Wednesday, September 30, 2009

when you have a hammer, Nemesis Intern looks like a nail

Sometimes, an INTERN needs to put on a slinky dress and toolbelt-as-purse and go out dancing on a Tuesday night.

Techie Boyfriend: Where did that dress come from?
INTERN: Alley behind our building.
Techie Boyfriend: Hang on.
Techie Boyfriend: (returns holding a small hammer). Take this.
Techie Boyfriend: If you're going to wear that toolbelt, you totally need to be carrying a hammer.
INTERN: Got it.

Fast forward two hours. Music is playing, INTERN's girl friend has gone to the bathroom, and INTERN is making her way to the dance floor when a semi-familiar face pops up in front of her.

It's Nemesis Intern, who INTERN has not run into in months. He is wearing a blue dress shirt and jeans, and mostly looks like his normal Wusiness Beek self except the top four buttons of the shirt are undone, revealing a rather un Wusiness-like patch of skin.

Nemesis Intern: Oh my god, I totally know you from somewhere.
INTERN: Big Fancy Office Building. You're the intern for Wusiness Beek.
Nemesis Intern: Yeah! That's it! I'm not doing that anymore.
INTERN: Oh yeah? What are you doing now?
Nemesis Intern: Grad program in Econ.
INTERN: Tight.
Nemesis Intern: What's the hammer for?
INTERN: Busting heads.
Nemesis Intern: So can I buy you a drink?

The rest of the night was surprisingly fun. There was minimal talk of things Wusiness, INTERN's friend and Nemesis Intern hit it off, and comradely 2 AM pizza was had by all. And INTERN actually used the hammer (only somewhat extraneously) to bust herself out of a bathroom stall when the lock jammed. Coincidences abound!

Today INTERN is sleepier than usual, but all she's had to do so far is lick envelopes, so everybody wins.

Monday, September 28, 2009

internet write-for-hire? INTERN would rather process a goat.

INTERN has been off the wire for several days, and in that time she had the chance to collect her thoughts on internet write-for-hire operations and learn hands-on how to de-gut and process a goat.

Yes, both those things in one weekend. Multitasking rules.

The short version?

Goat: totally worth it. Internet write-for-hire: totally not.

The long version:

A few weeks ago, INTERN started lurking around writing and publishing job boards, and came across the same postings all around the web: something to the tune of "make money writing!" or "now hiring writers!". She visited a few sites, and lo and behold, here were promises of real money in exchange for writing informative articles on an infinite range of subjects.

INTERN's Boondoggle Bell started ringing, and she knew she had to investigate further. So INTERN regis—um, "applied" for several of these so-called writing jobs. A few days later, the e-mails began to flood in: INTERN had been hired! Huzzah!

Deciding she didn't have time to deal with all of them, INTERN chose one website out of the several and threw herself into it for a few days.

The website INTERN investigated work like this: the writer logs in and browses through a long list of "assignments" that are up for grabs. If she sees something she thinks she could write, she claims it, and then has about ten days to complete the article and hand it in. Then the website coughs up $15 for her trouble, and she loses all rights to her work. Easy as pie!

INTERN, in her hubris, immediately claimed five assignments in different categories. Some examples: "What Is Scheurmann's Kyphosis?" and "How to Write an Emo Song" and, cryptically, "About Harmoniums". INTERN figured she could crank out the articles in a reasonable amount of time, say, one per lunch break over a week.

Indeed, it only took about half an hour to research and write the first article, about a spinal deformity affecting 8% of the population. INTERN grinned, thinking she would use her first Article Writing Paycheck to buy herself some of that nice greek yogurt.

But when she went back to the website, she found that there were still a few steps left to complete. First, she had to read and absorb the website's gargantuan Style Guide. Then, find a few more Links and some Photographs (with hard-to-find photo credits) to attach to the article. Then, copy and paste the article paragraph by paragraph, subheading by subheading into the website's baroque Article Input Form.

By the time all this was done, an hour and a half had passed. INTERN, a little grumpy, submitted her article. A few days later, the site sent her $15 as promised.

Thinking she would become more efficient as she went along, INTERN started her second assignment, "How to Write an Emo Song." This one was tougher to write than the first. The website had rigid guidelines for how-to articles, and wanted photos and references to back them up. INTERN struggled for an hour to decide which items one needed to gather before starting to write an emo song (a mandatory field): a black hoodie? Some skinny jeans? A cigarette?

Finally, after two hours, INTERN finished the godforsaken article and sent it in. She consoled herself by thinking about all the yogurt she could buy with that $15.

