Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Her 19-word writing career (and rodents the size of bulldogs)

This bulldog-sized rodent is native to Central America. 
 I hope I never see one up close, unless it's in the damn zoo.

Every contractor can tell a story about seriously underbidding on a job – the plumber who forgot that all the pipes were lead, the carpenter who didn’t realize that the house was nothing but crooked walls and plaster – that sort of thing. A couple weeks ago, I was approached by a travel web site to create some content. I asked questions about the scope of the project, and got some webby answers about subsections and character counts. I still felt baffled. “Perhaps I’m just acting all print-centric and looking for a word count, and that’s not the way the world works anymore,” I thought, always the first cheerleader to run out on the field in the “Julie Sucks” halftime show. “I’m sure I’ll be able to write 20 pages a day,” I thought. “What could go wrong?”

Turns out that I, the person who can usually offer a very long list of reasons why anything, anywhere, could possibly go wrong, had failed to consider this project thoroughly enough. Here’s the one part that wasn’t in the job description: I needed to write 15,000 total words of well-researched, snappy and character-count-correct copy. I was able to complete about five pages a day if I kept my fingers – and brain – moving fast, not the 20 I had originally estimated. And, I realized, I was making a fraction of my current professional rate, a really big fraction. Or do I mean a really small one? (See why I’m a writer and not a professional fractionator?)

I logged a lot of hours on this virtual round-the-world writing jaunt, starting at about 3 a.m. every day, when I’d wake up in a cold sweat, realizing how many more descriptions I had to write that day. As I kept working, stopping just long enough to wiggle my fingers to get the blood flowing, I tried to stem the self pity that was oozing out of my home office, down the stairs and onto everyone who passed by on the sidewalk outside. To accomplish this, I thought of two things. First, I remembered that I wasn’t a coal miner or a cop, and that the only things getting tired were my creativity and my fingers. And second, I remembered back to a few times in those fat and happy days of 2007 (Remember then? When you weren’t scared all the time?), when agencies, desperate with overwork and looming deadlines, had happily sent me tidy sums for completing writing projects that were only mildly vexing, or time-consuming, or possibly a teeny bit annoying.

Of course, I had already been paid for those jobs way back in 2007, so the money was spent long ago on trips to the emergency room, groceries, grade school tuition, dermatologists, triple-ply toilet paper and boatloads of daughter-approved hair care products. I wish I’d had the foresight to have taken a few of those gigs on “deferred payment,” with the proviso that a check would be cut only during times of financial crisis, national and/or personal. I’d be getting one of those babies in the mail right about …. now.

But that’s all paid-for toilet paper under the bridge (a phrase I just made up but think I will continue using), and did not provide much solace to me, last week, making my way through my Slough of Despond (which is, I hope, the only Pilgrim’s Progress reference you’ll encounter this week). But then, just when things were looking bleak, one of my children entered the sad, dreary picture, and things got a little bleaker still.

My children usually adopt a very firm policy of refusing to offer any sympathy to me, on the principles of 1) It will just encourage her and 2) Was that mom’s voice? I thought I heard something through my earbuds. I managed to pierce Emma’s protective shell, however, because, while she was ignoring my kvetching about worn out brainpan and fingers, she quickly picked up my distress over what I considered to be the overly  modest payment (like “Amish girl” modest, I’m not kidding).

“Really? I would like to have that much money,” she mused aloud, “Maybe I could be a writer. Could I ever get a job like yours, Mom?” Since she calls me “Mom” about once a year, I was instantly suspicious. But still, maybe she’d want to follow in my limping, energy-drained footsteps one day. “Okay,” I said. “You can write one page, as an audition. Then maybe I’ll recommend you to the editor for the next project, if there is one.” She looked happy. I think I even saw her teeth, a rare occurrence for me, but apparently a quite common one for tall, handsome college men.

“But if I have to correct ONE mistake – a run-on sentence, a fragment, anything – then the whole deal is off.” She looked less happy, and I knew why. My girls have grown accustomed to 24-7 access to an in-house copy editor. (I’m not exaggerating; I have been woken out of a sound sleep to proofread an essay that was due the next day.) As I’ve heard is the case with privileged people, when you have staff, you forget how to do things for yourself. As a result, my kids are terrible proofreaders, especially in light of their reputed intellectual capacities.

While we sat together at the kitchen counter, I showed Emma a list of topics I was working on that day: Central America, Eco-Travel, Fishing and Destinations for Bachelorette Parties. Guess which one she picked. I handed her an instruction sheet. “Here are the SEO keywords you need to include in a 150-word intro. Then you need to write about these four featured cities in 325 characters each, and the next six cities in 110 characters each. I’ve been getting a first draft done in about 45 minutes, so try not to take longer than that. I’m going to be proofing the pages I wrote this morning and eating my sandwich, so I’ll be right here if you have any questions.”

I started reading, eating and waiting for the quick tap-tap of my very smart daughter as she cranked out this work that could be done by a roomful of monkeys (as she’d indicated in past remarks about my chosen career). Tap. pausepausepause Tap. Tap. pausepausepause. “I could do this,” she finally said, “except for the beginning part. It would all be easy after the beginning.”

“That’s called the lead,” I told her through a mouthful of turkey. “It’s always the hardest part. You have to write that, or no deal.” Tap. pausepausepause Tap. Tap. pausepausepause.

“How’s this?” she said, turning her laptop screen toward me. “Your friend is getting married. You should have a party. You should go to one of these good places.” 

I looked her in the eye, suddenly the editor, not the mom. “Is this the best you’ve got?”

“Yeah, I erased the other two. They were worse.”

I chewed my sandwich reflectively, waiting for the stench of her lead to clear the room.

“I give up,” she said, finally. “I don’t want to be a writer.”

“Well,” I said, “You gave it 19 words. I think that’s fair. Hemingway only had six.”


There’s a story that someone bet him he couldn’t write a story in six words, and he wrote “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”

No one can twist the moral out of a story and ego-boost it quite like this kid. “Well, I wrote 13 more words than Hemingway did,” she self-esteemedly said (and if that’s not an adverb, it should become one, exclusively for this generation). “Good for me.” She went back to Facebook, I went back to work, and the project continued on, and on, and on.

As with all life challenges, I did learn a few things while writing those 15,000 words, and I share them here now:

First thing I learned: There is some truly bad travel writing out there on the interwebs. One site described a location as “dripping with history,” a thought that made me get up from my desk right away and go wash my hands.

Second thing I learned: I would most like to have a beer with the characters who write content for Lonely Planet. Their description of why it would be fun to visit Central America included this sentence: “Wander through dense jungle to find Mayan pyramids that date back a millennium as bulldog-sized rodents scurry past and howler monkeys commute in the treetops above you.” Hoo boy, when can I book my ticket, fellas? Can I bring a rodent back home as a souvenir?

Third thing I learned: After researching and writing about 370 destinations, all over the globe, I was able to compile this list of dream vacations:
1.     New York
2.     New York
3.     New York
4.     New York
5.     New York
6.     New York
7.     New York
8.     San Francisco
9.     New York
10.  That place with the bulldog-sized rodents and overhead-commuting howler monkeys (Just kidding, I really meant New York)

Fourth thing I learned: Hey Julie, it might be good to ask a few more questions the next time you’re bidding on a project.

Fifth thing I learned: Emma won’t be enrolling in journalism school anytime soon. Ditto that MFA program for creative writing.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you got some quality experience being PAID like a New Yorker. You know, the non-stock broker, non-investment banker ones.