Go check out my mug here. It’s a nice photo taken by my wife, alongside some information about me.
Does blogging help you get a freelance life? It helps as a marketing tool, says Margit Feury Ragland in Get A Freelance Life: Mediabistro.com’s Insider Guide to Freelance Writing.
“Make sure it’s based on something you’re passionate about, so you’ll be able to consistently make two to six blog posts a day,” she writes. “If you build enough traffic, get linked to other bloggers and start to get buzz, this can be a great way to get recognized by a major media company.”
So, I have a blog. I post to it regularly, but how do I manage writing two to six posts a day when sometimes one a day is virtually impossible?
I can see how frequent posting gains traffic: In the past few days I’ve tried to post at least twice a day and I’ve gotten an increase of traffic, at least according to stats. Of course, I’m sure my traffic is exponentially lower than I Can Has Cheezburger, but I noticed that when I didn’t post, my traffic skidded at the red light but crashed anyway.
Unless I wrote posts all day, I don’t think I could manage two to six posts a day (even though at the moment I have the time). Still, I want to market myself as a writer.
How do other freelance writers market themselves? How often do you post to your blog?
If you read my post “Trolls Under the Bridge” yesterday, you may have noticed at least two errors (maybe there are more), one of which was a misspelling of Georgia O’Keeffe’s last name. I went back and corrected those erroprs, er, errors, and as I was doing so, realized how convenient blogging is: You can edit any post at any time. Oh, how that would have saved so much grief in my daily newspaper days, if after noticing gaffs, I could have gone in an and immediately corrected stories.
No matter how much one edits, perhaps a piece of writing never appears perfect, but it is nice to be able to fix things like spelling or grammar overlooked in the rush to publish a post. Of course, I still feel like a golden nitwit, especially when I realized I had misspelled “O’Keeffe” as “O’Keefe” despite having the name in front of me as a reference. Sometimes, I suppose, the mind gets all Coyote-the-Trickster on you and no matter what’s in front of you, you write what you think is right, whether it’s right or wrong. Or maybe that’s just me. (Interestingly, as I was proofing and preparing to hit Publish, I noticed I hadn’t capitalized the “k” in “O’Keeffe,” leaving me another error I had to correct. Rereading the post, I had to insert an extra “f,” for I, again, had misspelled “O’Keeffe”.)
At the Art Students League in New York one of her fellow students advised her that, since he would be a great painter and she would end up teaching painting in a girls’ school, any work of hers was less important than modeling for him.
So goes a brief passage of Joan Didion’s brief bio-critical essay “Georgia O’Keeffe” from The White Album (nothing to do with The Beatles, except the era), which I have been reading slowly, chewing and savoring each essay by a master of the craft. Georgia O’Keeffe fought her trolls, like the fellow student, male, dismissing her and her work ( “Style is character,” Didion writes) before O’Keeffe ever opened the narrow snake eyes of the art world to her paintings.
Trolls, however, lurk in both sexes, in all arts — painting, music, writing. All slobbering, ready to eat anyone who tries to cross the same bridge they’re living under. When I moved to Austin, briefly, in 1995, I lived with a troll under the bridge, Frances, who dismissed my writing, as if all I might ever produce would be samples to teach writing, if that. She, on the other hand, would be the great artist, the one who aggressively dismissed me and my writing as naive. She would achieve, publish novels, become wealthy, where I would not.
Dorothea Brande, in her classic Becoming a Writer (1934), warns of trolls, and advises writers to surround themselves with people “who, for some mysterious reason, leave you full of energy, feed you with ideas, or more obscurely still, have the effect of filling you with self confidence and eagerness to write.”
Trolls still lurk under my bridge — most recently a former boss, but sometimes Frances, and sometimes an old former editor at the paper. It can be hard for writers or artists to dismiss the undermining voices and go on to achieve what artists like O’Keeffe achieved. It’s part of our nature, I believe, to remain open to the underminers. Perhaps we feel the thing we love to do most is somehow unacceptable to the outside world, and therefore sinful, and we shoulder the sin, the temptation to keep writing or painting or composing, bearing it as a guilty pleasure, something we secretly desire to be absolved of.
