Writer’s Armageddon

“So…do you…write? Or do you have, like, a job?”

My acquaintances are always curious. How should I answer?

“Well, things I write get published and then publications send me money. I then apply this money toward my bills. Is that having a job? I’m sort of like an artist, so I wouldn’t know.”

But mostly I smile politely and say that I’m a freelancer. In the last few years I’ve published maybe a couple hundred articles in eleven or twelve venues (if that makes me a total amateur, keep it to yourself – I was working a “real” job full-time until a year ago). That doesn’t include my book or over 100 (unpaid) pieces I’ve written for this blog – let’s not discuss the cost-effectiveness of this.

The challenge of explaining (and sometimes defending) my work to others makes me think of more writing-related problems.

First, there’s the awful and mysterious matter of the snafus that often arise when I work with a new editor.

In late 2009, I landed my first magazine assignment. The event I was covering, outside of Philadelphia, was scheduled for the day after I returned from a vacation on the West Coast. However, my flight out of the tiny Oregon airport was inexplicably delayed. I then missed my connecting flight out of San Francisco by a few minutes. Not only were there no available flights to Philadelphia until the next day: there were no available flights to Newark, Boston, New York, Washington or Baltimore.

In early 2011, I got an opportunity with a news website. My first assignment was to write a preview piece about a local theater company’s show. I proceeded in the usual way, contacting the PR department and scheduling a visit with the show’s director and artists. The PR guy was cordial at first, but the night before the interview was to take place, an e-mail which I wrote alerted him to a horrendous miscommunication.

He had assumed that a “preview on the show” meant a lengthy feature, for which I would visit the theater over a series of months and delve into all aspects of the company’s art. Since I had actually intended one visit for a 700-word article, he wrote me a terse e-mail rescinding my invitation, telling me that in fact no-one involved in the production had any time to meet with a writer.

This was followed by a longer, similarly unprovoked communication in which he declared that all proposed media articles should be preceded by a written and signed contract between the writer and the theater company, so that no-one would ever have disappointed expectations.

(This, I think, is a hazard of theater artists who find themselves in professional external relations roles for which they have not been trained.)

Anyway, I had to go back to my new editor and explain why I could no longer write the piece he was expecting. I felt like an ass and wondered how I could have bungled the kind of assignment I’ve been writing for years.

In both of the above situations, the editors somehow recognized some particle of redeeming professionalism me, and gave me another chance. (That PR guy recently invited me to review his latest show – I did not reply, as I’m not sure who would be responsible for writing the contract beforehand).

This week, I finished my first assignment for another magazine. Especially when I am dealing with an editor for the first time, I work hard to polish my article and submit it early. Monday morning, ahead of a noon deadline, I was doing a few tweaks on a piece I’d worked on for over a week.

My computer screen flashed a jagged blue-and-black jumble, and then it went black.

The pain is still too fresh to impart what happened over the next few hours. Insert your happy tale of how all your files have been backed up online for years, instead of just a few crucial things on disk (this is what people have been telling me, ostensibly to comfort me with their own peace of mind). Suffice it to say that a computer expert estimates that he may have been able to save “30-50%” of my files, but the damage was “pretty extensive”.

I had to tell my new editor that I wouldn’t be able to make the deadline. Then I spent the day re-writing the article from memory on my husband’s computer before delivering my machine, like a little black corpse, to a data salvage expert. I sent the re-written article on Tuesday morning.

I don’t know yet how things will work out with this new magazine. But I’m sufficiently spooked: what is it about landing new assignments that brings disaster upon my professional efforts?

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s a bit melodramatic. When you routinely put pieces of yourself out in the world in the form of written work, perhaps your sense of world’s stakes are slightly aggravated.

The frustrations of being a writer aren’t limited to assignment catastrophes. Sometimes the challenges of seeing your work filtered through an editor’s keyboard are almost as bad.

