Wordwork: the art and craft of making a living as a writer.

  Writing is a hard business. Finding the right words, and making sure their meaning and their sound and their rhythm all merge properly on the page, has been a head-banger since people were scratching on cave walls. Those of us who write stories we make up have one special set of problems, and those who try to research and write the world’s literal truth have another. This blog will be my attempt to share what I’ve learned in more than three decades as a reporter and writer about gathering and organizing information, and then writing it down as clearly as possible.

    I’m going to try to do something else as well: discuss how to make a living as a writer. Because as much as writing is a literary act, it’s a mercenary one as well. If we don’t get paid — if we can’t pay the rent and buy groceries and keep the lights on — it doesn’t matter how brilliant we are as observers, investigators, and wordsmiths. It’s the dirty little secret of the literary life: Words are to writers what shoes are to cobblers. We have to produce enough of them and sell them at a high enough price to stay in business. It isn’t easy.

I started writing this blog in 2009, am re-posting it upon request, and I’m writing new posts. The latest is at the top. To read them in order, read from the bottom. If, reading these blog posts, you encounter any that require a password, email me at danbaum@me.com. You can also get new postings in your email in-box by clicking in the Follow box and typing in your email address.

My wife, Margaret, and I both started out as newspaper reporters. Then we were full-time freelance writers, with no other income, from 1987 until taking jobs with an NGO, in 2015. We didn’t live large, but we lived entirely on our writing income, and rarely had to resort to writing stuff we didn’t want to write. We were lucky. But we also were careful never to forget that alongside the responsibility that we have to write the truth and inspire with our words is the equally important requirement to make a buck so we can keep writing. We’ve watched a lot of freelancers fail over the past three decades, and usually it has been not because they failed at the former, but because they lifted the eye from the latter.

If people who claim to love you suggest you minor in accounting  or learn construction skills “so you’ll have a fallback,” remind them that people who have a fallback tend to get the fallback. If you have a parachute in the plane, you’ll use it when the engine catches fire instead of bringing the plane in for a wheels-up landing and saving the lives of everybody else aboard. If you have a lifeboat aboard the Patna, you’ll jump into that instead of toughing out the storm at the helm.*  Need I keep stringing out the metaphors? I think not. You get it: Have no fallback. There’s nothing wrong with learning construction skills or knowing the basics of double-ledger accounting. But if you have your heart set on writing for a living, better to be hungry for a spell and work your ass off at writing than to flop back into something “practical” that you don’t want to do and from which, once you’re accustomed to the regular paycheck, you will find it difficult to extricate yourself. Stay hungry. Let’s begin:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” — Samuel Johnson.

Now, sit up straight and stop mumbling. Your use of the language is about to improve a lot, whether you like it or not.

correcting you grammar.jpgShirt sent by my good friend Phelim. Margaret says she’s going to hold me to the “silently” part.

The blog posts already published are here:

 

*Obscure literary reference. The Patna is the storm-wracked ship full of Mecca-bound pilgrims into a lifeboat of which the protagonist jumps at the start of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. When he is rescued at sea and steams back into port, there sits the Patna, safe as houses. That Jim is branded a coward doesn’t mean I’m calling you a coward for jumping into the lifeboat. Just that had he had no lifeboat, Jim’s life would have depended on piloting the Patna home safely, as someone obviously was able to do. If you can arrange things so that your life depends on getting paid to write, you’ll vastly increase your chances of getting paid to write, as some people obviously are able to do. 

 

Nothing to Offer a Paper? 3

This is Part Three of a series. Parts One and Two are immediately below. If you haven’t already, please read those first.

It’s a long flight from New York to Anchorage, and upon arrival at about midnight, I walked outside, blinking and squinting, into sunshine and birdsong. It was about May 1, and the days were eerily long in the way I remembered from my time in West Berlin (which is about as far north as Juneau. )

The Anchorage Times newsroom, when I reached it at nine the next morning, wasn’t much bigger than that of Energy User News but it was jammed with male and female reporters who seemed uncommonly friendly toward the new guy. I sat among them and answered questions: Where had I worked before? Why did I want to work  here? 

“Well,” I said, Alaska is inherently interesting, and you won that Pulitzer Prize. Let me see the story. It must be quite something.”

