July 6th, 2018

Things writers do that aren’t writing

There are so many things to do with a writing career…besides write! People who think that the writing life is just me and my magic words are sadly mistaken, so I have listed out all the writing-ancillary activities below. And all this is in addition to the stuff that is a huge percentage of my life but has nothing to do with writing–eating and sleeping, being a wife and a daughter, a sister and friend, my entire other career, ballet class. This list below is the stuff that being a professional writer–someone who publishes sometimes and occasionally earns money–entails. I’ve tried to note the parts that are optional in case a young aspiring writer reads this and thinks, but I don’t want to do X. Anyway, here’s the list.

  1. Reading. This is a huge amount of my time and fits into a few categories: I read new Canadian fiction so I know what exciting stuff my contemporaries are up to and to be inspired and challenged, I read all other genres and nations for the same reason though I’m less able to keep up on the whole world. Both of those are also to keep learning and growing as a writer and human but mainly in a non-specific–I don’t know where I’m going but I like the journey–way. I also read non-fiction and very specific fiction as research for whatever is going on my own book. I try to always read stuff I enjoy, but the third category doesn’t quite make it 100% of the time. Depending on what you write, you might not have to do the third category but the first two are pretty non-optional.
  2. I do other sorts of research. When the book research in #1 doesn’t quite cut it, I have been known to actually leave the house. I don’t do a huge amount of this–and again depending on what you write you might not have to do any–but in my time I have conducted interviews, travelled on strange bus routes and investigated specific neighbourhoods and even other cities. My books thus far haven’t needed extensive out-of-the-house research, but the new one will need more. I’m feeling a bit daunted, but excited to.
  3. Parties! For anyone who doesn’t like this sort thing, I could do less; for anyone who loves it, I could do more. I’d say I go to 1-2 really big fancy parties a year, either thrown by my publisher or a big arts organization, and perhaps half a dozen smaller affairs. Very occasionally, it would be rude not to show, like if I’m being honoured for an award nomination, but often I’m just part of a mailing list and it’s very easy to say no thank you. But they are good opportunities to see people who I wouldn’t be comfortable, say, inviting to coffee, and there’s often nice food and drink. Also, I like parties. Your mileage may vary.
  4. Paperwork. A tonne, and actually less than many writers because my main income is from my full-time job and most of the paperwork is somehow money-related. “Writing income” is not a single salary, as crazy people believe it is. It is actually a million little gigs and income streams, all of which require paperwork. Every freelance gig requires an invoice and so do some speaking engagements; sometimes you have to give folks your Social Insurance Number and other info before they can pay you and sometimes not, grants require a tonne of paperwork to apply for and more if you get them (but are so worth it). Needless to say taxes are very complicated with all these tiny bits of income. Also, when dealing with all these small arts organizations, sometimes they get it wrong, and it takes a while and a bunch of following up to be corrected.
  5. Chasing money. Related to #4–and again, I do this less than most because of the full-time job thing. I follow up on past-due money on a rigorous cycle, but it takes time and emotional energy, especially when people get snippy with me (I like to think it is out of guilt but who knows). There is no rhyme or reason when someone who has promised to pay me for writing work will flake. Big organizations are bad at being able to onboard small vendors–some of the biggest have stiffed me for months–and small orgs can legit be short of cash or just disorganized. Don’t get me started on the days when I still had an HST number and someone told me they “didn’t have a budget for taxes” so I had to pay their share.
  6. Readings and other presentations–on-stage. I love doing readings, panel discussions, and other on-stage events–I’m also including guest lectures and other one-off teaching experiences like workshops, as I don’t normally teach on an ongoing basis. It’ssuch a great pleasure to be able share the work I care about and hear what others care about and think! But it takes a lot of preparation, energy, and also travel time. This sort of thing is often a big part of the publicity around publishing a book, and while I could do less, I don’t think I could do none–well, I could, but it wouldn’t be great for either me or my publisher. It’s worth the focus and energy this stuff takes, even if one isn’t naturally extroverted (FWIW, I’m slightly but not extremely extroverted–I still find being on a stage joyful but draining).
  7. Readings and other presentations–in the audience. I also really enjoy being in the audience for readings and panel discussions about literature, though with all of the other things listed here, I do less than I would like. I wouldn’t say this item is necessary but it’s what they call “good literary citizenship” to go out and support the writers and events and venues that intrigue us. Of course there are other ways to do that if going to events just isn’t your jam–like buying and reading books!
  8. Answering reader email. Obviously, a lot of the above include email in one way or another, but these emails are just from strangers or near strangers–people who no reason to write me other than they read my book. This is a tiny tiny item on my chore list but one of my faves. Sometimes folks just write me a little note and say, “I read your book and I liked it.” Those are quick to answer–I just say thank you!–but nothing less than joyful. Occasionally one of my books or stories is assigned in a class somewhere and some enterprising students might email me for extra insight. I shouldn’t help them much, I suppose, but it’s all so charming, I can’t help it. Very rarely, someone writes me to say they hate my book. It it’s just a screed, I don’t respond, but even not responding takes up some time and space in my day.
  9. This blog and other forms of social media. As I have said many times in the past, my participation in social media is mainly for my own enjoyment but there is a professional tinge to some of it. If you were looking to skip something from this list, definitely #9 is a good candidate.
  10. Favours! There’s not enough money in literature, so we do favours for each other a lot. Whether it’s reading a friend’s manuscript to offer feedback, talking up an acquaintance’s book around town because it’s brilliant but not getting enough attention, providing blurbs, talking to students about what lies ahead, etc. Each individual favour is optional–I try to put my own work, family, and health first–I think doing no favours for anyone ever would be a bad way of doing things. This industry is just too challenging if we don’t help each other out from time to time, especially those of us who have been lucky enough to meet with some success helping those who are just starting. I’ve been a recipient of many favours in my time, and while sometimes I pay those individuals back, if they don’t need it I just pay the universe back.

