On New Ideas

We’re going to start, as usual, with a video — but this time, it isn’t of me.

I’m pretty sure most of you aren’t going to drop everything to watch an hour-long András Schiff masterclass, so I’ll sum it up for you:

  1. A young pianist plays Mozart K332 beautifully. It’s the kind of controlled, virtuosic performance that makes you want to learn how to play the piano exactly like that.
  2. Sir András Schiff offers a handful (pun intended?) of detailed adjustments, all of which are focused on shaping the melodic line. K332 can get a bit ticky-ticky-ticky, especially in the third movement, and his suggestions instantly change the piece into something that is much more interesting to listen to, probably because all of the tiny little notes are now given context.
  3. The pianist immediately incorporates Schiff’s suggestions. Her playing, which was already “perfect,” is now more specific — and the tension/release she adds to her melodic line makes the experience much more compelling for both the listener and the pianist.

I’m also trying to incorporate Schiff’s suggestions, because — as L and I both put it — what else are you going to do with your life? When someone shows you how to do something in a way that is better than the way you are currently doing it, why not give it a try?

Here’s my version; it’s only four minutes long, and you actually get to see me practice.

When L and I talked about what this masterclass video made us want to do next (work harder, work better, find more specific ways of solving problems), I ended up comparing it to what I was trying to do with my writing — because it really does all come down to the same kind of thing, when you think about it. You have an idea, whether it’s part of a freelance assignment or a novel draft or a Mozart sonata, and you want to find the most compelling way of executing it.

In many cases, the most compelling execution is linked to some kind of specific structure — in many cases, a tension/release cycle. Understanding how that cycle works not only helps you use it to your advantage as you write/create/shape, but also helps you iterate your work into “final draft stage” (for lack of a better term) much more efficiently.

This is something I learned how to do, as a freelancer, after years of practice and multiple daily deadlines. This is something I am still learning how to do, as both a pianist and an author. I’m very specifically (pun definitely intended) not telling you what I’m doing with my novel — but I’m telling L, and he’s telling me that it’s some of the most amazing work he’s ever seen me do. He’s also curious whether I will eventually get as efficient at “getting piano repertoire to the performance stage” as I am at “getting freelance articles to the final draft stage,” and what that could mean if he and I were interested in teaching other people how to do similar things.

All of the learning I’m doing right now, by the way, is built on a combination of internally-driven experiments and externally-sourced best practices — which is to say I’m testing my own ideas, keeping the ones I like, and then going in search of even better ones.

That seems like the most important part of this entire post, actually. ❤️

On the subject(s) of learning and best practices and masterclasses, I’m going to be teaching two online classes in November and December. The November class will focus on personal finance for the freelancer (very, very excited about this one) and the December class will be about how to pitch. Both are single-session Zoom courses, and both will include plenty of opportunity to ask questions, learn new skills, and get to know other writers.

Where I got published this week


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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: October 22, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for October 22, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: October 22, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for October 22, 2021.

Three (Full) Mozart Recordings

I made three complete recordings of Mozart’s Sonata #12 in F Major, K332 this week. The first two were in the practice room. The third one was technically in the “practice room,” but we had a few friends over and put out wine and cheese and bread (and grapes and cucumber and dates and figs and nuts and a pear) and made it a performance.

You don’t need to watch any of these unless you really, really want to (the combined video length would be something like 90 minutes) but it’s worth noting that it takes me the entire first movement of the Mozart, in the performance video, to stop fracturing my attention with nerves and start focusing my attention on what I’m playing.

And, to be fair, it was appropriate to be a little nervous. The Chopin and the Stravinsky, both of which I also played during this mini-recital, were so well-prepared that I was able to present the music and be present with the music at the same time.

I was integrated, for lack of a better word, during those two performances.

The Mozart still needs work. You can tell, in the first two videos, exactly where it’s not fully prepared, not fully understood, not fully known yet. I knew that, going in, and I performed it anyway.

And, at various points in the performance, even when I am fully attentive to what I’m doing, it disintegrates.

