12.27.2009

on becoming a writer, part three

Part One here.

Part Two here.

So I wrote, and I did activism, and I worked. By the mid-late 1990s, I had started doing document production in corporate law firms, which fit well with my writing. Doc-pro is not mind-numbingly boring, it requires some technical skills which I enjoy, but it uses no creative energy and leaves my brain and creative self free for what really matters. I focused on jockeying my way into increasingly better positions, where I would be paid more for fewer hours.

(While I was a nanny, Allan had been waiting tables at a local cafe. When we left Brooklyn for Washington Heights - and I left my position as a nanny after four and a half years - I taught Allan word-processing and he started work as a legal secretary. Eventually he also moved into legal doc-pro work, and that is what we both still do today.)

When I look back on this time of my life, I see myself as frenetically busy, always juggling a packed calendar of writing, work and activism, and within writing, juggling as many projects as I could. I needed to be writing one assignment and following up on two queries, with another two ideas on deck, to be happy. I kept a log of pitches I had out and when I had last followed up on them. (This was pre-fibromyalgia, and reminds me of how difficult it was for me to adjust to a calmer, more restful schedule.)

Challenges arose daily and in forms I would not have imagined. Learning how to write the same story in three different lengths for three different magazines and audiences. Learning how to write on word-length, as opposed to writing twice as much as necessary and then cutting the story into shape. Becoming a good interviwer. Then becoming a great interviewer. Writing sparkling query letters that editors would take seriously. Learning what to fight for in a story and what to let an editor change.

I wrote for New Mobility regularly, as a contributing editor, a columnist and feature writer, and edited chapters in some of their books. My work appeared in a dozen different magazines and newspapers. I wrote a number of educational videos and nonfiction self-help books for teens who are struggling readers. I had a few personal essays published. I loved being a working writer.

I wrote some lengthy features for Seventeen magazine, which was a bit of a dream come true, as I had subscribed to the magazine as a girl and dreamt about seeing my name in it. (I used to enter their teen fiction contest every year. On one rejection card, an editor had hand-written a note of encouragement and praise. I kept it on my bulletin board for years.) Not only did those stories pay very well and I traveled on assignment (my favourite thing!), but other editors contacted me, and I was able to re-purpose my research into a book, more than once.

I learned that I loved writing nonfiction features. It's possible that I enjoy this more than any other writing - the entire process, from finding the topic, interviewing, finding the themes within the interviews, and crafting the story. I wanted to do this as much as possible... but found very limited opportunity.

I learned a lot of other things, too. I learned the writing business is gruesome. Writers are grossly underpaid and treated like crap. I joined the National Writers Union, and became active fighting for my own rights and the rights of other freelancers. I learned that the kind of publishing I wanted to do was shrinking and disappearing.

I'll summarize two incidents that illustrate the dark side of this experience. (There's a third, early-learning incident related here in comments.)

While I was finishing my first story for Seventeen, the magazine's parent company was taken over by another media group. The chief editor was fired, and a new editor brought in - someone who would "refresh" the magazine by making it celebrity-driven. Fiction would be published three times a year instead of monthly. Serious features would be half the length, and in the back, in black and white.

The entire senior staff resigned in protest. I had a story in the works, and my editor very thoughtfully made sure my contract was secure and I would be paid. My unfinished story - a long, intense piece about girls who had survived eating disorders - was now in the hands of a young, male editor who thought the whole topic was silly and mildly disgusting, and wanted to cut it to a quarter of its assigned length. I had become heavily emotionally invested in the story and in my subjects' lives, and I fought for it as if it was a living thing. The full story ran, albeit with the editor's clumsy fingerprints all over it, and I was paid, but it ended my relationship with the magazine.

When that editor left, I pitched other ideas, but new editors come in with their old contacts, and even though you've written for the publication, it's like starting completely cold. Because of the volatile nature of the current publishing industry, this would happen to me on a regular basis.

Then there was New York magazine. While writing a story for Seventeen, about adopted teens searching for their biological roots, I came upon an amazing story idea. It was perfect for New York - a very hot magazine at the time - and I pitched it to them. An editor expressed interest, but wouldn't commit. I followed up for months. He kept me dangling, so I kept at it. Eventually he gave me a contract.