A queer silence descended. Finally, a slightly older reporter broke it. “That was the other paper,” he said. “You want the Anchorage Daily News.” 

I had applied to the wrong newspaper. And now, having invested the time and money to move here from New York, I was stuck with the fruit of my mistake. 

How to Get a Great Job With Nothing to Offer 2

This is part two of a series. Part One is immediately below. If you haven’t already, please read that one first.

I didn’t really expect ever to hear from The Asian Wall Street Journal. Surely, I thought, so prestigious a paper is receiving resumés and clips from genuine grown-up business reporters at big-city papers. Still, since I had access to that stack of  red envelopes, I put one in the mail to Hong Kong every Friday, stuffed with my stories from that week’s paper, along with a neatly typed letter to Mike Malloy saying that I remained eager to work for him whenever he had an opening.

In the meantime, I kept scattershooting resumes and clips to mid-sized dailies in the hopes of getting the kind of job that might make me a candidate for the kind of job that might make me a candidate for the kind of job that might make me a candidate for The Asian Wall Street Journal.

Newsroom folklore had it that the daily paper in Anchorage had won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the Teamsters’ stranglehold on Alaska. I couldn’t google it, of course — this was 1981 — so I trundled off to the New York Public Library and sat reading bound volumes of the Anchorage Times, Alaska’s largest daily. I never found the series, but being a reporter in Alaska looked like a lot of fun: grizzly attacks! bush-plane crashes! volcanic eruptions! shipwrecks! corruption!

My father Sy, lives by a sensible rule: Ask for the order. It’s not enough to explain to a buyer the superiority of your product; at a certain point you need to say, “Can I put you down for fifty cases?” I sat at my Selectric and typed out a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Times that all but grabbed the man by the knot of his necktie. After the usual inflation of achievements and other bland throat-clearing, I made myself turn to the main course. “I would like very much to be a reporter for the Times and believe I’d do a good job,” I concluded. “May I please have a reporting position on your staff?”

I put the letter, a resumé, and some recent clips in the mail — along with my weekly red envelope to Hong Kong.

A week later rang the big black rotary phone on my desk, and a bemused-sounding man said, “You want to work here that bad, come on. We’re not going to move you or anything like that, but if you can get yourself up here to Anchorage, I’ll give you a reporter’s job on the business desk.” Bada-bing!

“I couldn’t possibly be there until morning,” I said. He laughed.

“See you whenever you arrive,” he said. “Don’t get killed getting here. That happened to us once; starting reporter hit a moose on the Al-Can Highway on his way up from the Lower 48.”

Oh man; this was going to be fun.

Whooping like a banshee, I bolted for the door, stopping briefly at the supply closet to grab another stack of red envelopes.

Think you have nothing to offer a paper?

You might think that, just out of college or having worked a non-journalism job for years, you have nothing to offer a newspaper as a reporter, but let me correct you on that. You might have no experience. You not even have any talent. But anybody, no matter how inexperienced and/or talentless, can summon a quality that editors like to see in reporters: relentlessness.

True story: I started my journalism career at the phytoplankton of newspapers — Energy User News, a weekly paper for commercial and industrial energy managers. Lower than this on the journalism prestige ladder it was not possible to go. I spent my days researching and writing about fluidized bed combustion boilers, high-efficiency heating-ventilation-and-airconditioning (HVAC) systems, and the like. I was earning $9,500 a year; even in 1981, a four-digit salary in New York City was comically low.

Newspapers occasionally ran help-wanted ads in the classifieds at the back of Editor and Publisher, the magazine of the newspaper industry,* and scouring those pages of fine print was a weekly ritual of mine. There, at the top of page 41 was this:

The Asian Wall Street Journal is always eager to hear from good reporters willing to relocate to Asia. Write to Mike Malloy, managing editor…. An address in Hong Kong followed.

