Posts Tagged ‘getting a grip’

The Post – Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over

February 14, 2008

As I mentioned, I had reached that place in my Phase I apprenticeship where I had grasped that it takes a long time to become an overnight success. There is no way around paying your dues and learning your craft. You can’t short-change apprenticeship. I knew I did not want to give up my dream to write, so that meant going back to the drawing board, taking classes, and starting at the bottom, all of which would take time. This also meant I had to find some way to bring in an income while pursuing my goal. The most marketable skill I had was that I was an extremely detail-oriented anal-retentive, par excellance. As it turns out, not such a bad skill to have.

I don’t think I was born with that skill. It became second nature from the 15 years I worked in a hospital lab. In a hospital, there is no acceptable margin of error. You have to be right. No matter what I did in the lab, whether it was a crossmatch for someone’s transfusion, a glucose level for a diabetic, a blood count for a leukemia patient, or a drug level for someone’s medication dosage – I knew that the results I reported would directly affect someone’s life. A doctor would base a decision to treat, or not treat, change a dosage or a medicine, based on what I reported. If I was wrong, their lives would pay the price. That training deepened when I worked in the pharmaceutical company. There I validated hundreds of thousands of pieces of data with an allowable error level something in the neighborhood of 0.01 %. The bottom line – details mattered – and in becoming a writer, that wasn’t such a bad place to start.

I decided with that kind of skill, perhaps I could find some editing jobs. Phase I was supposed to be about going “out there” and experiencing, experimenting, and trying new things. So I searched both locally and nationally. I cold-called countless managing editors in all of the publishing houses to let them know I was available for work. I was so terrified on each call, I had my “script” written in front of me while I talked. I sounded assured and confident, even as I sat there rapidly skimming every book on copy-editing, proofreading, content editing, and freelance editing that I could get my hands on. This was survival. I HAD to make this work or I had to find another 40-hour, 9-5 job. If I had to go back to that, I had to give up my writing dream. That, to me, would have been failure. I had given up good jobs, and good income. I just couldn’t give up the dream, too.

I did a few copy-editing jobs for major publishers. That was an interesting time, including the one publisher who didn’t like my work because the editor in charge of that project was a semi-retired person who liked stickies with notes in brown colored pencil . . . ONLY brown-colored pencil. I used the wrong color. No one told me about the colored pencil thing. They later acknowledged that that particular editor was a little “persnickety.” Whatever. I moved on.

A local vanity publisher hired me as their editor – copy-editor, substantive editor, press release writer, you name it, I did it. The money was terrible – flat rate no matter how long the job – but it was money, and it was training. I learned a LOT. After a while I could quote sections of the Chicago Manual of Style by heart and knew it inside and out. The trouble with that local publisher involved getting paid. When their cash-flow stopped, so did mine. It took an attorney to collect from them, so I vowed, no more small self-publishers.

In keeping with experimenting, I answered an online position announcement on the copyeditors email list, for a “native speaker of US English who had experience with other cultures.” It turns out that Bloomsbury, a publisher in the UK was doing a “Global English dictionary.” They needed someone to review all entries to make sure all definitions were there for each word, that they were culturally correct, and sounded “American.” I didn’t expect much but went ahead and sent a note indicating I grew up in a very multi-ethnic community and had just spent 4 years in a British drug company. They gave me an online-test and I passed, so my next title became “lexicographer.” I am listed as one of the lexicographers in the Encarta World English Dictionary, as well as in a thesaurus. They were GREAT to work with and I recommend the experience highly. It was all done by email and overnight overseas deliveries of work, and they paid well . . . and on time. Their Barclays Bank checks were so beautiful that if I hadn’t needed the income, I would have kept one just to frame.

During this time I also became associated with a medical ethics board that would be the mainstay of my freelance work for 10 years. I reviewed the research study documents, and edited, and often rewrote the consent forms that the research subjects would sign. This job spoke to my heart. It used every bit of my medical and pharmaceutical background and then some, REQUIRED someone picky and anal-retentive, and it tapped something else in me – the strong desire to protect. My job was to protect these people by making sure we gave them consent forms that told them fully, what the research might do to them, good and bad. I was well-suited for the work, well-paid, and the job did not require a large chunk of my time each week. That meant – I still had time to write.

I went ahead and did the other direction for Phase I: get outside knowledge. I took courses through the Duke University continuing education program. Classes in essay-writing, picture books, fiction, and how to run a freelance business. I also took and completed two children’s writing courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature. I joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and attended their conferences. I joined writing groups and paid authors to critique some of my work. And of course, collected more rejection letters.

I started to have a few successes in my writing efforts. I sold an essay to two parenting magazines about the heartbreak I felt every morning dropping my son at day care. I sold an essay to The Writer, and articles to Boys’ Life magazine. I even wrote two CliffsNotes – a result of one of the cold calls I’d made a year or two earlier – one for Dickens’ Great Expectations, and one for Michael Shaara’s, The Killer Angel. I still collected more rejection letters, but the quality of the rejections were getting better. 🙂 Busy editors took time to write personal notes on the form letters. Sometimes they even requested another revision or two before they said no. Overall, a good sign.

