Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guide to Writing in the Real World

Being a "successful" writer really sucks sometimes. I mean, sure, being a writer in today's world means you wear Ray Bans and have a Luddite affinity for typewriters and that you read Raymond Carver stories. But if you're trying to actually be paid, no one cares how fabulous you look or how diverse your reading tastes are. I'm thinking this after I've looked at my depressing bank account, which I'm still thinking about as I make my lunch of Ramen, carrots, and chopped celery -not just any celery, but the left over, tiny celery hearts that are so un-green that they have got to be devoid of all vitamins.

This is the writing life, my friends.

After spending all morning typing out 1000-word articles about cloning, poisonous plants of North America, and how to prepare for a flood, I have made a grand total of $15.76. For a different freelancing firm, I wrote an article about the meaning of a babushka for $7.50. No, not every day is like this (last week I wrote fun articles about sight-seeing in London, and about Russian authors). But as a writer getting started in the freelancing world, you would be wise not to expect grander days than this. So here is my encouragement to all of you starting out writers: know what you're looking for.

Kristen Kauffman's Guide to Writing in the Real World

(And, yes, I realize that's the title of my blog and that it's taken a few months to actually write about it.)

1. Beware of the word "hardworking." 

If you're looking around on Craigslist or other great contracting opportunities such as oDesk.com or eLance.com, beware of this word. Example: "Looking for hardworking, reliable, ambitious writer to blog 7 days a week." Translation: "You'll work like a dog and get paid CRAP. If you don't log in daily, you'll have a lovely little 'where were you' message when you do."

2. Ghostwriting: know what you're getting into.

 Whether you're going to be blogging, writing freelance, or creative writing, ghostwriting is waiting in the wings for you -but they call it something else. The actual term ghostwriting may be used for creative writing, but when it comes to blogging or writing articles, you may be ghostwriting and not knowing it. After all, you're writing articles for a client who works with your editor, and afterward you may not even know where your article is going. It's kind of cool to think that your article could show up in Archaeology Today or The Washington Times, but you'll never know. Your editor will say something like "the client wants full anonymity." If you're getting paid for it, you don't really have the option of being picky about this, but just be aware that this happens in the real world.

3. Be realistic about compensation.

Okay, adjust your expectations. Stephen King makes the big bucks, but if you're doing freelance work, you probably won't. Revised: you won't make the big bucks unless you work really flippin hard. When I stopped teaching English at the high school last semester, I did a little math (yes, I did math) and tried to figure out how many articles I would have to write weekly to make up for the lost income. Let's do a little math here: if I get paid $.50 per 100 words as I am for one company, then to supplement that lost income, I would have to write, hmm, oh, 80,000 words a week. If I give myself no days off, that would be 11,000 words daily. If I get paid $7.50 per article as I am for a different company, I would have to write 40 articles a week. That number doesn't seem so scary. But in all of this, there is no accommodation for time spent researching. I wrote 5 articles on Saturday about tax codes for heavy highway vehicles, and because it was about as interesting as sitting in traffic during rush hour, it took me about 5 hours to complete 2557 words. Make no mistake: this isn't meant to discourage you. If you have found a gig that pays per article, that's fabulous. If you've found a gig that pays well per article, even better. My goal is only to make sure you have realistic expectations of the market. Just consider that all of these equations I've just detailed are what I need to equate a part-time teacher's salary.

4. Be choosy about what topics you're writing on.

Yep, I spent a good 5 hours writing about tax codes. Not interesting. And I know nothing about tax codes, so it felt like April, if you know what I mean. This is only one of the many examples when research took much longer than expected. Case in point, cloning. I know nothing about cloning or about cognitive computer manipulation of avatars (true story), so there was definitely more research today than I expected, research that if I was paid hourly would be compensated. Oh, but wait, writers are artists and often not treated as human beings. So here is my encouragement to you: if you can, select articles that interest you, and preferably articles that you have some area of expertise with. I have never been to London, but I am interested in London, therefore last week's articles were fun to write and went by quickly. (I could write about 1000 words in 20 minutes.) The article about Russian authors took a little more research, but I'm interested in these guys, so this 1000 word article took about 30 minutes. These are the moments that freelance writers live for: you love the topic and you're getting paid to write about it. Um, what's the downside? (Oh, right, the compensation isn't much.)