At home in the evening, INTERN worked away on her third assignment. Techie Boyfriend, looking over shoulder, asked "Why are you writing about harmoniums instead of working on your novel?" to which INTERN growled, "Need the money."

By the time INTERN went to bed at 1 AM, she had spent almost six hours on two articles: doing extra unnecessary research, hammering them into the website's format, and wrangling the complicated style guide and input fields.

The following evening, INTERN got an e-mail from the website: one of her articles (About Harmoniums) needed revision. There was too much about the history of harmoniums. Furthermore, the harmonium article was now worth only $7.50. Not $15.

INTERN (not a frequent drinker) poured herself a shot of her roommate's whiskey. The situation was dire. She'd already spent almost three hours on that article at $5/hour. If she didn't revise, she would get nothing. If she did revise, she would be working for about $2.50/hour.

"Are you on that stupid website again?" said Techie Boyfriend.
"No," said INTERN, too ashamed to tell him about the predicament she now found herself in.

After two more hellish days of article-writing, INTERN deleted her account and vowed never to Write for Money! again. Total profit: $60. Total hours of labor: more than INTERN will ever admit to. Degree to which the experience effed with INTERN's head: huge.

To wash the experience out of her mind, INTERN spent this past weekend with some friends who are essentially homesteading out in the countryside. When she arrived, they'd just slaughtered a goat and (though a vegetarian) INTERN hung around and watched and learned for several hours as they took its organs and guts out, skinned it, and butchered the meat. The organ part was actually kind of neat, like watching airport security unpack someones suitcase.

They took approximately the same time to process the goat as INTERN had spent on those infernal articles, and at the end of it they had food for a week, a goat hide, and all sorts of useful bones and membranes for making tools and cordage.

INTERN is sure there are people out there who find joy and fulfillment and make decent livings off of internet write-for-hire schemes, and more power to them. But when gutting a goat seems more fun and satisfying to INTERN than writing, INTERN knows there is something wrong with the writing. As far as INTERN is concerned, these websites are boondoggles designed to force writers to write low-quality articles with maximum effort for what often works out to be less than minimum wage.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

most beautiful typo award

Yesterday evening when INTERN was biking home, she went past a construction site with the words "No Tressing" spraypainted onto a cement block. It conjured up images of Rapunzel-ish construction workers studiously ignoring their own hair while they worked, and made INTERN very happy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

ceci n'est pas un livre

Late last night when INTERN and Techie Boyfriend were walking through the park, Techie Boyfriend's supersonic ears detected the sound of two kittens somebody had abandoned in a cardboard box. INTERN has never had any kind of non-brine shrimp pet and was baffled re: what to do with said kittens, but luckily T.B. is some kind of expert and built them a doublewide kitten spaceship back at the apartment, complete with litter box lined with shredded drafts of INTERN's latest fiction project. Oh, and flashing LEDs.

Now, INTERN is just out of an editorial meeting, and her nose is still a bit sniffly from the kittens. Editorial wisdom of the day? Some books are not books, and some books that are books are not the books they think they are.

If your manuscript has gone as far as an editorial meeting, the Eds are going to be discussing not only where your book would go in the book store, whether it would sell, and whether it's any good, but whether your book is even a book at all.

-Maybe your book would make a better magazine article (i.e. you have one or two good points that you wang on for two hundred pages, with lots of filler.)

-Maybe your book would make a better blog, or rather, should remain a blog. (i.e. the up-to-the-minute cat updates that make your blog fun to read really wouldn't work on book publishing's geologic time frame.)

-Maybe your book would make a better greeting card (i.e. the first 99,990 words of your 100,000 word novel are just build-up to the lead character saying one cute sentence)

-Maybe your book would make a better fortune cookie (i.e. the first 99,990 words of your 100,000 word self-help book are just build-up to you revealing the one cute insight you've been snuggling for years.)

Even if the Eds decide your book is, in fact, a book, the question still remains: is your book really suited to the form you, the author, have imposed on it?

-Maybe your memoir would make a better self-help book. (i.e. you have an interesting topic and angle, but you decided to talk about yourself instead of your subject and frankly, your subject is more interesting)

-Maybe your novel would make a better philosophical text (i.e. you are an academic or a self-described philosopher who has a lot of lofty points to make about existentialism, and the characters in your "novel" are just mouthpieces for your pet theories)

-Maybe your narrative non-fiction book would make a better how-to book (i.e. you really want to write about your bicycle trip around Europe, but your descriptions of how to fix a bicycle are the best part...actually, they're the only part that's readable).