Which is exactly what it’s supposed to do, at this point in the process. The idea that a performer can somehow pull a perfect rendition of something they haven’t perfected yet, simply by will or emotion or heart or love or whatever, is a myth. A fantasy. The kind of thing we hope for because it means we’ll be able to avoid doing the work.

On the other hand, this kind of low-stakes house-concert performance is an excellent way to show you what you need to work on next — in part because what falls apart is often what isn’t working for some other reason, and the reason it falls apart is because you know it isn’t working yet.

Just like my reading L a chunk of the novel I’m writing (which I did, this Wednesday) was an excellent way to show me what was working and what wasn’t working and I needed to work on next.

It’s all part of the process — and the process works, if you’re willing to both participate in it and process what you learn.

I like the process, even when I wish it would go a little bit faster. ❤️

Where I got published this week


Chase Sapphire Reserve benefits guide

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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: October 15, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for October 15, 2021.

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: October 15, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for October 15, 2021.

Specificity vs. Spontaneity

What I really wanted to do for you today was record Mozart’s Piano Sonata #12 in F Major, K332, in its entirety.

That’s my next big milestone/action item/deliverable/whatever with this piece — to be able to play all three movements in a row without, like, starting any of them over.

Here’s how it started:

You can tell, even if you don’t watch the whole thing, that my command of the piece has improved considerably. The reoccurring problem from last month is now solved, every single time I play it. There’s still a bit of wobble right at the end of the exposition, both the first time and during the repeat, but I’m aware of it and am actively working to improve it. (A “known unknown,” as it were.)

Then, at 6:30, I make this gesture.

It’s genuine, but it’s also showy. I think I am genuinely showing off, really — I’m so delighted by how the performance has gone so far that I decide to spontaneously demonstrate my delight.

It breaks the performance. The tiny moment in which I make it about me instead of about the music takes me out of the music, and you can watch me fumble and struggle and resituate (resuscitate?) my focus.

And then I play to the end, and it’s fine.

I’ve written about focus vs. feelings before, and this is another variation on the theme. The spontaneous gesture with unknown results vs. the specific gesture with known results.

Except — I don’t really think it’s that, because when I play the Chopin I focus on making new choices every performance. My interpretation is spontaneous, if you want to call it that, but it’s also considered. Taking a story you’ve learned by heart and finding a way of telling it that will capture both the listener and the specific moment. (Like Lev Grossman’s magic students, I perform the Chopin differently when it’s raining — and very differently when it’s late enough that my nocturne can both enhance and respond to the night that is waiting for the audience, which really still only consists of me and L and sometimes my parents and sometimes you.)

With the Mozart, well — I let myself get in the way. I let my spontaneous emotion-showing become more important than the music. This sonata is not about Watching Nicole Show Off, after all.

That brings me to freelancing — and when I realized it could bring me to freelancing I knew that was what I had to write about this week.

I teach a lot of freelancing classes (I’m about to add a few more to my upcoming roster, so watch this space for announcements), and I often see students wanting to make their freelance work about themselves rather than the client or the reader.

Sometimes it’s in an obvious way, like wanting to pitch a personal story that has emotional resonance to them but hasn’t yet been shaped into a narrative that is designed to connect with and/or benefit someone else.

Sometimes it’s in a less-obvious way, like putting show-offy turns of phrase into an article about the ten best business credit cards.

When you’re writing for a personal finance website, you want your article to read like the other articles on that site, showcase the site’s features, and make readers glad that they turned to that particular site to get trustworthy, useful information about personal finance (and, if you write a really good article, convince the reader to do something that improves their own financial prospects). The article cannot be about you, nor can it be about your writing skills — if it turns into a showcase of your ability to turn phrases and coin puns (pun intended), it won’t work.

And when you’re playing Mozart, you want your performance to showcase Mozart’s music, not your ability to perform Mozart or your personal experience as you perform.

Which is what I learned this week. ❤️

Now let’s look at where I got published:

Where I got published this week


How I got started with credit cards

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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: October 8, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for October 8, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: October 8, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for October 8, 2021.