And yet the believers exist out there: They share the sweet-tooth cravings, the indulgence in dolce peccante. They “fill you with self confidence and eagerness to write.” They are people like my wife, and my former colleague Clay Coppedge. Listen to such people. Cross the bridge, but keep from eating so much you get too fat to walk. Savor just enough of their influence to keep the words flowing.
Georgia O’Keeffe had her sister Claudia to inspire her when she lived in Texas. On their walks O’Keeffe would watch the evening star come out. She got ten watercolors out of the star. She savored enough and then produced art.
After the MFA asks the question: What writing projects occupy your time these days?
My answer is that other than blogging this weekend, my last writing project was the interview I posted here with Arthur Plotnik. Which, other than the intro, was mostly an editing project, I suppose.
But, I did submit a revised version of “The Content of My Life Has No Appendix” to Minnetonka Review. For those of you following the blog Content is the six-part essay I posted here.
Never, ever, get yourself into a situation where you have nothing to do but write and read. You’ll go into a depression. You have to be doing something good for the world, something undeniably useful; you need exercise, too, and people.
In my newspaper days, I fantasized about having the time only to do nothing but write and read. A full time daily newspaper job consumed so much free time, little was left for reading or writing (other than the job). I dreamed of vacation days when all I would do would be read and write.
Now, however, because I’m underemployed, my days are consumed with reading and writing to the point I plummet into a funk — my mind makes a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven, strutting and fretting with fears real and imagined. Will I get full time work? Will I ever get another freelance assignment? Am I good enough even for local media? Am I good enough, period. The idiot’s tale, a neverending story.
So, Dillard’s right: My wife and I have been walking, and the exercise tenses down less fretting on my part. But, as of yet, I don’t feel useful, and I miss being around people, specifically my former colleagues at the paper. But, there’s less fretting. And that’s a good thing, right?
Sometimes writers need Hallmark cards, opening up to refreshing pools of words that keep you writing. My wife dips me daily in these pools. Friends and colleagues sometimes pass a tin cup with a sip. Occasionally an editor sprinkles a few words to keep you writing. Recently, Arthur Plotnik did. (A big, toothy-grinned smiley should go here to thank him again for the interview, but this is a serious literary blog, so no such things as smileys here, right. )
The first editor to encourage me, and say good things about my writing, specifically my fiction, was Tom Jenks. Though the brief note of encouragement Jenks left on a manuscript I submitted to him is probably lost to the various moves I’ve made in the past 10 years, the spirit of that note stays brainprinted in the white-hot center of my mind.
My spam box, however, sometimes short circuits that imprint when it captures e-mail updates of Jenks’s Narrative Magazine.
The latest update, though, was inboxed today, and I hope you’ll follow the link above and take a look at it. It’s sort of a reader’s Hallmark, opening up rivers of literary talent for readers. Rarely, if ever, does a discouraging word fall.
Specifically, I’m looking forward to reading Tom Grimes’s essay “The Leash” and gandering at the feature “Works in Progress” with sneak peeks at pieces from Robert Olen Butler, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Jane Smiley and Jim Harrison, among others.
With amazing grace The Elements of Style (aka Strunk & White) saved me, scoured clean the mucus clogging my prose. An enthralled disciple, I bowed to this iconic writing rulebook. I put myself in the background; I omitted needless words; I spared figures of speech.
Often, I shunned taking risks, unlike the writers I was devouring: the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, Charles D’Ambrosio, Francine Prose, Don DeLillo; the essays and journalism of Stephen Harrigan, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, and Patrick Beach and Brad Bucholz at the Austin American-Statesman. Whosoever took risks committed naughtiness was the Strunkian mantra that had seeped into my writing and editing (oh, I sinned, but felt guilty later).
Over and over I sought advice from various writing gurus about how to invigorate my writing, punch it up with spunk and bite — a favorite was Richard Rhodes’s How to Write. And a recent bout with writer’s malaise led me to read Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (2007 paperback). Reading the book was like attending an old-time tent revival. The spirited prose and Plotnik’s advice zinged into my soul. I felt absolved, washed of Strunkian dogma.
I felt better about myself as a writer, and I decided I needed to know more about Arthur Plotnik and Spunk & Bite, so, a week ago, more or less, I sent him an e-mail, asking him if would be interested in an interview via e-mail that I would post here. He wrote back, saying yes.
