The rather awesome folks at Tosche Station invited me on their podcast to talk about the Clone Wars Episode Guide, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the road from WSJ.com to freelancing, and more.
Sad news from Oakland: Jack Vance died on Sunday at 96.
I discovered Vance fairly late — his books were too baroque for my tastes as a young teen, but I was ready for him in my 30s, and was amazed at what I’d missed. There was The Dying Earth, and Lyonesse, and Araminta Station, and before I knew it I was hooked, scouring eBay and used book stores for Vance titles. (I eventually bought a good chunk of the Vance Integral Edition, one of the great efforts by any fanbase.)
I just linked to Carlo Rotella’s Vance appreciation the other day — if you didn’t read it then, give it a try now. Among other things, Rotella perfectly describes a key component of Vance’s style as “feral, angling politesse”. He also notes that while Vance made his living as a genre artist (that’s the title of Rotella’s piece) working in science fiction, fantasy and mystery, he transcended those genres. Vance was a writer’s writer, an artist whose breezy way with characters and plots masked a master’s command.
Vance had a gift for world-building, for constructing intriguing societies from odd starting points and making them work. He was a master of archly barbed, mock-lawyerly dialogue — but also of spare, enviably economical descriptions. (For example, he invented about a bazillion superb, evocative names for deadly creatures.) And while plotting wasn’t his strongest suit — his trilogies had a way of blazing through jaw-dropping beginnings, then wandering to mild (but still entertaining) conclusions — he came up with any number of intriguing engines for stories, inventing plots that were intriguingly original and had their own clockwork logic. And he was funny — variously deadpan and dry to the point of astringent — in genres that are often bereft of so much as a smile.
Vance is very, very hard to sum up — I look back on that last paragraph and cringe at how thoroughly it misses the mark. But I’ll give it one last try: His work could be simultaneously light and picaresque and shot through with darkness and terror. His writing had a fierce moral clarity, but he consciously refused to balance it with any assurance that justice was at work. Reading Vance, you never knew when a merry romp might turn deadly, a character might meet a pitiless end, or some bit player would offer a flash of insight that would change the way you think about something forever.
He’ll be missed — but we should all be so lucky to live to 96, lead an adventurous, marvelous, oft-self-invented life, and have our books live on to be appreciated and admired by so many readers and fans.
My style is too different from Vance’s for me to claim him as a writerly influence. But I enjoyed him immensely as a reader, and have paid homage to him as a craftsman: the Super Star Destroyer Whelm and the taking of Kuat in Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare were both tips of the cap to him, and there’s a chapter in the second Jupiter Pirates book that’s consciously and lovingly Vancean.
If you’re a Vance fan, like me, go back and read him again. If you’re new to him, I envy you — there is so much great stuff ahead of you. Here’s a short list for starters: The Dying Earth books, Trullion: Alaster 2262, The Demon Princes series, Araminta Station, the Lyonesse trilogy. Or any of the strange and wonderful stories of the 50s and 60s. Dive in until you’ve read it all, and marveled at it all, and then start again.
Rediscovered this marvelous NYT portrait of Jack Vance, one of my favorite writers. Carlo Rotella captures a hard-to-capture writer perfectly by describing a key component of Vance’s style as “feral, angling politesse, the marriage of high-flown language to low motives”.
Over the weekend I finished editing my first draft of the second Jupiter Pirates book, tentatively titled The Treasure of the Iris. It’s now in the hands of my wife, a careful reader and ace editor, and will then go to my kid, who’s both of those things plus a one-boy focus group.
I learned something new in struggling with some scenes in JP2, and getting through that struggle let me put a name to the issue. (I’m sure other writers have their own names for the problem, but since this was new to me I’ll stick with my own terminology.)
I did a pretty detailed outline for JP2, as I now do for everything. The pivotal scenes in the book came pretty quickly once I got to them — which was no surprise, since I’d had them in my head since before the outline existed, and had been sub- or semi-consciously working through them for months and months.
Where I got bogged down was in some of the smaller scenes — the quieter moments leading us from Point A to Point B (or from T to U). Several times, the writing slowed to a crawl and I alternated staring at the monitor with even less-productive fits of self-loathing. Sometimes I advanced by writing a couple of hundred or just a couple of dozen words a day until I escaped. Other times I’d tear the whole scene down and start over. Neither approached worked particularly well.
Until, finally, I realized what was wrong: Those scenes were missing an engine.
I knew why the scenes were there: They had to advance the plot, or introduce a character or concept. But that’s not the same as the engine.
