Sunday, June 29, 2008

Magazine quirks that make me crazy

There's this particular pop-culture-technology magazine that's frankly notorious for being THIS CLOSE to being good. Since it's now one of the few local publications I could write for, I am trying, trying to work out a détente with my opinion of this magazine. My fiancé loves it. The information and reporting seem fine. But the execution has so many sloppy little errors and such sophomoric editing that I find it unreadable. I can't get to the good stuff because it's all covered in a fine veneer of errors.

We'll just ignore, for the moment, that their copy-editor left "shoe-in" in a dek for an otherwise interesting and engaging story about iRobot. That's the kind of thing that might have happened just before everything went to the printer.

But there's also a funny bit by Steve Carell, detailing how to get smarter. Cute. Very cute. Until I got to this:

Carrots are very good for the eyes, but they absoutely must be baby carrots so you don't chew too much. I don't think I have to explain crunchwaves to people who read TITLE REDACTED. They already know that when you chew something too hard, the vibrations fire up those crunchwaves, which shake the neurons in your brain. Do that too much and those brain cells shake loose and die. I usually gulp my food, and you should, too.
Joke Hitlers. They killed the joke. They looked at the joke, decided they knew comedy better than Steve fricking Carell, and murdered the joke in cold blood. Rule #1 of not being a hack: Do not spell it out. Do not. Spell. It out. Your audience will follow along if you let it. Spelling out jokes only encourages comedic flabbiness, and everyone's funnybones end up looking like the flabby pod people in Wall-E.

Take a note, comedy-challenged editors:

Carrots are very good for the eyes, but they absoutely must be baby carrots so you don't chew too much. I don't have to explain crunchwaves to people who read TITLE REDACTED. Whenever possible, I purée or gulp my food, and you should, too.

I'll spell it out for you. If you say you don't have to explain it, don't explain it. That's where the funny lies: in allowing the randomness to be random, and the reader's imagination to fill in. This is one case when fewer words equal bigger funny.

Wow. I feel better now that I've gotten that off my chest. And ensured that that magazine will never hire me now. But since they haven't returned my calls for going on two years now, I'm not going to mourn that loss too hard.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Phew! Something about getting my most recent story out of my inbox has awakened some long-dormant part of my brain. Now I've pulled out my assignments spreadsheet and updated it. Maybe I'll even get paid for those stories I did for Chow two years ago... oh, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Anyway, it seems like more stories and contacts and other opportunities are starting to trickle across my transom. It's a huge relief. I mean, it's a fine thing to sit here and complain that writing breathlessly about book clubs doesn't thrill my reporter's soul. It's quite another to dust off my skills and, y'know, come through with some interviews, meet some deadlines, and actually do some critical thinking. It feels pretty great.

Next up: writing about my divorce for a Jewish newspaper of note. It's going to be a great clip. Nobody outside New York will care, but since when has that bugged me? I mean, there's an outside of New York?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sentimental Journey

My last freelance assignment before leaving New York a couple years ago? An article for Good Housekeeping about guilt. It just turned up on MSN. (I put it over there, on the left -- take a looksee.)

Now, don't get me wrong: I love it when my stories pop up again. It makes me look super-productive, as people drop me emails to say they saw my byline, and especially since I run with so many non-journalists these days, it's also impressive and ups my Google Fight chances. But it's not like I get an extra check for this.

Used to be, when my stories would run in Hearst magazines (even when I was on staff at a Hearst magazine), being published elsewhere meant a surprise! bonus! check! Okay, so it was generally for phone-bill money, but it was a happy fun-time bonus nonetheless. I know that in the wake of the writers' strike it's passé to complain about not being compensated for your published work being repurposed as online content, but... come on! srsly? I already write for the web for free, it's called MY BLOG! Pony up, suckers!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Early-morning interviews

If I don't get up and do these interviews before work tomorrow, I'm sunk. It's bad enough I had to admit to my editor today that I wasn't going to make the deadline -- again. My job is busy, my health is ... not bad, but I'm having a few interesting issues, and my wedding is careening off into disaster territory. I have to get this done.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

uch no

it's really bad. i can't get this story finished. uch. 