The Best Choices Come From Knowing

Here is your piano work-showing for this week — and this week, it’s back to Bach:

What I find interesting about my piano work at the moment — I mean, I find at least a billion aspects of my piano practice interesting, but what I find particularly interesting at the moment is the way my ability to make specific musical choices is 100% correlated with the extent to which I know the music.

Chopin Nocturne in E minor? Specific, original choices throughout (and I know the piece so well that I have the capacity to make new choices every time I play it).

Stravinsky Five Fingers? Same deal.

Mozart K332? Getting there, especially with the first two movements. There are still some sections in the third movement where I don’t really know what I’m doing, and because of that the piece sounds less like music and more like a struggle towards music.

Which is also what you hear with the Bach Ricercar a 6. I start out making specific interpretive choices, and then my playing starts to slip from musical to metronymic as I begin thinking more about “what notes come next” than “how to play them,” and at a certain point you see me thinking very, very hard, working and guessing and getting things wrong because I don’t know what I’m doing yet.

Which is fine. The only thing that would be un-fine is if I stopped there and said “it’s good enough” or “this is all the good it’s going to be.”

It’s the same thing with the novel draft, really. If you read yesterday’s Bonus Substack in which I analyze the first chapter of my book, you can see all the places where I (correctly) identify that I’m guessing instead of knowing. Which is fine! I only finished the first draft last week, and I didn’t know half of what I needed to know about the book until I got to the end of that process!

But it is interesting to look at all of the choices that don’t quite fit, in that first draft, and think “ah, those are the spots where I’m unsure of what I’m doing, and guessing at what might work.”

And then, with the Bach and the novel and everything else in my life — social awkwardness, for example, which often derives from being unsure of what I’m doing and guessing at what might work — asking myself what I need to do to put myself in the position to make a better, more informed choice. ❤️

Where I got published this week


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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: October 1, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for October 1, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: October 1, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for October 1, 2021.

On Vulnerability

Part 1

This week I find myself in a very interesting position, because although I have done a gob of work—on the novel draft, which I finished on Wednesday; at the piano; on my chess game—I’m not ready to share or show any of it.

The work, across the board (two key, one chess) has been pivotal.

Is currently being pivotal.

Or maybe pivotal isn’t quite the right word, because that implies I’m pivoting, and what I’m doing is more like deepening.


Specifiying (you knew I’d get to “specificity” eventually).

I don’t want to share this work with you not because it would be imperfect—goodness knows I’ve shared my errors before, and analyzed why I made them—but because it would be too personal.

In other words, I have arrived at that part of the learning process that must be done on one’s own.

The part where you take on a new level of ownership, and because of that must protect what you’re doing as you work out exactly what it is you’re doing, since a lot of what you’re doing is new—maybe not to everyone, but at least to you, and the last thing you want is some well-meaning reader going “ooooooh I have an idea HERE IT IS.”

This is a different type of vulnerability than the type where I play Mozart for you and point out all of the mistakes in it, because that isn’t really me being vulnerable; it’s me identifying problems I know how to solve and telling you that I’ll keep working until I solve them.

This particular vulnerability is about me digging into problems I’m not sure I know how to solve yet—and the part that makes me vulnerable is not the part where I don’t know how to solve the problems, but the part where a well-meaning suggestion could collapse the original work I am trying to do on my own.

“Original” in this case referring both to the product itself, e.g. the novel, and to the process by which I am attempting to shape and improve it. This is not to imply that I am not drawing from Best Practices; only that I have not gone through these particular practices and processes before, and for now I want the experience to be solely mine.

I mean, there are aspects of this that I’m not even sharing with L.

But I’ll share more, when it’s time. ❤️

Part 2

There’s another kind of vulnerability—one, perhaps, that I am aspiring towards.

