on becoming a writer, part four: final, for now

Part One here.

Part Two here.

Part Three here.

I should clarify that my frustrations with freelance writing weren't about trying to support myself. I never expected to quit my day-job. In fact I always felt that having a steady source of income that was separate from writing was liberating: it allowed me to write only about subjects I cared about, and to turn down work I didn't want. It would have been highly unrealistic to try to make a decent living on freelancing, and I was fine with that. Our combined day-jobs gave us an income level we were comfortable with, and income I earned from writing was bonus money, usually used for travel. (Travel that had been completed a year or more earlier!)

My frustration stemmed from having found genres of saleable writing that I loved and was good at and wanted to do more of... then finding few or no opportunities to continue. I loved writing educational videos, but when the production company I worked with was sold, I couldn't break into another. I loved writing long feature stories, but the paying market for those was shrinking and disappearing.

So I returned from Ireland with a renewed sense of myself and my craft, apart from the external validation of being published. I was glad I had spent that time building my career. I learned a lot, and I proved myself to myself. But now I needed to step back from the frustrations of the business.

Over the next few years, I wrote and edited for the launch of Kids On Wheels, a unique opportunity that tapped into many of my strengths. I continued to write for New Mobility, and to pitch stories to other magazines when an idea compelled me. I also spent two years researching what I hoped would be a nonfiction book, an idea that ultimately didn't work out.

We decided to emigrate to Canada, began the process of applying, and I began the gradual process of pulling up stakes in New York.

* * * *

A few months before we moved, truly out of nowhere, I was offered a huge writing project. (The initial contact came through volunteering and activism.) I was one of several writers creating a junior encyclopedia series; I had a title on ancient civilizations. Those who go all the way back with wmtc may remember "Ancient Civs," as I always call it. The fee was substantial, as it was full-time work, and I had to churn out copy under extremely tight deadlines.

I must digress to note that this was probably the most pressured time of my entire life. Our application to Canada had been accepted and we were knee-deep in planning our move. Our dog Buster was critically ill, which was both time-consuming and emotionally wearing. And now, during my last months in New York City, I'd be writing like mad all week, then working on weekends on my law firm job. It was insane.

The money I earned writing Ancient Civs allowed us to not work for six weeks after arriving in Canada, an incredible and unexpected gift.

And even better, I loved it. I absolutely loved the work. It was so satisfying, and I was very good at it. After we moved, I was offered an additional piece as an emergency editor, and was told my work was "masterful". I was offered a second book title, which meant writing full-time for the first time in my life. I was thrilled.

Then Disney killed the project.

And that was that.

* * * *

After getting over the shock - and getting a job, and all that entailed - I tried to find similar work. I had to conclude that it cannot be done.

When I was first breaking into writing professionally, people told me that I couldn't break in cold - that it was all about who you knew, and without connections, I'd find no work. Yet Allan and I both did just that: we broke in, cold.

But in this market - nonfiction for youth, either videos or books - even with experience, I couldn't do it. If there was a way, I would have found it. But I could find none. It seemed like the work either dropped in my lap or didn't exist.

After moving to Canada, I was also writing for Kids On Wheels magazine. I was the associate editor and the principal writer. I enjoyed it very much, but after a few years of quarterly publication, it started to feel like a poorly paid part-time job. Since I also had a day-job, KOW became the only writing I did, and the time involved kept me from exploring other ideas. I resigned. Some time later, the magazine folded, so even if I had stayed with them solely for the income, the job would have ended anyway.

Once again, unsustainable success.

The other writing I want to do, writing a nonfiction book for a general audience, would require years of substantial research. Without a contract and advance funding, it's a highly speculative venture. Knowing what's involved, I find myself unwilling to invest the time, dedication and resources without a publisher. I don't know if that speaks of a lack of motivation or just common sense, but at this point in my life, I'm unwilling to do it.

So there I am. When I look at all I've written as a whole - books, videos, articles, personal essays, travel journals, this blog - I see a large body of work. On the other hand, I know my potential, especially writing for young people, is so much more.

Both Ancient Civs and Kids On Wheels were great experiences. It doesn't matter if they didn't lead to other work. The work was very fulfilling, people benefited from my efforts (or would have, in the case of Ancient Civs), and I grew as a person and a writer.

There just isn't enough of it.

It isn't enough anymore to scrounge around for freelance work, write the occasional article, and do my day-job. And now the day-job that served me so well all those years has deteriorated, making the whole package unsatisfying.

* * * *

The internet plays a huge role in this story. For writers the internet has been a mixed blessing.

The boon is obvious. No intermediary decides whether or not your work is publishable. You have direct access to your audience and free rein for your thoughts. You can write as much as you like, explore any idea, and probably get some immediate feedback.

The downside may not be visible unless you write professionally or are trying to.

In a culture where everyone is accustomed to getting everything for free, no one wants to pay for anything, and certainly not for writing, which is now more abundant than ever. Paying markets online are very rare. Those that do pay often offer token amounts. This, in turn, has driven down fees in the print market.

