Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pasteups, Part Deux

These days the closest thing I get to doing a pasteup is linking my latest articles to my portfolio page on my professional website. I always put it off because it's a pain in the ass, but it's a necessary pain in the ass since as a freelance journalist, you're only as good as your latest article. I have a bunch more articles to post this weekend, it's on my list of (procrastination) things to do this weekend, along with some PR copywriting work I'm not in the mood to do right now.

Since I'm waxing philosophical anyway, allow me to continue my post from yesterday about writing for yourself versus writing for an audience. We've already established that amateurs write for themselves and pros write for others. But what happens when a pro gets stuck in a self-involved rut and can't see the forest for the trees? Well, I've got an anecdote to share.

A former coworker and acquaintance of mine wrote and published about 30 pulp sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels (think Conan the Barbarian type stuff) in the 70s and early/mid 80s. Although he never made enough money to give up his editing day job entirely, he did quite well and had an international readership for those books. At one point, he even had the same agent as Stephen King. (No joke). Then, in the late 80s the market changed and nobody wanted to read those kinds of books anymore. Readers' tastes' changed, and the market changed with it.

But instead of exploring new things to write about (which is how any writer grows professionally), my acquaintance just kept writing the same damn book over and over again. Small wonder his novel-writing career was dead in the water. His agent dropped him, his publisher killed the rest of his contract, and he couldn't even give his work away.

And so it went for him for about 25 years. He stopped writing altogether because he was bitter. Then he started writing again, but he was still covering all the same old ground. He went the self-publishing route, at great expense to himself and his family. He reached out and mentored younger writers like me (and since he'd been tutored himself by the great Leigh Brackett, I appreciated that---for a while anyway), but his own career still went---you guessed it, nowhere.

Still, I liked the guy. He was smart and funny and knew a lot about books and movies, so he was fun to chat with, and his much-younger wife had a child about my son's age. We would hang out sometimes. Then we got the idea to have a monthly writers' group meeting, where he, I, and one of his hanger-on friends who also wrote on the side would discuss our work.

I went to a few of those meetings, but pretty soon figured out they were a waste of time. First of all, this guy's writer friend was completely self-absorbed, not to mention kind of creepy (he once threatened bodily harm on me for disagreeing with him on something), and second of all, we didn't really talk about writing or discuss each other's work. Mostly the two men talked about old movies, with smatterings of sex and booze and assorted other misogynistic topics, and then they'd switch gears to talking about all the self-publishing projects they had going. They were "investing" thousands of dollars of their own money into vanity-press contracts, not to mention slick, expensively produced book trailers, going so far as to hire professional actors to appear in them. (And neither of them could really afford to be doing that, either).

They would insist doing this was the "wave of the future" of publishing, and neither of them wanted to hear much about how I had managed to land multiple book contracts that paid ME advances and royalties instead of the other way around. Not to mention that I earned a steady full-time living as a journalist. No, neither of them wanted to hear anything about how I'd accomplished that. No, they just wanted to talk about how cool they thought their new characters and plots were and how much fun they were having writing them. But there was still plenty of complaining from the both of them about how they weren't making a living as writers and how they thought the whole publishing system was bogus, and people were stupid not to want to buy pulp sword and sorcery books anymore.

The one time I brought up to them that they were not succeeding as writers because they were thinking too much about themselves and not about readers, well, I didn't get a good reaction.

So, suffice to say I ended that friendship. But I learned a great deal from it nonetheless. And I'll leave you with this. Yesterday I got copyedits back from my editor on two articles I wrote about mental illness in the United States. My editor said,"Wow, these were great pieces! Really made me think, and even made me outraged. I can tell you're really passionate about this topic."

And it's true, I am very passionate about it. I have multiple family members who struggle with mental illness so it's a topic close to my heart. I told her that, and also said that I try to do my part as a journalist to keep people informed about it. She replied, "Wow, that's great. By the way, my grandfather committed suicide, I wish we could have gotten him some help. It's nice to see journalists like you take that topic on."

And that, my friends, is what makes my job worth doing. I don't write for myself, you see. I write for others. Peace.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I don't blog these days as much as I "micro-blog" on Facebook, but I try to post longer, more thought-out posts here. Still, today I'm sort of cheating since this post is more of a compilation of some recent Facebook conversations.

I've been working some long hours writing-wise, with lots of deadlines and competing projects. I just landed a new long-term freelance client, just upped my monthly article load, and also spent about a month and a half on an intensive edit of my latest novel release, which was especially arduous. (But in a good way, since I made that editor very happy and she's made it clear she wants to buy more of my books so she can keep working with me. Always a bonus.)

One thing that a lot of aspiring writers (and even some writing teachers) will tell you is that you should always write "for yourself first." Which has got to be the worst piece of writing advice ever, especially from a career perspective. If you really want to make writing your full-time paying career, you have to learn to write chiefly for OTHER PEOPLE. (In other words, readers.) If you want to get paid for writing, you have to be able to write something other people are willing to pay for. Unless, of course, you're planning on just paying yourself all the time, and that's not a good career strategy unless you're a billionaire.

If you want other people to pay you for the privilege of reading your work, then it helps if you actually have some idea what other people want to read. How do you do that? Well, you could probably start by reading everything you can get your hands on. Newspapers (online or print), magazines (online or print), books (print or digital). Go to the bookstore, or the book section of WalMart or Target and see what's on the shelves. Go to your library and ask the librarians what books are most popular with patrons. Read, read, read. Think about what you yourself like to read and what kinds of writing you plunk down your own hard-earned money to purchase. Then apply that to your writing. Always write with an audience in mind.

There is a certain amount of selflessness involved in writing for a living. Only amateurs write "for themselves." (If you write only for yourself, you'll likely have an audience consisting only of yourself.) Pros write for others.

An old friend of mine and I had a Facebook conversation the other day about when she used to work for a print magazine in the old days of paste-ups and column typesetters. She said, "We had a group of heavyset older ladies who would typeset out and paste up everything into columns [ahead of printing.] Boy, you did NOT want to piss off those ladies with last-minute changes!"

Publishing used to be a lot more labor-intensive than it is now. The digital age has removed a lot of the barriers to writing for an audience by taking a lot of the physical work of publishing out of the equation. But that's not necessarily a good thing. As my old friend pointed out, in the old days you thought a lot more about how what you did affected other people in the publishing queue. Maybe we need to go back to that a little, because too many people these days think only about themselves when it comes to their writing, and not about others. And they wonder why they don't have an audience.

More on this topic tomorrow. Peace.