I suppose everything I’ve listed here is technically optional except #4 (CRA will be mad about a lot of that paperwork) and probably for most people #5 (money is necessary for food). This is just how I’ve constructed my literary life and others will do it differently.

May 26th, 2015

Wall of Fame

I try to avoid talking about my writing life at work unless someone specifically asks me. I’m not embarrassed, I just figure it’s not really anyone else’s problem and everyone at work wants to just focus on work. Which actually isn’t true–everyone in my office has been very supportive and encouraging about my writing ever since a freelance editor who is also a poet outed me as an author on a conference call with 10 people, and one of those people emailed the entire company for some reason. Very awkward, but very sweet–she was that excited for me.

I’m so lucky to have received all this support and encouragement while I balance my two careers, and now I’m even on the Wall of Fame in the office. This is where they put up little blurbs about folks who have done cool things outside of work. I’m honoured to be included! Here’s my blurb…design credit Jennifer Leung.11x14-Rebecca (2)

April 23rd, 2013


So that stressful project at work is complete, I believe, so I’m finally on vacation this week and next! And for once, I’m not going anywhere or doing anything big on vacation. When I was younger, I mocked the concept of the “staycation,” but that was probably because I never realized how much I could like my own life. I have an amazing apartment, partner, friends, family, and city, not to mention gift certificates–why would I want to use my limited free time to leave all that.

So I’m here, enjoying my life (and accepting lunch dates, if you’re interested!) So far I’ve
–eaten Korean food and gone to a board games cafe
–gone to a farmers’ market
–built a nightstand
–watch a movie in a movie-theatre
–made soup
–walked all the way across downtown
–eaten Thai food
–bought a vacuum cleaner

Some of this is prosaic, I admit, but the chores need to be done and at least I have time to do them at my own pace. And most of it’s just been lovely–especially that long walk yesterday. I had an over an hour before a lunch date and nothing in particular to do, so I decided to walk it. The weather was stunning, I had nice music on my ipod, and the thing I was walking towards was such a pleasant prospect. I love walking in Toronto–it’s really how the city looks its best.

For my next trick, I will be experiencing my first spa, thanks to a gift certificate I got for Christmas. The treatment itself is very expensive, but there’s all kinds of extra stuff there you can do for free there, like work out in the gym and swim in the pool. So obviously I’m going to go 2 hours early and try everything, because why not, right?

I am also, of course, writing a bit on my break. I am so tired from work that I am not setting any huge goals, but it’s nice to be able to give writing some of the good part of the day, instead of getting to it when I’m already sort of miserable. I always write, but often in tiny bursts–my output has been pretty pitiful lately. I hope some leisure time will help expand it a bit.

Speaking of pitiful, I contribute a little bit to “Failure Week” on Hazlitt, in the form a comment in Jowita Bydlowska’s article “Where Do All the Dead Stories and Characters Go?” A fun and somehow inspiring article–so many brilliant writers have to kill so much of their work, and yet it turns out amazing anyway. Encouraging!