All in all, Phase I had taken a turn for the better, and I was learning a great deal very fast. My goal of seeing my name on the cover of a picture book, however, kept eluding me. Yes. Like many others, I had the idea that I should write picture books. They’re short, easy, quick to bang out, and besides, isn’t that what children’s writers write? I banged my head against the brick wall of the picture book writer idol for a long time before I finally surrendered to the truth that even my husband pointed out: I do NOT have a voice for picture books. He also noted I wasn’t getting any younger and maybe I should stop trying to be something I’m not, and focus on what my real strengths appeared to be . . . longer stories. When I finally accepted that truth, I also came to accept another set of truths: a good picture book writer, like a good poet, is rare. It takes special talent and voice, and writing a picture book is about the hardest, at least for me, of all children’s writing. Don’t let short deceive. Like the Tao Te Ching, those short entries are the hardest to do well.

UP NEXT: FINALLY, I GRADUATE TO PHASE II – FOCUSING THE LENS

 

The Post – Stage I: Apprenticeship – The Early Part

February 13, 2008

In 1995 I left Glaxo to create my own freelance writing business. So, you leave a good job, a steady paycheck, dig up the information to set up a business in your town, file all the forms, and then, voila, you’re in business. Now what? When does the money come in? And, small detail – from where? Isn’t there some boss who’s supposed to tell you what to do next? On the last – look in the mirror. That’s where the buck stops, or starts.

Of course I knew I wanted to write, but what? Articles? Essays? Short stories? Novels? Picture books? Yes. That was my answer. Yes. All of it. Of course, I would do it all. And succeed. Within the next few months. . . . right. I had to. I had to have that income. That’s probably the same answer anybody gives when they decide “I want to write.” The “I’ll write it all . . . and I’ll succeed.” So you sit down, write a bunch of stuff, send it out, and . . . get rejection notes. There’s a surprise. 🙂

I did have the advantage of having this dream since I was about 10 and tried to write my own Nancy Drew books. I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club in the 70s when it first started – I’m probably one of the earliest members – and I even read some of them. This gave me some working knowledge of marketing and what it was I was supposed to do to submit. I’d even managed to collect a few rejection notes over those years, so I at least had a “glimpse” of what I was up against. Even so, I had to live it, to learn it.

After a number of rejections, it dawned on me that I wasn’t destined for instant stardom and I did the equivalent of that line from the Apollo 13 movie: “What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good?”

Taking stock, I looked at where could I come up with the quickest income. Given the medical background, I could do medical writing and editing. I had the experience. It would have paid well. And I would have choked. I JUST did NOT want to sit there doing SOPs, business writing, and ripping my hair out while I tried to figure out how to format chemical formulas in my computer complete with all the raised and lowered numbers you see – C6H12O6 and 1.65 x 106 (that’s 10 to the 6th power by the way, not 106) moles . . . as you can see, I still haven’t figure out how to do that. I hope I never do. I wanted to write stories – things with heart, not chemistry. Besides, I’d already done that.

My actual, very first publication ever, had been about 20 years earlier. It was a chapter in a medical Microbiology book, on a then relatively unknown bacteria called Campylobacter. Actually, it WAS known, but as the genus Vibrio. However, the taxonomists decided that certain species of Vibrio really WEREN’T Vibrios at all, and hence needed to have their own genus. That’s what taxonomists do. Change classifications and create new names for bacteria. My job was to write a chapter summarizing all this.

As an aside: If you ever have nothing better to do, check out a book called Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology. It has almost EVERYTHING you ever wanted to know, and more that you didn’t want to know, about how to classify various bacteria. Not only that, but every few years the taxonomists change their minds about what boxes to put all the bacteria in and what names to give them, so they come out with a new volume. If you’re REALLY hard core about bacteria, get the Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology. It’s a THREE-VOLUME set, soon to be FIVE volumes after the next revision. An editorial review of just the second volume says: “Satisfyingly heavy and a pleasure to handle Volume 2 of the Second Edition of this highly respected work boasts a combined weight of more than 7 Kg. Their sheer size is a testament to the quantity of information contained inside.” So, for all the bacteria geeks . . . or people who need satisfyingly heavy doorstops.

Anyway, I wrote this chapter summarizing all that was known about the appearance, biochemical characteristics, and pathogenicity (how well it causes disease) of all the known Campylobacter species in 1975. If you’re that interested, see my Author journey page for a reference. I’m sure I’m no longer in the book. Some other poor soul has no doubt, long since revised it. Bless them.

It was a fine enough debut for my writing. After all, how many college juniors can say they’ve been published, much less in a respected science reference series? While my appetite was whetted for the world of publishing, I just did not want to write science journals or textbooks.

So what do you do when you have left your job, you don’t want to write science, you’re running low on money, and all your fiction gets rejection slips?

You be realistic and go back to science, but you find something in science that is writing-related, and engages your heart. You also refuse to give up your dream.

COMING UP NEXT: Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over