Writing for other people’s money

I spent the last 15 months writing for a real estate investment company. It was a decent gig – sort of rewarding sometimes, and astoundingly frustrating at others. But my time there reminded me of the difference in writing for someone else’s byline and writing under your own. 

When I was reporting, I had editors and a copydesk checking me over, but it was my byline and fundamentally my words. I had a say in how they were presented and while I might lose arguments, my opinion was at least considered because it had my byline – my name – on it. But when you’re writing anonymously, that’s a bit of pride you simply aren’t allowed. It took me a long time to realize that, to get past my own arrogance and understand that I had put a price on my words when I took the paycheck. As Don Draper said, “that’s what the money is for.”

I’m not sure it’s a sustainable tradeoff, though. 

Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the income. I liked most of the people I worked with. But the thing I love most in this world is words. I love coming up with a phrase, a sentence that maybe no one has ever come up with before. The idea that what I have created is simply mine, from my brain, out of my fingers. 

That is not the case when you are writing for other people. And writing for money. And that can be painful sometimes, because as a writer you write the way you think it should be written. You give it your best shot. But when you are writing for money, for other people’s money, you turn your version over to their viewpoint. The way they think it should sound, it should flow. And you have to subserviate your best judgement to theirs. 

Man, is that hard. Even when you think it’s not going to be hard. Even when you’re getting paid to write and then let them mold it, let them change it. In some cases let then RUIN it, it’s just hard to do day in and day out, and eventually you either start to resent it or you die. You can suppress it for a while – you can make yourself think it doesn’t matter, that it’s not your name on the page, that no one will ever know it was actually you who wrote it. No one but you, that is. 

The best-case scenario, of course, is that the person who is paying you to write appreciates your talent and your skill and respects the way you created in the first place. But you can’t go into a paid gig expecting that reaction, because they have their own ideas and their own vision of the piece in their heads, too. And fundamentally, they have more consequence for the piece than you do. You have to defer. It’s part of the deal.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s perpetually easy. ‘Cause it ain’t.  

On the Fourth Day

I wrote a novel. I decided, after going back and fourth and back and fourth for a while, to go ahead and self publish it.

I like it, but then, I wrote it so I should. If you think you might like it, it will be available to purchase within a few weeks. I’ll also have a specific website for it that explains it a lot more than this cover does.

But I wrote a novel. I’ve decided to let others read it. Feels like progress.

30 percent or die trying

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal, 1657

Editing is sadism; self-editing is masochism. But if you’re going to enter the leather-clad world of professional writing, you probably ought to learn to be a switch.

I’ve edited for all sorts of clients, including myself, and all demand a different hand. When I was writing for publications — at newspapers or ghostwriting for others — the client is the rest of the world. That requires, frankly, a deliberate level of cruelty. You have control over someone else’s words, and you change them at your discretion more than thier creator’s. That’s an aggressive, unkind and absolutely necessary thing to do when it comes to putting thing out to the public under someone else’s reputation. When I work as a reporter, there’s little worse than standing over the shoulder of your editor, watching them butcher words you thought were perfect. As an editor, you have to ignore those same sighs and whines to arrive at clarity and word count.

When I edit novels or stories, I’m more gentle. In those cases the client is the writer, and I’m doing my best to help their words get better. But I have to always appreciate that in that case, my audience is THEM. In some of my earlier jobs I was brutal and hurtful; it wasn’t intentional and the focus remained on making the work as good as it could be. But editing unpurchased fiction requires a calmer hand, because improvement comes from coaxing more than coercion. Thats’ why when I edit fiction for a client, I only agree to do so if I an do it paper and red pencil. I make suggestions, but the client decides what to accept or what to ignore.

As for my stuff, I’m cruel. My first novel (my second, but the first was so awful I don’t even have a copy anywhere) clocked in at 183,000 words. I knew I’d never get an agent to even look at that. So I cut. And I cut, and I cut, and I cut. I took my red pencil and Xed out full pages. I went through every paragraph and found a sentence that wasn’t absolutely needed. And by the time I was done I was down to 140.

Still not enough. Next read through got it down to 130. Next one 126, and that’s where I let it go out. I’d never cut a client so deep, but the client was me.

And in the end, the client is the book. The story, the article, the speech, the press release. The words. They deserve the best effort I can give, even if it means cutting them away.

Submissions and requests

My father used to tell a story about the guy who taught him about sales.

The guy, my father said, was not an attractive man. It was the mid-to- late 70s so he had sideburns and shaggy, thinning hair that was always a bit too long. When they were on the road, he and my dad would hit the hotel bars at night. My dad was married, so he left for his room after a drink or two, confident his partner would find someone to take him home and my father could sleep in peace. Sooner or later someone at the bar would be lonely or sad or adventurous or horny enough to say yes. More often than not he was right.