I did months of in-depth interviews. My editor gave me pointers on how to turn the story from a good but pedestrian feature into something with real depth and sparkle. I crafted the best story I had ever written, and I loved doing it.

After a full year of pitching, follow-up, research, writing and re-writing, New York did a photo shoot. The story was slated to come out in the next issue, on a Tuesday. On Friday afternoon, my editor called. His boss had killed the story.

I later learned through the NWU that New York was notorious for this. They would regularly assign a dozen stories, writers would produce, then they'd choose one or two for publication and pay kill-fees for the rest. The stories would often be topical, so it was too late for the writer to sell them elsewhere. (A Christmas-related story, for example, may be assigned in June and finished by September.) Thus New York had a steady supply of finished stories to choose from and kept the competition from getting these juicy pieces.

A kill-fee is a controversial clause in a writing contract that specifies what the publisher will pay the writer if it decides not to publish the piece. Before you're in the business, a kill-fee sounds sweet, like money for nothing. In reality, it's doing your job for one-third of your already small fee.

Imagine you want a new kitchen. You hire a contractor, and agree on specs. The contractor gives you exactly what you asked for, and unlike the stereotypical contractor, delivers on time. When the last screw has been turned, you say, "You know what, I don't really want pine. I know we agreed on pine, and that's what you gave me, but now I've changed my mind. I want oak. So I'm not going to pay you for this pine kitchen. I'll just pay you a third of our agreed-upon price for your troubles." That's a kill-fee. Assignments should be paid for on acceptance - when the writer and editor agree the assignment has been completed. The publisher's decision whether or not to run the story is a separate consideration, and the writer's fee shouldn't be attached to it.

With the NWU's help, I got my full fee. But now my relationship with New York was over. I had plenty of company there, but there were plenty more hungry freelancers waiting to be similarly screwed - and fewer and fewer places to try to sell my ideas.

The business was awful in so many ways. The industry standard per-word fee hadn't gone up in 20 years. (Since then it's actually gone down.) The NWU was fighting for an expansion of electronic rights, while real-world contracts were moving in the opposite direction: no rights, everything work-for-hire.

I loved magazine feature writing when it worked, but it worked too seldomly. If my work had been in great demand, or if I had found a lot of excellent opportunities, I might have seen a different equation. But as it stood, the frustration-to-success ratio was all out of whack.

I loved writing the nonfiction YA books, but the pay was beyond low, it was insulting. The only way it made sense to write those books was if I had already done the research for another work. Other than that, you'd be working for Reagan-era minimum wage, flat fee, no royalties, no rights to future use. No thank you.

Eventually I needed a break from banging my head against the wall. That came in two forms.

Allan had - after a huge amount of angst - finished writing his book. I had edited it and was very invested in it, both because of my own work on it, and how much it had meant in our lives. Once it was published, we needed someone to do the publicity, and I volunteered. Who would care about that book as much as I did? Who would work as hard to get it out there?

I also heard that the young-adult market had picked up again, more books were being published, and it might be a good time to re-try my novel. I had nothing to lose. When I first tried to sell that book, it was my whole heart and soul. My entire value as a writer was embedded in those pages. Now the heavy emotional overtone had dissipated. I thought, the book can't be any less published than it is now. Why not?

I did a re-write and immediately fixed a problem that had plagued the book from the start. So that was the answer - put it down for ten years! Again, an agent snapped it up immediately. Unlike my first agent, this one worked quickly. And within six months, she was done. No go.

And now I was done, too. People frequently tell me I should try again, but the book is from another place and time. It's in the past. I think it's a really good YA novel, but I've moved on.

* * * *

Around this time, Allan and I took a vacation to Ireland. I had had a fascination with Irish history and had been reading about it for more than ten years, I love Irish music, and it was time to go. In Ireland, I had a revelation about my writing. I've already written about this in an earlier post, but it was buried, and I don't know if anyone actually saw it. So here it is again, from a post about a Judy Chicago exhibit I saw at the Textile Museum of Canada with my mom.
Resolutions reminded me of all the talented people, everywhere, who work at their crafts because they want to and need to, and the seemingly infinite variety of ways that creativity is expressed.

