Freelancing is lancing my free time

February 19, 2013 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Parenting

Anyone recognise where this is from?

Anyone recognise where this is from?

You may have noticed that things have been a little slow on this blog lately. It wasn’t supposed to be. In fact, I was supposed to be posting up a storm over this recent nine-day Lunar New Year break in Taiwan. Instead, I took up a freelancing gig, and it’s been killing me. Killing me, I tell ya. As the great Tommy Wiseau would say:

Freelancing jobs are always a dilemma when you also have a full-time job. On the one hand, it’s nice to get a bit of extra cash, but on the other, you are voluntarily adding all this pressure on yourself and destroying whatever free time you might have. When you have a one-year-old baby to look after like I do, free time is more precious than diamonds, and if you’re not desperate for money it’s always tempting just to say, “No thanks, I’d rather sleep, or read, or watch The Walking Dead or a movie, or exercise, or play video games, or do whatever the hell it is that I’d rather be doing.”

This is why I’d actually been turning down quite a few freelancing opportunities as of late, though this new one that I took on was from a regular client that paid relatively well and was a good opportunity to establish more crucial contacts. Freelancing, as I learned from that ultra-successful, US$600K-a-year  freelance writer Robert W Bly (I reviewed his freelance guide here), is all about connections and getting repeat business. You can be the best freaking writer in the world, but you’re not making any money if people don’t know who you are. That’s why there are all these horrible, horrible writers and editors earning great money doing freelancing full-time, while decent or even very good writers and editors prefer to work in steady jobs and not worry about where their next paycheck will come from.

As usual, I have underestimated how difficult this current freelance gig would be. When I first saw it I estimated roughly four days — mostly during my “spare” time at work. Instead, it has killed almost all my free time from the Lunar New Year break and I’m still not finished. Part of the problem is me being slow and too meticulous and distracted with other things, but it’s incredibly frustrating nonetheless. This one gig has essentially derailed the longest holiday I’m probably going to have this year. It’s also set back my plans to start exercising regularly again by at least another week (I really need it too, after eating like a pig over the break). And don’t even get me started on the PS3 games I’m supposed to be playing. I have literally not switched on my PS3 since finishing Sleeping Dogs in late November. Meanwhile, my food and movie blog posts continue to pile up. At this rate, I’ll never get back to working on what I really want to take another stab at — my novels.

It has me wondering whether I’ll ever take on another freelance case. Well, I’m sure I will, and I’m sure I’ll be bitching about it like I am now once I do.

When you don’t like an editor’s edits…

October 8, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing, Study

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough, through having done some freelance work earlier with the same magazine, to be given an opportunity to write a profile on a remarkable woman who devoted her life to those less fortunate than her. I was ecstatic because it was going to be published in several languages/countries and would be a great addition to the CV. Most of all, I love doing in-depth profiles, and I was determined to make this one totally awesome.

Initially, the process was not all that difficult, as I had already done some preliminary research during work for a related project. The interview was a blast, and although I would have liked to have gotten more secondary sources, on the whole I had more than enough for a compelling piece.

The writing was a little more difficult as I also had to deal with full-time work, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable to craft. The word limit was 1800 words, but I’ve always been the kind of writer that likes getting everything down on the page first, so by the time that first draft was done, I had almost 4500 words.

Cutting down the length is my specialty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to chop away all that hard work. After about four rounds of edits, I was down to 2500 words, and I was at a loss as to how to trim it further.

So I did what every lazy writer would do — ask for more words. To my surprise, the request was granted; 2500 words, no problem — they can work with that, and the editor can work her magic on it if necessary. I even submitted the piece two days earlier.

I thought I was done and it was time to celebrate, but of course, as usual, I was wrong. The first editor I worked with was fantastic. She cast a spell and 300 more words fell away effortlessly, bringing the total to a publishable 2200 words. Crucially, she managed to preserve the essence of the article and all the key points. I was impressed. She also said she really liked it, which felt great.

She had a couple of questions and issues and we worked them out through email over the next day or two. I don’t remember having had to push back on anything. I remember her removing all my carefully planned section breaks, but the flow didn’t feel like it was interrupted, so I let it go.

I thought we were ready, but a couple of days after that, I received another email from the same editor, passing on the suggestions from the magazine’s editor-in-chief. I was told in the email that the EIC made some changes to the introductory sections, but didn’t really touch the remaining two-thirds.

When I opened up the document, my jaw dropped. I usually love working with editors because they teach me how to improve, but in this case the EIC totally butchered my original intro, which was a sensory anecdote, and replaced it with a more straight-forward, chronological, report-style beginning. It was, frankly, predictable and boring.