The engine, as I came to think of it, was why the scene mattered — why it belonged there beyond reasons of simple exposition. The reader had to leave the scene not just further along in the plot but also more invested in the story. He or she had to think differently about one or more characters, or have a new perspective on one of the book’s themes, or be in possession of something that was both real and resisted easy definition.
Once I figured this out, I stopped scrapping and clawing for forward progress or resorting to sullen teardowns. When I got bogged down in a scene, I stopped and asked myself what the engine was.
Most of the time there was an answer, which was good news: It meant my instincts had been right when I included that particular bit of action in the outline. But my execution needed some work — I’d been buffing a hood with nothing underneath it, and it was no surprise that the car wouldn’t move.
Stumbled across this very good examination of how Patrick O’Brian moves readers through scenes, plays with points of view and simultaneous dialogue, and merrily bends or breaks rules in doing so. Above all else, it’s a great lesson in the authority of the storyteller: earn it, then use it.
I remembering doing a double-take the first time an Aubrey-Maturin book got to the beginning of a battle and then jumped to its aftermath — just as I remember nodding and smiling when I figured out O’Brian had been wise to do so. But wow — it takes stones to write naval war fiction and do that.
Good writing advice from Donald K. Fry, AKA my Dad. Personally, I’m a plunger who found (writing) religion, became a planner and have never looked back. But as Dad notes, your mileage may vary and that’s just fine.
The Tumblring here is getting meta, but Eric Freeman adds a much-needed note to the discussion of writing for free, one that I neglected:
There’s a firestorm going on today over freelance journalism and writing for free. It started with Nate Thayer, who published an email exchange he had with an editor for the Atlantic. Basically, the editor wanted Thayer to repurpose a piece he’d written for NK News — 1,200 words by the end of…
Of the various responses to the Nate Thayer kerfuffle with The Atlantic over a lack of payment for work, Jason Fry’s is the best. That’s because, instead of just focusing on the issue of money deserved for services rendered — which is an important thing, duh — he’s willing to admit that there is value in work that does not involve money or a long-term plan to advance a career.
I am admittedly not the best person to discuss this issue. I freelance, but in my time as a full-time writer I’ve always had daily jobs that’s kept me from having to scramble for gigs. (I am also an unwed 27-year-old man and have relatively few expenses.)
Nevertheless, I write on the internet and therefore don’t make very much money. The fact of the matter is that there are very few jobs that earn writers a solid living, and any writer who enters the field without knowing that is fairly irresponsible. Unless I have totally misjudged the motives of my peers, we got into this field because we were drawn to it for reasons other than money — the desire to get our ideas out there, to be read, to be acknowledged, to participate in an intellectual community, etc. In other words, not doing it, or not trying to do it, made us like our lives less.
Writers need money because they need to live — as Thayer says, to pay bills and feed children. And, at some point, a writer’s career can reach a point where not getting paid by a publication that usually pays someone of that stature is an insult — that seems to have been the issue with Thayer and The Atlantic. I think money is nice, wish I made more of it, and think any company that willfully exploits its writers for the financial gain of a few employees needs to be called out whenever possible.
But, as my friend Ryland Walker Knight said a few weeks ago, there should be so much more to this job than money. As Fry points out, developing a relationship with an editor who actually considers and improves a piece (a rare experience these days, sadly) can be a beautiful thing, sometimes as close to an act of charity (by which I mean caritas) as our community gets. And there’s great joy in doing work for a friend’s labor of love, in doing a project because you care about its aims and goals and want to be part of something you consider legitimately important.
The economics of this industry are fucked in a way that turns questions of payment into a paramount concern. Yet I have a hard time believing that pieces of great substance are typically compelled by money — hell, even exposure — because if that were the issue then I would be working for a stupidly named startup right now. Money confers respect, appreciation, and a lot else; I would like more of it. I just hope we write for reasons better than getting paid.
Tim Marchman also weighed in via Twitter from the point of view of an editor of unpaid work. I was going to embed his tweets (they’re here, here and here), but I can’t make the damn code work, so I’ll just quote him: “Think an underdiscussed thing is what you as an editor owe someone who’s writing for free. The Classical can’t pay, but I certainly feel obligated to offer advice/contacts/whatever in addition to fairly in-depth editing in the exchange. … If you’re not paying in cash, you need to be an ally and an advocate.”
Yes, absolutely. We’re all still trying to figure this out — the standards have yet to emerge. But regarding unpaid work, Marchman’s position ought to be one of those standards.
