Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How To Not Be a Sell-Out

After years of being primarily a fiction writer, in the last few years I've shifted over towards creative nonfiction. I spent 8 years writing a novel that didn't get an agent--though I got glowing rejections and had a number of agents say they would be delighted to see my next manuscript. I'm not doubting my writing abilities, but it was quite demoralizing and not a process I can go through again. In the last 8 or 9 months, I've started to send out essays and have had some small success--they've been taken by a number of big newspapers and an anthology. I am also in the very beginning stages of a nonfiction book (part memoir and part something else).

My questions, I guess, are two. One is money. While I am glad for the clips, selling essays to newspapers is not a way to make any money, clearly. I would definitely like to break into magazines. At the moment, I have a part-time job, some fairly steady freelance work for a non-profit, and then the essays. I would like to start shifting the balance a bit and getting
paid more for the writing I'd like to do. I don't have illusions that this will happen instantly, but that's what I'm working towards. And then there's the book. I'm not particularly interested in writing more typical magazine articles, though I wouldn't be opposed to selectively pitching things I'm interested in writing about. I guess I'm trying to figure out how to prioritize. My goals are, simultaneously, to make more money writing what I want to write, to get more clips and start to make more of a name for myself, and to build a base for the book. I have written magazine articles in the past, so I know I can do it, but I think I'm probably stronger at writing essays and creative nonfiction. (Maybe that comes from having a background in fiction writing.) I realize that I won't make a living writing what I love immediately, but I want to take what steps I can towards that, from the beginning. Any advice?

Whew! Okay, I had to read this a few times to gestate what you're saying. Basically, and I want to be sure that I'm getting this right: you used to focus on fiction, but now you're moving toward creative non-fiction, and you've had some small successes. You now want to a) know how to make more money via this genre and b) how to take steps toward making a name for yourself and generating more clips? Is that right? If so, I'll try to answer.

Actually, your two questions are fairly connected: as you land bigger assignments and bigger outlets, you're likely going to make more money. For example, I think that most newspapers pay peanuts for essays...correct? Well, several of the women's magazines I know of off the top of my head pay 1k+ for them. So...there's that.

However, and do keep in mind that this is only my opinion, I think that limiting yourself to creative non-fiction essays, is, well, limiting. There are thousands of writers out there who try to place essays for months and years, and truly, there simply aren't enough outlets for these essays. They're also very difficult to place: not just because of supply and demand but because editors have *very* specific ideas of what they're looking for...and even if you've read the NY Times Lives column every Sunday since you were 18, that still doesn't mean that you'll nail what they're looking for. (Speaking from personal, as well as anecdotal, experience.) Further, (and really, I'm not trying to drive a nail into your dream), many of these outlets, including the Lives column and many of the essays in women's mags, are reserved for "name" authors or writers who have published a book. I was really fortunate to land one such essay in a major women's mag a few weeks ago - it will be published around the time of my book - and I know that this opportunity would never have come about if I hadn't written a novel. In fact, the editors even specified that they really reserved this slot for writers with upcoming novels. So...there's that.

BUT, I actually think you're making great strides and are already on the right track for doing what you want to do. As I've said here in the past, establishing a writing career has a snowballing effect: smaller outlets lead to bigger ones, and these bigger outlets then lead to major ones. It sounds like you've already accumulated some excellent clips, and from here, you just need to keep pitching and pitching. And pitching. In the meantime, as you insinuated, if you really want to shift the balance of your work, you might consider pitching fewer essay-focused pieces and more service-focused pieces, which are a hell of a lot easier to land, since, as anyone can see when she opens a magazine, 99% of the stories inside have a service angle. I don't think you're selling out by doing this: you're building a network and platform to do what you really want to do. Did the fact that I already knew some of the editors at the mag at which I landed this essay help? Without a doubt. Did I write stories for them that weren't about resolving world peace? Well...yes. But that's what I do to have a career, not a selective career, as a writer. Sometimes, you have to write pieces that are fun and fluffy and aren't life-changing because they're stepping stone to something better.

Now. I'm sure that there are people reading this and saying, "Nope, not me, I'd never compromise and write an insipid piece on orgasms." Okay, well, that's fine too. But I'm telling you that most magazine writers whose bylines you recognize did indeed, at one point in their careers, write stories that didn't shatter the earth. They did it because a) they earned income, b) they proved themselves to editors and c) they became better writers along the way. Yes, you can still learn something about being a journalist or a writer while penning a story on orgasms. (Or whatever.)

So...those are my thoughts. Keep doing what you're doing. You have a great start. But do consider pitching non-essay stories, especially if you have a subject (as you alluded to) that really grabs your interest. You'll build name recognition, earn respect from editors, and will be well on your way to establishing a platform for your book and reaping more dough.

Any essayists out there? Do you focus exclusively on essays? If so or if not, care to chime in on why?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My first love is essay writing. But a full-time writer would starve if she had to rely on selling first-person pieces. There are not enough high paying outlets, and even if there were, writing a good essay takes time. I don't know anyone who can write three or four good ones a month(which is what it would take just to pay my rent and bills.)

My advice: either keep the part-time job and keep writing only what you love. Or, be more flexible about taking assignments that keep milk in the refrigerator.