Monday, September 10, 2007

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Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" Our train rode the fast track back in the day, but signal problems developed along the line. The passengers are not amused.

In my lifetime, I've written five full books, chapters for dozens of encyclopedias, and countless entries for one of the best-known reference series in America. At one time I faithfully produced 500,000 words of copy a year. Year after year after year.

For those of you who don't know word counts, that total makes Shelby Foote look like a slacker.

When the old Amtrak Annie was chugging along, I was the first in my office environment to use a word processor to generate copy. I was the first independent contracter to buy and operate a computer to complete my work.

I dumped 20,000 words of encyclopedia entries in the U.S. mail, went home, had a baby, and went back to work 3 days later, generating another 20,000 words of copy during the first month of my daughter The Heir's life.

I lugged Baby Spare to the library, where she stared out at the microfilm machines with her big blue eyes. The staff called her the "library baby."

Does anyone remember when ESPN had all those little "Classic Moments of Sports" on t.v. at the turn of the millennium? There were 1000 of those. I researched 250 of them and wrote all 1000. Sometimes 15 in a day on tight deadline. One Sunday morning they sent a personal courier all the way from Westport, CT to South Jersey with film that needed narrative. That very day, not Monday.

In the summer of 2004 the signal changed. Amtrak Annie got sent to the pits instead of to Pittsburgh.

Today I reached into the deepest recesses of my memory and taught my first lesson in touch typing to two classes of 40 freshmen.

I'm making the same amount of money today that I did in 1990. I am working as a substitute teacher.

If someone knows how to flip the signal that will make me a writer again, please do it! I'm not a bad teacher. The kids like me. But it's not me. There's still a Shelby Foote in me, longing to bang out copy on fascinating topics ... Supervillains one day, Noam Chomsky the next, Andy Warhol after that.

What I guess I'm saying is, help.


Hecate said...

The next time you're down this way, we'll do some magic on yas.

Emily G. W. Lilly said...

And they told you that you weren't qualified to teach writing... Where _are_ their brains?!?

What else happened in 2004, before, during and after the derailment of Amtrak Annie? I think the key is hidden there, somewhere...

buddydon said...

i happen to know fer a fack that annies quite adep at ritin (dont everbidy that reads this here site?) n am hopin n prayin she gits her due! tiz sad that so much ritin goes fer almos nuthin n that the riters caint teach ... i reckun they wonta fill out that sayin whar riters rite n them that caint rite teaches ... ritin!

Interrobang said...

My advice, as a working writer, is:

1) Figure out what derailed you and how to mitigate it.
2) Set up a website with (some of) your clips and tearsheets on it. Link it all kinds of places. (This sounds trivial, but is actually hella impressive these days. I mean a real website, not a blog, like with a domain name and everything. There's still enough residual Wow Effect out there that having a place where prospective employers can go ahead of time to see your samples can make all kinds of difference.)
3) Start hanging out online on places where freelance writers hang out.
4) Make up a resume and start posting it on job sites. I'm on the seventh month of a three-month contract right now, haven't been looking for work in over a year, and I'd say I'm still getting calls at least once a week. The market is hot right now.
5) and most importantly: Submit. At the very least, start doing research and sending out query letters.

I think one thing that may have changed since you were last working steadily is that now freelance writing is a lot less like being employed by someone and a lot more like running your own company. You have to actively go and chase down work these days, especially if you don't have enough of a constant contact in the industry to be getting a lot of referrals. Which brings me to point

6) Start cultivating referrals. Network like hell. If you know people who are still in publishing, start calling/e-mailing/writing them, and asking them if they're looking. If that doesn't work, ask them who else you can talk to who might be looking.
7) Put in to it the kind of hours you'd like to get out of it. So if you're looking for full-time freelance work, start putting in full-time-job kind of hours dedicated to finding it.
8) Be prepared to wait for the payoff. It might take several months of persistent effort to get anywhere.

Good luck...

Interrobang said...

Oh, further point. Avoid sites like and and suchlike, unless you want to register, read the postings and be insulted and disgusted by the rates, and quit, only to get spammed forever after by people who think writing is worthless. (Seriously. I once got a "proposal," which I was supposed to bid on, competively, where the project offerer wanted to pay around $100 for a ~100pp mss. Save yourself the time.)

Anne Johnson said...

Interrobang, I keep meaning to thank you in a post, and I keep forgetting. You are certainly a role model. Just today I got Spammed from a Craigslist posting, and it so infuriated me that my operators have been instructed to wait for the Spammers to phone and then keep them on the line for 20 minutes, leading them toward a major letdown!

Athana said...

anne, my advice would be to dig into your heart, find out what you're most passionate about -- even though you think the rest of the world won't understand one iota of it -- and start blogging about it.

Dare to risk being thought weirder than weird. Bare your soul. And then go for it, sister!

There are publishers out there who are looking at blogs to find people creative, talented and courageous enough to speak the truth.

Anne Johnson said...

Yo, people! Look over here! Yeah, here! It's me! Wanna see my tits? You betcha! Whatever it takes!


Couldn't resist.