Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

The Great Canadian Novel … or Not …

People are always much more impressed when you can say you’re an author, rather than just a writer.

Writers (so public perception would have it) are self-deluded basement trolls who scribble incomprehensible stuff about self-actualization through crystals, or talking cats, that never sees the light of day unless it’s self-published and handed out as Festive Season gifts to unsuspecting relatives.

But authors have written books.  Real books with the names of real publishing houses, and ISBN numbers opposite the title pages.

Admittedly, as self-publishing gains legitimacy (in the eyes of the general public if not in bookstores and libraries), this line is blurring.  You can now be the author of a real book with a real ISBN without ever having hired an agent or an editor; all you have to do is hire the printer (and get your friend from high school to do the illustrations in return for promising to never reveal that thing she did back in ’87 …).  Unfortunately, since even Stephen King and Stephen Hawking need good editors, that means there is a lot of unreadable, grammatically excruciating rubbish issuing forth from these self-publishing  companies.  But there are also some exceptionally good self-published books … and if the authors are good at self-promotion, they sometimes even get read by someone other than Great Aunt Bernice.

Still, the perception lingers that having your book published by a real publishing house is superior to getting it self-published — if only because it got read and accepted by someone, after which it was edited and fact-checked, and the company invested some small amount in making that happen.  In essence, they gambled that your content would sell well enough to at least pay them back on their investment.

The day I was first contacted by a book editor with a proposal to write a book, was one of the most thrilling of my career.  It was also one of those ‘little did I know’ moments, of course …. I was sooooo flattered just to be asked to turn my columns on equine nutrition into a real book with a real cover, that I signed my name to a contract that, really, should never have been signed.  It was what you call a ‘work for hire’ contract, and it meant that, after the token royalty payment I received for entering into the agreement, I’d never see another cent from the sales.

Just my luck.  It sold well and went into a second edition.  It’s being used by several Canadian and American colleges as a text for their undergrad equine nutrition courses.  Sigh.  What have we learned, class?

I’m now a veteran of six published non-fiction books, and quite a bit wiser.  I still don’t have an agent, having brokered the deals for all six on my own (a circumstance some of my colleagues have reacted to with palpable disbelief.  ‘Tis true, I swear.)  The second adult book, I made no money whatsoever on, despite having negotiated what, on the surface, looked like a much smarter contract.  (Factoid:  JK Rowling may get book advances of seven or eight figures, but the reality is most authors barely get four-figure offers for putting together 60,000 – 100,000 words.  Publishing ain’t like it’s portrayed in the movies, honey.  Sorry to bubble-burst.)

I can’t complain about my four kid’s books, for Scholastic Canada, though.  I lucked into an offer from a kind Scholastic editor, with whom I had a very tenuous acquaintance, after I had pitched a more complex idea and she turned it down.  Would I be interested instead, she asked, in doing a simple book on breeds of horses for kids?  And did I know any good equine photographers?

I was and I did, and Shawn Hamilton and I ended up doing a series of four of these books before we ran out of breeds we could access to photograph, without using up all of Shawn’s air-miles for the next decade.  The price-point on the little paperbacks was right, the target market was horse-mad little girls (no shortage of those), and Scholastic is one of those rare companies which actually still markets its books like crazy, in multiple countries, instead of expecting the authors to do all the legwork.

Shawn and I made a tidy little sum from those books … and even now, little royalty cheques still arrive a couple of times a year.  They’re usually under $100, by this point,  sales having tapered down to a trickle, but again, I’m not complaining.

Alas, even that log-flume ride had to come to an end.  Last I spoke to my editor at Scholastic, the market for kids’ non-fiction had pretty much dried up.  She tells me kids just go to this Interwebz thing now to look up facts, instead of buying books.

Curse you, Interwebz!  May the fetid breath of a thousand camels fog up your windshield!

So I’m at a bit of a cross-roads.  I would really like to get another book project going.  The whole process of writing something 80 times as long as a magazine article is daunting, yes, but it’s less so once you’ve done it a few times.  And as I’ve pointed out, it adds so much cachet to one’s credibility.  Still, I am not sure in which direction I should go.

I have friends who keep telling me the real money is in fiction.  The afore-mentioned Ms. Rowling would certainly serve as proof and example, though we’ve all heard the stories about Harry Potter having been rejected umpteen million times by supposedly wise publishing houses before it finally saw the light of day and became an unstoppable marketing machine.

My squeeze recommends churning out murder mysteries. Trouble is, it’s really not my genre — I don’t even read them.  And my father (don’t choke) once suggested to me that the real money was in porn …. excuse me, women’s erotica.  (So much more genteel and tasteful.)