Monday, June 16, 2008

sorry. brain not working.

I said "a post per day for thirty days," so here's your post. But after a day in the salt mine, followed by therapy, followed by grocery shopping, followed by rug unpacking, I'm spent. My words are all sleeping.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Advice to a young intern

Someone asked me if I had any advice for his sister, who was up for an internship at my old magazine. I had a funny little sentimental journey through the veils of my nostalgia as I told her who was a dumbshit, how to imitate the structure of old heds and deks to write new one, and not to try anything too innovative. It also made me feel pretty oogy. I loved that job and would love to be writing for that title, and the masthead is full of people I know. But I burned too many bridges.

I don't know what else to say about that. I feel like a bit of a stooge, but I know I can't do anything about it. Seems a bit unfair, considering my stupid ex, who behaved way worse than I did, is still in the industry, in a great job, while I'm out here on the wrong coast pouting on my blog. Ech.

All right, tomorrow I get my expert lined up, interview one more blogger and his mom, and then I write the thing tomorrow night. The end's in sight, and then I can start the next one. Moving forward.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

interviewing is like bungee jumping

right before I make the call, I panic. Then it goes fine, and I become irritated that I didn't do it earlier. I am entirely too old to still have this problem.

of course, i don't bungee jump, so I could be wrong.

Friday, June 13, 2008

New Contacts

I'm so astounded when people make new contacts. I was chatting with an old pal today, complaining about the many contacts who faded away during my "lost years." She is so polar-opposite from me. "The great thing about editors is, there's a new crop every couple of years!"

This threw me for a loop! That's the great thing about editors? I thought that was the horrible thing about editors! Just when you get one to trust you and worm your way into her rolodex, boom, she moves somewhere else (maybe taking you, maybe not) or quits to start an alpaca farm. (Or to stay home with her kids. But alpaca farm sounds so much better.)

My friend sent me a bunch of contacts, saying "there's plenty of work to go around," and that's why I love writers. Especially since I had just written a lengthy email detailing the inside scoop on my old magazine to an aspiring intern. Today, what went around, came around.

Of course, having a contact is just the beginning. I have to then send the right clips, make the right pitches, and meet the right deadlines. But I feel ten percent closer to being back in my freelance saddle right now. Sure, it's a saddle that can slide out from beneath me at any time, that carries no health benefits, and that makes me treat houseplants like coworkers, but dammit, it's my saddle, and I love that dang saddle.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cruelty to Characters

I’m thinking about my reaction to the Annie Proulx story. I took a class (well, several) with Mary Gordon in college, and I remember her scolding us: “Stop trying to think you have to tie up your stories with a pretty, pink bow. You can’t. You have to allow things to happen, even if they’re bad, even if they break your heart. You have to be honest about what happens to your characters. You can’t protect them.”

That is just so unfair.

I mean, you can’t protect your children – sure. They have to grow up and live in a world that’s going to push them around, and you have to get them ready for that. But your characters don’t have to do any such thing! They’re going to live in a goddamn book! What’s the point of putting them through such hell?

The answer, of course, is that those books are just going to sit unread if all I do is make nice-nice stories about pretty-pretty funtimes. So, you know. I get it. I do have to be honest.

But I’m still not really on board for this idea that there is a story out there, and I just have to be true to my characters and it’ll unearth itself like one of those worms in Tremors. I knew a woman in a writing class who said she hated her main character: “She just won’t stand up for herself. I had her beaten, raped, I made her have a baby – she just won’t stop whining and crying.” Buh. WRITE IT FOR HER. I mean, there has to be a middle ground between “I control my characters to the detriment of everyone’s entertainment” and “I’ve substituted fictional characters for the flies I used to pull the wings off of, isn’t that a step up?”