I almost took an infarction. Gold strike! Hong Kong! The Wall Street Journal‘s farm team!  I’d recently finished John LeCarré’s The Honorable Schoolboy — my favorite of his many books — and my mind was full of southeast Asian intrigue. But even to think of going from a nothingburger of a paper like Energy User News to a Wall Street Journal paper was an act of almost criminal hubris. The path to the Journal led through small-town weeklies, perhaps, then to such a daily as, say, the Louisville Courier or the Anniston (Alabama) Star. But who knew? Maybe one day all of the Asian Wall Street Journal’s reporters would die in a cholera outbreak or a bus plunge, and they’d need hands. I dashed off a cover letter, calling Energy User News, “the premier monitor of the volatile energy markets,” gathered  a few recent “clips” (stories of mine clipped from the paper) and moseyed into the supply closet to steal an envelope. The first one I laid my hand on was red, and luckily, I used that one. 

 

 

*Can you imagine anything with a more pungent whiff of death than a magazine about the newspaper industry?

The Story that Made Me Fall in Love

Yesterday, I told you about falling in love with Margaret after reading an article she wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Here’s that story: 

A strong wave, despair . . . tragedy at sea
Only survivor among 4 in shipwreck recalls 55 hours of panic, mistakes
Margaret L. Knox
 Staff Writer,
 Sunday 5/12/1985
TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. – A bag of food was lost in a clumsy toss toward the life raft, and a package of flares was swept away by a wave. The wreck of the Can Do, which left three men dead off the South Carolina coast last week, unfolded as a series of tragic events, according to the man who survived it.

It was to have been an eight-day snapper and grouper fishing cruise from the docks of Tybee Island to Murrells Inlet in South Carolina, said the survivor, second mate M. Gregg Palmer of Raleigh, N.C.
The four fishermen left Tybee Island on May 3. Early Sunday morning, deck hand Tommy Wood of Tybee Island awoke to find the stern of the 34- foot fishing boat flooded, the result of a “freak wave,” according to Palmer.
After that, everything went badly.
Within 55 hours, one man disappeared while swimming for help, another succumbed to dehydration and a third, surrendering to pain and despair, took off his life vest and slipped into the ocean.
It all happened under clear skies in 70-degree water. The 7-year-old Can Do, which previously had withstood hurricanes at sea, was rocked on the day of the tragedy by swells of only 4 to 8 feet.
Recalling the tragedy from his hospital bed in Charleston, S.C., last week, Palmer, 28, occasionally lapsed forgetfully into the present tense as he spoke of his dead shipmates. A novice fisherman with just a month of experience at sea, Palmer was still wondering, “Why me? Why did I survive?”
Doctors supplied some of the answers. Palmer was healthy and uninjured, and h is husky physique would have allowed him to lose 20 pounds of fat before the effort to endure the elements began to gnaw at his muscle tissue, they said. At 5-foot-9, he weighs 166 pounds, having lost 9 pounds while adrift.
The first mate, Robert Watson, 26, of Pensacola, Fla., who had lost his fishe rman father in a shipwreck, probably broke a hand and a foot while evacuating the vessel, Palmer said. Wood, 37, swallowed salt water when he fell into the ocean while trying to board the life raft.
Faith and will power also figured in Palmer’s survival formula. He had listened as two of his shipmates, babbling with hallucinations, fell into a death-hastening delirium.
“I kept catching myself at it toward the end,” said Palmer, who was rescued at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, wearing khakis and a rubber rain suit but no shirt. “I used a lot of prayer and a lot of desire to get back home.” While Wood’s family and Watson’s relatives in Pensacola were preparing for memorial services Saturday, Palmer was getting ready to leave the hospital and go straight to a meeting with his uncle, who is the Can Do’s owner and father of the lost captain, Stacey Chancey.
Al Chancey wanted to hear from Palmer every detail of the shipwreck. As Palmer has pieced it together, the chain of tragedy began about 4 a.m. Sunday when Wood awoke to find the stern deck flooded.
Within half an hour, the Can Do was swallowed by the Atlantic. In that

