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A Writer’s Life — is it worth it? August 8, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, On Writing.
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It’s been a while since my last post (by my standards).  And no, it’s not because I’ve been sitting around thinking about just how awesome Rise of the Planet of the Apes was (and it was).

Apart from the usual and the unusual errands and chores and busted tyres and rodent extermination, I’ve been busy planning a few things.  With my masters degree in writing almost in hand and another country move in the works (to Asia this time), it’s time to start thinking about the next phase of my working life.  CVs, scans of published works, contacting contacts to make more contacts — I’m doing it all.

Naturally, if I wanted a life of material comfort (though it wouldn’t be much of a ‘life’), I could easily return to the law, but doing so would be against everything I’ve promised myself over the last few years, and to be frank, it makes my bladder shudder just thinking about it.  I had a nightmare the other night where I was back at the old firm and if I hadn’t woken up from the fright I might have embarrassed myself in bed.  Living in a constant state of stress and terror doing something that I can barely tolerate can’t be the answer for the next 30+ years of my life.

No, any career from here must be a career in writing.  I don’t know if it will last or how it will turn out, but if I don’t at least give it a shot I’m going to regret it forever.

The first thing most people say when they hear about someone (such as myself) wanting to write, is that it’s really really hard.  Really hard.  Don’t quit your say job.  Hardships are ahead — financially, socially, emotionally.  Success stories are one in a million (well, I guess it depends on your definition of ‘success’ — is it JK Rowling or a relatively comfortable living?).

But surely it can’t be that bad, or else there won’t be that many writers out there.  My advantage (or at least what I consider to be an advantage) is that I’m not fussy about the kind of work I do, as long as it involves writing (for the smart-arses out there, that excludes contracts and legal advices) and, as the great George W Bush once said, puts food on the family.

I’m quite flexible with the field or the area or the type of writing.  I can write formal, technical, colloquial, serious, comical, satirical or just plain old conversational.  Just looking around online in Sydney, there appear to be quite a few relatively well-paid jobs for someone in my position.  Legal publishing is a pretty decent route to go, or at least as a stepping stone.  Traditional publishing and media jobs are available — not quite as well paid but not as bad as I had expected.

But this time I’m heading to Asia and from what I’ve heard, writers get paid peanuts (sometimes literally).  There are plenty of jobs that require English writing, so the concern is not to find a job, it’s finding the right job.

There are options.  I can try educational publishing and write books which help local children learn English.  I can go into media and work at a newspaper or magazine that publishes in English.  I can try academic writing/editing, helping out local professors polish up their works in English.  I can try technical writing for a company.  I can even try something in government.  None of these pay well by Western standards but at least I have absolutely no problem seeing myself in one of these roles.  And all of them will provide me with much needed experience.

Perhaps supplementing a day job with freelance writing or editing might be feasible (I’m reading up on that), but it’s not easy for newbies without the experience or portfolio to back them up.  I was just looking around online randomly for freelancing opportunities and saw that quite a few people offer $1 for every 500 words!  Can you believe that?  A dollar!

That said, a lot of freelancers I’ve come across love what they do and wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.  I’d like to be able to say that one day.

I think I am prepared mentally for what lies ahead.  I’m confident in my abilities but I know hard work and luck are imperative — though I believe former swimmer Grant Hackett said it best when he said that the harder he worked, the luckier he got.

If any writers out there are reading, please share your story and how you got to where you are today.  Was it worth it?  And any tips, pointers or pearls of wisdom you might be able to bequeath?

The end is just the beginning June 15, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Fantasy, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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My masters course has finally finished.

With (soon to be) two masters degrees hanging on my walls I have also become a master of avoiding full-time work as well.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be working on no less than three projects — the secret mini-book I’ll be shopping around for publishers or self-publish, continuing my masters novel, and getting my good old fantasy novel back on track.  And yes, looking for that much needed job will be high on the priority list as well.

Strangely, there is no relief after completing this masters degree like my previous degrees.  Perhaps it’s because I actually wanted to study this time instead of doing it out of obligation.  Or perhaps it’s because I now have to put what I have learned over the last 18 months into practice.