I struggle with boredom when I work from an outline, but the project I’m working on now is stalled because I don’t know what happens next, and I’m scared I’m going off in a wholly wrong direction. I hate feeling so at sea, but this is part of being brave and finding out what my characters want to do. And then telling them that’s really nice, but we’re only going to show about one-tenth of that. And teaching them to deal with their disappointment.

I can’t tie it up with a pretty pink bow, but there’s no way I’m going to let my characters tumble tits-up into a ditch. Unless the New Yorker says I have to. Hey, we all have a price.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Notebook

I have something like four notebooks in my pocketbook and I write in exactly none of them. One's for my therapist: an emoooootion diary. In an effort to rid myself of distorted thinking, I am supposed to write down every time I say "God damn, I'm an idiot!" and then track back to see what the triggering event was, and what emotion I felt when I talked down to myself.

I think I kept that for a week. It has a windmill on it.

Another one is a checkbook-sized book where I'm supposed to track my outgoing cash. Ha.

A third one -- this one's actually funny: the first page says "The things that I don't know could fill a book," and on each page there's something else I didn't know, that I learned sometime after moving here in 2006. For instance:
"I do not know the way to San Jose. There are signs all over the place, but I'd really have to check Google Maps."

"I have no idea what an ESTUARY is. 'A small estuary?' I don't even know what a big one is."

"I didn't know people still used hot water bottles!"

"I had no idea how sad an object a cold hot water bottle is."

"Grits? Polenta? Same shit!"
It peters out after that. I started putting rehearsal notes from a show I was in on the next few pages. I also have a shopping list, but that doesn't really count.

The point is, when I was doing standup, I had a notebook with me constantly. All the time. And anything that struck me as funny went in that notebook, and every day or so I'd go through it and spin some of that straw into pure comedy gold. I've had so many sweet little moments that could go into my fiction, and sometimes I have the impulse to run to the computer and jot them down... but usually I just think "eh, I'll remember it" and -- blort. It's gone.

Even when I DO jot it down, it goes into a file that somehow migrates away from my desktop so that, probably, my hard drive is littered with documents with a single line like "girl who's so anxious not to fall that she stares too hard at the ground an walks off a cliff" or "character has the odor of panic attack."

hm. i did say comedy gold, didn't I? I suppose there's comedy bronze and silver as well... and a little lead...

anyway maybe i should jot stuff down more often, is my point.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's the Haps?

I was talking to Mr. Cutiepants the other day about how hard it is for me to make friends. I don’t think it’s the old saw about not wanting to join a club that would have me as a member – I think it’s more about my not believing the club actually wants me as a member. The club is just being nice, and I don’t want to impose by taking the club up on its offer.

Anyway, he said he’s got the same problem, except for when he’s in therapy. And I was like, OHRLY. Because honestly, for me, therapy is what keeps my wooden head barely above water. Actually having a positive improvement? I dunno – maybe I get that, but I’m not aware of it.

So I ran to my awesome therapist (who I love and recommend, and who has just added a day to her private-patients roster) and was all “I want concrete, positive results!” And she was all “What would be a concrete, positive result?” and I was like “Writing more. Being productive. Not procrastinating. Getting my agent back. Mostly writing more.”

For the past while – more than the past year, which I could chalk up to my day job – even assigned articles have been a challenge. I used to run to them like beloved amours. Lately I dodge them like embarrassing party-makeouts. Is it a failure of nerve? Was I burned out? Is it because I’m not doing it for the money anymore? The last theory holds no water at all – by all rights, I should be working on my fiction if I’m not doing it for the ducats.

Anyway, the very idea of writing about my therapy on my blog makes me want to just get it over with and actually take up residence in my navel. But I’m really starting to kickstart something here, and if acknowledging my extreme neurotic resistance to said kickstartage might help, well, I’ve got to give it a try.