L and I were talking about it last night; the kind of vulnerability that comes not because you’re wondering whether or not you will make a mistake, not because you’re worrying about whether what you’ve done is “good enough” (while understanding, consciously or subconsciously, that you’re actually avoiding the work involved in going from “good enough” to “great”), but the vulnerability that is present when you are sharing your best work with an audience.

The emotional specificity that you can offer after you’ve mastered the technical specificity.

The opportunity to say something meaningful within the work, because you’ve mastered the work to the point in which you can make those kinds of choices—and the vulnerability that comes with knowing that the self you’re putting into the work, the ideas you’re trying to share, the connection you’re hoping to make, could be ignored or dismissed or misunderstood.

We saw an example of that kind of vulnerability last night; a performance that was so precise that the musician was allowed to transcend the technicality. In fact, I don’t think we thought about the technical aspects of the piece at all. We were too busy thinking about everything else that the musician was choosing to share with us, since those aspects of the piece were now available to be shared.

Sometimes you see, very clearly, the filter of “uuuuuugh I don’t know this part”—and you spend the entire performance rooting for the musician to succeed (or, if you are less [or perhaps more?] charitable, rooting for the kind of unsuccessful performance that might inspire them to go back to the practice room).

But sometimes the performance or the novel or the painting is so specific that all you experience is the complete, riveting, connection.

And that is a very vulnerable moment—for both the person initiating that connection and the person receiving it.

May we all experience it, from whichever side of the experience we prefer. ❤️

Where I got published this week


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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: September 24, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for September 24, 2021.

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: September 24, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for September 24, 2021.

Why Do Problems You Think You’ve Solved Come Back?

We’re going to start, as usual, with a bit of piano:

What’s interesting about this video is that I was pretty sure I had this particular technical problem solved. You’ve heard me play it before, after all—in fact, you hear me play it pretty darn well at the beginning of the video—but today it fell apart when I repeated the exposition.

So I worked it, got it to a point where it didn’t feel like a problem anymore, worked a few other issues in the piece, and started the sonata again.

The exact same problem, in the exact same place.


At first, I thought that maybe I took the repeat faster than I started the piece—the increase in tempo prompting the decrease in form, as it were.

But the tempo on the repeat is exactly the same as the tempo at the start of the piece. So is the tempo I use on the section in question; I didn’t suddenly speed up or anything like that. (You can check it yourself, by starting the video at 0:30 and 2:40.)

The only thing I can think of is that I’m still not-not-not-not-quite-sure yet. The part that falls apart during the repeat isn’t perfectly aligned the first time, after all; it’s good enough to pass, but the right and left hands are just the tiniest bit out of sync.

So I need to keep working.

Because feeling like you’ve solved a problem after playing a few measures over and over until they are error-free doesn’t actually mean you’ve solved the problem.

You need to be able to play them error-free within the larger context of the piece, consistently, both during the exposition (when your brain and choices are fresh) and the repeat of the exposition (when your brain has the double challenge of not losing focus while trying to make fresh choices).

I’ve gotten to that point with Chopin and Stravinsky, and now I need to get there with Mozart.

The interesting thing about all of this is how interesting it all is. You’d think that running an identical practice session every morning would get dull—scales and arpeggios in every major and minor key, then the Chopin Nocturne, then the Stravinsky Five Finger suite, then the first movement of the Mozart, then the second, then the third.

Each individual unit is structured in the same iterative way; play until you make a mistake, stop, work the mistake, and start the whole thing over.

The part that makes it interesting—thank goodness—is the part where I try to make as many new, true, fully-integrated choices as possible every time I run the piece.

By “fully-integrated” I mean “within the world that the composer has created.” There’s a range of tempi you can use on the Chopin Nocturne, for example, but there’s also a point at which it becomes too slow and a point at which it becomes too fast. There’s a point at which the staccatos in the second movement of the Mozart become too sharp for a piece that has been designated adagio. That kind of thing.

With that in mind, here are the choices I made with Chopin this morning:

It’s as technically and emotionally specific as last week’s recording, but it’s completely different—and at the same time it’s not different, it’s still recognizably Chopin, it still maintains the integrity of the composition, it’s not like I’m putting a “LOOK AT ME” filter over the whole thing.

