Today I am happy to share my interview with Tomiko Breland, who I had the pleasure of meeting at my time in the Johns Hopkins MA in writing program. Tomiko is a fiction writer and an Associate Publisher at The Zharmae Publishing Press. She won the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest and is working on a novel. Additionally, she has an editing/graphic design/freelance business, called Paper Star Editorial & Design.
(If you would like to read more interviews, check out my book that will be coming out late November on how to position yourself for a creative writing career. To get on the mailing list, contact me at SloanArtst@gmail.com)
JS: Tomiko, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I am sure our writers would love to hear your thoughts on what it means to be a freelancer and how one goes about finding projects. The site looks amazing, by the way!
TB: Thanks! For me, being self-employed and owning a small business means exactly what it sounds like: It means having the freedom to turn away work, to work from wherever I happen to be, and to spend my day with my son at the park instead of in front of my computer if the whim strikes me. In reality, though, it also means never turning away work, and often passing on days at the park because you can’t miss a deadline. Finding projects is a matter of putting yourself out there and making connections; you absolutely need to have a professional website and business cards—even if you only get one bite for every 500 hits or 100 cards you hand out, that’s something. And you can’t forget about old connections, either; think back to anyone or any company you used to have a connection to that might have need for a freelancer now. Lots of companies are scaling back on full-time employees these days and sending their writing, editing, and/or graphic design projects out-of-house.
JS: Do you believe an education such as the Johns Hopkins MA in writing is necessary to be taken seriously as a freelancer? What would you say to writers who are considering writing programs?
TB: People will take you seriously as a freelancer when you have experience, and when you have a legitimate, recognizable client list. If you’re just starting out and you have neither of those, then having a solid degree in your back pocket just may be the factor that sets you apart from other candidates and gets your foot in the door. And it’s more than just a credential; there’s a reason writing programs like the JHU MA exist—they exist to make good writers better. One con to attending a writing program is that some programs are rumored to churn out writers who are carbon copies of one another, or who parrot a particular style. Another is the cost, which can be prohibitive if you haven’t yet gotten a good foothold in the freelance business. The pros, however, outweigh the cons—as I find they tend to do when you’re talking about education. You’ll become a better writer, you’ll find your voice (even if you think you already have it), and you’ll make connections that may sustain your writing career well into the future.
JS: Working in publishing is a dream of many aspiring writers out there. Where should one look to find positions in the industry? Is it about the network, or do you go to certain sites for these positions?
TB: Networking is important, but I’m sure I have little to say about making connections that others haven’t already said, and said well. My suggestion is to look to the boring (i.e., unglamorous) places first: nonprofits, government agencies, tech companies. Get some work under your belt writing marketing material, technical manuals, even tax code (which was my first gig right after undergrad!). Then work your way up the glamour scale: Move onto websites (Demand Media Studios is a great place to start—they’re always looking for people to write and edit short web articles); print publications for small, local newspapers and magazines; and then, once you’ve got a few good clippings, target the bigger, national publications. If all else fails, contact some nonprofits and charities and offer to write for their newsletter/brochure/website pro bono—they may take you up on it, and you’ll get a good piece to add to your portfolio. If you’re looking to apply for writing gigs, you can’t beat MediaBistro, and Writer’s Market is great, too, though you have to pay for access to their resources. If you’re interested in other parts of publishing outside of writing (editorial, for example), you’ve usually got to start at the ground level—as an editorial assistant or an intern.
JS: Thank you so much for the advice on freelancing – it may seem like common sense to you, but to me and many aspiring writers out there, it is a whole new world. Stepping back to the world of publishing, can you tell us more about Zharmae publishing? What should aspiring authors consider when submitting their novels? Are there any projects you are especially excited about at the moment?
TB: Zharmae is a quickly growing company with a fantastic staff who are totally dedicated to putting out awesome reading. In 2013 we published just 10 books, and in 2014 we’re up to 63. In 2015, we have 120 books on the publication slate! We lean toward the more spec fic end of the spectrum, but we also have imprints that publish nonfiction, memoir, action/adventure, middle grade, young adult, new adult, and literary fiction. One thing that sets us apart from other publishers is that we are really willing to work with first-time authors; in fact, most of the authors we sign are new to publishing. My advice to aspiring authors is the same I would give to anyone looking to submit anywhere: Read the submission guidelines, and make sure you stick to them. And then be patient. We get hundreds upon hundreds of submissions, and we take a great deal of care reviewing each one—and that takes time. Also, make sure your story is as good as you can make it before you submit: you’ve revised it, had others read it, edited it…you shouldn’t submit until you’re at the point where you feel like every change you make could simply be making it worse!
I’m really excited about a lot of upcoming books, but especially Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies (by Koji Sakai), which is totally fun read and really well written, and The Chronicles of Ara: Creation (by Joel Eisenberg and Steven Hillard), which is the first in a series about the origins of creation—it’s the reverse-engineered myth of the muse told through stories about some of the greatest authors of sci fi and fantasy. The eight-book saga has already been picked up for a television series! And then there’s also Whole in the Clouds, which is a middle grade title (available for presale right now) about a misfit girl who travels to a magical world; it reminds me a bit of my childhood favorites, like A Wrinkle in Time.
JS: What about once an author is published, what have you seen authors do that really helps them get their work out there?
TB: There’s a reason that agents and publishers nowadays are looking for writers who already have a platform—it helps! If you can build a readership or a following now (via blog, social media, etc.), before you get published, it’s reasonable to assume that those readers/followers will buy your book once it’s published. Or, at least, know it exists, and think about buying it, which is already a step in the right direction. So think about creating a blog or providing some other useful/interesting content that will attract followers. It’s especially good if the content you’re providing is somehow related to the book(s) you plan to publish.
JS: Winning the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest is a great accomplishment. Congrats! Can you share with us more information about this particular short story and its journey?
TB: Thank you! I’m really honored and humbled. This particular story, I wrote while I was in school. I wondered how to most effectively and efficiently tell the past, present, and future within a short story without the traditional use of flashbacks. With novels, you obviously have the advantage of space, but not with a short story. This story, called Rosalee Carrasco, resulted. It was extremely challenging to write, but I find that the most challenging stories are often the most rewarding—and it went down on paper the first time in more or less its final draft, so that was fortunate, too. As for submitting to contests, it can be a little more difficult, because there is often a guest editor, and, even if you’re familiar with the kinds of stories a journal publishes, you might not be familiar with that particular guest editor’s tastes. But there’s no reason not to try! Your story just may be the one that resonates with an editor, even if that same journal rejected it in the past. And winning a contest is a great achievement to put on your cover letter in the future.
JS: That is really wonderful. Before we sign off, do you have any last words of advice for other aspiring writers, or any updates on upcoming projects of yours?
TB: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretsky said this, but it’s applicable in all aspects of life, not least in writing. Submit, submit, submit. If you don’t have the stomach for rejection, you don’t have the backbone for writing. The story I won the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest for was rejected 12 times by other journals over 2 years. Publishing is subjective; just because one (or 12 or 50) editors don’t choose your work, it doesn’t mean the work isn’t worthy. Just keep trying.
There you have it, folks! Some wonderful guidance from Tomiko. And remember, to get on my mailing list, contact me at SloanArtst@gmail.com.