Anyway, so that’s the news with me right now–rather pleasant, and no griping for once. Hope it’s the same where you are!

January 12th, 2012

Never do anything that isn’t a verb

I’m going to be presenting at a careers evening at University of Toronto later this month (it’s not open to the public, I’m afraid, but if you’re a student there and want to attend, message me and I’ll send you the deets). I love talking about work, jobs, and careers (are those three different things or three synonyms–discuss!) and this is a chance for me to be even more opinionated than usual.

I’m warming up with a few blog posts (well, perhaps only 1, the way this month is going) about topics the organizers told me will probably come up. First up, the ever-alarming concept of Networking!

One of my least favourite compliments, the one that *always* seems backhanded and snarky, is “You’re such a good networker.” I usually take it to mean, “You effectively pretend to be nice but you really aren’t,” or somethine else similar and dreadful. Also, I sort of think I never “network”–because it’s not a verb, at least it didn’t used to be back in the good old days of rotary dial phones and yellow taxis. The Oxford Canadian now includes the verb form, but the definition I like best is the first one, “n. A group of interconnected or communicating things, people, or points.” Your personal network is all the people you know, and to network is (sigh) to try to expand that group.

I like getting to know and keeping in touch with a wide range of people. Such statements get a lot of eyerolls, especially in these modern times where knowing lots of people is supposed to get you fun friends, but jobs and power and global domination. I don’t know that I’ve had that much in the way of power and success, but it’s not like I haven’t had wonderful support and encouragement from people I know in the writing community, and it’s not like that hasn’t helped me.

So maybe saying I don’t network is just a dictionary game, and maybe I do know how to do this, at least a little. However, I’ve also noticed that people tend to take the need to “network” as license to be awful–glancing over your co-conversationalist’s shoulder for someone better, hijacking conversations with resume-lists of accomplishments, generally getting people to talk to you and then making them sorry they did.

People who are actually good at this stuff have told me that that’s the wrong way to do it, so for all I know, maybe my way is right even though I have not ended up ruling the universe. So here’s my most basic, at-least-won’t-make-things-worse advice on the networking thing:

Be super nice. Be warm and friendly. Start conversations with people who look lonely. Engage on topics they seem engaged by, ask questions, listen more than you talk, and remember what you’ve heard. Share your gum, give up your seat, pick up something someone else dropped. If you admire something someone did or said, say so; if you don’t, don’t say anything. If you think someone is doing something cool, ask them about it. If someone is looking for help or recruiting volunteers, say yes if you can. Show up to events when you are invited–whether it’s a birthday party, pub-band show, or a corporate soire, you have a better chance of meeting new people if you are there to meet them.

Be honest. Don’t feign interest in things you don’t like, don’t spend time with people you don’t enjoy, don’t pursue endeavours you hate. I totally think this is a kind of honesty. I have a policy about not spending time with anyone I know for a fact I don’t like–it’s a waste of everyone’s time, because the feeling is usually mutual, or it will become so when I “fake nice” someone for too long. The thing is, in order to get factual confirmation that I truly don’t like this person, I need to talk to them for a while. And actually engage and converse, not just nod and wait for them to wind down. And then, I have to do it again on a completely separate occasion, in case one of us was just having an off night the first time. After that, if this person really seems like a negative force, I avoid them, smile politely, offer a greeting or a quick question (how’s that tarantula?) when I have to and keep moving. There is simply no point in befriending people I don’t like–it’s no fun and, anyway, most people can tell (I can!)

This also goes for electronic networking. Sure, try a blog, Facebook, whatever you think is your ideal venue for succssful connections with other humans–but if you find you hate it, don’t continue, even if your boss/publisher/career advisor insists it’s an important part of your “brand.” At an online networking workshop I once attended (yeah, yeah) someone once said, “No one ever made a bestseller on Facebook.” These sites are tools like any others–useful when used properly, otherwise potentially damaging. If you can’t image how alienating a grudgingly written blog is–you probably need to research the endeavour more before you begin.

Work really hard. You can befriend everyone in the world, but if your work isn’t awesome, it doesn’t much matter. Always have something in progress that you love, so that if someone asks you about it you’ll be not only able but eager to talk about it. Be eager to do your best stuff even when there doesn’t seem to be enough money or glory (or any of either) to make it worth your while. The thing about networking is that you’re always doing it, even when you don’t want to be. Everyone *does* know everyone, including that boss that you consistently underperformed for, the volunteer team you quit, and the colleague you were rude to.