It’s supposed to be Chopin, after all.

I’m just the instrument. ❤️

The novel draft is ALMOST DONE

I have maybe 1,000 words left to write on the novel, and I’ll need a two-hour chunk of uninterrupted time to get them done. The 600-words-an-hour estimate has proved fairly accurate, though I’ve found it difficult to work on the novel when I only have an hour to work; you feel the clock ticking, and your choices become rushed.

With freelancing, I can get a lot more done during a single hour—I can get a lot done during 15 minutes, honestly—but that’s because the structure is different. With freelancing, I’m dealing with subheds and discrete ideas that can be dispatched in 300-word chunks, not a multilayered narrative that extends itself over a 60,000-word text.

This is also why this new novel has taken so much more work—literally—than The Biographies of Ordinary People, which was three times as long. I structured Biographies as a series of very short vignettes, each which could be dispatched in an hour or two of writing and 5-10 minutes of reading. (This was partially because I had trained myself to write that way, and partially because I knew many readers had trained themselves to read that way.)

Now I’m writing a MYSTERY NOVEL, with a PLOT (and SUBPLOTS) and the moment-to-moment writing takes a lot more brainpower because there are a lot of puzzle pieces in the air or balls on the table or however you want to mix your metaphors.


The draft should be finished next week, probably on Monday, and then I am going to take myself through Maggie Stiefvater’s online writing seminar (half price through September 25, work at your own pace, this is not an affiliate link, I’ve taken other Maggie Stiefvater classes and they’ve all been excellent) and then I am going to START REVISING.

Also, L and I are going out to dinner next week to celebrate the draft being done. ❤️

Freelancers—here is the best financial advice I have to offer

I am very excited to share the newest piece I wrote for Catapult: Financial Advice for the Freelancer. It’s a freelancing/finance FAQ, which I hope will answer a bunch of your questions about taxes, CPAs, LLCs, and so on.

Here’s an excerpt, focusing on earnings (everyone’s favorite part of freelancing):

How much can I expect to earn as a freelancer?

When I teach intro-to-freelancing classes, I tell my students that they can expect to earn between $50 and $150 per piece as an entry-level freelancer; between $150 and $350 per piece as a midlevel freelancer; and between $350 and $800 per piece as they continue to build their reputation and their client base.

If you want to know how much you can expect to earn at any stage in your freelance career, multiply the per-piece rate by the number of pieces you can realistically expect to pitch and complete in a month. Right now, for example, I generally complete fifteen articles each month. Each article is roughly 1,200 to 1,800 words, and my pay rate averages at around fifty cents a word. This means that I can expect to earn $750 per piece on average and around $11,000 per month (pretax).

Go read the whole thing—and then read the list of everywhere else I got published this week. ❤️

Where I got published this week


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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Financial Advice for the Freelancer

For our Money Week series, Nicole Dieker answers commonly-asked questions from freelance writers.

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: September 17, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for September 17, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: September 17, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for September 17, 2021.

The Best Chopin I’ve Ever Played

If you had told me a year ago that I would be able to play the piano this well—and that all it would take was focus, time, and what you might call “applied problem solving”—I would have said TELL ME HOW AND I WILL DO IT.

And then I told myself how, day after day.

Really, L and I told ourselves together; we compared notes (pun intended [pun always intended]) and borrowed ideas from each other and rejected the ideas that didn’t work and iterated the ideas that did.

And then, this morning, I played this:

I was able to play the Chopin this well today because I already knew I could do it.

Because I’d played it that well yesterday.

I played the Chopin that well yesterday because my family came to visit over Labor Day weekend and asked me to play Chopin and I whiffed one of the ornaments because I was nervous about not knowing it well enough.

And the next morning I told myself “okay, Nicole, you’ve been telling yourself that you are going to play a for-real piano recital on your 40th birthday, which means you need to iterate the process of giving a recital.”

So I started at the beginning of my program, played as if performing until I made an error, worked the error, and started over again.