* * * *

There was a time when all my writing energy was focused on trying to be published in as many places as possible, trying to see as many of my ideas in print as possible. I thought this way for many years.

Coincidentally to this, in 2001, Allan and I were planning a trip to Ireland. I had a long-standing fascination with Irish history and culture, and going to Ireland was the culmination of ten years of reading and dreaming.

A big part of the trip was hearing Irish music, which I adore. Every town we visited had at least one pub where traditional Irish music was played. We would drive into a town, ask at the B&B or in a shop where traditional music could be heard, and get the name of the pub, then we'd stop by that pub to ask what time music would start. In this way, we heard music every night of the trip, nearly 3 weeks.

This was not in tourist season, and we were usually the only non-locals in the pub. The music was played by whoever showed up. One night it might be two guitars, a pipe and a bodhrán, the next perhaps a guitar, a fiddle and a pipe, or any other combination.

The musicians sat at a table - no stage - and played whatever they wanted. Patrons would make requests, and sing along. Sometimes everyone in the pub would sing. Imagine this, a community of people hanging out at night together, raising their voices in song.

These musicians made music because they were musicians. They played for the joy of it, for their craft, and to keep their tradition alive. Undoubtedly they all had jobs and did this after work. You could say they made music because it gave their lives meaning.

I returned home from that trip with a new understanding of my own craft. I wasn't sorry I had spent so much time and energy trying to be published. That was something I needed to do, and it was important that I did it. But whatever I had needed to prove to myself was now proven.

I decided to stop applying pressure on myself, stop viewing publication as the necessary end of any writing. I still wanted an audience, of course, but I would get back in touch with the writer within, and not focus on the external affirmation.

So that ended a certain chapter in my writing life. But what next?

The fourth and final chapter coming soon.

45 comments:

impudent strumpet said...

If I'm following the timeline properly, I'm pretty sure I must have read your work at some point. I subscribed to Seventeen for most of the 90s.

Amy said...

Boy, it sure does sound like hitting your head against a wall. This gives me a whole new perspective on freelance writing, which is something we talk a bit about in my copyright class (in the context of who gets the copyright in freelance situations).

I find it surprising that you were a fan of Seventeen. I was also---even though I did not care about fashion and makeup, which is what 90% of what the magazine was about back then. I enjoyed the fiction, and yes, I will admit that I also enjoyed the articles about how to catch a boy. Was the content much different when you were writing for it? I do not recall serious articles. Interestingly, my daughters---who were much more into fashion and makeup than I ever was---never read Seventeen in their teens in the 1990s and after.

L-girl said...

If I'm following the timeline properly, I'm pretty sure I must have read your work at some point. I subscribed to Seventeen for most of the 90s.

WOW!

I don't know why that should freak me out so much. When I subscribed, I read the mag cover to cover, and any smart girl is going to read the features. But still... it amazes me.

I wrote long features on exercise addiction (an eating disorder) and adopted teens. Shorter stories on a dog-sledder, a wheelchair athlete, and some other health/fitness stuff.

L-girl said...

Boy, it sure does sound like hitting your head against a wall. This gives me a whole new perspective on freelance writing

Mm, yes. Great when it works, but it usually doesn't.

Re 17, when I was a teen, it was the best of its kind. I definitely cared about fashion and makeup in those days, although in my own way. This was roughly age 12-15. By 15+ I no longer read it.

When I was writing for it, it was more a matter of necessity than anything else. I wanted to write serious features for teens, and that was a place to sell them. It wasn't that I loved the magazine - that didn't really enter into it.

In the early 00s, People, Cosmo and other women's mags spun off teen issues, and they had very good feature editors and did a lot of good stuff on eating disorders, relationship violence, etc.

But by that time I had moved on. I would have written for them if they knocked on my door, but I no longer wanted to expend the enormous time and energy needed to break in cold to another magazine.

Amy said...