-Maybe your highly technical sci-fi book about an obscure supercomputer would make a better instruction manual...for said supercomputer...

Before submitting your manuscript for consideration—actually, before you even start writing the book in the first place—ask yourself if the form you've decided on is really the most appropriate, or if you just see a certain kind of book as having higher prestige. If you're writing a novel to simply show off your life philosophies, or trying to stretch a single magazine article until it's practically transparent (think Silly Putty), the Editors will call your bluff. Nobody sits around an editorial meeting saying, "Oh, a how-to book, how trashy...the author is clearly not sophisticated enough to write a novel about this subject." But plenty of manuscripts get thrown out because they were *meant* to be how-to books, or cookbooks, or whatever, but weren't.

Thank you.

Friday, September 18, 2009

hare e. coli

Every now and then when INTERN gets off the train in the morning, there is a little card table set up on the street with people in orange robes chanting and tinging little bells and handing out flyers for free meditation classes. On the card table, there is always a plate of orange slices, sitting right next to a bottle of disinfectant spray. The orange/disinfectant combo never fails to give INTERN pause. Do these guys need to spray down their oranges periodically to satisfy health codes? Do passers-by routinely pick up an orange slice, turn it over in their fingers, and put it back down, covered in germs? What's the deal here?

INTERN feels the same way—fascinated, suspicious, wary—when those submissions come into the s. pile with a bio listing "high school short story contest 1982" as a writing credit, and "Ms. Tinkleby, the Head Ed at Otherbigfancy Publisher [in 1971!], said this was the most heart-wrenching asian fusion cookbook she'd seen in her entire career" as an endorsement. Who all has handled this sheaf of papers, maybe taken an experimental tug at the rind, and decided to pass? Even creepier, who sprayed it with disinfectant and put that sucker back on the plate without making a single change?

If nobody in the past twenty years has been impressed by the fact that you once read your short story out loud in a coffee shop, or that some agent at a conference complimented your sweater (and, by extension, the manuscript you were keeping warm underneath your sweater like a live animal), it's time to take it out of your query letter. In fact, it's probably time to write a new query letter. Actually, a new book. Maybe even a book with different characters in it, and a different plot. There's nothing wrong with being patient and holding out for the big break, but patience isn't a good replacement for the essential writerly hunger to always be writing (or re-writing) new and better and deeper and more brilliant things. (Are you listening, Hare Krishna? How about some melon, next time?)

Since her day 'o' turmoil on Monday (thanks for the multitudinous comments on career options, which have been a great encouragement), INTERN has been filling her head with various mystical Sufi texts, most of which involve enough mind-blowing parables about donkeys to make your eyes cross. INTERN is not sure where all this donkey-mysticism is leading her (possibly a barn?) but is feeling better about things, and has not ruled anything out.

Monday, September 14, 2009

autumn jabberwockery

Today INTERN's heart is full of despair. She wanders, listless, from bookshelf to filing cabinet to mail machine, the Bermuda triangle of busywork, then retreats to her couch to listen to some Ravi Shankar on headphones while re-proofreading a manuscript about the ancient druids.

The internship will be over in a month. INTERN is not sure what to do with herself. INTERN is not generally the month-in-advance planning type except when she's feeling despairing, in which case everything is fair game. Therefore, it would be helpful if readers could vote on the following:

In a month's time, should INTERN

a) get some kind of menial hipster job and stick around the city
b) sell her organs on the black market and stick around the city
c) attempt to find some kind of publishing job, somewhere
d) be a fire tower lookout like Jack Kerouac (this is a legitimate option)
e) hitchhike to northern British Columbia to live on her friends' commune (also legit)
f) move to somewhere cheap and rural where INTERN can be a lumberjack and techie boyfriend can run a greasy spoon
g) ?????

Input appreciated.

Bob Marley says, "Trust the universe and respect your hair." INTERN's hair is long past the point of respectability, but as for the universe, we'll just have to see.

Friday, September 11, 2009

what is and isn't a book promotion plan

INTERN just finished reading a proposal for a non-fiction book about a young woman's experience volunteering at an orphanage in China while on a church mission trip and her subsequent realization that philanthropy had to begin at home. After a ho-hum summary and chapter outline, she got to the punch:

"I will use the advance money and royalties to open an orphanage for abandoned babies in downtown San Francisco. The grand opening for the orphanage will provide all necessary publicity for the book."