That got me what you just heard.

It also got me this:

I’m not satisfied with some of the interpretation choices I made in this performance of Les Cinq Doigts (the Largo movement is way too fast, for example) but I am nearly satisfied with its technical precision and emotional resonance. (There are two tiny finger-wobbles in the piece that need to be eliminated; my guess is that they won’t appear during the next run, and if if they do, I’ll work them until they’re steady.)

And tomorrow I get to start the program again, and make new choices—because the thing about creating art, as Tara K. Shepersky recently reminded us, is that you can never do it exactly the same way twice.

Otherwise, it isn’t creation anymore.

Now I need to tell you about the book.

I have been steadily drafting, and just as steadily reading the draft to L.

He has said—and I agree with him—that these are some of the best ideas I’ve had, and that the writing itself can and should be reworked to make those ideas stronger.

This is a little discombobulating, because I am used to my ideas and my mechanics being fairly integrated. If I have something I want to communicate to a reader, I generally know how to find the right words with which to communicate it.

(I mean, it is literally my job.)

But L is right. The ideas in this last third of the novel, by which I mean the big old mush of plot-character-conflict-theme-setting, are the best I’ve ever had, I am getting better at all the pageturny plotbuildy novel stuff that I wanted to improve upon after writing The Biographies of Ordinary People, and the writing itself hasn’t caught up yet.

This might be because L and I are comparing my draft against the best examples of the genre. I could probably go over to Amazon and hit “self publish NOW” and send you the novel as it stands and you would say “Thanks, that was a fun read! Maybe not one of the best books I’ve ever read, but there was a lot of good stuff in there!”

I want it to be all good stuff.

And, maybe, one of the best books you’ve ever read.

Follow me on this tangent for a minute—L and I have set ourselves this project in which we pick a favorite author and read every book they’ve published in order, and we’re noticing that there appears to be this skills jump that happens when, I don’t know, the author decides to take their writing more seriously?

That’s probably not true. Writers generally take their writing very seriously all of the time.

Maybe it’s when they finally have the capacity to make their books as excellent/specific/magical as possible, whether that’s a time thing or a money thing or a career thing or a mindset thing.

Maybe it’s when they finally understand how to solve the problems that they previously ignored because their writing was “good enough.”

(Writers, if you want to weigh in on this, I am very interested in hearing your perspectives.)

In many ways I feel like I felt at the piano, a year ago. I don’t know how to do what I want to do yet, and it’s frustrating not because I don’t believe I can do it, but because I can’t yet comprehend the actions that will help me do what I want to do.

This is where a lot of people say “maybe this is as good as I get.”

That’s what I thought, as a pianist, until just last year.

I’m also back to “not knowing what I need to do to get better at chess,” and this is frustrating because two weeks ago I had this breakthrough that helped me become much better very quickly, and I played a three-hour game of chess with L in which it was obvious how much I had improved, and now it feels like I haven’t made any significant improvement since.

I don’t even know why I used the word “feels,” because this isn’t an emotional thing. I can look at the numbers, on Chess.com. 20 to 25 green moves in a row and then I make an error, game after game after game.

So I’ve gone back to the daily chess lessons, partially in the hopes that I will be able to use those lessons to learn more about middlegame and endgame patterns—and partially because I don’t really know what else to do right now, and I’m buying time until I figure it out.

(Suggestions welcomed.)

I also want to give you one freelancing recommendation before I share where I got published this week, and it’s this:

If you are looking for high-quality sources for your freelance articles, sign up for Qwoted. I had been a HARO fan for years, but the signal-to-noise ratio on HARO has gotten considerably worse over the past year (not to mention that some of the people who respond to your HARO queries, like, aren’t even real [search “HARO fake personas” if you want to know more about this]).

Qwoted experts are vetted—in fact, they’ll even vet you as a journalist/freelancer before they let you sign up. That way, anyone who signs up for Qwoted as a source knows that their insights will be shared by a reputable writer working for reputable publications, and anyone who signs up for Qwoted as a writer knows that they’re only going to be connected to reputable sources.