Below is the interview:
What was the catalyst for Spunk & Bite? As an editor were you seeing gaggles of writers attached to Strunk & White, and not taking risks?
Some of the writing I saw would have made the gods create Strunk & White — if only to save the universe from collapsing. My authors included tight-collared academics in love with jargon and obfuscation, and non-writers gone giddy with the chance to speak in print. The principles of S&W (The Elements of Style) helped me bring some clarity and concision to these, er, writings.
But, yes — when I tried to push inert prose into something more dynamic, I’d often get Strunked and Whited by authors who felt I didn’t know right from wrong and was out to humiliate them. I was sympathetic to a point. How many writers trust, under their byline, someone else’s risk-taking? But at the same time I might have been losing it for S&W as an editor’s best friend.
When you set out to write Spunk & Bite did you intend to write something as a challenge to Strunk & White or did the idea come in the process of revision?
Originally, my challenge to S&W consisted of one short piece in The Editorial Eye, for which I wrote regularly in the late 1990s. I wasn’t the first no-name punk to question The Elements of Style; but in my annual visits to the sacred tome I was growing weary of E. B. White’s 1950s conservatism — his attachment to rigid conventions, his disdain for organic, adventurous language.
In writing Spunk & Bite (which includes an expansion of the original piece) I needed to counter S&W’s dictates with abundant examples of acclaimed, rule-breaking prose. I sought brief examples and found plenty to patch into drafts of the book. As I revised, I was able to unify the theme, the examples, and my own shtick into one concussive spunkification.
On the subject of revision: I’ve read several interviews in which you talk about your revision process, and it sounds very meticulous. What is your process for revision? Do you use a different process when editing others?
Well, I am the guy who wrote The Elements of Editing (1982), in which I forced myself to codify some of the editing/revising techniques I’d developed by trial and error.
Revision has many levels, depending on time available and one’s purpose relative to an audience. A newspaper feature gets some revision in the lead, maybe a late update — and it’s on to the next day’s feature. A short story is tuned again and again to the sensibilities of a literary audience, to the requirements of its arc, the credibility of its characters, and so on.
Usually, revision starts with a re-reading of the whole piece some time after it was written. With the likely audience in mind, one kills anything irrelevant to the desired effect and beefs up the parts that need to be emphatic. (Beefing up might mean tightening loose structure, introducing live verbs, replacing laboriously modified words with words that do the job by themselves.)
I am Ming the Merciless in revising my own writing. I go schizophrenic, detaching myself from Plotnik-the-writer. It is Plotnik-the-editor who must be pleased. He beats, burns, and destroys everything that strikes him as crap. He kills with impunity Plotnik-the-writer’s most precious darlings. He lays down mandates for the writer’s next draft — which he will edit just as savagely.
When I edit others, I am much more considerate. I don’t want to interfere with their “voice,” but just help it come through. Help the fire show through the smoke, as I’ve put it. If I sense an excessive “pride of authorship,” however, I beg off the job. No one can fight writers who love their locutions unconditionally. To be revised means: Lose the pride, weigh other possibilities.
One small tip: After you’ve revised a manuscript on screen, print it out and read the hard copy. Guaranteed you’ll see some necessary changes you hadn’t noticed in pixels.
When I first started out as a daily newspaper editor, I must admit I tended to fundamentalize many of Strunk & White’s rules, especially “Omit needless words,” when working with reporters. I also saw the tendency in other editors to follow Strunk & White as if it were holy writ. How can editors become spunkier when editing other writers?
That’s a tough one. The editor-author relationship is one I’ve called an “uneasy alliance.” Ideally, as with co-authors, each partner enhances the other’s strengths and attacks the weaknesses.
Applying S&W to the attack — against needless words, passive voice, wandering modifiers, etc. — will usually do some good, even abet spunkiness. But using the iconic little rulebook to cast down the unruly is simply compulsive behavior. Out the window go personal asides, slang, offbeat modifiers, freaky imagery — in short, distinctive personality.
