My Writing Life: 3

When I first decided to try writing full-time, I attended many writers conferences so that I could learn about the writing business and various publishers. One piece of advice every established writer gave — advice that is still given today — was this: Don’t quit your day job.

This is good advice for the simple reason that writing doesn’t pay well, at least not in the US. Back in 1950, the average advance for a first novel was about $3,000. Today it is still that. Or, in many cases, less. According to a 2015 survey of Authors Guild writers, those full-time writers who were earning $25,000 in 2009, were earning $17,500 in 2015. That’s a 30% decline in income. And the part-time writers who earned $7,250 in 2009, earned only $4,500 in 2015. That’s a 38% decline in wages. The majority of writers are poorly paid for their work and are thus forced to earn income in other ways.

Many writers teach, as I did when I taught college English. Some writers give speeches/presentations, as I do. Some writers earn income doing something totally unrelated to writing. I did that when I worked as a typesetter and later when I worked as a letter carrier for the postal service.

Another good piece of advice (in addition to “Keep your day job”) for writers who are starting out is to seek out writing-related work. Usually this is part-time work such as being a stringer for newspapers. I did that for a year, covering local sporting events and town board meetings. (Yawn!) But producing x-number of words under very tight deadlines (an hour!), and having those words published, not only develops your writing skills — it also gives you credentials if you want to apply for a full-time writing job in some field.

After going through the stringer experience, I decided to apply for a job as a writer-producer of educational filmstrips back in the late 1970s. I was hired and immediately was assigned a series of four related filmstrips on a language arts subject. I don’t remember what my first filmstrip set was, though I do remember some of the later ones. 

It was my job to figure out how to teach students a topic such as “How to Read a Newspaper” in four filmstrips, maximum number of 60 frames in each strip. So I had to think, analyze, outline, and then create the characters in the filmstrip, write their dialogue, draw little doodles of what the graphic frames would look like. Then I hired the photographer, the student models, and arranged for photography to take place at a certain location. As producer and director, I was always present on the location site. (No, I did not get to shout “It’s a wrap!”). 

After selecting the photos I wanted (usually 10-15% of what the photographer shot), I arranged them in order, took them to the film department, worked out a production schedule for the filmstrip to be ready. Meanwhile, I had to audition and hire narrators for the project, then accompany them to the recording studio and listen very carefully to everything they said as they narrated.

Of all the surprising things I learned while writing and producing filmstrips, the most surprising one was How. Many. Takes. it took to narrate each filmstrip. Narrators, even professional ones, stumble. They pop the letter P into the mike, so it sounds like a small explosion. They slur over the “ing” or “ed” endings of words. In Chicago they pronounce the word may-or as if it were mare. And so on. I have never had to be as vigilant on any project as I had to be while listening to narrators. 

Speaking of narration, I spent many months writing audio tapes aimed at high school students. Each tape was 30-45 minutes long. I can barely remember what the topics were: obviously something that could be explained via the spoken word, without visuals of any kind. I seem to recall something about how to make a schedule, how to read a book, how to balance a checkbook.

That was in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I don’t think audiotapes are used much today, unless they are merely the audio part of a visual lesson. 

What I remember most about writing those audios was that in order to write a good one, I had to organize the topic really well. Logically, so that one point flowed into another. And I had to explain the steps clearly and concisely, with examples or analogies. Writing short, as they say, is a great way to learn how to write well — it teaches you to make the writing flow logically, and it teaches you how to cover each step with no more than the necessary information.

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When Barbara Gregorich wasn’t busy listening to studio narration, she worked on writing Dirty Proof, a mystery novel.

4 thoughts on “My Writing Life: 3

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