*Bang head on desk*

INTERN cannot count how many times she had read this kind of thing. "I will use my advance to build an aquarium for endangered whales." "I will use my advance to find a cure for colon cancer." "I will use my advance to open a ballet academy for children with rabies." Every time, the writer tacks on something to the tune of "and the aquarium/cancerarium/orphanage will obviously generate more than enough publicity for the book. Like, DUH!"

So many wonderful plans, goodhearted plans, pure and earnest plans for that coveted advance $$$. INTERN's heart warms up like a microwaved burrito. But these plans are not promotional plans, and not realistic ideas of what actually happens to advance money.

In the real world, most writers' advance money gets spent on bus tickets, liquor, and those family-sized boxes of cheerios. Maybe a dinner out to celebrate, if the writer is feeling really hubristic. Maybe rent, if the advance is even big enough to cover a month or two's rent. Maybe a patch kit to fix a burst bicycle tube, or if we're talking a big advance, a new bike tube. Not orphanages, or aquariums, or elevators to the moon (INTERN plans to use her book royalties to open an ant farm. In a really big jar, though. And only for orphaned ants).

It will soon be the weekend, and that is a GOOD THING because today the Big Fancy Publishing Office is moving very slowly. Coffee time!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

a completely unscientific look at book-buying: part 1

INTERN has been doing a lot of thinking about why people buy the books they buy. Head Ed says it has a lot to do with where the book is placed in the bookstore and other marketing-type stuff, and this is very true. But their are other, squidgier reasons: people buy also books out of guilt, or self-pity, or indulgence, or a feeling of righteousness, or need, or even terror. It's all very Catholic (and INTERN is allowed to say that because all her elementary school teachers were nuns).

INTERN's mom says she buys whatever books are necessary to keep up in the dog-eat-dog world of her ladies' book club (terror).

INTERN's hipster friend who works at a Borders in a fairly small town says pregnant women come in to buy pregnancy books, then slip in romance novels the way people slip chocolate bars into their groceries (indulgence/deservingness).

INTERN is thinking about the last few books she paid cash moneys for. As an intern, INTERN gets a lot of free books already, and she doesn't have much extra $ for buying stuff— so actually paying money for a new book is a big deal. Not counting used books, INTERN has bought in the past two months:

-poetry book by unknown author (philanthropy/psychospiritual need)
-field guide to edible plants (justified as "useful")
-poetry book by INTERN's friend in New Zealand (supporting friend/psychospiritual need)
-how-to book about building mud shelters ("useful")
-history/how-to book about tying knots ("useful")

When it comes to getting book-buying $ out of INTERN's pocket, the key is a little bit of guilt ("must support small presses!"), and a lot of utility.

INTERN is not alone in her suckerness for books that promise to be useful. Utility is why publishers love slapping titles like "The 8 Secrets of X" or "Sleep Better Tonight Using Y". Humans are complete suckers for promises of benefit. This is why some publishers will find any way possible to wring a "high-benefit" title out of a non-fiction book—it sells.

Even though INTERN reads way more novels than any other kind of book, she buys more "useful" books than novels because she can justify the purchase on some deep level: it's a "need" not a "want." A field guide is a productive "tool," not an indulgence. In a weird way, INTERN sees poetry on the same level as non-fiction/reference books: as necessary, and therefore morally OK to spend her meagre $ on.

Way back when the novel was a new form, the mere act of novel-reading was tied up with guilt for a lot of people. It was seen as a solitary, apparently frivolous activity—morally suspect. INTERN suspects that this feeling still lingers in our cultural memory, and accounts somewhat for higher sales of non-fiction books. At least when it comes to INTERN's book-buying habits, it does.

Now, question: do novels with titles that mimic high-benefit non-fiction titles sell more copies? To be continued...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

scientific proof that publishing a book won't make you happier

INTERN interacts with a lot of writers (some of them her friends) who have elaborate fantasies of rapture and eternal contentment following the acceptance for publication of their chapbook/short story collection/thinly-veiled college honors thesis.

But then, at her internship, INTERN interacts (or usually, overhears interactions) with writers who have book deals, but have deferred their rapture and eternal contentment to when their book sells 1,000,000 copies, or when they get interviewed about it on the Daily Show.

And yesterday when INTERN was dumping flour in the bread machine, she noticed that the rather humble bread machine cookbook she was using had sold over a million copies (and this, apparently, in 1991). INTERN was suddenly swamped in the feeling that her life was futile, and required two hours of high-octane pep-talking from Techie Boyfriend to come around. INTERN's book is slated to be published in May. The initial rapture-and-contentment has worn off, and now she is getting the jump on worrying about it.