Being paid decently for quality writing has always been a challenge. Now, unless you are an established big name, it's nearly impossible.

There are other downsides, too. Editors have gone the way of typewriters and locomotives. Professional editing has great value to both writer and audience, but there's no time for that now. Why pay someone to improve "content" that's a mere snowflake in the information avalanche.

* * * *

Now I'm looking at a new career. The original idea was a different way to support my writing, swapping legal document production for librarianship. But now I'm thinking about a career that would be satisfying enough and pay well enough to do full-time. Being a young-adult or children's librarian would be more career than job. So what happens to my writing? And then, what happens to my identity?

The standard response of "You'll always be a writer because that's who you are," however well intentioned, is insufficient. It's just something I'll have to learn in the doing.

* * * *

Two little anecdotes before I close, neither of them online, so you'll have to take my word for it.

When Joseph Heller died, I read a conversation with an esteemed editor, retired from one of the preeminent publishing houses of American fiction. He said that Catch-22 never would have been published today. The original manuscript needed too much work. Today it would just be rejected.

I heard Doris Lessing read and speak in New York City. She told a story of an experiment she performed. While her publisher was waiting for her to complete the next book in her contract, she sent the manuscript to her editor under a pseudonym as an unsolicited manuscript, known in the business as "the slush pile". It was returned to her with a form letter. Too this, too that, not enough of the other.

Three months later, she submitted the exact same manuscript under her own name. Her editor praised it as her best work in ten years.


Amy said...

That seems to be a sad turn in the journey you have been on. I do not mean your decision to become a librarian---I think that's a wonderful choice. But it is sad that writing turned out to be so frustrating.

I should share some of this with my copyright class next fall (with your permission, of course). We often talk about the assumption underlying copyright law that copyright protection is important because it provides incentives for creativity by assuring authors that they will have control over their works. Your story makes me wonder whether copyright has anything to do with it at all. It seems writing comes from an internal impulse and to some extent a need to earn money and that protection against piracy plays little or no role in providing incentives to creation.

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy. I don't find it sad. I've done a lot of really interesting work that I'm very proud of. I wish I could have done more, but... well, there it is. Perhaps like you wondering about being an English prof. It's there, but it doesn't mean you enjoy your real life any less.

You have my permission to share this, but I'd like to clarify the very important role copyright protection plays in my life as a writer - and how the lack of it is one of the factors that drove me away from writing for mainstream publications.

Writing does come from a deep need inside me, but writing professionally is a business, and without copyright protection, it stinks.

More later, or later in the week, or when possible.

laura k said...

a need to earn money and that protection against piracy plays little or no role in providing incentives to creation

Maybe not in creation - but it provides a huge incentive in bringing one's work to the market. Just wanted to clarify that and will write more later.

Amy said...

I'd like to clarify the very important role copyright protection plays in my life as a writer

I am glad to hear that, as I'd hate to think that something I spend my life teaching to future lawyers is a sham. I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on this when you have a chance.

And by sad, I mean sad that it was so frustrating. But unlike my mere wondering about being an English professor, you actually pursued your dream. It is true that I do enjoy my life and even my career, but I can't say that I ever tried to pursue my professional "dream."

MSEH said...

Two quick thoughts -

1. Re non-fiction publishing. I'd vote for the answer: common sense! Unless you go the "agent route" *and* a non-academic press *and* hit on something a la Gladwell, making any money on a book is really tough. Once you figure out how much time (not to mention energy and other costs) you spend on it and do the arithmetic on the royalties, it's not what's going to make you much, unless you are lucky enough to hit one out of the park.

2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-hanft/when-doris-lessing-became_b_68118.html - I happened to have been looking this up just a while back.

As always, a pleasure to read your thoughts - which is not, of course, to be confused with reading your mind!

laura k said...

MSEH, thanks for that. I actually wouldn't care if the book made money. I don't know if we hit the break-even point on Allan's book, and I don't care.

For me, the risk would be going all that way and not having it published. That would be unacceptable at this point in my life. I've had an agent twice, and my fiction is still unpublished.

So I guess it's still common sense, but from a different angle. :)

Thank you for the link re Doris Lessing! I will look at it tomorrow.

Amy, perhaps that's why I can be at peace with it: because I gave it my best shot. I did whatever I could. The rest I couldn't control.

My novel not being published will always be a disappointment. That was the toughest thing to deal with, in terms of my writing. I thought it would hurt forever, but somehow... I moved on.

laura k said...

My last couple of comments sound much more negative than I feel. It's also not sad because I have been a working writer since 1985, writing fiction, and published since 1992, with a huge stack of credits in my byline.

My decision to go to school and become a librarian was about my legal doc-pro job no longer working out - not my writing!

Amy said...

My decision to go to school and become a librarian was about my legal doc-pro job no longer working out - not my writing!

