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.

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