There’s a firestorm going on today over freelance journalism and writing for free. It started with Nate Thayer, who published an email exchange he had with an editor for the Atlantic. Basically, the editor wanted Thayer to repurpose a piece he’d written for NK News — 1,200 words by the end of the week. For which Thayer would receive … nothing.
I was as mad and baffled as anybody — Thayer’s a veteran journalist, and the Atlantic’s a premier journalism brand, which makes the spectacle of an editor there performing the Our Great Platform cha-cha doubly embarrassing. And to don my dusty old digital-consultant hat for a moment, I don’t get their strategy, which seems neither fish nor fowl: Either pay Thayer to write something new and good, or don’t pay him anything and have a curator link to the piece he already wrote. (The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has been great in the ensuing discussion, by the way, tweeting candidly and thoughtfully about how things are done in that shop and how he’d like them to be done.)
But the real third rail here is whether or not to write for free. It’s a dilemma for all inexperienced writers, and if they ask two established folks for advice, they’ll often get two very different answers, followed by those two established folks fighting to the death.
I’ve been involved in such fights — a while back, I wrote this for the National Sports Journalism Center after Rick Reilly gave a talk to J-school grads decrying working for free. I thought that was bad advice and said so, for which I got pilloried by some smart folks and backed up by other smart folks. And so round and round we go.
The link’s right there, but here’s the quick version, after which I’ll have some thoughts for more-experienced folks:
Every new writer starts off in the same Catch-22: You need experience to get gigs, but the only way to get experience is through gigs. Today’s new writers have ways to jump-start the process that their forebears would have killed for: A small investment will buy a virtual printing press and distribution tools for instantly reaching a potentially world-wide audience. We’ve become so used to this that we miss how insanely revolutionary it is, so go back and read that again.
There is a downside, though: The ubiquity of magic printing presses/fleets of virtual trucks has created a glut of writers, with a corresponding drop in compensation. And those magical tools aren’t reserved for the little guys — big publishers use them and their attendant strategies too. Which has blurred boundaries between free and paid.
So what to do about it? In my opinion, all writers should start with the assumption that their work has value and they deserve to be paid for it. But it’s short-sighted not to allow for exceptions, and those exceptions will change over time.
For young and/or new writers, I’d suggest these are exceptions worth considering:
* The platform’s good enough that being associated with it helps build my CV
* The platform’s good enough that I can introduce myself to a larger audience and build a lasting relationship with readers
* I really like this editor and think he or she can improve my writing and will be a great addition to my list of contacts
But be ruthless in asking yourself if the trade-off’s really worth it. Is the platform really that prestigious? Is the give and take with readers really that attractive? Is the relationship with the editor really going to be that hands-on? Lots of platforms are open to all comers, meaning they have no prestige. Lots of editors don’t actually edit. And so on. In such cases, just do your own thing.
And finally, the goal is to get paid as soon as possible. These are short-term strategies.
(Let me save you an email: I get the irony that I just repurposed my own paid article for free.)
Now, should more-experienced writers work for free? Your default stance should be “no,” bordering on “hell no.” But there are exceptions.
I’m 43 and have been a professional writer for half my life. I keep track of work I’ve invoiced, how much I need to make a day, and the day on which that math indicates I’ll be broke. But yes, I do write some things for free, and I’d be willing to write some more things for free.
* My posts on Faith and Fear in Flushing are uncompensated. I write there because I love the Mets, because writing alongside Greg Prince keeps me on my game, and because it’s fun. It’s also true that FAFIF got my co-blogger a book deal and helped get me tons of paid work.
* These musings are unpaid, because what the heck. They’re an effort to pay it forward, a promotional vehicle, and a tool for therapy.
* I’ve contributed free work to anthologies for friends of mine and people I admire and want to be associated with.
* I’ve written for free because I saw a chance to champion the work of writers I like.
* I’ve written for free because I didn’t have access to the audience that a piece of mine needed.
That last exception is the one I consider most often. I’d like to write more about music, travel and genealogy, but I’m not well-connected with those audiences. Would I write for free on those topics if you gave me a good editor and a respected platform for reaching those readers? I might — but with the expectation that such work would soon lead to getting paid, either by that publication or by someone else.
That’s the key: If you’re going to write for free, make sure a) it’s in service of a larger strategy; b) it’s a short-term arrangement; c) you aren’t just kidding yourself; and d) you’re really not just kidding yourself. What the Atlantic asked Nate Thayer to do fails that test. I get why he’s mad — I was mad on his behalf. But it might make sense in some other situation.
