May the Change Be with You

NAOMI HIRAHARA

As Murderati contributors Alexandra Sokoloff, Toni McGee Causey, and Robert Gregory Browne were dancing the night away with romance readers in San Francisco in the beginning of August, I was in Los Angeles’ Century City with 900 children’s storytellers at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators national conference.

I left one day with a wheelbarrow full of ideas, but probably the biggest epiphany I had was when Margaret Peterson Haddix, author of the Shadow Children and Missing series, explained why she gravitates towards writing about and for young people. “They’re always experiencing changes; they are always evolving,” she said. That’s true, I thought. That’s why they make such dynamic characters—they can be unpredictable, their emotions can suddenly lead them in harm’s way or perhaps a light-bulb moment.

I think we adults can sometimes benefit from being more childlike—in exposing ourselves to changes and risks that may not make sense to people around us. For most of my early career, I seemed to always have to make changes in increments of three.

For example, after working at a small community newspaper for three years, I quit and looked for work in public relations after hearing from other writer friends who felt that work less taxing and more financial rewarding than journalism. (I was working on my first novel at the time.) One of the jobs I interviewed for was to be a technical writer at a public relations agency. The job involved interviewing engineers about digital technology, high-definition television and computer graphic effects. What did I know about those areas—zilch. So I felt ill-prepared before speaking with the agency’s partner. It turned out, however, he was a former journalist as well.

“If you’re a good writer,” he told me, “you can write about anything.” He then offered me the job. His confidence in me was shocking at times—about three months into my new position I was sent solo to Auckland, New Zealand, to cover a turnkey operation of a new television station. (Yes, I learned what “turnkey” meant in the engineering world. As well as “beta test site” and how many lines were on a typical analog television screen.)

Change then came another three years later. I returned to the newspaper as its editor and after six years left for a writing fellowship in Wichita, Kansas. My native Angeleno friends were in a state of disbelief. Going to Wichita from Los Angeles was apparently the equivalent of voluntarily entering a Siberian jail. But those nine months were incredibly fruitful, both personally and professionally. And during my last month of the fellowship, I got a call from a museum in Los Angeles. They wanted to commission me to write a biography on a businessman. What did I know of this businessman, who at the time was in his eighties? Just surface information. Was this to be a hagiography, a “biography of saints”? Or a real representation of a man’s life?

At least I’d be hired to write, I told myself. That was better than other options, which included possibly teaching or returning to public relations. It turned out that was a splendid decision, eventually leading to the writing and publication of multiple of nonfiction books which has helped in my mystery writing career.

The point I’m making is as writers we need to keep our options open. We may think that we are either above or uncomfortable writing in a certain genre or subgenre, but what are your presuppositions based on? Stereotypes or ignorance? Open the door to change. You can always choose to close the door, but you need to at least see clearly what’s on the other side.

If you’ve ever said “yes” to a new professional or writing experience, let us know in the comment section.

Thanks to Pari’s hospitality, I’m going to be at Murderati next Monday as well to follow up on this theme of “change.” Please come back!

JAPANESE WORD OF THE WEEK: honki de (displayed during the “I Survived a Japanese Game Show”)

Seriously? Seriously! Just like the mantra of Meredith Grey on “Grey’s Anatomy” during its disastrous third season. Like you’ve got to be freakin’ kiddin’ me. Another similar word is maji de, a shortened version of majime de (you can’t be serious!).

19 thoughts on “May the Change Be with You

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Naomi

    Welcome back to Murderati!

    I gave up my job to become a full-time freelance non-fiction writer on the stength of one accepted article, and have never regretted it.

    But no work experience – or any other experience, for that matter – is ever wasted to a writer.

    Loved the Japanese Word of the Week, by the way – I’m not worthy!

    Reply
  2. Kathryn Lilley

    Hi Naomi!Glad to see you over here at Murderati! I had a similar experience with technical writing. I had written some YA mysteries under a pseudonym, then got a call to interview as a “technical writer.” My interviewer, who was also a fiction writer, advised me, “All you have to do is put the stuff in bulleted lists. Remember that.” The verbiage on my “test” was like greek to me, but I put it into a bulleted list, and got the job!