It was contrary to everything I had been taught about how to write the intro of a feature, and it was the opposite of what the magazine’s local editor had told me before I started writing. That said, my first impression was — I don’t like it, but it’s their magazine and if this is the way they like to do it, then fair enough. After all, this was the EIC of an international magazine — surely even at her worst she would be substantially better than me at my very best — who was I to complain?

But when I read the edits properly, I got angry. The EIC had gotten the basic facts muddled up, and asked a bunch of questions that were already answered in other parts of the article. Initially I thought perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, or that stuff got lost during the editing process — but after re-reading it and getting other casual readers to take a look it became clear that the EIC simply didn’t pay enough attention.

I could accept differences in style, but not when facts get completely mutilated. So I responded to the immediate editor I had been working with and explained politely that the EIC had gotten the facts wrong. I wrote a lengthy explanation of the facts in detail, filled in the blanks and answered all outstanding questions. In light of the edits, I asked whether they would like me to rework the introductory paragraphs to better match the style that the EIC was aiming for, or whether they preferred to have a got at it themselves using the new information I provided.

The editor responded with the latter, and agreed to my request to show me the article again once they were done to make sure that I was OK with everything.

I knew they were on a tight schedule, so alarm bells started ringing when I hadn’t heard back from the editor after a few days (we had previously been in touch every day). A couple of emails to her went unanswered. I assisted the local editor who called with a few ‘urgent’ fact checking points, but generally speaking I was kept in the dark over what was going on.

I didn’t end up hearing back from the editor until five days later, and by that time the article had already been formatted for publication, with photos and captions and all. I was informed that no more changes would be made, except to correct factual errors. There was absolutely no feedback, no reasoning behind the changes; not even a ‘sorry, we know we promised to make sure you were OK with it, but we’re out of time.’

It was clear why they had been keeping me out of the loop all this time — they obviously wanted to avoid anything that might slow them down, such as dealing with pesky writers who want to have more creative control.

The majority of the near-finished article appeared to be the same on paper except for the intro, but the feel of it was completely different. Key quotes and passages were removed from those initial paragraphs and the remainder of the article no longer flowed on as smoothly as before. It came across as slightly disjointed, especially since new section breaks were inserted at rather unnatural places (presumably because of the formatting). Sadly, the word count was virtually identical to what it was before the EIC got her hands on it.

Being aware that I might have been working too closely to have an objective opinion, I enlisted a couple of other readers to tell me what they thought of the changes. The conclusion was unanimous: the article had lost some of its mojo.

The only feedback I ended up providing was telling them to delete an unnecessary word the copyeditor missed, which they gladly did, but I knew there was no point in giving them anything substantive because nothing would be done.

It’s a disappointing feeling knowing that something you put so much effort into didn’t turn out the way you envisioned it to be, for better or for worse. I appreciate what the editors did and the pressures they must have been under, but the experience left a bit of a bitter aftertaste. I’ve always been receptive towards constructive feedback, and often feedback that’s more negative than anything else (which is a regular occurrence on this blog especially) — I don’t have to agree with it, and it’s never a bad thing to get another perspective.

But I suspect in this case the disappointment stems mainly from my lack of control over the content of something that is ultimately going to have my name attributed to it. That and knowing that the changes I didn’t like were made by someone who didn’t actually read the article properly. It’ll be my most important published piece to date, but unfortunately it’ll be far from my proudest.

My editing lecturer wasn’t shy about telling us all her horror stories in dealing with writers who refuse to budge on every single word and is irrationally defensive about changing things that would unequivocally improve their work. That can be frustrating, I’m sure, but what about the writers who get their hard work trimmed, reshaped and rewritten without even getting a say on the final product?

I still wonder, several weeks on, whether I should have kicked up more of a stink. But what good would it have done other than to give me a bad name? All I can do now is wait a couple of months until the final version is published and hope that when I read it again, I’ll see what I had blown the whole thing out of proportion.

Book Review: ‘Lives and Letters’ by Robert Gottlieb

September 11, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

I’m a big fan of profiles, so I was ecstatic to receive a whole book of them in the mail to review for a trade publication.  The book was Lives and Letters, an anthology of profiles and essays by Robert Gottlieb, one of the most prolific editors in America.

Gottlieb is a former editor-in-chief of power publishing houses Simon & Schusters and Alfred A Knopf, and the former editor of The New Yorker.  He has over 50 years of experience in the industry, and is probably best known for ‘discovering’ and editing Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and has edited the likes of Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Michael Crichton, Sidney Portier, John Lennon, Bob Dylan…and even John Cheever! (see video below).

