Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writers Write

I'm getting some new traffic from a post on TV and comics writer Mark Evanier's extremely popular blog.

Mark, whom I've met a few times and share an editor/publisher with but don't really know, recently wrote a post about the practical importance of getting paid for one's creative work. In that post, he suggested that underemployed artists get a job in a related field that uses the same skills, and used the example of a screenwriter working as a tech writer.

In a follow-up post, a tech writer friend of Mark's replied that his job required a completely different skill set that not just anybody could stumble into and master. He sounded a bit insulted that tech writing might be seen as slumming for screenwriters.

I sent Mark a note, which he posted today, that I thought acknowledged both points:

Just writing to lend you some support on the idea that any writing is good writing. I started my working life as a newspaper reporter, put in more than 15 years as a science writer, and have produced a couple of graphic novels and webcomics. I find a lot of overlap. 

Writing almost anything every day gives you a facility and confidence with language that you wouldn't gain otherwise. You learn what works and what doesn't, how to prod a reaction from a reader, and the incredible importance of clarity. One of the most valuable writing jobs I had was also one of the worst writing jobs I had: covering a season of high school basketball for a local newspaper. Since every high school basketball game is pretty much like any other, by the 15th or 20th I was really working hard to make my stories interesting for both me and my readers. It was a great exercise. 

Even a "just the facts" news article or scientific paper needs to be structured and crafted to make its point effectively. I really look at everything I write as a form of journalism. The only difference is that when I'm writing fiction, I'm reporting on events and characters that don't actually exist. But it feels like the same process in my brain. 

Writers need to write, and should write however they can. 

Mark then added:

Yeah, I'm a big believer in the philosophy, "You want to be a writer? Then write something." Over the years, I haven't had a lot of patience with people who ask if I can help them get a writing job…and when they get the job is when they intend to start writing. Writers need to be wary of writing for free or for bad pay…but there's nothing wrong with writing for yourself for free. In fact, you need to do that so you don't limit your writing to just what people are willing to pay you for at the moment. Or so you're still writing when they don't. 

I wish I'd added one clause to my e-mail: "Writing almost anything every day, especially on deadline and for pay, gives you a facility and confidence with language that you wouldn't gain otherwise." I don't know if writers sitting in their garrets (why is it always a garret?) agonizing over the Great American Novel year after year are doing themselves any good.

"Step One: Write" is indeed the most important step, and one that surprisingly many "writers" never quite get around to. However, I think "Step Two: Get It Out" is just as important. Nobody learns anything from a manuscript in a drawer. Writers need readers. Even if it's just a post on a blog.


Kelly Temple said...

My only paid gigs have been attached to my printing work (newsletters, postcard copy and pamphlets). Not the kind of thing I aspire to but as you said, any writing gives you experience. Getting a feel for the flow and choosing the proper phrasing is an important part of any writing, be it an email or 1000 page novel. I have to admit, though, my 1000 page emails have not been very popular up to this point.

Linda Wilhelm said...

Okay, so here's my question for Step Two; how do you ask someone to read your work? It seems like it would have such an obvious answer. But what do I do with the knot in my gut at the thought of someone reading it? What if they hate it? What if it sucks? What if...? I need to take a break, I'm getting sick just thinking about it.

Clearly I am lacking confidence. Any suggestions?

Brian Fies said...

They're both sort of related challenges and I don't have a good answer. Everybody I know who's managed to get paid to write has a different story of how they did it. I also know there are magazines, journals, and even book publishers who're dying to find good content they can use--really! All I can suggest is start small, writing stuff you love with an eye toward selling it to outlets publishing material you already like to read.

Asking someone to read your work is very hard. Finding the right someone is even harder, I think. Ideally, it'd be an impartial expert who'd be willing to pay you if they like it. Friends and relatives are no good... They can't be honest.

I think you just brace yourself and send it out. Convince yourself that rejections will make a good story to tell when you're rich and famous. They might hate it or think it sucks. So what? You don't know them, and they won't remember you.

One thing I like to do is always have a new project going while one is being considered. It's healthier than staring at the mailbox, and easier to believe that they'll like your new thing better. Always have something in circulation.

One thing: I clearly remember a moment when I was a newspaper reporter going over one of my stories with an editor, and he was ripping it to shreds. And I was completely dispassionate about it. Didn't bother me at all. I just wanted to figure out how to fix the story. I thought that was the moment I'd become a pro. Maybe it'd help to see your writing as a product you put out--a widget you make in your shop that needs to be fine-tuned to fit in somebody's machine (or maybe won't fit in at all).

That said, sometimes it's still very tough for me to risk the judgment of someone I respect. If writing were easy, everybody would do it!