That’s a win-win. ❤️

Where I got published this week


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Job Opportunities for Writers: September 10, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for September 10, 2021.

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: September 10, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for September 10, 2021.

In Which We Iterate Again

We’re going to start this week’s work-showing with yet more piano—but this one’s only a minute long, and you probably haven’t heard me play it before.

I started re-learning the Barber Excursions last Saturday, mostly because I was curious whether the “play until you make an error, stop, work the error, and start from the beginning again” method would work just as well on a piano suite I hadn’t played in 20 years.

It does. This iterative learning process is just as effective for a (relatively) brand-new, (relatively) untouched piece of music as it is for the music that I’ve been studying since last August.

In other words, you don’t need to “learn” the music before you “learn” the music. (This is for all of you who were potentially mentally arguing that the only way I was able to iterate the Mozart to such specific depth was because I’d spent so much time learning it already.) You can start with the first measure, run it through the “can I play this perfectly yet” test, and then move on to the next one.

Also, this iterative method ensures you memorize as you go, which is a bonus.

I know I know I know that the true test of this iterative practice technique will come when I start working on a piece of music I’ve never seen or heard before, not a piece of music I learned (somewhat sloppily) back when I was in high school.

But I had the Barber close at hand, and sometimes you start with the music that is easiest for you to grab.

Especially when it’s a piece you already love. ❤️

For me, the most remarkable aspect of this week’s work-showing isn’t that I re-learned a page-and-a-half of Samuel Barber, but that I am so relaxed in the performing of it. This is what knowing feels like. There’s another scenario in which I put just as much time into the Barber but focused on breadth rather than depth, getting the entire movement halfway into my fingers and performing it with an incredible amount of tension because I know that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Knowing is better.

Even if it means fewer measures “learned” in the service of learning those measures correctly.

An update on the book

A few weeks ago I told you that I thought I’d probably have the draft done this week, which I probably shouldn’t have told you because now I have to tell you that the draft is still incomplete.

I spent the past week focused entirely on the CLIMACTIC CHAPTER, which I didn’t expect to take quite as long as it took—and then, as soon as I read the freshly-drafted chapter to L, I immediately came up with a dozen ways to make it better-tighter-stronger-more-compelling-more-specific.

In general, I know which parts of the draft are really good. I also know which parts still need work. Getting to read each chapter aloud to an interested listener often helps me clarify in which ways the draft still needs work. It also forces me to push past “good enough,” because this book could definitely pass for “good enough,” especially if you’re the kind of reader (or author) who skims over the parts that aren’t great.

Reading aloud eliminates any possibility of skimming, both from the listener’s end and the author’s end.

But yeah, the draft isn’t done, I have probably 10,000 words to go, at least 2,000 of those words have been written already (like, two years ago) but need to be incorporated into what I’m currently writing, I have time blocked off to work on the book so I know the work will get done but I don’t yet know how long it will take, blah blah blah.

It’s odd that I feel like I have so little control over “when the book draft is completed,” given that I know to-the-minute how long it generally takes to complete a 1,200-word freelance article. Shouldn’t I be able to say “at 600 words an hour, it should take me between 13 and 15 hours to complete the draft”? (I should time it and see how close it actually turns out to be.)

After the draft is done I’m hoping to apply the same kind of iterative practice that I’m currently putting towards my piano and chess study towards my revision process. Start at the beginning, read until I come to something I don’t like, fix it, and start the book over again. ❤️

Where I got published this week


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How to build and establish credit in the Hispanic community

A guide to navigating credit in the United States

also, there’s a Spanish translation (I didn’t do the translation myself):

Guía de ayuda para acceder y establecer crédito en EEUU

Esta guía contiene sencillos y efectivos consejos para aprender a manejar tarjetas de crédito y otras líneas crediticias

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: September 3, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for September 3, 2021.

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: September 3, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for September 3, 2021.

