Portrait of the Man as a Young Writer
by Mike Lake

Writing...So what's professional writing like? I don't know, either. Or, if I do know, I can't be sure yet that I do. In these early stages, before making a name for myself, it's hard to distinguish my performance from someone who writes as a casual hobby.

You can start big or start small. I've started small. Starting big means turning out a novel, or some similar great work, an investment of years, and a big gamble: will your book be in that lucky top 2% that gets published, or not? If not, you don't find out until it's written and the publishers reject it. And if they reject it, it's probably too late to fix any mistakes you've been making along the way.

Unless you can feel the Great American Novel burning inside you, demanding to get out, starting small, writing magazine articles or news columns, is probably the way to go--at least it was for me, for many reasons.

  1. Although time spent on many articles adds up quickly, time spent on any given article is small, perhaps three or four days. This means that when an article fails to find a home--and it will--it's not a vast waste of time. More importantly for a beginning writer, unsure of his talent, a single rejected article is not a pronouncement on his life's work; rejection of an article is relatively easy on the self-confidence.
  2. Conversely, sending out several articles increases the chances that at least one will be published, and that's a big ego boost. I was very fortunate to get my very first submission accepted, and this has brought enormous encouragement through a string of later rejections.
  3. Submitting several items in rapid succession gives the beginning writer equally rapid feedback. If systematically doing something wrong, something which turns a great idea into a rejected article, you find out after the first or second week, rather than after three years of writing a novel.
  4. Writing regularly keeps me writing frequently. For me, finding excuses to put off writing a novel would be easy, and one more day one a lengthy project won't make any real difference, so why not put it off? The rule I've set for myself is: every Monday, if not earlier, a new article gets submitted. This self-imposed deadline works wonders.

This weekly deadline is the backbone of my routine. A week may seem like a long time for a three-page article. It certainly did to me, when I started. After all, I've survived college courses wherein we had to bang out three essays a week; how hard can one lousy two thousand-word essay be?

It turns out that writing a two thousand-word essay well enough that someone will pay for the privilege of reading it is quite different from writing three thousand-word essays well enough to get a professor to scrawl an "A" in the margin. Getting an essay in saleable shape can take upward of three full working days, if you aren't yet honed to the fine edge of a veteran columnist.

Wednesday is devoted to content; that is, I write the article. This step takes longer than it should, since I suffer from a powerful editorial streak. I type a sentence. Then I retype it. Then I retype it. Then I move on to a second sentence. By the time I've finished the second, the two don't fit together. So I rewrite the dependent clause of the first. Then I type the third. Then, halfway through the fourth, I realize the thrust of the paragraph is changing, so I go back to the first two sentences to help them flow more easily with the central idea. And so I lurch my way through, like a driver first learning how to handle a manual transmission. I'm told this is a common difficulty of beginning writers, and one I will be happy to leave behind as I learn to write first, edit later. After all this is done, I go back and rewrite the article, cleaning the jerky style the editor in my brain created, and getting every tiniest thing perfect. Perfection ensures that tomorrow I can watch TV and eat bonbons, as I will have nothing to add to this masterpiece.

Thursday, I wake up, brew a cup of tea, and reread the article. It is dreadful. So the day is devoted to style. If the first draft was verbose, I spend hours chopping out unneeded words. If the paragraphs grapple with one another for sovereignty over discrete thoughts, I make firm decisions to which paragraph each idea belongs. If the ending is drags, now is the time to discipline it into a graceful conclusion. In short, I do everything I can to make the article worth reading. Strunk and White must be kept readily at hand.

Friday is devoted to grammar and vocabulary. This is the dullest work, but not so painful as the previous morning's revelations. I go over the article with tweezers and magnifying glass, plucking any word which isn't exactly right, fretting over whether to split a compound sentence, setting the commas where they're supposed to be, and otherwise making the piece look professional. A thesaurus--a real one, not the software package--is indispensable. So is an actual grammar textbook. In theory, the computer can check grammar and spelling, but don't believe the hype. A spell-checker might prevent you from typing "dorp" in place of "drop," but, then again, it may not. (Indeed, my spell-checker just decided that "dorp" is peachy-keen.)

And Monday, my deadline, is devoted wholly to the cover letter. Something within me rebels against spending such a large segment of time on the mere description of the real writing, but it must be done, and done well. A lousy article with a good cover letter might earn an editor's interest: "We can't print this as it stands, but maybe if you..." A brilliant article with a lousy cover letter may not get the chance to flaunt its opening line, much less its profound body. This may be the most difficult work of all. Getting out all the necessary description, and explaining the desperate need the readers have for the article, and laying down a sales patter Ron Popeil would envy, and keeping it all under a page, requires an economy of words which poets have pursued for centuries. Longfellow never did find it.

Also on Monday, I recycle rejected submissions. If one magazine refuses an article, there may yet be others who want it. At my level of fame, even an unpaid printing has value; happy readers become fans if they see a name often enough. So anything Pyramid doesn't want gets submitted to Alarums and Excursions. And then RPG.net. And then Serendipity's Circle. And so on. Fortunately, I have so far stuck to a narrow venue; articles appearing in RPG venues are pretty similar across the board, and I don't need to tailor each article to each specific magazine I query. The cover letters, though, need to be tweaked, and, now that I'm juggling a half dozen articles or so at a time, it eats up the rest of the day, or gets distributed around the week as extra working hours in the day. And future plans for expanding into general interest essays promise to redouble the time investment of article recycling.

And that's what the job is about. Oh, that and tracking which submission is where on a big desk calendar. And rewriting and resubmitting articles at an editor's request. And keeping up with e-mail. All the niggling bits of trivial but necessary busy-work that any job entails. I'd tell you more about them, but they're really dull, and besides, I've already hit 1300 words. And I have a deadline.

Let's see... 1300 hundred words... at four and a half cents a word...

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