A big pitfall for folks entering a new field, especially creative ones, is to take internships or do pro bono work for the “resume credit,” then not do a great job because they’re not being paid. The work is still out there, though, representing you, even if you feel it doesn’t. I think if you can afford to, you should probably stop doing anything you don’t like well enough to do a good job–get out before it ruins your reputation.

Everyone’s not watching…unless you give’em something to watch. A neat thing that’s happened to me once or twice is to be standing around chatting with friends at a party, and have a Very Important Person cruise by and say, “Hey, Rebecca, how’s the new book [or some such] going?” Whomever I’m with is always really impressed with me and my successful networking, but it’s really the VIP who is good at it. The more you’re in the spotlight, I think, the more you learn to pay attention to those around you, to learn how to best work with people so you’ll get their best work, and to keep friendly relationships even with those you don’t work with–in case you ever might.

I realize this is an extra rose-coloured post–I hope it doesn’t come across as sappy. I know there are less ingenuous things you can do to expand your sea of connections, but I don’t really think they’re worth doing or thinking about. Besides if you network my way, even if you don’t advance your career, you still might make some friends.

August 4th, 2011

Songs for The Big Dream

The Big Dream has music in it, but no lyrics. Music is ubiquitous in our culture–with the advent of iPods, less and less of our lives is unsoundtracked, and if you’re going to write real life, you need at least some ambient music popping up sometime. When I wrote Once, there were occasional snatches of whatever the characters were listening to. When I was finished, someone told me that you can’t use song lyrics, even just a few, even if they’re diegetic, even for atmosphere, without paying the artist who wrote them, and the licensing company and whatever-expensive-nightmare.

So I went through the whole book and took out all the direct quotations. I left some vague references and titles in–surely they can’t sue for that, and I guess most readers would be at least slightly familiar with the sorts of music I was writing about, so they’d be able to tune in inside their brains. And it’s not as if music is a huge aspect of my work–it’s just there, a part of things, a thread in the fabric… It was just frustrating, is all, to have to leave things out, even little things.

But since I found out the rules, I’ve been writing with them in mind. In Road Trips, when I wanted to show a character flipping through the radio stations and hearing a little snatch of rap, I wrote the lyrics myself (the joke was how bad it was, so it was ok that I that; I’m not planning an alternative career as a rap lyricist). And in *The Big Dream* I found other ways of describing music besides direct quotations. Sometimes it works better than others, but I think I was largely successful in creating the impression of certain music without using the lyrics. Again, this is a really small part of the book, but I worked hard on it.

Except…somehow I didn’t think all these rules applied to epigraphs. I have no idea why I believed this–probably just because I wanted to, as none of the fair use exceptions of study, review, criticism, etc. applied. I just found this really really perfect epigraph for TBD, and I wanted it and I couldn’t write my way around it–an epigraph is a direct quotation and only that.

So I’ve come to my senses, looked into the matter further, and finally deleted the epigraph. I am sad, because the song and the quotation I picked said the perfect thing, I felt, to introduce the book. So I’ll write this post, I figure, reviewing and critiquing all the music that meant a lot to me and the process of writing TBD, and then I’ll have an excuse to include the quotation here–not in the book, where I feel it belongs, but at least somewhere where people can read it and make the connection. And there’s actually a lot of other music to give credit to, here. I think a lot of writers have music they keep in mind as they write or think about their work, whether or not it’s on in the room where we’re actually tapping at the keys–see Dani Couture’s playlists series or Large Heart Boy’s Book Notes. So it’s a proud tradition of us song-listing authors that I join now–onwards.

Believe it or not, I had never ever heard Dolly Parton’s working-girl classic 9 to 5 until less than a year ago, when my friend K played a dance mix of it in the aerobics class she teaches. True! I don’t generally like the “they let you dream just to watch’em shatter” type of song–too reductive, too whingy. But this song is *very* catch, great for aerobics, and it has two great lines: “there’s a better life and you think about it / dontcha?” and “in the same boat with a lot of your friends / waiting for the day your ship will come in / the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll you away.” Have *you* heard a better extended metaphor in a pop-song? A nice bit of solidarity, too! And I like “pour myself a cup of ambition,” too. Someday, I may write a story called, “A Cup of Ambition”–or is that not fair use? Oh, probably not. Sigh. (Query: I’ve still not seen the movie nor the stage show; should I?)

