June 20, 2003
Reader Request #8: Writing
Bill Peschel wants to know about my writing. He asks:
OK, a chance to annoy a writer. How about this:
where do you get your ideas?
Just kidding. Really. But I am curious about a few writing-related subjects.
1. What kind of freelance work do you do. I'm not so much interested in the record reviews, which you've linked to before, but the other work that don't get mentioned as often.
2. The recent Writer's Digest ran another article by Robert W. Bly about how to make $100,000 a year freelancing. (Basically, work hard, make your time count, charge high prices, work for the big companies, write books about how to make $100,000 a year freelancing, etc.) Are you nodding your head in approval or spraying Coke at your monitor?
3. Fiction writing. Do you prefer plotting or letting it rip? Have you discovered some insights into the mechanics of writing over the course of these novels? Do you have specific goals as a fiction writer?
1. Well, aside from the aforementioned CD and DVD reviews, much of my freelance work is in the corporate sphere. A significant amount of my income comes from writing for marketing companies who subcontract with me to write text for their projects. Most of these are in some way financially related; if you ever wander into a broker's office and he or she hands you a mutual fund brochure, there's not a bad chance you're looking at my writing (that is, if the fund brochure makes sense. If it's obtuse and confusing, that's somebody else).
Another recent project had me writing collateral for a trust company that primarily deals with the very rich: $25 million in assets and above. So I spend a reasonable portion of my writing time figuring out how to get wealthy people to hand over their assets. I need to figure out how to make that work for me personally.
Aside from financial services writing, I also do marketing collateral for other types of businesses ranging from book publishers to high-tech companies, and I do a fair amount of work with a non-profit Web site called Network for Good.
I've mentioned before that much of this writing is not what people romantically consider "writing," but I enjoy it for a number of reasons. First off, business writing pays well, which provides me a financial foundation for other less profitable writing (I think of it as my "day job"). Second, speaking as a writer, it's often a relief to have "directed work" -- that is, work with definite, achievable short-term goals. When you're slogging through writing a book and wondering what the hell you're doing and if the pain will ever end, it's nice to switch over and do a short, quick job where you quickly see the results in terms of client appreciation and pay.
Third, it's an interesting writing challenge -- you might think it takes no great skill to write a financial brochure, but since I not infrequently get calls from clients begging me to take over a piece from another writer who's not quite getting the hang of it, I would have to differ with you on that. We can have the conversation as to whether the skills needed for commercial writing are as exalted as the ones needed to create telling fictional prose, or a good sonnet, but that's another matter entirely.
Not counting my ongoing gig with Official PlayStation Magazine, I also typically write a few magazine and newspaper articles a year on various things (most recently a cover story for JD Jungle magazine). But freelance-wise, I'd have to say my primary focus is in the business sphere.
2. I'd be nodding my head, particularly about the "charge high prices" bit. One of the things I learned early on about writing -- and specifically about writing for business -- is that when it comes down to it, many clients are not primarily concerned with what you charge, they're concerned that the work they need to get done gets done. Much of my business writing work comes to me by people recommending me and then me getting a phone call that goes something like this: "We hear you're good. We've got this project. It's due tomorrow (or yesterday). Can you do it?" For that person at that point, money's not so much an object. The project just needs to get done. That being the case, I can charge a pretty solid amount, and I do.
(As an aside, I can also charge a high rate because I'm honest, which is to say that I charge clients for actual writing time, as opposed to time when I'm, say, reading blogs or writing here, and because as I writer I tend to follow directions, which means relatively little rewriting. Clients tell me of writers who charge less per hour but end up costing them more for various reasons. I don't point this out to toot my own horn -- relatively few of my clients read the Whatever -- but to point out that good business practices pay off. The short-term advantage of padding your hours nets a long-term loss in loss of clientèle. It's just that simple.)
I know anecdotally that I make more than the average writer, and the reasons for that are myriad, ranging from luck (I've been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion, and I'm not shy about exploiting that) to certain aspects of my writing abilities (like the fact that I write fast, which increases my bandwidth for work). But one of the underappreciated aspects of doing well as a writer has nothing to do with writing per se; it's the fact that I approach it as a business. I have a reasonably good business mind (much to my surprise) and I have extremely competent financial help in the form of my wife, who handles much of the accounting both of my business and of our overall financial life. It's hard to overemphasize the importance of the business aspect of writing, if you intend to make writing your business. I've always been upfront -- I write for many reasons, but one of the big ones is to make money. It's my business and I treat it that way.
3. Typically with novels, I make 'em up as I go along. I have a tendency to have one or two scenes in my head, usually the opening scene and the end scene, but how I get from one to the other is usually a mystery to me before I start writing. This means that I'm often as surprised as anyone else at the stuff that comes out of my head. It also allows me to go where the story takes me; more than once in my writing I've found a story heading off in an unexpected direction because something that I've written has suddenly seemed really interesting. This also relieves the pressure of freaking out because I've deviated from an outline.
