Levelling up as a writer

A few weeks ago (just before I went on holiday, which is why I haven’t posted about it sooner), I got an article published on The Mary Sue, one of my favourite websites. While I publish articles on a (week)daily basis for work, this felt different, like I had levelled up. Not only did I get to write about a topic I enjoy and feel passionate about – books – but also on a website I feel strongly about.

I read The Mary Sue on a near-daily basis; it talks about films, TV shows, feminism and many other geeky things I love. Sometimes it feels like it reads my mind, or at least my Twitter feed, as some of the things I think about/pay attention to are published as articles mere hours later. For my article, I talked about Naomi Alderman’s The Power in comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale. Have a read if you’re interested in that kind of thing. While books aren’t a big section on the site, a lot of its consideration of film and TV through a feminist lens can certainly teach writers a thing or two – especially about what not to do.

My point, I guess, is that this felt like A BIG DEAL. And now here I am, back to writing for the day job, feeling uninspired. After a moment of clarity, I’m back to where I was, and my imposter syndrome is preventing me from pitching any more articles at the moment.

The same thing happened after I got a story posted on Dear Damsels (except this time I got PAID). There’s a moment, maybe a few moments, of feeling on top of the world, and then it’s back to reality. Is this how everyone feels? I would love to know.

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A typewriter is definitely levelling down at this point, no? Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Of course, it could be because I keep posting these things under a pseudonym, with almost none of my real-life loved ones knowing about it. But I don’t have an appealing real name, internationally speaking, and I don’t want to confuse people with my scientific articles, which are under my real name, and I don’t want my current employer to know what I’m doing in my own time. So, at this point, I feel like I’m stuck writing as L.B. Zumpshon.

I don’t think writing under my real name would make much of a difference, though. There’s still the feeling of elation, followed by the crash back down to reality. So, what do I do? Hope I feel strongly enough about another idea to pitch it, and just keep writing in the meantime, I guess…

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I remember when Google started – now it’s telling me what to write

Who knew that three letters could have such an impact? I’m not talking about YES, I mean SEO. Search Engine Optimisation. Such a nebulous term, yet for writers having to deal with the internet, it seems like it’s everything nowadays.

Way back when I was a teenager, I got my first very own computer. With the internet! Of course I couldn’t go online if anyone wanted to use the house phone, but once that dial tone had done its thing, the world wide web was mine for the taking.

Even back then, I used Google. There was Yahoo too, but it looked bad and worked worse, so there was only one thing to it – Google things. It felt so weird to use the word Google as a verb for the first time, like a joke. I guess it’s the same thing with the iPad, or the Wii. Strange words that we’ve all just learned to accept.

Likewise, most people have accepted that Google is the way to search for things on the internet. An ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. And that means websites have to make themselves look nice for Google. That’s where SEO comes in.

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“Use the Googles!”

These days, everyone’s trying to be on page one of Google, and there are more than enough websites out there to make this a challenge. One way to do it is by paying to sit at the top. Another way is to make some poor writer (like me) write content geared specifically towards the search engine.

You see, people only use Google as long as the results remain relevant and desirable. So they keep trying to automate their search engine so that it puts the best results at the top. And people keep trying to find out how the code works so they can get their website the best place in the queue.

I’m not one of those people, the SEO specialists. I’m the other person in the team, the one that gets given a bunch of keywords and things to include and then told to “write the thing”. Because most sites also want to give people a reason to stay on the page, and just writing a bunch of keywords in a random order really won’t do the trick.

So, in a lot of ways, I’m writing mainly for Google, while still trying to be informative for human readers as well. A lot of it is common sense, of course. If you want to attract readers looking for bicycle helmets, use the words bicycle, helmet and bike (but not too much!). Then there’s the dark voodoo of meta information and such, which is where the Google-whisperers really shine. All of this combined should result in better rankings, more clicks, more readers, and ultimately more money for the company.

It’s not very inspiring as a writer, however, to be working to appease a mega-corp, without getting paid by said mega-corp (and also knowing how bad monopolies are for the world at large). Especially not when you remember how innocently it all started, with just a white page and a box to type in.

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1. SEO, 2. ??, 3. Profit!

Now how does this relate to fiction writing, if at all? First of all, please don’t write a book with Google in mind, or in any way optimised for the internet. No matter what you’re writing, you’re writing foremost for your own pleasure and that of the readers, not for our AI overlords.