My background in songs about work is, well, work songs. I’m from that sort of family. So I was pleased to find a collection of our old favourites in Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. A bit more modern than the original Seeger, and also easier to find on CD (oh, sigh, sacrilege), this album is delightful. I certainly realize that a lot of these songs are about work done by slaves, and that it’s grossly offensive to align office work with that history. I don’t do so–I just like songs about work in any form. My favourites are “Jacob’s Ladder,” (that’s actually a really wonderful video there, which I hadn’t seen before now), for the incredible line, “Every new rock just makes us stronger,”  and “John Henry”, about the strongest man in the world. But no kidding, there’s everybody else and then there is Mr. Seeger–a singer for us all.

I’m a literalist, and I always felt that The New Pornographers’ The Crash Year is actually about a market crash–no idea if that’s true or not, although the album being released in 2010 would indicates so, as do lines like “you’re ruined like the rest of us” and “oh my child you’re not safe here.” And there’s a whistle-chorus!

You know you’re a serious Simon and Garfunkel fan when you are into the B sides–the tracks with a horn section, and more ribaldry, less tender reflection. One of my favourite all-time S&G works is Keep the Customer Satisfied. This is essentially a barstool plaint by a travelling salesman, exuberantly sung even when the lyrics are, “And I’m sooo tired / I’m oh-oh-oh so tired/I’m just trying to keep the customer satisfied.” You just don’t hear that line in rock’n’roll very often, and it makes me feel like these guys really know what it’s like to have a not-too-great job–though, as far as I know, they mainly didn’t. I mean, quirky musical icon isn’t a bad gig, right?

Of course, I like lots of music by folks who don’t work at job-jobs or write about them. In fact, I spent most of my time while writing this book listening to music by Vampire Weekend and The National, with a little Neil Diamond and Arcade Fire thrown in. And none of those artists give the impression of having done their time in the salt mine, but that’s ok–I really don’t theme my life by what I’m writing, I just shape it for posts like this.

And there’s Weezer. Silly, irreverent, possibly outdated Weezer, whose music is mainly about flirting and being awkward at parties–not that isn’t awesome, because it totally is. But sometimes, especially this one time, they manage to get right at the heart of things, and write the line that encapsulates not only my book but a chunk of my life’s philosophy. It was in the song Keep Fishin’ (yes, it’s the video with the Muppets–watch it if you haven’t, it’s brilliant). Note that throughout this post I have offered an evaluative judgement on all directly quoted material–it’s criticism, people, and therefore fair use. That *wonderful* line, which really should be my epigraph–fie on the greedy music industry and their selfish need to keep all their good lines for themselves, is:

You’ll never do
The things you want
If you don’t move
And get a job

March 8th, 2011

I’m excited about…

Going to The New Quarterly‘s Toronto reading at Tranzac (which I just learned right now stands for Toronto Australia New Zealand Club!) in the Annex, doors 7, musical entertainment 7:30, readings 8. Should be wonderful, and that venue (multicultural club) is outstanding. See you there?

This lovely review of Once, by Sheila Lamb at the Santa Fe Writers’ Project.

This fantastic grade 11 chemistry textbook. I know, this blog is not usually about stuff I do in my editorial world–that would really require a whole other blog, and who has *that* kind of time? But I just worked so hard on this book that I gradually got obsessed and now I think that as grade 11 chemistry textbooks, this is the best one in the universe. Seriously, everyone who worked on it was amazing and brilliant and not just because they were nice to me when I was very tired and stressed. My role in the project was actually quite minor compared to some, but that does not in any way diminish my love for it.

October 19th, 2010


Substitute Canadian for American throughout, and “Canadian short stories” for “American films,” of course.

For most Americans, work is central to their experience of the world, and the corporation is one of the fundamental institutions of American life, with an enormous impact, for good and ill, on how we live, think, and feel. Yet the reality of business life is all but absent from American films.

James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, October 11, 2010

June 14th, 2010

Jobs for writers, part 3

What if someone says, “I love books and I’m always reading. I should be an editor.”

Because I spent a great deal of time and money getting a publishing certificate, it is my knee-jerk reaction to get prissy when someone says something like this. “Does having a really good body qualify you to be a surgeon? Does watching a lot of CSI make you a cop?”