My memory is similar---there was nothing else written for teens back when I was teen (the mid to late 60s), and every girl I knew read Seventeen. And it was sort of funny that no one who was 17 actually was still reading it. But I still do not recall articles on serious topics. That must have been a change when you were reading it and certainly by the time you were writing for it.

I am not sure why my daughters did not read it. They tended to read celebrity magazines and magazines like InStyle. Too bad---they might have been reading your articles, as their teen years spanned 1993 through 2002.

L-girl said...

With respect, I think it's your memory. They were well known for their serious features, including when you were that age.

Funny you mention InStyle. It was the editor of InStyle who came over to 17 to "refresh" (gag) it.

L-girl said...

Amy and ImpStrump, did you read the fiction?

L-girl said...

Oops, Amy already said she did.

L-girl said...

Here's another 17-related tid-bit. I am Facebook friends with two women who I interviewed and became friends with from those stories.

Amy said...

Yeah, well, you know how unreliable my memory can be about details. It is also possible that I did not read the serious articles, only the fiction and the "Ten Best Ways to Get A Boy to Like You" article that appeared in every issue in some form or another. Too bad I didn't keep those old issues to go back and check.

I did love the fiction though.

L-girl said...

At 15, I put down 17 and picked up Rolling Stone. That turned out to be a much more reliable guy (and girl) getting strategy than anything they published in 17.

Amy said...

FWIW, I did a quick, limited and very unscientific study of Seventeen covers through the years on the Seventeen website. I think my memory is really NOT that bad. It looks to me like there were very few "serious" articles until around 1968, which was after I stopped reading the magazine. I was reading it mostly in 1965-1967, and the few covers they have in those years refer only to articles on fashion and the like.

The world changed a lot between 1967 and 1968. Perhaps Seventeen did as well. But I had moved on by then.

L-girl said...

I'm sure the magazine did change - many times. But the serious stories were never on the cover. They've been a part of the magazine from the beginning, hidden away among all the superficial stuff.

Amy said...

Maybe so well hidden that I never found them? :)

L-girl said...

(This is a central area of interest of mine, so I'm sure of what I'm saying.)

Amy said...

I have no doubt that you are right. I wasn't trying to prove otherwise; I was just curious about what I could find from the era I was reading the magazine. It is intriguing to think about what interested me back then and what did not.

Some Person said...

I read women's magazines as a younger adolescent that either my mother brought back from the library, or the Seventeen that my sister subscribed to. This was so I could understand the "female mind" better (as if it were a standardized part). It didn't help me much on the tactical end since those magazines never gave me ideas for how to pick up girls.

Still I was intrigued by many the articles' first-person perspectives on, say, how that first meeting of their SO and their mother went. That kind of writing is absent in magazines meant for young men, which are almost all about hobbies and sports.

L-girl said...

Either you never found them, or you didn't find them interesting and skipped them, and they left no impression on you.

Unlike MY stories which I'm sure everyone devoured and loved. ;)

Yeah, right.

L-girl said...

Still I was intrigued by many the articles' first-person perspectives on, say, how that first meeting of their SO and their mother went. That kind of writing is absent in magazines meant for young men, which are almost all about hobbies and sports.

Crazy, isn't it?

These days, the girls' magazines have lots of sports and fitness stuff, and the men's magazines have the obligatory "emotional-relationship" piece. Young men... that I don't know. What magazines are aimed at young men, besides sports mags?

L-girl said...

It is intriguing to think about what interested me back then and what did not.

Yes, me too! I loved the fiction and read it religiously. Whereas now I read NO fiction in any magazine, ever. All these big names in fiction publishing in Harper's and the New Yorker and such, and I never read any of them. I still read fiction, but not short stories.

And I can't even flip through a women's magazine while getting my hair cut. I find them completely boring or insulting or both.

Amy said...

I think at this point we have no magazine subscriptions at all. I gave up the New Yorker a long time ago when I grew to hate their fiction and when I no longer had time to read their overly long non-fiction pieces. I never subscribed to the women's magazines, though I used to enjoy reading the sex articles while in waiting rooms. They were the grown-up version of how to get a boy to like you, only now it was how to make a man happy in bed. Different venue, same idea: do whatever he likes to do.