The trick, the man told my father was the same thing that suited him in sales. Every no puts me closer to a yes.

When he was teaching me to sell, my father told this story a lot. Too often, to the point it became a joke between us. In sales, you have to acknowledge that every encounter is likely to end up as a rejection. You can take those rejections as a definition, or you can take them as a necessary step toward the eventual goal. He told me time and time again the key to being successful was not style as much as it was perseverance.

By the time I was finished selling houses as my primary career, I’d been at it longer than my dad had. And while many of the things he taught me turned out to be bluster, the ugly man at the bar was onto something. Over the years I’ve tried to embrace rejection and tell myself that every time someone says no, it’s just a step further to the eventual success. I’m not sure it’s true, but what else do you tell yourself as you ask again?

It’s a skill that served me better, I admit, when the rewards were more financial. Selling houses pays well if you do it right. Freelancing doesn’t. You can survive, and even make enough to buy yourself a new keyboard sometimes, but putting words on paper has never been a financially motivating gig. You write, or edit, or draw or paint or sculpt not because you expect to get rich, but because you can’t imagine yourself not doing it. Because it brings you joy.

The problem becomes when you want others to share the joy you feel. Because they don’t. Almost never. Joy remains unique to all of us. We can share some experiences — we can have a common reaction at times — but most of the time the joy we feel is private and of ourselves. So when we take our joy and expect someone else to feel it as well, they often say no.

Nice people say it nicely. People on the internet don’t.

But unless you are willing to take the no, you’ll find it much harder to get to the yes.

The smile behind the statement

It’s not a lie if YOU believe it. — Carol Leifer, via George Costastanza

When I sold homes, there was no more important phrase for me to keep in my head. I joked about it; I told people that it was a definitive part of my personality. And when I did, they’d grimace a tad, or say that’s not the way they did things or something slightly dismissive and morally superior.

If I were in the mood, I’d explain the point. The key to the sentence isn’t the first clause, it’s the second.

What I find in a lot of things I edit (or read) is that the writer hasn’t bothered to find a reason to believe. They haven’t spent the time to get themselves excited about it. Information presents well — the writer can put words together — but the inherent smile behind the statement is missing.

Whenever I’ve sold anything, I answered every question they asked to the best of my ability, and I didn’t sugar coat difficult answers. Yes, this lot is close to the highway. Yes, the schools fall into the lower percentile in the rankings. No, that land won’t remain undeveloped. No, you probably won’t be okay with the standard features. It was just easier to tell the truth rather than lie to anyone.

The sales training I’d gotten called that Overcoming Objections. I tend to think of it more advanced lying. The key to dealing with client objections isn’t to overcome objections; it’s to tell the story of why they don’t matter. And to do that, you have to start with believing it yourself. The key to any narrative is to find a way to convince yourself what is great about what you’re presenting. Not just great, but overwhelmingly outstanding. If someone doesn’t buy your home or your point of view, they’re just an idiot. But doing that involves not just writing it down, but learning to believe it yourself.

That’s the key to it; if you’re trying to sell or you’re trying to convince someone, you start with believing in your position. I looked to find the specific reason why the community I was selling was the best possible place for people to live. It could have been the schools, or if the schools stunk, it was the square footage. If we were overpriced for the area, then I focused on the benefits of this specific neighborhood. There has to be something — anything — for you to base your optimism for the project or the point or the message on.

In other words, you want to find a way to make yourself an evangelical preacher about what you’re presenting. Once you get to that level of excitement, you can tone it back down to not overpower the client or the conversation. When you do that, you find yourself with the smile behind the statement because you can honestly tell yourself you’re doing good with the conversation. Once you do that, making the sale or convincing the reader become much easier.

“Said” as punctuation

While I have a degree in Creative Writing, I came up through newspapers. AP style is designed to keep information flowing and to make reading as clear as possible. It’s why my Indeed proofreading score is only proficient (I struggle with the Oxford comma. It’s an unneeded pica, dammit!) and why I keep my paragraphs short, making my help on my kids’ 5-sentence paragraphs suspect at best.

But the biggest take away I have from that background is my overuse of “said” in dialogue. My reporting teacher told us all very clearly that every quote ends with: ,” ___ said. To just think of it as punctuation. Using anything else is flowery, superfluous and gets in the of way of the all important clarity. And again, back when letter count translated directly to available space on a page, “said” is four letters. “Replied” is seven; “answered” is eight, with a “w” thrown in to make it even longer and don’t even bother with “responded.”

As my work has become less AP-regulated, it’s been pointed out to me that my overuse of “said” is redundant. Boring sometime. So that’s lead me to stretch to find some way to replace it every three or four lines of conversation. The problem with that, though, is those other words have different implications than “said.” “Responded” has a different feel than said; “joined in” requires an entrance to the conversation. Most other choices are reactive. The result is, that if you’re talking about normal conversation, the only functional word is said.

