Mark Terry

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thinking Outside The Box (With Your Writing Career)

January 23, 2009
My oldest son currently wants to be a high school band director and music teacher. And why not? He plays guitar, bassoon and saxophone and it's his favorite subject.

That said, a while back he said writer. And I have no problem seeing him as a writer either. In fact, in some ways, I can see him better as a writer than a musician because just about every day he hits the computer and writes--on his own! He's a bit less self-motivated as a musician.

Yesterday he spent some time with his high school counselor working through a rough schedule of the next three years (he's a freshman). I looked at it and asked him about the class on film editing and writing. He said it sounded interesting and he still had film making and scriptwriting at the back of his mind.

I suggested to him that someone with a writing, music and film and sound editing background might have a very interesting selection of careers available to him, things he might never have thought of before--film editing, film and sound editing, music editing, videogame design, etc. I commented that not everybody interested in film making was going to be Stephen Spielberg and it might be an interesting job to link graphics and sound and music and image at your local TV station or for TV shows or movies or video games or for advertisements for TV of the Internet.

Now, what's my point about writing? Isn't it obvious?

I started out writing and it was all about the novels. COMPLETELY. It was novels or nothing. Once I tried writing a screenplay (it sucked).

It wasn't until later that I did some nonfiction and it was typically because someone would say, "Such and such an organization needs a piece about this, you like to write. Why don't you write it?" So I did and it got published. 

Eventually, because I can be rather slow, I noticed that my nonfiction was actually getting published and I was actually, like, you know, getting checks for it, and like, I could cash them and use the money to buy things.

Still, a writer writes novels, I thought. I didn't like that journalism, what fun was that?

Now, years later, writing for a living, I agree that writing novels is more fun than nonfiction, usually (although the marketing of fiction is not much fun). But the thought processes and the skills involved are nearly (probably not necessarily 100%) identical.

Somewhere a couple years before I left working at the hospital to write full time I read a book, "The Well-Fed Writer" by Peter Bowerman. Bowerman's pretty much a disciple of Robert Bly, who's the guru of "direct marketing" writing, ie., junk mail and copywriting. (And I've read at least one of Bly's books as well).

I don't actually do either of those (although I could, I just haven't pursued much of it). Two things really hit me hard when I read the Bowerman book. One is his attitude. His take on writing is that it has value and you should value it as well and therefore put a price on it that's concurrent with its value. In other words, if you think anybody can write as well as you can, then maybe you deserve to make minimum wage. If you think what you bring to the table is more than that, then you should charge accordingly and look for work that pays accordingly. I'm sorry, it sounds stupid, but that was a revelation to me. Society had convinced me that nobody paid writers well. Bowerman suggested I shouldn't listen to what society had to say on the subject and instead look for those businesses and publications that valued good writers.

The second revelation, more having to do with today's post, is that when most people think of writing, they think of novels, nonfiction books, magazine articles and newspapers. Right? Don't you?

Unfortunately, in most cases novels, magazine articles and newspapers are some of the worst forms of paid writing. There are exceptions, of course. There are novels that make a ton of money, magazine publishers that pay $1 a word or more (I've even known some to pay closer to $3 or $4 per word). Newspapers, well, even the best newspapers don't pay all that well, and most of them are ridiculously low.

No, if you want to make decent money as a writer you need to find the work that pays well, things like advertising copywriting, technical writing, direct writing, market research, corporate writing--press releases and annual reports, etc--and others.

For a society that's surrounded by writing--really, have you looked around you? How many brochures and ads do you get in the mail? How many newsletters from organizations? How many advertisements in the mail or online?--we sometimes forget that there's a writer somewhere cranking out all that verbiage. And in a lot of cases, getting paid pretty damn well for it.

For me, that was the real thinking outside the box. I still have to force myself to think that way sometimes too. Sometimes my best paying writing gigs are less writing and more research. Sometimes they resemble busy work.

My son--same one--got a gig from his old man recently. I'm the editor of a technical journal and I was asked by the last executive director if I would index the last 8 or 9 years of journals for their website. The answer was yes, but the problem was, I'm not actually paid to index the journals. I'm paid to get the issues out. I do extra things for this client--it's called value-added--when I can, but indexing was a boring chore and time-consuming and it kept getting shifted to the bottom of my to-do list.

So I finally told Oldest Son that I would pay him $100 to index the things up to 10 hours. In other words, $10 an hour. For a 15-year-old with no work history, this is a great paying gig. He's not done yet and there's no hurry, but he made a comment once about how boring it was. To which I commented that attitude was important, a lot of things in his work life would be boring, and that $10 an hour was pretty damned good money for his age, so stop complaining (I'm sure I sounded exactly like a Dad was supposed to sound).

I understand that the majority of readers of this blog are aspiring novelists. But I wonder if you're aware that you're inside a box and suggest you might think about what's outside that box. Or perhaps, just make the box a little bigger. No one says you have to stop writing fiction just because you're writing other things as well.