5. Be thankful

I know it comes off as complaining, but my beef is with the expectations I had set up for myself. These article writing companies never promised me something that they didn't deliver. Bottom line: I'm really glad that I can daily make the same amount of money that I did serving tables, except I don't have to come home smelling like refried beans or have to sacrifice exercise or sanity to do it. My goal (and I hope your goal) is to achieve enough experience with these low-paying gigs that I can get a better-paying gig. (Lie: high-paying gig.) And after having read Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster, I realize that rewarding work-from-home jobs (or any jobs, honestly) have been hard to get for the last ten or more years. There are people standing on street corners or taking really degrading food service and retail jobs, and here I am complaining about my meager writing compensation. I am happy to get money for writing -but I just wish I could pay my bills.

6. Use your experience and chase something better

Goal: to get a better-paying gig. That means that you should take crappy $.50 per 100 word jobs because it gives you experience. Keep in mind that you don't have to stay at this freelance firm forever -they're not paying you retirement, are they? Stay with them as long as you want, learn the value of SEOs and keywords, and then move on to a more rewarding position. Often the good-paying gigs go fast, so when you see a listing on Craigslist or on another job-posting opportunity, reply immediately. There's no need to do more -don't be a cyber-stalker, don't be annoying- just reply immediately with a friendly message about your qualifications, experience, and enthusiasm. If you don't get the job, keep telling yourself that another position will open up soon.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Wake Up

I know what you're thinking: how does he do it?

Sherlock Holmes, I mean.

Have you read Sherlock Holmes, or just seen the movies and shows? They're brilliant, by the way --all of them, that is. But how does he do it? How is it possible that one mere mortal can divine knowledge that only the killer and the victim could know? In all regards, no human can be that clever, so maybe we're allowing ourselves to be fully taken in by a character that is unrealistic.  Or maybe not; The new BBC Sherlock TV show (okay, not new like came out yesterday, but new in comparison to the rest of the adaptations) argues that Sherlock has high-functioning Aspergers or Autism, which is likely, though never explained in the books (not like Doyle in 1901 would have known what Aspergers or Autism was). But one thing is for certain: this character sees everything.

There's something to hero-worship that makes you think you can be like that, too. "Okay," I tell myself, "I need Sherlock-vision, too, so all I need to do is dress in tweed, read in genres I don't understand, and do all of the logic puzzles in the newspaper."

(Yeah, right.)

Okay, maybe I won't be someone with high-functioning Asperger's who can judge how many dogs you have based on the fur on your trousers, and maybe I'll never be able to identify your socio-economic status based on the soles of your shoes, but I can train myself to be more observant. Charles Harper Webb said that to be a funny poet, you had to train yourself to see things in a funny way. This is about waking up, my friends. This is about seeing things for how they are, not for how you assume they are. Novels need detail.

So today I saw:
-a tarantula while out on my morning jog (if that's not motivation to run...)
-an older man (possibly a retiree) who had dug a pit in his frontyard, had a burning bonfire in the pit, and was pointing a leaf-blower at it for more oxygen (I can't possibly imagine...)
-a line of law-abiding citizens honking at a teenager in a Lexus for not stopping in front of a school bus

I am not Sherlock Holmes, nor have garnered any funny life-meaning from today's observations. They are completely worthless, except as an exercise in detail, and no murder mysteries have been solved today...

...unless a teenager stole a Lexus and fled from the scene of a crime that involved killing someone with tarantula venom and burning the body in a neighborhood across town. Solved it. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Literary Fizzle Moment

Confession by this Shopaholic: I buy writerly swag. I’m really good about living within my means until
it involves books (if you’re read my blog, this is obvious), typewriters, or accessories involving things related. I bought a Sherlock Holmes cover for my iPhone. I have a bracelet handmade in England from a company (Jezebel Charms) that embosses book text onto brass cuffs. They specialize in Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen, Alice in WonderlandDracula, and Moby Dick. Um, pretty much everything I like. I've actually considered blocking the web page from my browser.