    Reply
  3. Naomi

    Good mornin’, Zoe. Yup, I agree–no experience is every wasted on a writer. I remember when I was just starting out after college. Lawrence Block was writing a column for Writer’s Digest at the time and gave advice on what kind of day job an emerging writer should look for. His advice? Either get a job that exposes you to different people or experiences or a job that’s easy and pays the most for your time. Being a reporter was the best for the former. From the homeless to political dissidents, we interviewed them all.

    Reply
  4. Naomi

    Kathryn:

    I guess every field has its own lingo. Even in mystery publishing–ARCs, Bouchercon, cozies–it can be a new language to newcomers.

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Naomi,How wonderful to have you here for two Mondays — and I’m not even on vacation! Wow. That means I get to really enjoy your posts and the comments.

    As to change — PR was wonderful for exposing me to all kinds of people and learning how a turn or phrase could be used or misused.

    Right now, I’ve got two projects on the backburner that have little to do with my current fiction. I’ve got to finish the two books I’m working on right now first, but with those others just around the corner, I’m more inspired than ever.

    The idea of opening oneself up is beautiful and a timely reminder.

    thank you.

    Reply
  6. Naomi

    Louise:

    Now that I’m in my mid-forties, I’m trying to totally embrace change and reinvention (don’t know about renaissance, however!). No sense in fighting it, right? Surprisingly, I’ve never felt better–physically, mentally, or emotionally.

    Reply
  7. Naomi

    Pari:

    Never even imagined how much this novel-writing gig would require P.R. skills! I’m so grateful for that experience, as well as all the contacts I made while I was a journalist. It must be quite a challenge for newbies from another field entirely.

    And I know the feeling of new projects tugging at your sleeve. I can’t wait to dive into some research for a future book but I have to rein those impulses in. Got to finish the book at hand!

    Reply
  8. PK the Bookeemonster

    Though I am just a reader, I must be secretly training to be a writer. I love learning new things and meeting new people and the best way to do so is through jobs; I pretty much reinvent myself every couple years. 🙂 I’m currently in love with nonprofits so I’m working my way up the career ladder there (Director of Development now) but my past includes working on a couple films, managing a children’s photography studio, office manager, law firms, manufacturing, retail of books-jewelry-software/games, etc. The only thing I haven’t done is waitressing. 🙂 I must be about to write one heckuva book.PK the Bookeemonster

    Reply
  9. Naomi

    Alex:

    Well, my current plan is never to have a “real job” again, although being a 21st century librarian is sure enticing. I just have to be good about socking money away for retirement (what my husband always reminds me to do). My natural inclination is to spend, spend, spend, and then live on peanut-and-honey sandwiches.

    Reply
  10. JT Ellison

    Naomi — so good to have you back! I think you’re absolutely on the money about this.

    My first “writing” job was congressional white papers — dull, drab, boring, just the facts (with a little partisan spin, of course.) I moved on to my favorite non-fiction job, speechwriting. LOVED that. Then I moved to the marketing side of things and did a lot of technical writing. All of it prepared me for fiction, especially the need to distill a variety of ideas and points into a solid message. Great topic!! : )

    Reply
  11. Catherine

    Naomi, I find this post very interesting as I think it shows just how beneficial a spiral career path is. I think my own career path is such, that rather than following a straight line, it circles out and gathers in experience. Mind you this hasn’t pulled in enormous amounts of money, but it is enjoyable.

    I worked as an intern/research assistant/anything that needed to be done(see intern) for a local business incubator a few years back.

    I was part of a team that produced a glossy book for marketing purposes, to highlight the existing knowledge workers, and IT/creative industries people in our region.This was partly to attract more ‘smart’ people.

    Our state has the a slogan ‘Queensland, the Smart State’. There is something about that slogan that causes me to think, if you have to say it all that loudly, just how smart are we? Shouldn’t it be self evident, without stickers and signage?

    It was a pretty interesting job as I was surrounded by a lot of innovative people, both the people I interviewed, and profiled, but also the business people and researchers in the incubator. The Friday afternoon BBQ’s helped mix a lot of interesting people together.

    Every now and then I would have to write up reports to get more funding from a trifecta of local councils that made up our region.

    A very long way from congressional reports JT.lol

    All great experience though.

    Reply
  12. Naomi

    JT:

    Speechwriting is basically persuasive writing. And storytelling all started with the oral tradition, so I can see how skills gained there could be applied to fiction.

    Catherine:

    Funny about having to tell people that they are smart! Hmmm.

    Reply

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