It probably is, but I dunno if I could channel my inner vixen to that degree without giving myself a fatal case of the giggles.  And I live in horror of unwittingly winning the “Bad Sex in Fiction” award

All writers are supposed to have a Great Canadian (or American, or Insert Your Country of Origin Here) Novel lurking somewhere in the deepest recesses of their hippocampus.  I just really have never been able to locate mine.

I’ve churned out some bad short stories, yes, and some even worse (and, ahem, anonymous) fan-fiction (and no, I’m not telling you which fandom(s)!), and a lot of angsty poetry in my lifetime.  Some of the poetry actually bordered on okay, but if you want to pick the one branch of writing that earns you even less than writing for magazines and newspapers … well, three guesses.

If there’s a novel in my sub-psyche, it probably has not yet surfaced because I don’t have an ending for it.  And I can’t imagine all that many things more demoralizing than churning out 300 pages of plot and character and exposition and then not being able, for the life of you, to wrap it up.

(My sympathies to my writer friends who may be wrestling with just this dilemma as they near the end of NaNoWriMo month. You are braver than I, and I salute you.)

Even if you visualize your Great Work of Fiction as a series of seven (or eight, or however many bloody Harry Potter books there are), you’ve still got to sell a publisher on that first one, so it better be firm and tight and bouncy … (Oh, dear, there’s that subliminal porn sneaking in.  Eeekk!)

It’s possible that after almost 30 years of being a journalist, that I’m just hard-wired for the non-fiction angle.  And I do have two sort of half-formed concepts for non-fiction books kicking around my skull.  I think I just need a kick in the tush to flesh them out enough to start peddling them to publishers.

Feel free to deliver same if you’ve read this far and are so inclined.

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I was going to call this, “It was the Worst of Times, it was the Worst of Times” but I thought that would be too much of a downer …

Just when I was starting to feel just a smidge optimistic, someone sent me this link, which doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it’s depressing seeing it in print (again):  Journalists Don’t Make Money.

That said, I thought I’d post something positive about my profession:  I did not loathe the Royal Winter Fair this year.

Maybe that had to do with the parking passes my friend Michelle magically came up with for me — it’s amazing how not having to cough up $15 per night lightens the mood when you’re always worrying about where the Ramen noodles are coming from.  Also must’ve chosen more humane shoes this year, because while my feet were sore each night by the time I hobbled back to my underground truck, I escaped without actual blisters and the band-aid collection in my purse remained undisturbed.

I even managed (knock wood, in case it’s still lurking in my alveoli) to escape the Royal Flu, which is the usual consequence of spending 10 days under the same roof with 30,000 infectious people.  My immune system has been kind this year.

And I accomplished most of what I planned to accomplish while I was there.  Including buying lovely goat cheese with cranberry port sauce at a discount price, which is an annual objective.  (It’ll make a nice change from the Ramen.)

Though filing one’s stories on the same night for an on-line publication is kind of a grind (I remember back in the good old days, we used to actually party a bit at the Royal, at the end of the night …. those days are long gone!), there’s something satisfying about seeing your report in (virtual) print the next morning.  And about knowing the deadline’s been taken care of and isn’t looming over your head anymore (though the next one is, of course!).

In the midst of my daily Royal coverage, I was also trying to juggle a number of harness racing assignments and some agricultural ones (some Royal-related, some not).  That I have any hair left is a minor miracle … not that I’m ever going to complain about having too much work.  It’s vastly preferable to not having enough.  It would just be nice if the powers that be could spread it out a little.  But I got it all done, more or less — including one major article that I literally pulled OUT of my ASS in the course of one day, little does my editor know — and that also gives me a tiny little sense of accomplishment.

So long story short, I restrained myself from going postal on anyone this year, scraped together enough money each day not to starve, and got a new pair of riding gloves and a cheap halter for my gelding, Spike, in the trade fair.  (Yes, I went nuts.)  I got to hang out with Mark Todd (We Are Not Worthy), saw a few friends and did not really have to suffer much of the company of the few colleagues I’m not that fond of, didn’t freeze my velvet-clad tush in the warm-up ring for a change, and indulged in an apple dumpling and a cinnamon bun (ahem, not on the same night), both of which are Things Emblematic of the Royal and Must Be Consumed Regardless of the Heart-Stopping Calorie Counts.

Exhausting.  But relatively good.

You Say You Want an Evolution …

Depending on who you talk to, insanity — or stupidity — is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The writing, if you will, has been on the wall for some time, career-wise.  It has become virtually impossible to make a living writing, as a  freelancer, for what we affectionately call the “nag mags”.  I’m far too fried tonight to look up the stats and provide a happy little link for you, gentle reader, but trust me when I tell you that the studies have been done and that freelance pay rates have not improved to any appreciable extent since the 1970s.  Meanwhile I’m pretty sure I’m paying more for groceries and rent.  And while freelance advice blogs are still lambasting we under-achievers who accept anything less than $1 a word (which has been the Magic Number since I started this foolishness 20-odd years ago) … the reality is most niche-market publications have never paid anything close to that, and in the current economic climate are less likely than ever to do so.