INTERN has been bothered by this contradiction for a long time, and finally found an explanation for it: the hedonic treadmill. According to the hedonic treadmill theory, human happiness can only fluctuate so much before an internal recalibration occurs, and one returns to how happy or anxious one always was.

Over time, achievements that seemed huge and wondrous will shrink in importance until they seem like abject failure in comparison to the next desired achievement. Merely getting a book deal will seem like nothing compared to becoming a bestseller, or getting famous, or ghost-riding the whip on TV.

This is actually good news. It makes INTERN feel way better about life to know that she will always be approximately the same
degree of happy no matter what she does, and to think that Donna German, czar of bread machine cookbooks, is probably still feeling normal emotions rather than writhing in perpetual bliss.

INTERN is supposed to be signing and sending out stock declines right now, but she really wants to add a note to each one: don't worry about it! you are as happy now as you will ever be!

Friday, September 4, 2009

scrapple in the apple

This is the first September since INTERN was four that she is not going back to school, and it feels weird.

To compensate, INTERN went to the library last night and checked out a stack of incomprehensible books on physics and philosophy, and plans to read them in the back of the van while on tour with her harsh noise band this weekend, and possibly to read them onstage too, because in terms of the band INTERN is the harsh-noise equivalent of a tambourine-banger or triangle-dinger, and could probably get away with it.

Also, INTERN has been slowly compiling a reading list of her favorite writing-advice books and resources, by genre. Here goes nothing:

Chick Lit: Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel by Cathy Yardley is an intelligent look at the history of the chick lit genre, how to write it, and how to pitch it. If you're prejudiced against books with pink covers, this one will set you straight: all killer, no filler, and no punches pulled.

Literary Journals: If you're trying to publish stories in literary journals, and wondering what goes through the minds of "little magazine" editors, read this blog by the editors of The New Quarterly. Their "how we choose stories" series lays it out straight...or as straight as possible, given the sometimes maddening nature of short-story submission guidelines.

Fiction-General: Every would-be novelist who's just finished a first draft should pour herself a shot of whiskey, lock the knife drawer, and read 78 reasons why your book may never be published and 14 reasons why it just might by Pat Walsh. INTERN loves the declarative chapter titles ("You Sacrifice Clarity for 'Art'") and the way this book manages to be funny and kind of friendly even as it delivers truth bombs left and right.

Romance/Erotica: The editors at Ellora's Cave Publishing Inc. keep a great blog called Redlines and Deadlines with great adivce posts like this one. (tip on writing sex scenes: "Keep an eye on where hands and arms are, making sure that you don't end up giving your hero three (or more!) hands"). From the sounds of this blog, it seems like romance is the genre most prone to hilarious continuity errors...

INTERN has to go now, because everyone in the office is going out for pre-weekend beverages at a dim pub with leather booths (such pubs are easier on the eyes).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

why you should be writing something besides your manuscript

It turns out one of the hip, young Editorial Assistant's more pleasant jobs is to keep her finger on the pulse of hip, young indie magazines (hellooo Pirates Magazine) and scout for bookworthy talent.

At this morning's editorial meeting, she pulled out some obscure, paisley-covered music magazine and pointed to an article by some guy who specializes in urban magic. Urban magic, e.g., quickie spells you can cast to dispel heat-toting gangsters when you're riding your bike through their neighborhood. e.g. divination w/found movie ticket stubs. e.g. dowsing for $^#% public bathrooms in the city.

Magazine gets passed around. Everyone loves it. Head Ed gives Editorial Assistant the thumbs-up to contact this lucky urban warlock about the possibility of a book. And all this, without said warlock ever writing a query letter or affixing postage stamp to envelope.

And also, a week ago, INTERN's roommate dragged her to a very long and positive affirmation-heavy yoga class where the instructor took a moment to talk about her forthcoming book, which she never intended to write but was instead "prodded" to by a Person in Publishing who had read one of her articles in a yoga magazine. (then she made us listen to ourselves breathe for a very long time, and then INTERN might have fallen asleep).


Diversify. INTERN is starting to suspect that a well-written magazine article or short story is, in some cases, more likely to lead to an eventual book deal than "wading through the normal publication channels," as our brave craigslist querier put it. Even if it's a small-circulation magazine. A cool magazine article that screams "book" is especially good because a) it means somebody else (the magazine editors) already vouched for you and b) you have *some* kind of exposure or readership to draw on. Both nice things.

And, if the magazine industry is tanking as hard as people say it is, this magazine-to-book deal thing is a limited-time opportunity. So...better get on that one.