Instead, an editor might join the rebellion, help it out, give an audience something fresh and daring: Spotting an author’s attempt at whimsy, the editor suggests, “How about we take ‘horse’s ass’ a step further? Say, ‘unicorn’s ass?’” “Spunky!” says the author. “But ‘unicorn’s booty’ is funnier.” “Perfect,” says the editor.
How did you learn to be a spunkier writer and editor?
These things evolve in mysterious ways, like the writer’s “voice” — the sum total of all the hundreds of language choices in a manuscript. The general readership itself has grown spunkier, embracing slang and pop and funkiness where standard English once ruled. But writers may want to cross these expanded boundaries with caution. Much spunkiness is ephemeral, like slang or pop that goes from cool to cringey in a nanosecond. Too much spunkiness is a turn-off — what S&W might have meant by too much “breezy” writing.
Spunkiness may be best when it erupts from quieter context, thus yielding elements of surprise, contrast, and edge. Run-on spunkitude sounds like a couple of dudes on cell phones at the Hard Rock Café.
It’s a delicate balance. One must dance through it and not fear the pratfalls.
The samples demonstrating punchier writing are my favorite elements of Spunk & Bite. You draw on writers in all genres, from contemporary novelists like Martin Amis and Jonathan Franzen to samples from journalists like Mark Singer. Obviously you value reading. How should writers read?
Like hungry motherf*ckers. Hit every eating joint, savor every morsel, and take some home (for your journal). Lick your chops over fresh metaphors and other juicy tropes. Stop and take note of how old dishes are made newly mouthwatering.
I like to own books so I can mark passages; but I also write down or photocopy passages from the many library books I borrow. All this marking and copying makes one pay attention to language. That’s the key. Pay attention to the words. Don’t let plot carry you away from the language craft.
What are you reading now? Who are some of your favorite writers and why? Any recommendations?
You might guess that I favor writers who have a way with language, with expressiveness, along with skills in characterization, plotting, and exposition. And among the language masters, I love writers who can mix dictions — high with low, sacred with profane. Juno Diaz is the man of the hour in this respect, pouring out mixed-diction gems like this one from The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007):
. . . so keen was he about learning that any new piece of knowledge, no matter how arcane or trivial, could send his ass over the Van Allen Belt.
Mixed diction is, of course, in danger of becoming a trend. You hear it on once-staid campuses, you see it in The New Yorker. But among those authors who can still thrill me with it are Martin Amis, Richard Price, E. Annie Proulx, and Chuck Palahniuk.
Outside of diction, I’m drawn to the usual virtues: sensuality, inventiveness, humor, freshness and intensity of observation. My recommendations for today would be The Bad Girl (Mario Vargas Llosa), The Book of Dave (Will Self), Delirium (Laura Restrepo), and Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Ben Fountain). From Fountain’s collection of stories, I copied these goodies into my journal:
Mason [in the presence of "new wave gangsters"] sensed a sucking emptiness in them, the void that comes of total self absorption.
The Ghanian soldiers stared back with scathing indolence.
Other than Spunk & Bite, are there writing advice/craft books you would recommend?
Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax is both solid and liberating. My usage bible is Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (who says lowercase “bible” when it’s not a proper noun). I find Sheridan Baker’s The Practical Stylist a more useful standard guide than Strunk & White.
And, what the hell, Library Journal called my own The Elements of Expression “humorous, thought-provoking, and right on the mark.” And now it’s cheap besides.
Arthur Plotnik is the author of seven books, including the acclaimed Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and two Book-of-the-Month Club selections: The Elements of Editing and The Elements of Expression. Among his hundreds of published items are award-winning essays, biography, short fiction, and poetry. He studied under Philip Roth and Vance Bourjaily at the Iowa (Graduate) Writers’ Workshop and worked as a reporter, government editor, and — for the American Library Association and others — as a magazine and book editor. He served as a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and is now on its Editorial Board.
A few days ago I saw that Rick Bragg had a new book out, a third part to his memoirs. I’ve never read anything but excerpts from Bragg’s memoirs, and I knew nothing about Bragg until I learned of him a few years ago when I was a newspaper reporter. Back then, I read his collected New York Times pieces, Somebody Told Me, and I read sentences like this lead:
This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven. This is a place where the song “Jesus Loves Me” has rocked generations to sleep, and heaven is not a concept, but a destination.