half hour, recalled Palmer, everything went wrong.
The crew bailed and pumped frantically while Chancey tried to send a distress call and discovered that the radio’s batteries were dead. By 4:20 a.m., they were abandoning the sinking ship.
In a panic, they threw the life raft overboard before equipping it.
Palmer will not say who tried to toss the bag of food and water aboard – only that he missed. “The raft was bouncing, the boat was bouncing. He was clumsy,” said Palmer.
Someone else laid the emergency kit of flares and flashlights on the ship’s deck, and a wave sucked it overboard.
After less than two hours in the six-man life raft, they sighted a sailboat and discovered their waterlogged air horn was useless, Palmer said. Their shouts were whipped away by the wind.
As the sailboat drew to within 300 feet, Chancey, over his mates’ protests, tried to swim for help, Palmer said. Despite wearing a life preserver and having a reputation as a strong swimmer, Chancey was swept away by a strong current and disappeared in the swells.
The rest of that Sunday, the three survivors sighted several boats but none close enough to hail until about 3 p.m.
Palmer is haunted by what happened then.
“If I had just jumped up two seconds earlier . . .,” he kept repeating. But they had failed to designate a watchman, and all three were dozing when a sport fishing boat motored past, even closer than the sailboat.
By that evening, Wood was complaining of impaired vision and hearing. “He’d look you dead in the eye, as serious as could be, and say, ‘Let’s go up to the bar. Let’s go get a drink.’ “
When a wave washed over him, Wood drank the salt water despite the others’ en treaties to spit it out.
Palmer and Watson piled life preservers on top of Wood and lay beside him all night, trying to keep him warm. But by dawn Monday, he was dead.
Watson gave up about 24 hours later. The pain of his broken bones was too much, he told Palmer, and, like Wood, Watson began talking as though he were ashore: “Let’s go to the store. Let’s catch a ride.”
Palmer said he begged the first mate to hang on just a little longer. But by then, both were despairing, believing they had been swept well out to sea, beyond the range of small craft.
Watson removed his life vest and crawled over the side.
Just an hour later, Palmer caught a ride. He was spotted by a Coast Guard airplane just 45 miles southeast of Charleston and picked up by a sport fishing boat. He had with him in the boat a bottle of dishwashing liquid, a tube of toothpaste and the waterlogged air horn.
end

Wouldn’t you drive out of your way to meet the woman who wrote that? 

How I found Margaret

When young aspiring writers ask me how they can replicate my freelance career, I often tell them, “First thing you should do is marry Margaret.” 

This is how that happened to me: 

I got the job of a lifetime in 1982, when the managing editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, a paper to which I’d been applying for months, finally relented and offered me a job.* I spent some months in Hong and Manila before being posted permanently to Singapore. Reporting in Asia was a gas, especially since, being either a former U.S. colony (the Philippines) or former British colonies (Hong Kong and Singapore), language wasn’t an obstacle. I was living a longstanding dream of mine — the life of a foreign correspondent — when a cassette tape arrived in the mail from my brother Michael.

jake mofe

Speaking from a bench in New York’s Central Park, Mike told me that he had a particularly deadly form of leukemia. When I told my bosses that I had to quit so I could return to New York to be with him, they kindly offered to wangle me a job in the New York office of the mother paper, The Wall Street Journal. Not only were they arranging for me to be near my brother for his final months, they were doing the equivalent of calling me up from the farm team to the majors. I covered the oil business from New York until the editors there decided that I should be covering mutual funds in Boston.

Sure, it was The Wall Street Journal, but covering mutual funds  was like dying of old age at 28. Meanwhile, a friend of mine, who was a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Consitution, kept telling his bosses about me and they kept inviting me down for an interview. I couldn’t go while Michael was so sick, but as soon as he died, on May 1, 1985,  I called Atlanta and offered to come interview. I was up to here with interviewing white men in suits about money, and wanted back out on the streets where the action is.

 While waiting to speak with the Journal-Constitution’s  top editor, I picked up that day’s edition to familiarize myself with the paper I was hoping to join. Stripped across the top of page one was the story of a shipwreck off Savannah. Dateline: ABOARD THE USS RAPPAHANNOCK– possibly dictated using ship-to-shore radio. On went an amazingly vivid tale of a fishing boat caught in a storm, whose crew then did everything wrong — like throwing their box of emergency food overboard before jumping in the liferaft. It was a great oceangoing tale, but it was the writing that lifted the story off the page and hung it glittering before my eyes. In a few column inches the writer managed to make three-dimensional people out of each fisherman, arrange suspense, and wring meaning from every word. This was writing! And I was being invited to join this paper! I was working the paper like a bellows, looking for the jump, when the secretary called me inside to his nibs. “Who,” I said, pointing to the byline, “is this Margaret L. Knox? She’s incredible.”