This week I’ve been stewing over my Paranormal Activity 3 review. Here is the ending that I wrote:

Scary as the Paranormal Activity movies are (and yes, they are constant goosebump-fests), the idea that heightened surveillance would provoke a paranormal presence is somehow oddly comforting. Perhaps it’s because it implies that if a ghost ever bothered us, we could minimize its manifestations by making different choices than Paranormal Activity’s fatally inquisitive boyfriends. Like the proverbial playground bully, perhaps, in a logical reversal of the Paranormal Activity formula, spirits go away if you ignore them.

So what if my bedroom door sometimes opens by itself just a little bit? I don’t look at it, and then I attribute it to the draft.  Perhaps if I set up a camera in my apartment, things would be different. But I never, ever will.

Here is the ending my editor published:

“But the idea that heightened surveillance would provoke a paranormal presence is somehow oddly comforting, because it suggests a practical solution: Perhaps paranormal spirits, like playground bullies and Kim Jong-Il, go away if you just ignore them.”

I never mind when my stuff needs to be edited for space or flow – given my verbose tendencies, it’s a common problem that makes me grateful to editors. But I do object when I feel that an editor has taken out my style in favor of his or her own – rewritten the piece, instead of edited it.

If I had wanted to allude to the mysteries of Kim Jong-Il, I would have. It’s a distracting reference, in my opinion. I explained all this in a brief e-mail to my editor that I hope was not unnecessarily querulous. He replied that the edits were not for space considerations, but to make the review more interesting. He agreed to take Kim Jong-Il out, but said that he’d put him in there to hold the readers’ attention, because Kim Jong-Il is “an example that a reader can easily relate to, as opposed to simply dry theory.”

Now, after braving delayed flights, bizarre PR staff, missed deadlines and the loss of 50-70% of my computer files, I am faced with a new, constantly unfolding writer’s Armageddon.

If my review of Paranormal Activity 3 was too full of “dry theory” to be interesting to readers, tell me again – why I am in this job?

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3 Comments

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  1. I really feel for you because I blog for fun and although I put some effort into each piece before sending it out into
    the world I don’t have to rely on what I write to pay any bills. I think some people have such a romantic image of someone who writes for a living, the daydreaming followed by a burst of inspired activity. In reality it is, as you point out, a hard slog. Recently I experienced an unexpected rewrite of the first post for a new crochet free blog that I aim to start soon. It was supposed to be a fairly relaxed, jargon free description of a morning spent with an expert of sorts. The blog is an attempt to promote the good things about the area in which I live. I emailed the post to the expert, a really sweet intelligent guy, so that he could point out any technical errors. He sent back something that sounds like an official guide to the local environment – in other words he had edited it! I have put off telling him that I can’t possibly post it like that without risking an accusation of plagiarism, it just doesn’t sound like me. I have an excuse for the delay, I’ve been busy running a local campaign against HS2 (Google at will) and have been plagued by the sort of bad luck, on a lesser scale, that you’ve faced. My bank card has been replaced four times since December, it was always put out of action by a damaged ATM/Sony hacking issue/disappearance in the mail just in time to leave me out of cash just when I needed it to pay for camera batteries or public transport fares, leaving me to walk for hours in the rain or take a few essential shots at a one off event. I had a short fuse before I was daft enough to start the campaign but I now go off without warning. I should be pleased that anyone at all showed up to have their photo taken but end up snarling. I can just walk away from it, I am about to, but I admire anyone who has the guts to risk it and do want they want for a living. Good for you.

    • Post whatever you want on YOUR blog. If the expert corrected any facts that you got wrong, include the new info. But sounds like he rewrote it, not edited it, so by all means arrange it back the way you want it to be as long as the info is correct. The beauty of personal blogs for writers (though perhaps a drawback for readers) is that you don’t have to answer to an editor. Not that I don’t like my editors/publishers – many of them are great and I’d hate to work without them.

  2. Because you love writing!
    No need to edit that (even though it’s not technically a sentence.)

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