Regular readers will know of my recent resolution to increase my productivity. My first step towards accomplishing this was to draft a list of goals, and the second is to actively increase my output. I think recapping the year’s guest speaker presentations is a great excuse to commit pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were).
The guest speaker program is, in my opinion, one of the best components of NMIT’s Writing and Publishing degree. Receiving advice from experienced professionals is a privilege; these people are out there in the wilds of the industry, working hard and accomplishing greatness. I enjoy hearing all about the effort they’ve put in and vicariously enjoying their success. Regrettably, it’s taken four years of study to start committing their wisdom to paper. But, hey, I’m doing it now.
So, without further ado, here’s what I garnered from Pepi Ronalds, our first guest speaker of 2014.
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I’d anticipated the arrival of our first guest speaker since the start of term (err, last week), but was unprepared when the moment arrived. My first lunch break was unwisely spent organising assignments, and so when Pepi arrived I slung myself into a chair, opened my notebook, and quietly (yet self-consciously) tore through a sandwich.
Immune to my rudeness, Pepi stood at the head of the table and introduced herself as a freelance writer and the creator of award-winning blog, The Future of Long Form (well worth checking out, by the way; has some fantastic articles.). My first impression of Pepi was that her name was fitting. She had a sunny disposition; a warm, conversational delivery style; and a great sense of humour. Humour’s the perfect icebreaker, and I was thankful she didn’t stand there, all Serious Sally, and conjure an air of self-importance, like some speakers have in the past.
To begin with, Pepi traced her writing development to her earlier years. She told us she once worked as a manager (in an industry I neglected to take note of – hooray for amateur journalism!), but had always written recreationally. Despite a minor, early publishing success, it took a long time for her to consider herself a writer. I think a lot of new writers struggle with the idea of owning the title. Perhaps they feel it makes them more accountable. Regardless, the desire to write did not leave her.
Pepi often spent her downtime at work fantasising about becoming a full-time writer. Her preferred work approach is to be single-minded; when she finds a professional endeavour worth pursuing, she likes to jump wholeheartedly into it. Conversely, she struggles if her time is divided between projects.
Enticed by the freelancer lifestyle and frustrated by the restrictive nature of her full-time day-work, Pepi devised a five-year plan. She drew up a realistic budget (Brainwave! She was maybe, possibly, some form of accountant! I don’t know … Damn sandwich compromised my concentration!) and considered the practicalities. She decided she would make a go of professional writing and gave notice shortly after. Although she had nothing but nice things to say about her old mystery job, it was clear the work did not fulfil her. I’ve always found it brave when people pass up secure, conventional jobs for creative ones, which are traditionally associated with risk.
Her days now freed up, Pepi decided to move to Japan for awhile before further committing to the freelancer lifestyle. She worked as an English-language teacher and relished the new life, despite a culture shock. She didn’t write much during this period, but accumulated a lot of raw material. In 2011, she returned to Australia after experiencing a seismic shift that changed everything.
Upon returning, Pepi penned a cathartic, long-form article about her overseas experiences and became vigilant about submitting. Editors responded positively to her work, but the reality was inescapable: long-form writing was a tough sell. Still, Pepi’s enthusiasm could not be dampened, and she persisted, trying all sorts of publishing avenues (even Kindle Singles!). Despite fearing rejection, Pepi willingly embraced opportunities and pushed her work under many an editor’s nose.
Whenever doubt settled in, she referred to (UN)STUCK, a self-compiled resource of writing tips, exercises, and motivational quotes from those she admires. As a freelancer adhering to a budget, she could not afford to succumb to writer’s block, and these affirmations and exercises were the tools she needed to stay motivated.