This is mainly bluster–the best editors are exactly the people who could say the above–well, and a little more: those who read omnivorously and think critically about all of it. If you write reviews (insightful rigorous reviews, not silly ones) for no reason other than to test and explore your feelings for the text, if you were the person everyone counted on for a page of notes in writing workshop (even better if you couldn’t let the typos go), if you were easily able to spot patterns and themes and write essays about them in undergrad, you probably would make a good editor. People who would not make good editors include those who said one nice thing to everyone in workshop while patiently waiting for their own turns, people who didn’t like university essays because they just wanted to enjoy the text without analysing it, and folks who have a few favourite authors and don’t really like to go much beyond them. And actually, about those essay writers, I think it’s probably also a good sign if you kept getting Cs because you would always mentioned whether you *liked* the text or how well you thought those metaphors and symbols were working. Academic analysis is not, for good or ill, evaluative, but editing is.

So, there you go–the truth that editorial instinct is not really taught in a classroom.

However, taking apart someone’s manuscript and telling them how to write it better is not an entry-level position. You need to climb the ladder as an editorial assistant doing press kits and tip sheets and review packages and credits–things you *do* learn about in a classroom–before you can get anywhere your instincts can work. Is that the proper definition of ironic? Some days I feel like I’ve entirely lost track of that word.

Also, and this always shocks everyone, you can have a good fun job in publishing *without* being an editor! Not my line, but I know that publicists are professional, strategic book-enthusiasts, and in a different way, so are the sales and marketing folk. Financial and tech jobs in publishing look a lot like those in other industries, only more bookish (and, sigh, lower-paid) and then there’s art, design, page composition… So, there’s a lot more going in publishing than just making the words lovely. To even understand what jobs are out there, let alone get one (er, except the tech and finance stuff), you need some background.

There are many ways to do that, but lots of employers really prefer a publishing program. I don’t think there’s a big difference in how much these programs are respected–from what I hear, all are pretty good. Just find something convenient and vaguely interesting to you. Centenial, you’ll note, you need to do full-time, while the other two can be part-time. I found that once you get a few courses under your belt, you become hireable, and then it is nice to be able to finish the program at night while you are working. If you get a really lovely employer, they might even pay for it.

But this is not the only way. Publishing school is expensive and time-consuming and while I found lots of it valuable, lots of other bits simply don’t apply to the path I am on or the part of the industry I am in. Employers like these programs because they are something of a promise that you know what you are doing and have realistic ideas about the work, but there are other ways to promise them that.

If you somehow pick up some solid experience at one job, you are more likely to get the next one. Real useful publishing experience includes serious  work on something that was actually published–not proofing your friends’ essays (although maybe PhD theses, if you did a number) or a blog, but say, a literary journal you volunteered for (even a unversity/college one, if it is a bit known and you can provide copies). Zines are surprisingly respected, too, if you did serious work and it was a serious zine (ie., could people the editors didn’t know personally buy it?) And working on publications that aren’t books (magazines, newspapers, corporate communications) of course counts, too.

These easiest way to get experience is internships–unfortunately, the easiest way to get an internship is to be in a publishing program (they’ll help you find one). Sigh. But you could get one anyway–there are lots out there and they should really be a post in themselves. Try not to think of these as unpaid work–try to think of them as free school! Even the best internship will involve a lot of the deadly ffts: photocopying, filing, phoning, faxing (who still uses a fax machine, you are wondering–oh no!) However, anyone decent who is employing interns knows that the ffts aren’t the intern’s heart’s desire and will try to give you something cool to do (as well as free books and all the leftover meeting food). You should get to sit in on meetings (obey both injunctions to be silent and encouragement to speak up), to meet any author in the office, and to work on at least one or two independent projects. And an intern should try learn everything possible–at the very least, read what you photocopy and pay attention at the meetings. One of the best things an editorial intern (I return to what I know) can do is be asked to incorporate hardcopy editorial changes into a Word doc. Sounds dull, but it’s so great to see how an experienced, talented editor (try not to work for the lousy ones) sharpens a manuscript. I actually did that sort of work for a long time and it was good for my own writing, too.

