among those that aren’t bogus (as many competitions and publishers are), which ones fit me as a writer and will bring me further along the road in the career I desire?
The younger me probably didn’t think this way. At one point, just seeing my name in print anywhere was worth cheering about. And I have no regrets about that.
Additionally, I came up in the world of shrinking markets, self-addressed stamped envelops, and ruinously expensive long distance phone calls. Type out a work. Mail it off. And wait. I see today’s writers’ workshop attendees hanging together through social networks, with connections that would have taken all my grocery money to maintain at a similar level.
The challenges for my younger self were very different, but a few things I know now would have benefited him nonetheless. In particular, how to judge opportunities.
- Don’t limit your opportunities based on your credentials, unless there is a explicit requirements. Writing is mostly learn by doing. Make them say no.
- Do narrow opportunities to those that are in your wheelhouse. Building your portfolio in an area where you have a flair is a good thing. Credits aimed at showing your versatility are often a waste of your time. There is a vast difference between “I can do this” and “I should do this.” Two key exceptions: 1) Explorations are cool. Write in a new genre. Try a new form. Just don’t invest a lot of time in these experiments. No novels of feature-length scripts as experiments. 2) Bend the rules to work with people you want to get to know or learn from.
- Look for opportunities that build your network. Building a writing career is a social activity. Watch for (or create) chance to collaborate with smart, experienced, knowledgeable and talented people. Then maintain the relationships.
- Feel free to earn big paychecks. I once had a horrible opportunity presented to me. Instead of rejecting it, I multiplied my typical price many times (six, as I recall). That paid for a lot of self-addressed stamped envelops. All work is honorable. If it pays well, even better. Just don’t get sucked into spending more time on mercenary projects than dream projects.
- Look for what might be a good addition to your portfolio. Creating a body of work that fits a specific market improves your chances of success. One of the great questions a writer gets is, “Do you have anything else like this?”
- Read the fine print. Don’t get yourself caught in contracts that claim future work or rights that have nothing to do with the publisher/producer’s business. (Nowadays, you can look online for help in analyzing contracts and to find out who the real scoundrels are. You can even look at previous work they’ve handled. Feel free to reject a publisher based on his lousy Web site.)
- Be careful of really great ideas. Sometimes, they are not so great. Sometimes, you are not the one to use them.
- Don’t take on too many opportunities at once. Have just one Work In Progress. And maybe one work that allows you to draft something while revising the WIP or vice versa.
- Don’t take on an opportunity unless you intend to follow through on it. Yes, some works don’t come together. Some cannot be finished. But make these experiences rare in your career. Get to "The End" most of the time, even if it becomes drudgery. It’s the only way to learn all you can from the project. And it probably will make you more selective in choosing projects.
- Find projects that will move you forward on your career path, even if that path is still sketchy.
- With every project presented to you, see if you can identify one way in which you will be forced to stretch and grow as a writer. Be sure to choose more than what is easy.
- Choose projects that fit your time budget (or, for which, you’ll find the time). Especially in the beginning, it is better to get to “The End” often than it is to create the Great American Novel (unless it truly IS the Great American Novel.
- Go with your passion. If there is a project you MUST do, do it. Even if it seems to have no market. The one caution is to be careful about writing something inspired by a recent emotional episode. Just take notes for later. For most people, putting time between a life event and an artistic rendering of it improves the work.
Years ago, I would have found four or five places to publish a science fiction short story. Today, there are scores of paying markets, easily found with Duotrope’s search engine. In addition, I can create my own opportunities. Self-publishing is the obvious example, but it’s possible to reach further.
I have many friends who have made their own short films, and a few who have self-produced feature films. Costs have gone down, and a good crowd-funding campaign can bring even budget-killing projects within reach. And, with more ways to connect with other talented people (and maintain those contacts), it’s much easier to get attached to a project. I got the chance to work on a writing team for a Web Series earlier this year, and I ended up writing the first episode.
I’ll turn that approach around and bring people into my own project — a fiction podcast series — in the next few months. I actually tried to do that a few decades ago. A test show was ten minutes long and took almost two hours to download. My poor younger self.