That's what I had thought, but this line in the post made me wonder:

Now I'm looking at a new career. The original idea was a different way to support my writing, swapping legal document production for librarianship. But now I'm thinking about a career that would be satisfying enough and pay well enough to do full-time.

Reading that made me think you were switching away from writing, not just doc-production work. Thanks for the clarification!

laura k said...

Well, I don't know what's going to happen with my writing, what place it will have in my life, what I'll be able to do. That's what led to all these posts! :)

allan said...

A recent freelance story:

2008 was the 90th anniversary of the Red Sox's 1918 World Series title -- and I thought the team might like a article for the official program sold at Fenway Park.

I spoke to someone with the team with whom I have dealt with several times over the last 15 years, way back to when I was starting my research on the 1918 team. And while this assignment fell through, she has never failed to be completely and extremely helpful.

In May 2008, I was given a thumbs up -- with a due date, word length (1,500) and fee ($175).

To say that amount shocked me would be an understatement. The minimum industry standard for paid writing is $1/word -- and many magazines pay twice that. I was being offered 12 cents a word, but perhaps some middle ground could be reached.

Nope. Her boss held firm to the initial offer and so that was that. She said she was unaware of an industry standard, which could certainly be true, since she works for a baseball team and not a general interest, seen-on-the-newsstand magazine.

But that's also a common thing to be told (i.e., "none of our other writers have ever asked for X"). And when the team said they could not make an exception for me, she noted they "have never had a writer decline an invitation to write for us unless he/she worked for a newspaper that prohibited outside writing".

So I declined, adding that when L wrote for Sports Illustrated for Kids 10+ years earlier, she was paid $1.25 per word. Even small, non-profit, niche magazines paid her 50 cents per word. (The Sox program is a very attractive, glossy magazine with a lot of advertising from huge companies.)

I would have agreed on $500 -- still pretty pathetic at 33 cents a word, but I really wanted to write the thing -- but the team never bothered with a counteroffer.

laura k said...

I'm so glad you posted that story.

At the time, I thought it was a difficult decision for Allan. It would be great exposure for his writing and his book. OTOH, the pay rate is an insult, considering all the paid ads in the program, and the team's budget.

I knew that I would absolutely turn it down. But every decision is unique and it's up to each writer, so I said what I would do, but told Allan that one could make a case for both sides, and I would support him whatever he decided.

Then I was very relieved when he said no. Like he said, New Mobility and Kids On Wheels, two nonprofits with very little advertising, pay me $0.50/word. (Although I am by far their highest-paid writer, I am also one of the few professional writers they publish.)

But $175 for 1500 words is truly an insult.

Amy said...

It is hard to believe that writers get paid by the word. I know that it is true, but it still amazes me. Sometimes the best things are said in the best way using the fewest words. Shouldn't a work be valued by its content, its style, its beauty, not its length? (Uch, I can imagine what Andy would say in response to that line!)

Anyway, I would have loved to have read Allan's 1500 words (or more or less), so it's everyone's loss.

Not the first or last dumb thing the Red Sox have done...

laura k said...

When it comes to magazine writing, getting paid by the word is fair. It's not poetry. It takes up a certain amount of real estate in the "book" and you're paid according to that.

One of the common issues with thoughtless editing is an editor who professes to love the story and asks for more, more, more. A 1,500-word story is now 2,700 words, and the editor acts like she'll find the space for it.

Then she cuts it to 1,500 words and that's what you get paid for.

laura k said...

Shouldn't a work be valued by its content, its style, its beauty, not its length?

The problem with that is it would be completely subjective. The editor would be judging the style and beauty after it was already written, then determining how much to pay. Being paid based on word length is more objective.

A novel, play, screenplay is another story. Those are usually paid according to their commercial value and the name of the writer.

allan said...

$500 is also shitty, but I would have been alright with it considering the exposure and (presumably) the ease of banging out a general recap of the season.

The offer reminded me of when the Burlington Free Press paid me $25 a pop to cover high school football games. Of course, that was 1981 and I was 17 years old. ... Actually, that was probably a better deal.

allan said...

I forgot:

And when the team said they could not make an exception for me, she noted they "have never had a writer decline an invitation to write for us ..."

I made history!

laura k said...

And when you were 17, you were getting professional experience, and that was very valuable. That's why every situation is different.

Other NM writers get paid $0.20/wd. They are in the disability community, but not writers. They turn in raw research (sometimes barely that) that editors must then write practically from scratch. No other magazine would pay them a penny a word, so that $0.20/word is a good deal.

If Sports Illustrated for Kids offered me $0.50/word, it would be a huge insult.

And I write for free when I want to and think I should.

But the friggin Red Sox... $175. Pfft.

laura k said...

And when the team said they could not make an exception for me, she noted they "have never had a writer decline an invitation to write for us ..."

I made history!

Did the fans boo you for holding out?

johngoldfine said...

Chintzy! Millions for defense, but not even a dollar for a word...