Avoid: internships at houses where you hate all the books, massive commutes that are going to make it impossible to work evenings (unless you can afford not to!), and anyone who seems from the interview to clearly be a jerk. You can afford to be a bit choosier about internships than real jobs, and should do. I’d also recommend not taking a full-time unpaid one that lasts longer than three months–that’s the standard, and it won’t necessarily look better on your resume if you stay longer, and you might get very hungry. However, if it is a paid internship (they do exist) and you like it, why not stay if they offer? On the flip side, probably not worth quitting a bad three-month internship unless they are actually abusing you. It’ll be over soon and you’ll have the resume cred even if they kept you locked in the copier room 40 hours a week. But that’s why it’s good not to sign on for longer than 3 months. Oh, and don’t expect an internship to turn into a real job, though occasionally they do–there usually just aren’t any open positions. But if it was a happy experience, ask that they keep you mind in case one does…

Ok, the question everyone asks: is it bad to be working on books all day and writing one in the evening. And I have no idea–it’s not bad for *me* to do it, but I can see how it would be draining or crazy-making if I had a different personality type. This is really a personal fit question. But I suppose it does matter to me that I don’t work on books of short stories, and even when I briefly did, they were nothing like mine. I think I might find that hard to have much distance on. I also don’t do the manuscript-taking-apart work mentioned above–my job is the much more techinical, unglam production editing that you only find out about when you start taking the classes or wandering around the office.

Wow, this post is long, and there’s more to say–anyone who knows more or better or different should chime in, and I’ll eventually write another one of these on the freelance world, which I know even less about, so maybe don’t wait for that with bated breath.

Also, for those who have been following my personal dramas–I fell pretty solidly off the caffeine wagon today and my head still hurts! I think there’s just something wrong with me!

May 25th, 2010

Jobs for writers, part 1 of ?

You may have been wondering about what happened to that whole “jobs for writers” post I promised to write  (so long ago it was on a whole different site). What happened was I attended that UofT graduating students careers event and was really humbled by the breadth of skills, ambitions, backgrounds, and lifestyles the students had. They all came from and were going to wildly different places, both from each other and from me, and the idea that I could give them much in the way of advice seemed pretty perposterous.

And yet they were really open to hearing what had worked for me and what hadn’t, so I hope I at least saved them some false starts and offerened some good ideas (and some laughs). For me, it was a reminder that however modest (or infuriating) my accomplishments may seem, they would have been inconceivable to me ten years ago and so I should be proud. However, I’ve been reading the advice to myself 10 years ago posts around the web inspired by Steven Heighton’s 10 Year Memoranda. There’s a lot of good advice in these, like “12   Because you want your work to have a teeming subconscious.  In your early drafts, write everything that occurs to you, then cut ferociously.  The material you cut—the rich or jagged silences you create—are the textual subconscious.” But I think this sort of thing is a rhetorical exericse that, if taken literally, might overestimate a human being’s ability to actually follow advice.* Because when I was 22, you could have told me 1000 times that rough drafts are the block of wood out of which one hews a final sculpted story–I would still have thought a rough draft that sucked was a story that couldn’t be saved. It took individual stories that I couldn’t bear to see die, and friends and teachers who knew how to edit and did it to me against my will, plus lots and lots of agony before I could believe what Heighton says–actually, I forget this lesson pretty much every week and have to reteach myself. Just because someone knows and is will to share his knowledge doesn’t mean anyone can gain it by reading/hearing it.

So what, then–no advice for people younger or less experienced than us? We should just leave’em to flounder? Of course not–I’ve had a lot of help and, yes, advice in my life and it has helped me. But more the practical stuff–write at least two drafts of any story you love before you give up, save versions and you’ll be less precious about deleting, never ever count the hours the work has taken–helped me more than anything.
So with regard to jobs…well, when you get into practical details it gets personal. If there was an obvious good-better-best job hierarchy, we would all be going after the one at the top of the pyramind (shepherd on a kitten farm) and that would be that. But everyone wants and needs to do something different with their days, and even if the principal thing you want/need to do is write, your personality, experience, tastes, and abilities still matter when choosing what else you are going to do.
The thing I told the students is, you can have some vague idea what you want in a job (to contribute to the community, to drive innovation, to work as part of a dynamic team) but you will have zero concept of how the practical application of that idea will look until you get a job. Even if it is not your dream job, even if you loathe every minute of it, you still learn what makes a job loathesome in your eyes. Me, I’ve had jobs where I had to work alone for a few hours at a time and been fine with it, and jobs where I’d had to work alone all day and I lost my mind. As it turns out, I need a certain amount of companionship whether I’m drying plates or formatting invoices. It took a really long time to figure out exactly how much companionship I need. Customer service was initially awesome for me–so much talking–but eventually I burnt out. I need a certain amount of silent work time, too. In the end, it’s at about 75 % silent, 25% interactive work that I’m happiest.
Who cares about happiness in your “day job”, is some artists’ viewpoint, and it does seem to work for them. However, I would strongly advise young people starting out on a “hybrid career” not to assume they can tolerate a job they hate all day, even if it is in the cause of artistic freedom at night. Some people can apparently turn that part of their brains right off as soon as they leave the buildings, but some of us, emerging ketchup-soaked and exhausted from a day of being abused for incorrect crouton allocation, will simply not have the fire to embark upon a second career.