“Oh, that’s just Meg, the Savannah reporter.” First clue that the people running this paper were idiots; they had no idea what they had there in Savannah.

I took the job anyway, bought in Boston the kind of stupid-but- awesome car you can only justify as assuagement of grief after your brother’s death — a red 1969 Pontiac GTO convertible with a 400- horsepower engine, four on the floor, and air shocks that let me pump the back way up — and took a week driving it down the coast.

From Charleston, I called the Savannah bureau. At the very least, I thought, the person who wrote that terrific story is smart enough to put me wise to the paper and its personalities. She said I should stop by when I got to Savannah.

 

Her office, when I opened the door the next day at about 3:00, was large and almost entirely unfurnished. Stacks of files and books lay everywhere on the floor. Nautical charts were scotch-taped to the walls. It looked like an 11-year-old girl’s idea of what a grown-up’s office might look like. Margaret sat a desk, talking into a big black corded telephone.

After hanging up, she walked across the room, wearing a purple-light-green-and-white blousewith matching skirt, to shake my hand. This is the face that approached me:

 

margaret-knox-baum

She walked me outside, apologizing that she was on deadline but that she’d be happy to meet later for a drink. “In the meantime, you should go out to Fort Pulaski,” she said. “It was the last all-brick fortification built on the east coast before the development of the rifled cannon, which put an end to all-brick fortifications.”

 

Now, I don’t know how that strikes your ear, but I’m a history guy, and a gun guy, and there was something simply cool about this woman, whom I ‘d already known wrote so well, and whom I was now only starting to appreciate face to face, talking about the role of rifled cannon in transforming eighteenth-century military architecture.

We had a nice drink, and then dinner, and even went for a late- night swim in the ocean in our underwear. No hint of romance passed between us; she was living with a boyfriend who’d followed her from Michigan, and I — grieving, uprooting — was, ironically enough, taking a short break from my obsessive wife hunt.

Ain’t it always the case? You search and search and search, and the minute you lift your eye from the task, that which was sought appears.

Only problem was, I didn’t know it at the time. After congratulating myself endlessly for my deliberate search for a wife, “so I’d know her when I found her,” here she was, and I didn’t recognize who stood before me. Some guys don’t deserve the good fortune they enjoy.

 

*Having no real experience to offer the AWSJ I fell back on a cheap trick to get the job. Let me know if you want to hear that story.

 

Finding and Working With an Agent

Some writers try to sell their books directly to publishers, but I don’t recommend it.  The publishing world is a shark tank, and you want your own shark. A good agent will not only sell your book* to a publisher for a good price, he or she will also be your advisor, perhaps your first-line editor, and your friend. It’s up to you, of course, but I strongly recommend having an agent to sell your project. A good one, with whom you have a good relationship, is well worth the commission he or she will charge you. Mine has even negotiated good magazine and web work for me. **

The trick of getting an agent is: you need the right agent. You need an agent that not only appreciates your kind of book (and the market for it), but has lunch regularly with the editors who buy such books. This is why a lot of writers have more than one agent — one for their non-fiction, one for their fiction, one for their poetry, etc.

The first thing to do is go to a bookstore or library and pick out several books that are similar to yours. By similar, I mean same genre, same market, same sensibility, etc. Books that might be shelved next to yours.

Assemble a list of about ten, and first look in the acknowledgements; authors often thank their agents. If not, write down the publishers. Then call the publishers, ask for the editorial department, and when someone answers ask for the assistant of the agent who represented the book published by that house that you identified as being similar to yours. This will leave you with a list of about ten agents that are possibilities.

Then call those agents’ offices and make sure you have the name spelled right and the address correct. In the same phone call, ask for the agent’s assistant and ask that person how the agent likes to receive things. As an attached Word file? In the body of an email? As an attached PDF? In a paper envelope? Send the proposal to each according to her preferences, along with a letter saying you are looking for representation for this project, that you have sent it to several agents, and that you’d appreciate hearing from her quickly. Any agent that writes or calls and says he/she doesn’t look at simultaneous submissions — that is, won’t look at someone’s work while other agents are looking at the same work — strike from your list. You are the client. They are auditioning for your business, not the other way around. 