Which is to say we need something else. We just need a new punctuation mark, maybe, something to just acknowledge who is speaking without having to use some form of speak or say. Or just a bunch of new words.

Ice blocks

Every winter I develop ice block.

Drainage required a low spot in the driveway, and once the snow starts falling ice builds up on its lower edge, the spot where concrete turns to Colorado dirt and the path the water needs to take in order to leave. However, a giant pine to the south shades both that spot and the next twenty feet. Winter shade rarely stays above freezing for more than an hour during a day, and with the draining edge blocked, what I get every year is a giant sheet over part of my driveway.

It’s not a problem unless you’re walking along that edge of the driveway. It’s out of the way of the garage or the walkway to the front door. My daughter loves it because she pretends to be skating; it’s not always a great look for a girl 18 months away from college, but kids do what kids do. We have to drive over it, but there’s no harm in that, is there?

Except here is the thing about it. Because the frozen edge blocks drainage, every bit of water that melts ends up ice. The sheet grows with every freeze, and on warm days the density of the ice prevents anything below the first quarter inch to melt.

It’s a mess.

I know the solution is to shovel the drainage spot as soon as any snow falls, because driving over men a half inch can start the ice block process. But at some point every year, I am too tired, or too lazy or too distracted to spend the five minutes it takes, and then I’ve got the block. I’ve got one now, mocking me as I drive by every day.

The only way I’ve found to attack the ice block is brute force. I have a pry bar — six feet of pointed, heavy iron — that is effective. I take the bar out when it’s sunny, and I start to chip away. I aim the point into the edge of the ice, and a piece breaks off. I do that a few times and I shovel out the fragments, leaving an ice cliff behind.

The neat thing about this process is that after I break off a section, the next section becomes easier to attack. I start at the edges, though, because starting at the middle doesn’t work; all you end up with is short holes in the ice, no nearer to being done and much less attractive to look at. Plus, they refill as soon as the top melts and refreezes. The only way to attack the ice is to start on the edges, breaking away the periphery that prevents me from getting to the root of the problem. But my efforts are always rewarded. The ice always eventually breaks away and a hour later (or a day or a week, depending on how large I’ve let it get) I’m at the middle, the deepest, most compressed and hesitant spot. Then I’m down to concrete and the freshly melted water flows again.

600 words

The goal, every day, is 600 words.

On a good day it’s something constructive, cover letters, reworking my query, a scene or two in the book. On less good days it’s getting into arguments on football or TV message boards. At my very worst it’s a journal entry, unfairly bitching about my life or politics or snow or the lack of trees or the fact that the damn hot tub’s valve won’t fix the way the videos tell me it will be fixed.

But one way or the other, the goal is 600 words.

Not 600 combined words, but at least 600 words on a subject. A scene. A way-too-long poem. A rant about a neighbor or a long-winded question about snowplowing versus shoveling (and that’s not even considering attempts to battle the gelling of diesel fuel). 600 combined words, linked by a theme if not an idea.

But regardless, one way or the other, I put at least 600 words down on paper. Or on a screen, a text window. Letters leaving my hand and appearing in pixels.

When I’m trying to really write, I’ve found 600 a good benchmark. It’s not a number that you just slide into — 200 is like that, if you’re not a self editor, 300 or so isn’t much of a stress — 600 requires a degree of dedication to an idea. You can’t back away from the effort of 600 words.

My daughter is wiped out by the thought of 600 words, like it’s an almost impossible milestone even when given a subject as wide open as the first 75 pages of In Cold Blood. I can’t blame her. I remember when the prospect of two and a half typewritten pages seemed daunting, a weekend of avoiding football and beer in order to have enough time to finish.

Then I started reporting, and eight inches of copy on a basketball game seemed indomitable. A 15-inch profile seemed impossible. Until I’d written a few, and before long length became an issue rather than stretching.

So I told her the secret. The more you write the longer you write. Your fingers develop muscle memory, your brain learns to consider the next thought rather than searching for it. Words eventually flow, but they only flow once you’ve taught your fingers to move in the right way across the keyboard.

She does not believe me yet. She goes to college in 19 months, so I’ve got 19 months to convince her that the benefit of writing is writing. You learn to write by writing, just as she learned to pitch by pitching or learned to filter her Instagram photos by filtering her Instagram photos. Natural talent exists, but no one comes out of the womb typing.

The key for me is 600 words. It doesn’t even have to be 600 good words, but it needs to be 600. If I start with 600, I can turn it into 2000 or a whole day, whatever the job or the scene takes. Then the fun begins, because the next step is to learn to cut those 600 back to 400, then 3. To learn the ecstasy that comes with deleting a paragraph. But to cut them, you have to write them.

Everyone has their own. For me, it’s 600 words.