Once she found her feet, success came quickly for Pepi – or, rather, Pepi came to success. A positive rejection at the Emerging Writers Centre pitch panel convinced her there was mileage in pursuing long-form writing. Since the market would not accommodate her longer pieces, she decided to start her own blog – a blog that would celebrate this relatively niche interest and show the market the error of its ways. The Future of Long Form further renewed Pepi’s discipline, helping her maintain a steady output. Blogging, she explained, keeps one accountable. I’m not as prolific as I’d like to be, but don’t doubt that maintaining this blog has caused me to write more.
Pepi uses blogging to explore her various interests, like travel, social politics and literary issues. She aspires to objectivity and avoids overly introspective posts. (I should probably take a leaf from this book.) People soon took notice. In 2012, The Future of Long Form earned Pepi the Melbourne Writers Festival’s coveted Emerging Blog Award. Following this, she received invitations to contribute posts and columns to established journals. She capitalised on this momentum, becoming more and more prolific. This became a precedent: Pepi went on to win a Hot Desk fellowship at the Wheeler Centre and used this opportunity to make new contacts. This experience, she enthused, proved just the leverage needed to make direct contact with editors, which further increased her publication chances. Another serendipitous experience at a freelancers’ conference resulted in even more opportunities.
This illustrates the biggest lesson I took from Pepi: publishing success is about cause and effect. If you have talent and application, one could almost say it’s a numbers game. The more proactive you are, the more likely you’ll get a positive response. The same goes for pursuing opportunities, such as internships and fellowships. More successes under your belt, and more contacts made, means more open doors. Luck, timing and talent are factors, but it’s encouraging to remember just how far a bit of effort goes. Opportunities beget opportunities, and I can’t wait until I’m at the stage where publishers are contacting me to commission work.
There were many more pearls of wisdom in Pepi’s presentation. I’ll list a few, but, since I ended up recounting her whole writing journey (may opt not to do this with future recaps), they’ll be largely out of context.
In regards to blogging, one thing Pepi stressed was to have a unique, definable angle. Specified blogs find audiences, not blogs about ‘general, feelingsy crap’ (my words, not hers). My blog is about … well, me. While conceiving it, a concern was that I would not have enough weekly content if I limited myself to one angle. Consequently, my approach is fragmented – I write about literary issues, and share book reviews and flash fiction. Lately, I’ve also begun sharing music reflections and general life musings (which have tentative links to the writer’s journey). Strictly speaking, this is the precise definition of what not to do, but I doubt I’ll change my approach – at least not right now. I do write posts with my audience in mind, but feel, first and foremost, that I need to be interested in what I’m saying. Sure, posts with practical advice get the most hits, but I’ve read hundreds of blogs about pragmatic writing tips. I’d rather have a point of difference; I’d rather jokily ruminate and explore issues through the lens of my own experience.
I take this blog seriously, but let’s get real: it’s a personal WordPress, and not a professional undertaking. This isn’t to say I’m stubborn or unwilling to consider Pepi’s advice (it makes plenty of sense) but, for the moment, I’m happy with my blog’s evolution. Still, this has given me plenty to think about, and I believe it’s always worth considering how our various online presences represent us.
Another thing Pepi championed was writers groups. Since workshopping’s a mandatory part of my course, I feel I have this covered. Failing that, I have a wide circle of trusted readers with whom I share a mutual invitation to beta read. If you’re a writer without helpful, critical readers, I’d heartily recommend finding some. Though it’s important to consider others’ advice, Pepi also stressed that it is equally important to trust your own voice.
Regarding her financial budget as a freelancer, Pepi explained the importance of having savings. Life is full of surprises, and it’s important to have a safety net. Budgets need to be realistic. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. Then Pepi added a caveat: she deliberately sets her monetary and publication goals so that they fall just beyond comfortable reach. This pressure ensures that she is constantly striving and extending herself.
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Pepi Ronalds was a charming and personable guest speaker with a wealth of practical experience to share. I admired her work ethic and was grateful to have heard her story. Overall, an excellent start to the 2014 Guest Speaker program. Tune in next time when I share my (hopefully more focussed) recap on professional poet and songwriter, Lauren Williams.