How To Make a Living Writing, Part Two
- 2008 Jan 08
(A quick note to the reader who asked what I meant by incoming freelance work being "clean and useable." Those aren't industry terms, or anything: I only meant to describe work submitted to an editor that's ... well, clean: no typos, no weird formatting or attachments, has a good title and subtitle (that's the dream!), is the right length, is the right tone, is written anywhere near well. You simply wouldn't believe how rarely that sort of work comes in.)
Which brings me to a point, actually. I've been amazed at how many people have asked me to continue "How To Make a Living Writing." (That's funny: It looks like my Tip #1 is: "Put a lot of links to other stuff you've written!") That piece had a lot to do with, specifically, magazine writing. Writing for magazines is a real particular discipline. There's all kinds of writing, of course: poetry, mainstream journalism, magazine writing, short stories, plays, novels, book-length nonfiction. Apparently lots of people want to write for magazines. Cool! It's an insanely voracious, wide-open market. I am a freak for magazine journalism; I can't express how much I love writing in that style (um, which I'm pretty much doing right now). I quit working in magazines because, frankly, there's a lot more money in books -- and, in truth, I wanted something beyond the temporal nature of magazine publishing. But magazine writing is still, to me, Le Bomb Deluxe. Many of you apparently feel the same way.
So I'll say a bit more about that. But if people keep ... well, caring what I have to say about any of this, I'd like to maybe next time move beyond the specifics of magazine writing, and talk more about writing generally: What it is to be a writer, what it really means and entails; what it is about being a writer that so many people tend to get pretty darn entirely wrong. If anyone's up for it, I'd kind of like to talk about stuff that applies to just about anyone who feels driven to express their thoughts and feelings in any of the writing idioms. But we'll see how it goes. Maybe I'll just talk forever about magazine writing. Maybe I'll do a four-week rant about the critical difference between writing like you think a writer should write, and writing in your own voice. And how (if you'll pardon my intrusive obnoxiousness) unlikely it is that you have any idea what your own writing voice really is. And how you can go about discovering what that voice is. And how (assuming you're sane) absolutely unlikely it is that you'd be willing to pay the price for discovering what your own writing voice is.
Anyway, we'll see what you guys want. I don't care. I'm good for all of it.
So, back to magazine writing. Yes! Do it! Magazine writing is great, because doing well in magazines opens doors to just about any other kind of writing you would ever want to do. If you want to write books, for instance, magazine credits will automatically separate you (in the eyes of literary agents, and then publishers) from the umpteen zillion people who want to write books who haven't ever been published magazines. Whoo-hoo! You're in! Plus, the great thing about magazine publishing is that it lives on ideas. It needs ideas like elephants need food. In the world of magazine publishing, ideas are the Big Currency.
Oh, no: This piece is getting too long already. Bummer. (Another great thing about book writing is you can babble on forever. As you know, if you tend to read modern nonfiction books, which all have to be the same length, which is something I hope to one day go on a lengthy tirade about because even though it's a business necessity it drives me insane since it ruins the writer's organic relationship to his topic ... but whatever.)
Anyway, here's the deal (or one of the deals) on magazine publishing: Nobody cares about you as a writer. Magazines rip through writers like ... well, like elephants rip through hay. You don't want to even care about you as a writer. What you want to care about is the editor of whatever magazine you want to publish in (or, in a larger magazine, the editorial head of whichever department in that magazine you'd like to publish within). That's who you care about.
Your job -- your goal, if you're starting from the outside -- is to make that person's job easier. Because everything about an editor's life is working against his job being easier. Freelancers are late with their stuff. Photographers send in shots of their feet. The graphics department decides the next cover would look good with everyone's face bright red. The PR rep for the star about whom you were going to run a feature is suddenly insisting their client be on the cover of the magazine. The people running the ad on your back cover want that ad changed. Your rep at the printer's quit, and her replacement is color blind. The publisher -- your boss -- decides at the last minute that you need to switch out a story you'd planned on running with a story about his wife's yoga teacher.
For an editor, life is an endless series of issue-swallowing holes forever opening up around him.
But you! You,with your tight writing style; your timeliness, your outstanding story ideas; your flawless execution; your blessedly low-maintenance personality; your flexibility; your plain, good ol' fashion, astoundingly rare professionalism.
You're someone who's actually helping that editor, for a change!
Thus do you in very short order become invaluable to that editor. You become one of the editor's go-to people.
You develop a steady income as a writer. You build a portfolio. You have a book idea. You write a proposal for that book. You send it to an agent. That agent takes you on, and sells your book to a publisher for Humongous Smackers.
And voila: You've got yourself a whole new world.