On Iteration, and the Time Required to Complete Enough Iterative Cycles

First, before we do anything else—

Let’s have some Mozart.

There are four errors in the 20 minutes of music I just shared with you. Two of those errors were small enough that you might not even notice them (mere wobbles, as it were); the other two were a bit more obvious, though neither of them were the kind of thing that would ruin a performance. That said, If I had been practicing instead of performing, I would have stopped after each error and started over again.

Iterating my way towards error-free performance—by starting each movement from the beginning, playing until I made an error, working the error if necessary, and immediately beginning the movement from the beginning again—yielded better results in a shorter amount of time than any other practice method I’ve tried so far.

Yes, it probably helps that I have been working this piece for a year already—but I’m already excited to try this iteration method with a piece I haven’t fully learned (like the Bach Ricercar a 6) or a new piece of music I’ve never tried playing before.

I’m currently testing the iteration method on Ravel’s La Valse (the Garban four-hand duet arrangement, prima part), which is yielding similar results—faster learning, better recall, more secure performance.


The simple answer might be that working towards error-free performance leads to error-free performance. We don’t often tell people that they can in fact play something perfectly. We tell them that people make mistakes.

But the “people make mistakes” argument gives you an out, if you would rather make the mistake than do the work of correcting it.

For the past two weeks I have been working within a system that forces me to not only correct my mistakes, but also create positive controls that help prevent future mistakes.

I had my first error-free runthrough on Monday. It was just the first movement (since then, I’ve had error-free runs of both the first and second movements); but it was enough to make me see exactly what this kind of practice could do.

It was also enough to make me see how this kind of practice could change me, as a pianist. Look at how relaxed I am. My mind, as I play, is equally relaxed; in fact, it almost feels the way it does when I do epsom-salt floats at the local sensory deprivation center. It would be meditative, if I didn’t also have the hugest smile on my face the entire time—knowing, in this case, gives me the ability to devote my entire energy to loving. Loving the piece, loving what I’m doing with it, and loving that I get to share it with you.

You might be wondering whether this kind of practice regimen is more tedious or frustrating than the way I’d been previously working the music. It hasn’t been; not for a minute—in fact, it’s much less tedious and much more engaging. I hate to throw around the word gamify, but there’s a certain old-school sidescroller element to it; the idea that you start at the beginning, go until you accidentally fall off a cliff or run into a Koopa, and immediately begin again. It’s a full-brain, full-body challenge—how can I play this in such a way that allows me to keep playing? Where do my hands need to go, what does my breath need to do, what mental cues can I put in place to help me remember what needs to happen next?

It also makes the process of finding and fixing errors feel joyful, instead of frustrating. My practice has gone from “euugh, I just made that mistake again” to “here comes a new problem to permanently solve.” Errors, essentially, have gone from weaknesses to opportunities.

On the subject of gamification: I did not get as far on my chess study this week as I did on my piano study. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that L and I played a nearly-three-hour game of chess this weekend (he was astonished by my progress, he didn’t expect it to take three hours to beat me when it usually takes 30 minutes, he still won); other than that, I haven’t had more than 15 minutes in a row to devote to chess study this entire week.

And sure, at first I thought I could progress just as well with a bunch of teeny-weeny practice sessions—but it doesn’t look like the iterative system works that way. My biggest chess breakthroughs, in terms of understanding structure and seeing patterns, came when I had three hours in one evening to do nothing but start new Chess.com games and play until I made an orange or a red move.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that iterative learning requires a long-enough chunk of time to see the results of the iteration? Like, you wouldn’t practice until you made a mistake, look at the clock, and say “well, I messed up, I don’t have time to start another runthrough right now, but I’ll try again tomorrow.” Playing chess against the Grandmaster Robot until I made a mistake, looking at the clock, and saying “well, I don’t have time to start another game right now, but I’ll try again tomorrow” hasn’t led to much progress.

But I’ll have an entire evening next week to devote to chess study, if I want to.

Where I got published this week


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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: August 27, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for August 27, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: August 27, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for August 27, 2021.