And I fell in love with such sentences (though I just noticed the antecedent-reference problem in sentence one. Does the second “their” refer to babies or grandmothers? Even editors at the New York Times slip, eh?).
These sentences were not the kind of sentences you read in daily newspapers, not regularly, at least. These sentences had a voice, a melodic Southern lilt, not the monotone thrum of AP style. They were the kind of sentences I wanted to write (though as I read them over again as I write this blog post, not so much. They have a treacly sentimentality built in; you can hear the “sad” in them if you listen well enough). They also vividly and succinctly captured the sad nature of the story they were telling — of a twister hurling itself through a rural Alabama town and church, and killing children.
Still, they are sentences with voice, the kind of sentences I wanted to write as I was learning to be a good feature writer. I wanted to write these kinds of sentences so bad I imitated them in my own newspaper feature stories.
Also, despite their treacly Southern sentimentality, they were the kind of sentences I wanted to serve as leads to the kind of stories I wanted to write when I was a newspaper feature story writer. Full of the elements of good storytelling so rare in newspapers. Narrative and description, setting and scene.
In this particular story, it seems, though it’s not a first person tale, Bragg put himself, his knowledge of growing up in the South, into the writing: It’s clear in the voice and in the images of the lead, in which the children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me” appears as a song you should know if you, too, grew up Protestant in the South or Southwest and went anywhere near a church. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.
Bragg’s voice, the frame of his experience, lends authenticity to the piece. It makes you as a newspaper feature writer want to write this kind of feature, the narrative-driven feature that you now believe, like others, may be the amazing grace that saves newspapers, and the wretch newspaper sales have become, because you believe people actually do read, or want to read, newspapers and that there are readers out there in the world who are good readers who want real stories, the kind of stories you like to write.
But then Bragg goes and does something deceitful like not giving credit to an unpaid freelancer for gathering some notes, and then writes a story with a dateline on it, a dateline that belongs to a place where Bragg may or may not have been, or at least wasn’t there very long. And you shrug your shoulders and say, OK. It’s not really that big of a deal. It’s just the New York Times shaking in a holy-roller snit because one deceitful person — Jayson Blair — was enough for them, so another becomes a fall guy and Bragg does what seems the right thing: He resigns.
So, you forgive him. It’s not like he’s made shit up like Stephen Glass or even worse James Frey or Margaret Seltzer, who made shit up about whole chunks of their lives, or made up whole lives for themselves because somehow their quietly desperate life wasn’t good enough to write about.
So you forgive Bragg, because he didn’t make shit up, as far as you know, and you feel it in your gut that what he’s written is real, no matter who took the notes. It’s real because of the voice (you’ve heard the man speak, and you know the voice is real: It’s a personable Southern voice that makes you feel as if you’re welcome at Bragg’s table for a glass of sweet tea).
It’s real because of scenes and images like this:
The 400 mourners stood and said the Lord’s Prayer. Then, Hannah’s coffin was moved slowly back down the aisle to the hearse. The organist played “Jesus Loves Me.”
But then you think, hell, if I hadn’t credited my former assistant editor on work she did, at the very least my editor would have ripped me a new one, and so would my assistant, and maybe I would have lost my job. And then you see Bragg putting out a book on Jessica Lynch and getting a job teaching journalism at the University of Alabama, and finishing up his memoirs, and you, on the other hand, are struggling to find a good job, and that makes it hard to forgive the man his sins (as much as you want to, because maybe he’s taken enough crap), even if he does write sentences like this:
Oseola McCarty spent a lifetime making other people look nice. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw.
A consistent rhetorical thorn keeps jabbing me as I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Throughout the book — which slips through several points of view — Lawrence keeps having his characters repeat phrases. Here, for instance, is the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors: “The only thing was not to care, not to care about the wages.” Why does Lawrence throw out this rhetorical quirk?
In grad school we talked about the modernist novel and the breakdown of the narrative line, particularly when writers were trying to represent the Woolfian “halo of perception.” Is the repetition Lawrence’s way of showing the mind in operation, of the brain repeating itself as it wanders and sorts thoughts? If so, it seems to diminish the characters because each character has this tic in his or her thought processes.