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Lives and Letters is marvellous collection of 44 pieces of splendid writing, most of which are profiles of celebrated writers and performers in film, theatre and dance, as well as iconic public figures.  Names everyone should recognise include Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Bernhardt, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Katherin Hepburn and the British Royals.  There’s also a couple of more personal pieces — essays on Gottlieb’s love affair with the New York City Ballet, and the surprisingly venomous fallout from Gottlieb replacing William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker.

My favourite pieces were the profiles on Harry Houdini and Minou Drouet, a child poet who took the poetry world by storm when she was just 7 or 8 years old before fading into obscurity.  The piece on the touching relationship between writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and legendary editor Maxwell E Perkins was also a pleasure to read.

All pieces were commissioned for a print publication over roughly the last 15 years, so naturally they differ in length, detail and focus.  Some are as short as 4 pages, while others can go for a dozen or more.  Some are straight profiles, while others feel more like reviews of books or films about the subjects.

Gottlieb’s style is simple, articulate, confident and efficient.  That said, his writings do have a certain highbrow sophistication to them reflective of his privileged upbringing that might irk some people.

The great thing though is that because Gottlieb is such a fabulous writer and editor, every piece is an engaging read that provides illuminating insights into his subjects.  He seems to always be able to find just the right quotes and anecdotes to reveal what makes the subject tick, their quirks, the relationships that defined them, what made them successful, and often, what led to their downfalls.

That said, not every piece was to my personal liking because they might be about subjects I’m not particularly interested in (especially dance and classical music).  Those pieces had many technical references I was not familiar with, and I’m sure other readers without Gottlieb’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts would be in the same boat.

Every now and then Gottlieb’s critical editor eye can also go overboard and overwhelm the narrative by getting too pedantic about every little thing that was wrong with, say, a biography written about the subject, including the author’s/editor’s poor grammar.  That’s why I preferred Gottlieb’s straight profiles — but everyone will have their own preferences and favourites.

Ultimately, Lives and Letters is a superb collection that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  My aim was to read one piece a day, but on most days I read 3 or 4 because they were so fascinating.  Even some of the subjects I thought I knew a little about contained so many juicy nuggets of info that I couldn’t help but read on.  I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the arts or the lives and scandals of the rich and famous throughout (Western) history.

Irritating Authorial Hiccups

August 22, 2011 in On Writing

I’ve been reading a fantastic book called Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb to review for a trade publication.  It’s a collection of insightful and wonderfully written ‘profiles’ (some are closer to reviews of biographies) of a wide array of celebrated entertainers, artists, writers and public figures over few hundred years.

Gottlieb is the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, the president and editor in chief of Alfred A Knopf and the editor of The New Yorker (!).  You don’t get a resume more impressive than that.

My review of this book for this blog will be coming in a couple of weeks, but I feel like I’ve already learned a great deal — not just about the people profiled in the book, but also in terms of writing and editing skills.

I was reading the profile of Elia Kazan (one of the best known directors of the 50s and 60s) and in it Gottlieb criticises a particular book that is peppered with ‘irritating authorial hiccups’.

Examples:

  • It must be said
  • Be that as it may
  • It is not too much to say
  • If you will
  • Frankly
  • Of course (which Gottlieb calls ‘the lazy writer’s crutch’)

Reading that list made me sweat because I’m certain I use those terms all the time, especially the last two.  And in a way (is that an irritating authorial hiccup too?), I suppose he is right in that they are not really necessary and can come across as lazy and too ‘loose’, especially in what is supposed to be a well-crafted piece of writing.

On the other hand (what about this one?), I think whether such terms are appropriate may depend on the type of writing it is and the audience it is intended for.  For instance, I like this blog to be conversational, informal, kind of chatty — and I think some of these ‘hiccups’ may help achieve that purpose.  Then again (this one too?), I could be way off the mark and it might be that this type of voice is achievable without these lazy crutches.

The bigger question is whether the terms (when repeated regularly throughout a piece of writing) are irritating only for experienced writers/editors, or do they annoy the casual reader as well?

The Award-Winning Book and the Ghost Writer

July 27, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary

[Update: 12 November 2011 — Anh Do’s new book, ‘The Littlest Refugee’ is coming out and this ghostwriting controversy is still around.  According to Do, the book’s publisher Allen & Unwin hired a proofreader to compare the manuscript Do wrote against the one written by Visontay, and found that less than 10% of Visontay’s sentences were used.  This was used to support the notion that Do rewrote the book from scratch.  The question is, of the remaining 90%, how much contains revised or reworked sentences?  But in any case, does that really mean anything?  I’m sure any writer in Do’s position would feel they put in enough time and effort to have the right to consider the book their own.  Ghostwriter assistance or not.]