When you have a few agents that want to represent you, ask them first what they charge. Most agents charge fifteen percent commission. There is room to dicker, especially if you have several who want to represent you. (Keep in mind that you also need to put aside about a quarter of the advance to pay the taxes, so between that and the agent’s commission, you really only get about half the advance. But remember: you’re likely only to get a quarter of the “advance” on signing — then you’ll get a quarter on delivery of the manuscript after however many months you’ve said it will take you to finish the manuscript, a quarter on hardback publication about a year after that, and a quarter on paperback publication about a year after that. So that $100,000 book contract that you thought would let you retire young really puts only about $50,000 in your pocket — over three years. That’s less than $17,000 a year.  Whatever dollar figure you hear that a publisher is willing to pay, divide it by four, imagine that dribbled out over three years, and decide, using this formula, if you can accept the offer. If you can’t do a good job on that much money, refuse the contract.

Then ask the agents for the names and phone numbers of some of their clients, and then call all those writers. Figure out what’s important to you in an agent and ask the clients of each about the characteristics that are important to you. Does she return phone calls? Does she work quickly? Does she get big money? Does she follow through on foreign/film rights, etc. Will she edit your proposal? Does she offer career advice? 

Another thing, and this is important: Disqualify any agent that requires you to sign a contract with him, especially if it’s a contract for a period of time. Stand firm on this. Tell him you’re willing to pay his commission if he sells the book for an advance you can accept. But if he can’t, you need to feel free to take it back from him and go elsewhere. This is important: do not sign agent contracts. 

My agent*  worked a true stroke of genius when David Remnick told me in September 2006 that he wasn’t going to renew my staff-writer contract the following June. I’d been worried anyway about how I was going to produce 30,000 words about the Iraq War II military (my beat) while doing all the research and interviews for the book whose proposal my agent had just sold and whose manuscript was due in eighteen months. I was on the verge of asking Remnick for a book leave — a common enough thing at The New Yorker — when he called to lower the boom. My last day as a staff writer was nine months away. With my body and my head deep in New Orleans, I was going to have to fly in and out to write the Army stories I was contractually obliged to write. So not only was I losing the best job in journalism, the end game was going to break my concentration repeatedly on what I hoped would be my most literary book yet.

My agent, who had sold my proposal for Nine Lives  (then called The Neutral Ground) to an imprint of Random House, jumped into action and negotiated for me a dream deal. I could work off the remainder of my 2006-2007 New Yorker contract by writing a daily blog post from post-Katrina New Orleans for the magazine’s new website. The web editor said a few lines and a couple of links was all I needed to send, but I said, no, I’d like to write you complete story every weekday. So every weekday for five months, while doing the interviews and research for Nine Lives, I had to go out and find something interesting and perhaps amusing about which to write. (Not a problem in New Orleans.) The New Yorker called the product “New Orleans Journal,” and you can see them all here. (Scroll down to “by far the most fun….”) Reporting and writing New Orleans Journal was the best imaginable crash course in the city about which I was writing a book. That was a dozen years ago and I’ve still never done work that was as satisfying and as much fun as that. (New Orleanians loved “New Orleans Journal” and would stop me on the street to shake my hand. That never happened to me  before or since.) And my agent got me that gig without even asking me ahead of time if she should. She knew me well enough to know how perfect a gig that would be for me. That’s a great agent. 

 

*If your book is a novel, you must write the whole thing  before you can try to sell it or even find an agent for it. If your book is non-fiction, do not send around a completed manuscript, even to agents. Agents and publishers want to see proposals for non-fiction books. You can find the ones that sold my four books, along with a little essay about non-fiction book proposals and finding an agent, here

**Name withheld at her request. I’ve just added to my page of successful book proposals one for a book I really wanted to write, but for which even she couldn’t find a publisher. Please take a look and, if you can figure out why it flopped, tell me. Stop me before I try again to sell it. 

Whudduya wanna know?

Rather than have me drone on aimlessly, is there anything in particular you want me to address about the language, the researching and writing process, or the business of making a living as a writer? Please address questions to: danbaum@me.com.