Most of the time I like writing this way but on occasion it can lead to angst; Sometimes I'm writing something I'm really enjoying but I know I'll have to kill it later because it's way too far afield. Still, even these excursions have their value, since I can often repurpose that material in a more sensible way, or at the very least have it as the "background" stuff that writers have for their work that everyone else never sees.
As far as the mechanics go: Dunno. Much of the mechanics of structure and plotting come automatically through the simple fact that I've been writing more or less constantly since the age of ten or so. The way I approach the writing is fairly simple: I want to write the sort of books I like to read. Most of the time I like to read books with fast dialogue, action and at least a shiny coat of ideas; underneath all that I like characters who are actually concerned with each other's lives. So that's what I try to write, and what I keep my focus on.
At this point, part of the mechanics of writing is not writing to my weaknesses. For example, description tends to bore me; I have a tendency to believe that a lot of writers enjoy description because it allows them to use obscure, multisyllabic words. But not very many writers use those words well. Those that do are glorious (for example, Mark Helprin, whose Winter's Tale is arguably my favorite book ever, and one I could never write in a million years), but they're rarer than you might expect. The fact is, I get bored writing description, and if I'm bored writing it, I assume readers will be bored reading it.
So I tend not to have a lot of description in my novels. For example, in Old Man's War, you'd be hard-pressed to find any indication of the main character's race (I think he's white. But maybe not). I do think that as I continue to write, I get better at many of the things I don't like to write, and learn to see more value in them. But I let that experience happen as it happens, while focusing on what I know I do well.
For example, dialogue. I tend to use dialogue heavily in my writing because I find it easy to write and easy to convey information in. It also speeds up the reading pace, which I find (in a mechanical sense) to be very useful. One of the interesting comments about my novels is that people tend to think that they're short, but in fact both Agent and Old Man's War are close to 100,000 words, which is on the longish side of average length. They seem short because they're dialogue-rich; you don't get bogged down in long paragraphs of description.
I'll note here that there are those who do criticize my dialogue, the main beef being that all my characters sound alike -- and sound like me. I don't believe this is true myself, but I can see where the folks are coming from. I do have a tendency to make most of my primary characters have certain similar traits, primarily a well-educated smart-assery, on the principle that it's more fun to write and read dialogue coming from smart, interesting people than dull, boring ones.
But the point to be taken from the criticism, and it's a fair one, is that I need to increase the diversity of voices in my writing. And indeed, it's on my "to do" list as a writer. In the meantime, however, I'm pretty happy with the level of dialogue in my work as it exists: It's clear, it's interesting, and in terms of plot, it's load-bearing. It does a lot more than many writers expect out of their dialogue.
Also, as an aside, there's a lesson to be learned here, which is that if you wait as a writer until all your "tools" are at their highest level to really begin writing, you'll never actually begin writing. My dialogue, for better or worse, is good enough to get published; getting published is the best way to continue to be published. It's perfectly acceptable to learn on the job; that's what writers do. Nearly every writer gets better after their first novel, and those who don't (like, for example, Joseph Heller) have a karmic load to bear that's difficult for anyone to imagine.
In other words, the correct answer to the question "How good does my writing have to be to be published?" is "just good enough."
As for my specific goals as a fiction writer, they're pretty simple: I want to be able to write more fiction, and I want to get paid reasonably for it. That's pretty much it. I'd be happy to be a best-selling author, of course, and to be JK Rowling rich. But if all I ever sell of my books is just enough to get to write the next one, that's no so bad, either, as long as I'm enjoying myself with the work. When I was 20, I wanted to write the Great American Novel; when I was 25 I was slightly obsessed with the fact I hadn't written the Great American Novel yet. By the time I was 30, I realized that the author doesn't get to decide what the Great American Novel is, anyway. At 34, pretty much what I want to do is write novels I'd be happy to read. Does this signal a diminution of ambition? It might, although I'm still pretty ambitious. If you think I'm not going to do everything I can to promote myself, well, just you wait.
But it might also be a recognition of the idea that the best writing you can do is the writing you want to do. The Great American Novel is an abstract concept; the novels I'm writing exist in the real world as actual things. People attempt the Great American Novel primarily for everything but the actual writing; I'm writing what I write now because I enjoy what I'm doing, and I enjoy watching my experience grow. I used to worry about being hailed as brilliant from the very start; now I don't mind learning on the job. If each novel I write is a little better than the one before it in terms of craft, I'll be ahead of the game.
So that's the goal: To keep doing it. I'll let everything else happen as it happens.
Posted by john at June 20, 2003 11:39 AM
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