Cheers,
Mark Terry

21 Comments:

Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm currently applying that attitude to fiction writing as well. My first love is fantasy--traditional and urban. I'm marketing those pieces. But I'm also starting in a more lucrative genre via a partnership. I never in a million years saw me writing in the genre, but heck, it pays!

7:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I've been doing that lately, too. For years it's all mysteries and thrillers. Now I've been trying my hand at fantasy for kids and I'm working on SF. I've broadened my reading to go along with it, finding the kids books and the SF that appeals to me--I wouldn't recommend trying to write fiction in a genre you hate or aren't at least somewhat familiar with--and at the very least I find it feels like I'm stretching myself and growing as a writer.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
I was fortunate to have a long freelance career doing everything from consulting to ghostwriting to tehcnical writing before even attempting fiction as more than a hobby. I think opening your eyes to other avenues means it's possible to have the best of all worlds--a freelance career, not beholden to 9 to 5, and a fiction career, filling in the lulls where needed with one or the other.

E

8:06 AM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

I would argue, too, that other kinds of writing (whether it's fiction outside your genre, or nonfiction) can help your "core" writing in spades. I found my fiction didn't really improve until after I had been writing articles for a couple of years and learned the value of revision, flow, getting to the point, etc.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Erica,
Yes, actually, I think so, too. You're writing a couple books a year which might be an outlier, but I wonder about a successful novelist who makes, say, $100,000 a year writing a single novel. Now, certainly you can live nicely on that without writing anything else, but having experienced the ebb and flow (and ebb and ebb and ebb) of how publishers actually distribute their monies, I think I would be stressed out feeling so dependent on a single source of income that's so unpredictable.

The advantage of a freelance career, at least in theory, is that even though it's quite unpredictable, I usually have multiple sources of income so I generally always have money coming in.

Of course, that $100,000 per book would be nice along with the other income sources. :)

9:50 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Christa,
I agree. Mine was slightly in the reverse, having spent all my time on fiction before writing nonfiction, but I find that they help each other out.

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I am often struck, when I read your blog, by how we seem to think in parallel lines. I was just writing about not wanting to fit into the box of what is considered saleable fiction, mostly because the changes required of the fiction to make it saleable often take the life out of the work.

Then I read with interest your blog on getting outside the box, and I realized the subjects were related. We need to honor writing as the art and science that it is, and earn what it's worth.

Thanks for your blog. It's great.

11:03 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I have very little experience with nonfiction. (I don't know why I can blog.) The two essays I wrote, 4K each, took me FOUR WEEKS. Even beyond all the research time, it took me about an hour for 100 words.

It strikes me that one of the most important skills you have to have as a non-fiction writer is mental organization. This I don't have, LOL. It's taken me forever just to write the website copy on my pianoexcellence.com site, and I'm not even 1/10th done.

One of those things, I guess. I just have to write fiction faster. :-) As always.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Chris,
I was actually thinking about going on--jeez, wasn't today's post long enough?--and saying, as Erica Orloff does on her blog today, that there's an awful lot of been-there-done-that in a lot of writers' works. Another cop? Oh right, he's got a drinking/drug problem, he's tortured by the job, he's...

Books and TV and movies are rife with cliches now and it's tough to get away from them. And then you have to balance that against how weird do you get? Is your cop an albino pygmy who used to provide security for the circus? When does it get ridiculous and gimmicky?

But at the same time, creating a great hook and then thinking outside the box so the story is both recognizably commercial and creatively fresh is a tough, tough thing to do, but if you can, you'll probably be very successful.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Spy,
Actually, I would think an "organized mind" would be very useful for nonfiction. Maybe not so much for fiction. With successful fiction I suspect one of the keys is an organized mind with an ability to "transmit" emotions.

12:17 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

"Actually, I would think an "organized mind" would be very useful for nonfiction."

LOL... um, isn't that what I said? That's why the stuff is so tough for me to write; I lack an organized mind. :-)

12:34 PM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Funny you should mention it. I've fallen off the wagon again. I read the Well Fed Writer some years back, too. It all made sense, and since I write all day for my company, why not do it on the side, too? Man, if you're only good at one stinkin' thing, might as well make some money with it.

12:46 PM  
Blogger B. Nagel said...

RE: Cliches

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. ~C.S. Lewis (from Mere Christianity, oddly enough)

When I pick up a YA novel, I can pretty much tell you the plotline after the first few chapters. But I think the point of writing anything is to do it so damn well that your reader doesn't care if it traces back to Sherlock Holmes (As does most primetime television). Now I just have to learn to write that damn well.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Ron,
Well, the path of least resistance, and all that...

1:41 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

B. Nagel,
Well... yeah, what he said, I think.

One of the things about cliches in characterizations, I suppose, is the problem with writing a real cliche-busting character. Ie., a cop who's wimpy or a bumbling spy.

Yeah, you can do it, but sometimes it changes the genre of what you're writing.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Zoe Winters said...

And it doesn't all have to be writing either. If I ever get the time I have some non-writing related ideas that I'd like to try. Though there will probably at some point be a writing tie-in somewhere, cause I'm a word person.

10:06 AM  
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Blogger ben said...

Great post Mark, you have made me broaden my thinking outside the box.

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