It feels a lot more like a beginning than an end.

Farewell, Borders June 5, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary, Technology.
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I had been wanting to write about this ever since news broke a few days ago but for whatever reason held off — maybe hoping that it wasn’t true or that it was a mistaken report.

Oh well.  There’s no use denying it anymore.  The last remaining nine Borders bookstores across Australia will close down over the next six to eight weeks.  The fate of the Angus & Robertson chain, also owned by the in-administration REDgroup, remains uncertain at this point.  The only good news is that its online bookstores will remain open.

I still remember the first time Borders opened up in Australia years and years ago.  I loved them.  They had the broadest range of books and I could spent literally hours and hours browsing from one end of the store the other.  It was perfect for people with short attention spans like me, who just want to read the back cover, maybe read a few pages, and move on if it doesn’t interest me.

When I was living in Cambridge (which had all the big booksellers such as Waterstones, WHSmith, Heffers, etc), I pretty much camped out at Borders.  Nothing to do?  Let’s go to Borders and read all afternoon!  Books, comics, manga, magazines, whatever.  It was better than any library.

But that was the problem.  People loved to browse Borders but not buy from them because their books were so bloody expensive, particularly in Australia (I’ll get to that in a sec).  If they were on super duper special, then maybe, you’d consider buying a book or two, but everybody knew that Borders was a place where you went to do your research, not the place you’d ultimately purchase the books from.

These days, especially, it’s all online.  Not just e-books but also paper books from places such as The Book Depository and Amazon.  Yes, if all things were equal, Australian consumers would no doubt want to purchase locally — but when prices were, excluding GST, 35% higher, or in many cases, 50% higher, financial considerations always trumped loyalty.

No wonder Borders struggled so much.  The stores tended to be in areas where the rent was ridiculous.  They required loads of staff and the wide range meant stacks of inventory.  Without competitive prices, they really had no chance.

Interestingly, the online chatter that has come out of the closures have been similar to my sentiments.  Most bemoan the loss of a terrific place to ‘browse’ books, but not much more than that.  Some were even glad that these evil big book chains which bully the independent booksellers have gotten their comeuppance.

Does this represent a fundamental shift in the publishing industry?  If supposedly mighty bookchains such as Borders are collapsing, it makes me wonder what the future holds for other chains such as Angus & Robertson and Dymocks, and to a lesser extent, Kinokuniya.

Is it finally time for the parallel importing restrictions to be lifted?  For those who don’t know, Australia has in place restrictions intended to protect local publishers and writers.  If an Australian holder of publishing rights to a particular title decides to publish it within 30 days of the book becoming available elsewhere in the world, then Australian booksellers are prohibited from importing the title from overseas.

A Productivity Commission report in 2009 recommended that these restrictions be lifted, partly because the bulk of the benefits stemming from the restrictions flowed to offshore publishers and authors, rather than local ones.  The recommendation was never acted upon because of campaigns from domestic publishers and authors, who also have very valid arguments.  Opening the already fragile Australian book industry to the rest of the world has potentially frightening consequences for everyone.

No easy answers, unfortunately.  I just hope the remaining bookchains in Australia have enough support to keep battling on.

Farewell, Borders.

Becoming a ruthless killer…of words May 31, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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It’s getting down to the business end of things.  The due date for my novel project is just around the corner and I have buckled down for the home stretch!

The novel itself will not be complete (the project only requires a certain number of words) but what I submit will have to be high quality, polished stuff.  And so I have essentially stopped drafting new chapters and am solely focused on reshaping and reworking the existing ones.

On top of that, I have to start trimming the words down to a manageable size.  I’m about 10,000 words over what I should have, and it’s going to be brutal.

Yesterday I commenced what I thought was a murderous rampage through my draft manuscript.  I deleted whole chunks, moved others, rephrased and slashed words and sentences here and there.  I thought I was on a roll.  But when I checked the word count at the end of the day, I had only cut a few hundred words!  It may have had something to do with me adding a little too much new material.