That said, your book’s description and query could probably do with some SEO-think. Are you mentioning what genre(s) it is, clearly and completely? Are you describing what other works the book’s like? Are you making it easy to see what the main topic is, i.e. what your bicycle helmet is?

These are all things an agent is likely to ask for, and if you’re self-publishing, it’s how you can help get your novel noticed among the countless others. Really all I’m trying to say is: please don’t write for Google, but do have some common sense.

My business card says writer – now what?

A little while ago, I got a promotion at my day job, which means that I’m now officially getting paid to write things. Non-fiction, sure, and not even in the area that I did a whole PhD in, but writing nonetheless, that people are reading and hopefully liking. I’m a writer. Or Writer, even. Why don’t I feel any different?

As I’ve written about before, I listen to my fair share of writer podcasts, and read wise words from established fiction writers where I find them, on twitter, in books and on blogs. One of the things they all say – other than warning people never to listen to writing advice – is to write what you love.

I remember one writer, I think it was Tobias Buckell, talking about it like so: if you write what you love, you will start out with 50% satisfaction, which can increase to 100% if you then manage to make money out of it (simply speaking), whereas if you write what you think will sell, you start from 0% satisfaction, and can only get to 50% if you do manage to sell it.

And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m getting paid to write, but that’s just getting me to 50%. The only way for me to move closer to 100% (if that’s even ever possible to achieve) is to write fiction I believe in and finally manage to sell it, or alternatively to move to writing non-fiction in a genre that is closer to my heart, or move into editing in the book/fiction world.

That’s not to say I’m not happy to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s certainly better than a lot of other things I could be doing, and it’s a step in the right direction for my career. I guess I’m just saying that these lines we draw, these bridges we cross, are a lot more transparent than they look from a distance.

So, as a bridge I have trekked to has dissolved upon approach, so I set my sights onto the next bridge, knowing that it too will dissolve once I reach it, and I am the only one that can make it matter (pun intended). Meanwhile, I think I’ll treat myself to some fancy chocolate to celebrate.

The importance of mentors

The closer I am getting to some idea of a career, the more I think about what differentiates me from people who already have one. One of the most important things that help people advance in a career, in my opinion, is a mentor.

Mentors are valuable no matter what career you choose to pursue. They can provide not just networking opportunities and advice on how to climb your desired career ladder, but also a glimpse of what a career like theirs leads to, the light at the end of the tunnel (or at least the light a little further down the line). Last year I heard a talk from one of the first female US higher court judges, and she mentioned some of her most important mentors. Not just women, not just judges, but very important to her was the influence of her dad, and later the guidance of the bosses she worked under. Everyone can be a stepping stone if you value their opinion and incorporate the advice that works for you.

Everyone gets some help along the way, and most people are happy to help

Another PhD student from my lab is now in her dream career because one of her supervisors was also her ideal mentor. Her background is medical, a degree system wherein mentors are mandatory, so she started off seeking a strong role model. I have no such background, so I’ve only just started thinking about needing a mentor, and what makes a good mentor. Hence this post.

Ideally, the best mentors are on the career track you want to be on. This might be difficult if (like me) you’re not in that world yet, but people are always happy to talk about themselves and give advice if you approach them in a respectful and open manner (and maybe buy them coffee or something). That doesn’t mean harassing Oprah on social media, but sending a nice, gushy email with a simple question to someone a bit more available can’t hurt.

In the writing world, agents and editors can often be mentors to new writers. This is one of the things that self-published authors may lack, but other, more senior self-published writers may help them along instead. If you look past the surface, most career tracks are full of people who want to help and want you to succeed, even if you may end up being a competitor down the line. Sometimes mentors don’t even need to have jobs directly related to what you want to do. Anyone can be a mentor, often starting with your parents when you’re young, a teacher at school, or a good friend.

The point of this post is to acknowledge that we can’t do everything alone, and its no use reinventing the wheel when there are lots of people out there willing to share their knowledge. So let them. Identify mentors or potential mentors in your own life, and have a talk with them, ask them how they got to where they are today, what their philosophy on life is, whatever you want to know. People generally love to be asked about their accomplishments. Use that to your advantage and listen.

Owls make great mentors

Finally, if any of you more senior bloggers who happen to read this post want to give me some mentorship, please do ^_^.