Ghost-written celebrity memoirs and autobiographies are like farts in a wind storm — nobody really cares and nobody gets hurt.  It’s more of a surprise to discover that a celebrity has put in some actual effort into a book that bears their name.

Anyway, I was reading the paper this morning and saw that The Happiest Refugee, a best-selling memoir about comedian Anh Do’s life, picked up three awards at the Australian Book Industry Awards, including the 2011 Book of the Year (and also Newcomer of the Year and Biography of the Year).  Note that the awards are not based on literary merit but rather on sales and impact on the industry.

Interestingly, the article wasn’t a celebration of Do’s achievements — it was really about how the original manuscript was penned by a ghost writer, Michael Visontay, who worked as a senior editor with a couple of major national newspapers.

My initial reaction was one of shock, wondering how someone could accept three book awards, including the biggest one, when someone else had written it.  My guess is that this was the exact reaction sought by the article, which then went on to clarify that, according to the publisher Allen & Unwin, the actual book that won the awards was written by Do and bore no resemblance to the original manuscript handed to them by Visontay.  In any case, the CEO of the Australian Publishers Association (APA) stated that ghost-written books are allowed to win at the Awards (which I don’t agree with, or at least the ghost-writer ought to share the award).

Fair enough.  But there was more to the article that made me curious.  First of all, Allen & Unwin claimed that a ghost writer was initially employed because Do said he simply didn’t have the time to write the book.  However, after he saw Visontay’s manuscript, he suddenly ‘found’ time to rewrite the whole thing because he wanted it to be in his own voice.

Nonetheless, Visontay will still receive royalties from the book ‘as a gesture of good faith’.  Ghost writers usually charge a flat fee or a percentage of royalties or a combination of both — but all this would be stipulated in the contract from the outset.  It seems a little strange to me that Visontay is getting royalties, not because he is contractually entitled to them, but because the publisher felt generous, when allegedly very little of his manuscript made it into the book.

Secondly, Do’s remarks in an interview and what he wrote in the acknowledgements section in the book seemed to contradict each other.  In explaining the ghost writer situation, Do said:

‘Basically, this guy interviewed me and transcribed the interviews and it just really, really helped me.  They sent … all these interviews transcribed and it was lots of me talking and I have used that, and then wrote the book from that.  The book, the finished product, is nothing like the manuscript, the transcription given to me.’

Is Do saying that Visontay’s manuscript was no more than a transcription of a series of interviews with him?  I’m sure he did more than just that as a ghost writer, but let’s for argument’s sake assume he didn’t do a whole lot more than that.

But then, in the acknowledgements section of the book, Do wrote: ‘To my friend Michael Visontay, who taught me how to write a book and and helped me with structure and form.’

So what the heck did Visontay do on this book?  Did he interview Do and transcribe the interviews?  As the ghost writer, it would make no sense if he didn’t.  Did Do write the book from the transcriptions or Visontay’s manuscript or are they one and the same?  How much did Visontay help out on this book?  Was the acknowledgement a reference to Visontay’s manuscript or was it suggesting that Visontary physically helped him in the writing process?  And is he just ‘some guy’ or a ‘friend’?  Does it really matter?

To make this mystery even more compelling, Visontay said he did not wish to comment on the matter.

Mmm…smells fishy to me.

I guess the attribution of authorship is always a tricky area.  Just how much work does one need to put in before they go from ‘contributor’ to ‘author’?

Famous short story writer Raymond Carver’s works were brought under the spotlight in the late 90s, when it was revealed that his editor Gordon Lish had made significant changes to Carver’s works, including slashing up to half the word count, changing titles, characters, adding sentences, changing endings, tone and style — the style which Carver is well-known for.  That doesn’t make Carver a fraud, but it does raise some interesting questions.

When I read Andre Agassi’s riveting autobiography Open, I was amazed by how well it was written, only to discover that the grunt work was done by a Pulitzer-winning ghost writer, JR Moehringer, whom Agassi warmly acknowledged at the end of the book.  In that case, Moehringer interviewed Agassi, transcribed them, then created a narrative with them, which Agassi then worked on with him to shape into the finished product.  No one made much of a fuss over the fact that only Agassi’s name was on the cover, a decision Moehringer helped Agassi make.

Ultimately, it’s probably still a fart in a wind storm.  After all, Jessica Watson’s True Spirit, the book that was published supernaturally quick after the teen sailed solo around the world (I personally never understood all the hoopla, to be honest), won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year.  Hard to imagine she didn’t get a lot of help with getting that one into shape.