Have you noticed that your favourite magazine is a little less substantial than it used to be?  As ad sales have plummeted, so have page counts.  And fewer pages mean that magazines are buying less freelance content, and when they do buy some, they are nickel-and-diming their writers to death in the hopes of meeting impossible bottom lines sent down from (gasp) Management.

We writers can’t help but get our noses out of joint about being the first ones to take the financial hit … we’re all pretty sure that printing the magazine hasn’t become negotiable, or that the post office isn’t doing deals to keep the doors open.  And let’s face it, it’s our content that makes each magazine something worth having.  People don’t buy magazines for the ads; they buy them hoping to read something that’s profound, entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, or at least relevant and useful to them.  Yet content is the first thing to get chopped.

Once upon a time I made an okay living writing for horse magazines.  Combined with the modest royalties from my books, I was able to pay the bills and keep my horses fed, which is really all I ever wanted.  But these days, I feel like the harder I tread water, the faster I sink.

(Factoid:  Beating your head against a wall burns 150 calories an hour.  I found it on the Interwebz, so it must be true.)

So my New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to re-invent myself, to network like an insane woman, and get myself out of the hole somehow.

I have GOT to get some brownie points for even REMEMBERING what my New Year’s resolution was, 11 months later, right?

First plan of attack: ditch the nag mags who were treating me the most wretchedly.  When pay is not only poor, but requires repeated invoices and phone calls and grovelling … and THEN someone in accounting quibbles over the previously-agreed-upon amount (!!!) … well, stick a fork in little me, because I’m done.  Even if I do have a 20-year history with that publication group and supply excellent content for all six of its publications.  I’ve got a couple of shreds of pride left.

Second:  explore other subjects that somehow got lost along the way.  I never really intended to zero in on horse magazines, at least not exclusively. My plan, coming out of school was to focus on science journalism, if only to ensure that my B.Sc. in microbiology didn’t turn out to be a complete waste of four years of my life.  In the midst of a grad school program in communications studies, a horse magazine editorship beckoned rather more strongly than did my thesis, and the rest, as they say, is history.  At some point I became a known entity to the editors of a number of horse magazines, the assignments kept being generated, and before I knew it, that was where all my work was coming from.  Which as I say, was fine once upon a time, but it’s just not practical anymore.

Plus if I have to write another article about fly spray in my lifetime, there’s a distinct possibility of my going postal, and we certainly don’t want to go there.

So the logical direction is back to science and agricultural journalism.  Joined the Canadian Science Writers Association and have done a little networking there; after knocking on a bunch of doors, I have also managed to get a toehold with an Ontario farming magazine and  website, which is allowing me to build up some recent agricultural clips and get back into the groove on that beat.  It’s fun because the research is fresh to me and the personalities are new, too, but very down-to-earth to interview.  So far, I’m liking.  And the pay is a smidge better than the nag mags … more importantly, it’s prompt, which is a godsend when you’re used to waiting three to 12 (more !) months for your money.  (Don’t get me started on the whole ‘pay on publication’ thing.)

Third:  get social-media savvy.  More and more of my freelance friends are finding there’s more moola to be made in blogging (or ghost-blogging) and tweeting on behalf of others, than there is in the traditional feature-article form.  So I’ve been getting up to speed on using social media in a more business-like fashion, which peculiarly enough sometimes involves being less business-like when it comes to my actual writing style.  I’m having to abandon a lot of the conventions of traditional journalism to produce posts in a much more conversational, bloggish style.  Which is okay, as long as I don’t have to abandon grammar and punctuation altogether … gawd knows there’s more than enough unreadable drivel out there already.

I’m going to be trying out the bloggish thing in the coming week as I embark on a new way (for me) to cover the Royal Winter Fair, for an on-line outlet called PhelpsSports.  Phelps would like daily news and snippets from around the fair — primarily the horse show, but with some of the other features of the RWF tossed in; lambs in spandex jackets, butter sculptures, vaguely creepy sides of beef hanging in cases, the mink and manure fashion parade at the evening shows, and so forth.  We will, I believe, be eschewing the press release-style reports of international showjumping results for somewhat more cheeky commentary.  Ohhh, Phelps, be careful what you wish for …

Not really sure if this experiment is going to lead anywhere, but given that my other RWF assignments have evaporated this year and it’s a show I do know well (even if there’s a big chunk of my brain which would like me to stay home for a change!), I might as well take it on.  If only in the name of re-invention.

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