L-girl said...

Now that we've gone off on this big 17 tangent, I hope the rest of the post wasn't lost. My experience with New York Mag was far worse.

Some Person said...

What magazines are aimed at young men, besides sports mags?

Usually magazines about cars, music, fitness, computers, games, comic anthologies, and anime - hobbies. The "lifestyle" magazines like GQ don't seem to be aimed at anyone younger than 20. I've never encountered a magazine aimed at a male aged, say, 15 with articles on how to live better, take care of their body, or build their self-esteem unless it was of the government-sponsored "drugs and alcohol are bad, mmmkay" variety.

L-girl said...

overly long non-fiction pieces

:(

L-girl said...

I've never encountered a magazine aimed at a male aged, say, 15 with articles on how to live better, take care of their body, or build their self-esteem unless it was of the government-sponsored "drugs and alcohol are bad, mmmkay" variety.

Right. It's assumed they (a) don't read and (b) don't care. Awful.

Amy said...

Your point was not lost on me (sorry if I dragged us off on this tangent). Writing freelance for magazines is/was incredibly frustrating, both because it was not reliable as a source of income and because you were at the mercy of editors as to both content and the chances of publication. Like I said, like hitting your head against a wall.

And I am interested in hearing more about your shift to writing to write, with less of a focus on getting things published in traditional media.

Amy said...

They were overly long for me because I had no time to read them, not because the content did not justify the length. But I was haunted by guilt by the piles of magazines that I had no time to read. Thus, I ended up cancelling the subscription.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Amy. No dragging, either, I willingly skipped along. :)

And I'm sure many people who stopped reading long features had the same issue. And the stories got shorter and shorter... and now they are all but gone.

When I started writing for SI for Kids, a feature was 700 words. A few years later, 500 words. The following year, 300 words. The items that had been 300 words were now 150. "Kids won't read longer articles - they have short attention spans".

And the editors proceeded to make their attention spans shorter and shorter.

It's cheaper, too. Why have writers when all you need is captions?

Amy said...

Believe it or not, there is the same trend in law review articles---shorter and shorter articles. That, however, may not be all bad. Most law review articles are overdone---with way too many footnotes. I have been guilty of that myself.

But I also think it's just more of the same assumption that people cannot stay interested in anything that takes more than a few minutes to read.

On a vaguely related note, I have noticed that I will often fail to finish a long article in the NYTimes that fills a whole page or more because I feel overwhelmed. Yet if I instead start reading an article of the same length on line, I will finish it. I think the visual of a whole page of text scares me (and I assume others) off, whereas reading it on a screen where I just keep scrolling does not turn me away. So maybe the move to electronic media will in fact mean that people will read more. Or at least I will...

Some Person said...

Right. It's assumed they (a) don't read and (b) don't care. Awful.

Directly acknowledging one's feelings is an alien thing for an adolescent male to do in this culture. That is, unless the feelings are joy, anger, and perhaps sadness over a defeat in competition...mixed with anger.

I think that through the sports and hobby mags, young males are "allowed" to indirectly get in touch with themselves through immersion in these topics. That's certainly no substitute for getting directly at the self, but I think it's important to acknowledge the role of those mags in their simultaneous functions of self-alienation and self-fulfillment.

Plus, if a young men's mag had that sort of self-help/self-awareness literature, even if it had a potential readership, it wouldn't have a market. What already insecure young man would want to invite ridicule by being caught reading it or admitting that they did? Sad, but true.

L-girl said...

The trend is ubiquitous. It is very, very discouraging and frustrating for people who want to write and read thoughtful pieces that need more than one page.

I remember you saying that about print vs online. (These are the kinds of things I remember.) I don't think it's common, tho. I think most people now don't read long stories in either print or online.

It takes me a long time to read long nonfiction pieces, but I love them and am glad to devote the time.

Amy said...

Your memory is scary....I am envious!

L-girl said...

Plus, if a young men's mag had that sort of self-help/self-awareness literature, even if it had a potential readership, it wouldn't have a market.