Oh, and Annie Proulx seriously let me down. She did NOT have to do that. I’m shitcanning the rest of this week’s New Yorker, as my mom advised.

Monday, June 09, 2008

I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s New Yorker essay on being a runner and a novelist, and all I have to say is: Fuhuuuuuck youhoooooou, Haruki Murakami.

Here’s my summary of his essay:

I flunked out of college and decided, on a whim, to start a jazz club. It really took off! Then I woke up one morning and thought, Huh. Novelist. I ditched my successful business because I don’t like doing more than one thing at a time. It really took off! Then I started running. What does this have to do with writing? Not a fucking thing. But like my novels, this essay is pointless and leads you in several different directions before dropping you, flailing, into a tar pit of irritated confusion. And my running? It really took off!

Haruki Murakami makes me feel stupid. I suppose this means I should like him, and that my failure to do so means I am, actually, too stupid to accept a mental challenge. I don’t care! My mom gave me “Kafka on the Shore” to read when we were on our family-reunion-vacation two years ago. I got sucked in, entranced by the characters, and read like a demon… only to be expelled from the story, unceremoniously and without warning, when the book ran out of pages. What uh… what happened? How come the teacher passed out and had that heavy period? Were the cats real? Who was the old guy? And the answer came back: Sorry, stupid reader. If you actually read books hoping for resolution of plot-points, you are too lowbrow for the Murakami.

My mom, of course, loves him. This is because she has no attention span anyway, so not having a resolution to a plot-point is not a problem for her. Oh! Oh, I’m going to hell. But it’s true: having a conversation with my mom is like hanging on to the caboose of a runaway train. Hang on tight, and maybe you’ll recognize the landscape when the story’s over.

I don’t know why I’m so irritated by this essay. I guess because to me, it reads like a disingenuous gee-whillickers, aw-shucks screed. Not for a moment do I believe that anyone would mail off a handwritten first draft to a writing contest, without keeping a copy for himself, and win. On UrbanBaby, we used to call that a VBA – a veiled brag alert.

To whit:

Oh, my child is already more fluent than his French tutor, does anyone have a recommendation?
But it’s true, he’s 4 and reads French at a 5th-grade level!


8 weeks pp and I still have 2 pounds to go! How can I lose them?
But didn’t you hear me? I still have 2 pounds to lose!

You get the idea. Ersatz complaining about things that are neither complainworthy nor relatable: just a fancy way to say to everyone reading, “Jettison the last of your self-esteem, because you are not the shit. That job has gone to me. My shit has eaten your shit’s milkshake.”

Sorry about that. I mean about mentioning shit and milkshakes in the same paragraph. But once again, the idea is gotten by you: as far as I can see, Murakami’s just being a showoff. And a liar. And boring! Writing a novel isn’t something you just decide to do and then do. It’s hard to stick to, and even if you write something amazing, getting it published is not a given. That he claims to have had such an easy ride makes us all look stupid.

And that he’s apparently never had a moment’s self-doubt, difficult time, bout of existential angst – I can’t just chalk that up to cultural differences. Murakami is like the guy who had a great time in high school, and can’t wait to get back to the 20th reunion to see all his boffo old pals! Come on, Ha-shmucki: Not a moment’s doubt? You go running every morning, and never get sick? And the best thing about becoming a novelist is… waking up early? Not receiving copies of your book in the mail, not getting letters from your readers, not hearing yourself quoted on NPR… it’s getting up with the sun?!

You bobbleheaded little twit.

I’m so annoyed. Fortunately, I spy an Annie Proulx short story mere pages later, so the New Yorker shall be redeemed (and I know it is panting with relief to hear that).

Oh crap, I just spoke to my mom on the phone, and she says this issue of the New Yorker is the most depressing she’s ever read. So much for the Annie Proulx story; I was pulling for the main character. MOM!