The good news is that I can simply cut entire chapters for the submission.  Find the ones that aren’t working yet and just take them right out.  Get back to them later.

The best advice I received from all the  workshopping I’ve done recently is that for comedic writing (which is what I am striving for here), the best way to go about it is to gather a whole bunch of stuff, find out what works and what doesn’t, and just keep the best bits.

For some reason I was under the assumption that brilliant comedic writers struck gold every time — and some of them probably do — but there’s bound to be certain passages that don’t work and some that work better than others.  The key is finding out which ones.  I find reading the writing out loud really helps — in identifying the strengths and weaknesses, separating the interesting from the boring, and assisting with the rhythm and comedic timing of the jokes and punchlines.

Oh well, better get back to it.  Time is running out.

Copyeditor Giving Me Grief March 7, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
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As some of you may know, I’ve been working with editors to get a piece I wrote last year published in an anthology.  It had been pretty easy up to this point, partly because I know the editor I’ve been working with and partly because none of the suggested amendments have been substantial or required too much work on my part.

That’s not to say we didn’t have any disagreements on certain things — I pushed back on suggestions I didn’t think worked or made sense, and I relented on things I didn’t think affected the essence of the piece.  It was all quite straightforward.  We probably exchanged three or four versions all up.

Once we agreed on the ‘final version’, the piece then went off to an outsourced copyeditor to get the piece into ‘house style’ (ie the set style of the publisher) and to fix certain things such as punctuation, spelling, grammar, syntax, wording, etc (usually by this stage there are supposed to be very few, though you’d be surprised, as I found out) — and most importantly get the proofs ready (ie how the pages would look like in the finished book).

And so yesterday I received the proofs from my editor.  I was told to check the edits made by the copyeditor and do a final scan, just to be safe.

At first I thought, who cares, there’s no chance of there being any significant changes, so maybe I’ll just be lazy and send it back with my ‘okay’.  The piece has been read dozens of times by more than a dozen people, and any spelling, grammar mistakes (etc) would have been picked up already.  Besides, the proof sent to me was in clean and not marked up, so I had no idea what had actually been amended.

Fortunately, I put my laziness and trust in people aside and decided to have another read (which is tough because you’ve read it so many times and are, frankly, sick of it).  Once you words go into print, they stay there forever, so you can never be too careful.

As it turned out, the copyeditor had made some baffling edits.  Not very substantial ones, of course, but just a change of a word here or there, an additional couple of words here or there, and some changes to punctuation marks.  If they were necessary or somehow improved the piece by making things clearer, then fine, thanks for the help.

But no.  Instead, these changes not only introduced factual errors into the piece, they also affected my voice, style and rhythm — perhaps not in a negative way, but it those things are still mine.  Take them away, and the piece has a different feel.

But what would I know?  I should trust the professionals, right?  If they say I should remove a comma after ‘Consequently’ at the start of a sentence, then okay, I trust their judgment.  If they say I should (for instance) add a comma between ‘John has the ability to make people feel comfortable’ and ‘very quickly’, then fine — I don’t necessarily agree with it but I’ll let it go.

But what is the deal with adding ‘he says’ into a sentence when it’s something I said (as an opinion)?  By the way, this is a non-fiction piece that features quotes take from interviews, so when you say someone said something, you better be damn sure they actually said it.

Similarly, what is the deal with putting quotation marks and italicising a paragraph that is not actually a quote?  Take the following mock sentence as an example:

John accuses Mary of trying to present him as ‘an old cow’.  He also says what Mary said about him ‘was all lies’ and that ‘she could not be trusted.’

There is nothing wrong with that paragraph, but the copyeditor in this situation changed it to the following:

John accuses Mary of ‘trying to present him as “an old cow”.  He also says what Mary said about him “was all lies” and that “she could not be trusted”.

Does that change make sense to you?  And I crazy here, or does this smell like laziness or incompetence on the part of the copyeditor?  Is it a matter of changing things for the sake of changing things so it looks like he/she did their job?

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