That's my point. Because magazine publishers don't care about girls' feelings any more than they care about boys' feelings. They care about what sells ads.

A thoughtful young man's magazine might have a market - esp online, where boys can read in the privacy of their own rooms. But magazines don't set trends, they follow them.

I'm sure the blogosphere and social networking media gives boys more of a chance to explore feelings than previous generations had. That's a hopeful piece.

Some Person said...

I'm sure the blogosphere and social networking media gives boys more of a chance to explore feelings than previous generations had. That's a hopeful piece.

Even more hopeful - the latent homophobia diminishes and the industry isn't afraid to put out that kind of magazine anymore as a result.

L-girl said...

Even more hopeful - the latent homophobia diminishes and the industry isn't afraid to put out that kind of magazine anymore as a result.

And even more hopeful is that young people don't need the mediation of a commercially driven media anymore. They are creating their own spaces, and there are so many great non-commercial sites where they can get good information and discuss things with their peers (and slightly older kids who can help).

It's much better than when I was a teen, or when I was writing for teens.

Some Person said...

And even more hopeful is that young people don't need the mediation of a commercially driven media anymore. They are creating their own spaces, and there are so many great non-commercial sites where they can get good information and discuss things with their peers (and slightly older kids who can help).

I was thinking that, but I didn't want to bring it up in case you wanted to go back to writing for young people one day. You know, for moneybucks.

L-girl said...

because it was not reliable as a source of income

This was a minor concern, not a central one. Getting screwed out of money was worse for the getting screwed part than it was financially.

That's why I continued to write for New Mobility, which paid me half or less than half what the big glossies paid, but treated me with dignity and gave me freedom and autonomy.

L-girl said...

I was thinking that, but I didn't want to bring it up in case you wanted to go back to writing for young people one day. You know, for moneybucks.

I'd like to, but that doesn't exist for me anymore. Hopefully as a YA librarian I'll help young people find good information, both in print or online.

Libraries are still a huge focal point for teenagers. I hope to be part of that one day.

impudent strumpet said...

I'm pretty sure I remember the exercise addiction article! What I know for certain is I first heard of the concept of exercise addiction from a teen girl magazine (and it blew my mind a little, which is why I remember), and Seventeen was the magazine I read most often. I don't specifically remember reading the fiction, but I normally read the magazine cover to cover and something would have had to be really excessively uninteresting for me to skip it, so I probably did read it.

L-girl said...

Wow, that is really cool!

What I know for certain is I first heard of the concept of exercise addiction from a teen girl magazine (and it blew my mind a little, which is why I remember), and Seventeen was the magazine I read most often.

It almost has to be my story, then. It was completely new to all the magazines - a new angle on eating disorders.

The few times in my life when I met someone who read my work without already knowing me are extremely memorable to me. "Memorable" being a euphemism for fucking great.

L-girl said...

Imp Strump, Allan and I were wondering this the other day and couldn't figure it out. Do you know how you and I found each other's blogs?

impudent strumpet said...

I read your article in the Globe and Mail and wandered over here.

L-girl said...

Ah-ha! The G&M story. Yay.

Steve said...

"Challenges arose daily and in forms I would not have imagined. Learning how to write the same story in three different lengths for three different magazines and audiences. Learning how to write on word-length, as opposed to writing twice as much as necessary and then cutting the story into shape. Becoming a good interviwer. Then becoming a great interviewer... Learning what to fight for in a story and what to let an editor change."

and

"I learned that I loved writing nonfiction features. It's possible that I enjoy this more than any other writing - the entire process, from finding the topic, interviewing, finding the themes within the interviews, and crafting the story."

L-girl, you could be describing me, (although writing in a different medium), in my ongoing journey as a Tech Writer turned Instructional Designer writing Courseware. The same sort of challenges, and from what you describe a similar skill set, but thus far with less heartache. ;-)

L-girl said...

Cool, thanks for sharing. I can imagine that the journey and skills apply to many other writing endeavours.

It sounds like you're going for a more standard career, one in sync with what the current economy supports. That should come with less heartache - also without the need for another job to support it!