Posts Tagged ‘outside knowledge’

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 – Okay, So Now That You’ve Met My Fiddler Crabs, Who is This Deb Bailey Writer Person?

February 12, 2008

I’ve been promising the “where have I been, what am I doing, and where am I going?” piece. You’ve met the fiddler crabs and know that I’m doing some kind of strange book involving crustaceans and humans. And since it’s fiction, not nonfiction, God only knows what it’s about, right? You’re aware I am interested in everything from Nancy Drew, photography, and Tonka trucks (the old metal ones only!!!) to borescopes, poodles, and Buddhism. So, you know I’m odd.

My story as a writer – short version. Plan A: I had a dream. Left a job. Wrote a bunch of stuff. Submitted it. Waited for the money to roll in. It didn’t. So I was forced to move to Plan B: Take a step back. Scratch my head. Get a grip, then do what every writer since the cave man has done – learn my craft and build a business. SLOWLY. While earning paychecks to keep the bills paid.

I decided this story might be useful? Or at least entertaining, to any new writers who have illusions about how this business works. Maybe it will either inspire or make you laugh when you want to cry, so you realize you are not alone. Or you will run screaming from the room and say you never want to be a writer. That’s always a fair answer, too. But I have to tell you, writing . . . it’s a life-long affliction.

If you were born infected with the desire to write, you can run, but you can’t hide from that voice pulling at you to put words down. If you are honest, you will admit to secretly ripping a strip off of a paper napkin while driving because you just CAN’T let that thought go by. You might even admit to having torn bits of envelopes, doctor bills, the back of your son’s first draft of a term paper, or your hand, covered in scribbles of things you JUST CAN’T let escape from your brain without being written down. If it progresses to the more advanced stages, you may find yourself living with your walls, stairwells, garage, kitchen table and living room floor, covered in maps, sketches, notes, paintings, story outlines, books, articles, and half-written manuscripts. Let’s not even discuss what’s packed into storage boxes, onto book shelves, under the pool table or in desk drawers. Like I said, it’s an affliction. You just learn to live with it. And like Stephen King said, he’d do this job even if they didn’t pay him.

In any event, I will split this over a few posts. I think that way, it will also give living examples to the three stages of writer development as outlined by author and illustrator, Uri Shulevitz. The man has a tremendous body of work, has won awards from the Caldecott Medal to the Golden Kite Award, and I think, knows a few things about this business.

I have this old faded email from 8/27/96 from the Children’s Writing email group, where someone very kindly shared Mr. Shulevitz’s comments from a conference. By the way, if you want to write for children, that email group is a great group to be subscribed to. The writers range from the famous to the beginner, and the people there are generous, knowledgeable, and good-hearted. Just don’t show up and say – “I want to write for kids. What do I do?” Or the ever popular, “I wrote something. Where should I send it?” Do some of your own homework, first. Get a copy of:

Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market 2008 (Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market)  

Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2008 (Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market) Read the beginning pages. They have great basic get-started information about the profession – and it is a profession – of children’s writing. For that matter, Writer’s Digest Book Club has a ton of great writing books, some slanted for children’s writing. Just get or borrow some of these books, read them, then come to the list with your questions. They’ll be happy to help. To subcribe, send a message to:

childrens-writers-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

You can also visit the group’s home page at:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/childrens-writers.

To finish up today’s post and set the stage for the rest of this project, I’ll leave you with Mr. Shulevitz’s thoughts about the process a person goes through to become a writer. Most of us will travel this road I suspect, unless you’re Isaac Asimov, who could write almost perfect first drafts, and over his life wrote or edited over 500 books, an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards, and whose works have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. He missed out only in Philosophy. If you’re not another Asimov, here’s the stages:

The Three Stages of Writer Development (as paraphrased by the email author who apologized for not being as eloquent as Mr. Shulevitz):

Stage One: The Journey of Apprenticeship

Learn about the craft with an open mind. Set aside your preferences. Experiment, experience, try new techniques, look at different eras and styles. Copy other writers to understand their techniques. Survey all styles of children’s books to see what makes the best, good, and the worst, bad. In short: Gather Outside Knowledge

Stage Two: Search Inside

a) Find your own voice and vision. Seek solitude. Be alone with yourself. Seek a sanctuary where you can sort out the voices within and without. Achieve inner silence.

b) Be who you are. You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self and sort out all you have gathered in your apprenticeship. Sort out what you learned from your apprenticeship and learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love. Find themes which continue to repeat themselves within you and your work. Examine what may be to some, unpopular beliefs.

c) You will work alone in the end. Any teacher can only take you to your own frontier. You will have to take it from there.

Stage Three: Joy of Working

After the first two stages, you are ready to begin WORKING. You know yourself so well you can lose yourself in your work. Your work will be free and spontaneous because you know yourself so well, but not yet easy or simple.

And by the way, he notes: Sometimes you might have to go back to Stage One or Two once in a while.

UP NEXT: My apprenticeship