A professor interviewed me today about journalism, taking me back to my old career for a half-hour or so. After I got off the phone, I found myself wondering if I missed journalism.
The answer was … sort of. I certainly don’t miss being enmeshed in the industry’s woes and anxieties, and feeling like my best efforts are a bit of spit in a hurricane. I do miss the adrenaline rush of having a huge story burst into being, forcing everybody to scrap everything and race like hell to get their arms around whatever’s happened. But what I miss most of all is the camaraderie of the newsroom.
Writing out of your own home has its advantages — the dress code can’t be beat, and the commute isn’t bad either. (It’s 19 degrees in New York City right now.) But it’s also true that writing is fundamentally a lonely business. It’s days and days of being at your station, broken up by hours of collaboration with editors or other folks and stolen minutes of (largely digital) exchanges with readers and friends.
If you’re a writer, you signed up for this: Nothing happens unless you’re at your desk and dedicating your brain to chiseling a finished piece of writing out of the rough block of an idea. Nothing happens unless you devote the time — and it’s time spent necessarily in isolation.
Is there a way to mitigate this? Not for me. I sometimes wish I could write in coffee shops, but my Star Wars books require a ton of reference material kept close at hand, and no matter what I’m writing, I work through problems and dead ends by wandering around, sometimes muttering to myself. That attracts little notice in newsrooms, which are preserves for eccentrics and malcontents anyway. But a Starbucks barista would probably call the law.
When I first daydreamed about being a full-time writer, I suspect I let myself imagine some fantasia of non-stop book tours and conventions, packed readings and signings. And hey, sometimes I still do. The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of writers are signing up for a life of obscurity and financial peril. And even the brightest stars in the literary firmament spend most of their time alone, with their butts in their chairs.
Years ago, I made walking-around money by interviewing actors who played minor characters in The Phantom Menace — one of whom gave me an offhand bit of advice I’ve never forgotten.
At one point I spoke with the comedian Scott Capurro, who played half of the two-headed announcer that presides over the Podrace on Tatooine. (He was Beed, the green head.) The other head (Fode, the red one) was played by Greg Proops. Proops got to speak English, while Capurro had to jabber in Huttese. The original plan was to composite the actors’ faces onto a CGI body, so the two men spent hours being fitted with heavy makeup and were filmed in blue body suits. Then the footage got tossed — the alien announcer was entirely CGI in the finished movie, with Proops and Capurro supplying voices only. Which they could have done without latex and glue and cameras and a lot of the fuss and bother.
I don’t know if Capurro was tired of answering the same questions about Star Wars, if my versions of the same questions were particularly stupid ones, or if he was just having a bad day. (Maybe it was all three.) Whatever the case, it was a halting, difficult interview — he pretty clearly didn’t want to talk, and I couldn’t find a way to draw him out.
Well, except at the very end.
What Capurro had gone through struck me as a tedious and frustrating experience for an actor, and I stammered something to that effect.
“That’s showbiz, baby!” he replied, sounding equal parts weary and amused.
It turned out to be a useful line.
I first used it with the reporters I managed at The Wall Street Journal Online, when their carping grew excessive about lovingly crafted stories that were held, or spiked because of some new development, or manhandled by some non-simpatico editor up the chain. Eventually most of them took it to heart, and all I had to do was lift an eyebrow to get them to nod and retreat.
Capurro’s advice has been even more useful as a freelancer, where so much more is out of your control.
Most of the projects I work on run smoothly and are fun, and with luck you’ll be able to say the same. But there will be exceptions. Projects you eagerly await will get rethought and morph into ones you endure. Publishing plans will change and stuff you’ve written will vanish into limbo, possibly never to return. Clients will change their minds at the last minute and make everyone scramble. Projects will run the gauntlet successfully, make it to the web or print or video … and utterly fail to connect with an audience.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an actor or a photographer or a writer: Lots of things can go wrong as an idea evolves into a finished product. Most of those things are nobody’s fault. A few of them pretty clearly are somebody’s fault, but there’s rarely any recourse.
Because that’s showbiz, baby.
You can bitch about it — hell, that’s why God invented beer — but you chose this life, in which uncertainties and aggravations compete for space with successes and joys. So keep your bitching brief. And then get back in the chair, let the makeup people do their jobs, make sure you know your lines, get in front of the camera and try again.