So, fine, maybe you can cope with anything, in which case this whole post is irrelevant to you and you should just take the first thing that pays decently. But some of us need the decent pay plus social interaction and/physical activity to make up for writing’s silence and inertia. And some people need excitement and change and other people need stability. Unchallenging vs. overtaxing? Overstimulating vs. boring? And I’m not even going to touch what constitutes “pays decently”–even this one is personal. I know people getting by on way less than I make, and on way more too (and they still consider it getting by). Some people need to pay off debt, to own a home, to care for children, or simply to maintain a certain standard of fun so they don’t hate their lives. Who am I to tell them what’s necessary and what’s frivolous?

At the careers event, the only thing I could really tell people is what worked for me and what didn’t (many things in that latter category). So that will be part 2 of this series.


* Although, one piece of concrete advice I would have given 10-years-ago me and think I might well have taken is, “Why don’t you give AMT a little heads-up that you’ll be staying with her on your last night in Montreal? Your ceiling really is going to collapse, after all.”

Also, it would have been great if 10-years-in-the-future me had come back while I was writing this post and stopped me from chewing on the wrong end of my pen and getting blue ink all over the roof of my mouth.

May 5th, 2010

Career Queries

Although it does not come up on Rose-coloured very often, I work as an editor. To do this, I got my publishing certificate. Most of the curriculum was to make us competent enough to do certain jobs in the publishing industry, which was very useful. As well, though, a sizeable chunk of time was devoted to helping us *get* those jobs. You’d think that latter part would have been interesting, and it was, but it was also very odd.

The classes on job-getting inevitably had a guest speaker who had been very successful in publishing–someone who had been at it 20 or so years and had risen to VP status or similar. They were supposed to tell us both about life in the industry and how they got their starts. The former category always a lot fascinating stuff , but the latter… Some weird kind of modesty would overtake our speakers, coupled with spotty memories, and they just could not (or would not) admit they had ever been ambitious or tried hard or even *wanted* to work in publishing. “Just fell into it,” “wasn’t good at anything else,” “friend begged me to take the job,” were a few of the things I heard.

I don’t think these people meant to come across as they did, which was weirdly smug and secretive. I think the industry has genuinely changed in the last 20 years, and it used to be much easier to just “fall” into a successful and exciting career. And, well, I think some of those people *did* fear seeming like they had been ambitious and tried really hard to get promotions and earn money–that’s not something the genuinely bookish are supposed to do.

Well, here’s the truth about me: I have always had a strong–borderline obsessive–desire to feed and clothe myself and to sleep indoors, and I thought it would be best if I could do it working with books. This was hard to do, and continues to be, but I can (usually) manage. Sorta.

So when UofT Career Centre asked me to speak to a bunch of graduating students about my work and path to it (and ongoing), I suddenly had a wash of that bizarro reticence mentioned above–“Oh, I don’t really know, it just worked out, sorta…”

Which is of course crazy–I remember exactly how I got here, and some of those wounds are still quite fresh. I think maybe offering advice feels too much like tempting the fates–“Hey, I am confident in my work; must be time to shoot me down!” And, in truth, no one is an expert except on whatever works for that person…and even then, there’s a fair bit of randomness involved.

But I do think I’ll be able to tell those young graduates a few useful things, and maybe it’ll even be good that I’m low-level enough to remember how hard you have to try to get started. Since I suspect a lot of the Rose-coloured readers might work in publishing, or be interested in it, please feel free to post either queries or advice (or both) that I might use in my talk (May 13). I promise to post whatever notes and answers I come up with here afterwards.

I will of course also be talking about writing stories and stuff, and how I balance the two (poorly). But I have a feeling that students weeks away from summer vacation who are willing to go to a careers seminar are not in the market for a job that you would require another job to support. But…what do I know?


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