So it’s a surprise to no one that I showed up to class yesterday looking like Miss Frizzle. Okay, Generation Ys and Millennials, do you remember Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus?

She came to class every day with a themed outfit. If the school bus was exploring the human body, her earrings were lungs and her seemingly-polka-dotted dress was really a repetition of the Ebola virus or something.

Yesterday, I wore a dress that I had made from a 1950s pattern featuring a coordination of blue and green stripes with matching blue and green typewriter keys. My earrings were typewriter keys and my necklace was a rare “Floating Shift” key that had only been featured on a few typewriters. The whole outfit was Miss Frizzle for creative writing teachers. 

I wasn’t going to say anything about Miss Frizzle, but when one of my students complimented my outfit at 1:59, I said at the 2:00 start-time, “Let’s go for a ride on the Magic School Bus!”


To make things weirder, I said, “… in a non-drug reference way…”


“Wow, that was inappropriate.”

*awkward giggles

That didn’t happen to Miss Frizzle. But one of the younger students gasped and said, “You ARE Miss Fizzle! OMG!” She summarily pulled out her phone and texted a friend which, of course, I told her to put away.

This is the real life of Miss Frizzle, my friends: Miss Frizzle makes you put your phone away. Four students dropped her class because she has a no late work no extra credit policy. We’re going to have fun on the Magic School Bus, but you’re not going to see anything if you don’t get on the bus. Lesson plan for the day. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Cut the Crap

While I'm reading Bitter is the New Black and finding that "cut the crap" might be the mildest of Jen Lancaster's offenses, that's not what I mean.

After a morning of editing three essays for queries, I find that today more than ever I'm reflecting on the flabbiness of words. I'll realize this again in about three weeks when I'm grading the influx of short stories bombarding Blackboard (if they want a grade, that is), but over the summer, I've allowed myself to become blissfully unaware of how often my sentences strayed to say exactly what I meant -and with words that didn't work hard enough.

I'm thinking, right now, of Stephen King's lessons on nouns and verbs, and David Foster Wallace's aversion to "puffy" words. In fact, I had just watched a YouTube video of David Foster Wallace yesterday in which he addresses the economy of language. (http://youtu.be/E_sQrxAorDo)

And the economy of language is my focus today. It seems that no literary journal is looking for a creative nonfiction essay or book review over 1000 words (or at least none of the journals I was looking at). Three hours and three essays later, I finally removed past imperfect tense, and other flabby or careless word choices. Have you ever noticed that sometimes you don't know what to do with a sentence until you delete almost everything in it? Sometimes you need to cut to know where to cut. (My hairdresser said this, once, of my uber long hair.)

So here is my suggestion to you, dear reader: if you're stuck having to cut 1650 words down to 1000 (ouch), remind yourself that you need to cut the crap. No sentence fragment is so valuable that you need to go over it three times before finally deciding to cut it.

I mean, no one does that...

Books I’ve Finished This Year:
-East of Eden by John Steinbeck
-Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
-Silk by Alessandro Barico
-Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
-Animal Farm by George Orwell
-The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
-Grimm's Fairytales by the Brothers Grimm
-Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut-The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
-Old Man in the Sea by Hemingway
-On Paris by Hemingway
-The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison
-The Thin Man by Dashiel Hammett
-Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
-The Road by Carmac McCarthy
-More F in Exams/F for Effort by Richard Benson
-Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
-Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson
-Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
-The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
-The Woman Who Wouldn't by Gene Wilder
-The Time Machine by Felix J. Palma

Currently Reading:
-Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

Books I Bought This Week:
-Bleak House by Charles Dickens
-Bizarre Books by Russell Ash and Brian Lake
-The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
-Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories by Richard Dalby