Friday, January 19, 2007

How I Got Started Writing, Part II

In early 1960s I started paying attention to the “About the Author” blurbs on book flaps and noticed an interesting common thread. Most writers seemed to have spent their pre-writing lives working at jobs involving manual labor at poverty wages in unidentified but possibly exotic locations, rather like Bob Dylan’s early self-portrayals.

This left my young self with the impression that one had to live in poverty and work a lot of boring jobs before becoming a writer. Which begged the question: Did holding mindless, low-paying jobs make you want to write, or were writers incapable of holding a job? Not that I was thinking of becoming a writer. But some writers made such an impression on me that I was inspired to learn who these people were.

Ten years later, at the age of 20, I found myself working on the assembly line at a GM plant. I was taking evening classes at the University of Cincinnati, driven by a fuzzy idea of becoming an engineer. I had no idea of writing for a living, or writing very much at all beyond the occasional newspaper piece.

If it hadn’t been for the high pay and great benefits, I wouldn’t have stayed at the job long. The work was physically demanding and deadly boring--circumstances that drove some to seek relief in alcohol and drugs on the job. Others, high-seniority men who had the easier jobs, operated small businesses that fed on the boredom. They sold pot, pints of whiskey, pocket knives, and a wide variety of other merchandise that they hand-delivered to customers the line. One such entrepreneur not only sold whiskey but also managed a pornographic book-of-the-week club. Peter Lorre rented out 120-page paperback novels for twenty-five cents a day. (No, it wasn't the real Peter Lorre, but this guy could have been his twin.) For the less literate, Mr. Lorre offered a selection of porno picture books at slightly higher prices.

Although I was bored, getting drunk or stoned didn’t appeal to me, and reading porno novels seemed pointless. But that gave me an idea. Each day I took a book to work with me, mostly science fiction or mystery, though I alternated my reading with textbooks. I managed to read a book a day for most of a year, stealing glances at pages as I waited for the next car on the line to roll up, or during the rare 8- or 10-minute period of freedom I could create by working back the line.

It was a desperate existence, however well-paid. But in the summer of 1971 a slump in the new-car market brought sudden relief. The plant cut an entire shift and I was laid off. No worries, though: I had worked on that line for over a year (minus a couple of months on strike), and under the terms of the union contract I would receive 95 percent of my regular pay every week for six months. Plus medical benefits.

The only requirement was that I apply for a job at least once a week, and report that to the state unemployment bureau. There was a Catch-22 in my favor: I didn’t have to accept a job that paid less than what I was already receiving. As you probably know, the take-home pay of auto workers was huge—almost university vice-president level. When you’re 20 years old and unskilled who else is going to hire you at six times the minimum wage?

Right. There I was, my life completely subsidized. I was a new father, which took up some time, but I was mostly bored. It was a less-antagonizing boredom than standing on the assembly line, but boring enough. Getting another job was out; I’d seen co-workers try that, get caught, and lose the free ride. Going into fulltime party mode wasn’t for me. But I couldn’t just do nothing. More than that, I felt moved to do something worthwhile.

I had no hobbies at the time. I tried volunteering for community organizations, but the opportunities were limited. So I continued writing newspaper stories, for which I was actually paid from time to time, anywhere from $5 to $15. I also managed to talk the owner of a print shop into letting me write some ads for him. I made less than $200 writing that year, but I was beginning to feel like a writer. Doing something worthwhile, or at least something that produced tangible results.

I traveled some. I was still reading, and picked up a dozen or so magazines every month. I subscribed to several, including Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated, Science Digest, and Analog science fiction magazine. I was strongly drawn by the idea of writing for magazines, but I didn’t feel that I had the skills. I thought about writing books, but here again I felt my skills were lacking. Still, there was one book in particular I made notes to start several times: a biography of Powel Crosley, Jr.

I was also intimidated by the idea of creating a book-length manuscript. At that time in my life I was unable to put so much sustained effort into a project without feedback. Shorter works were my métier.

And short fiction ... well, there was an idea. I was reading a lot of fiction in the monthly magazines, and short story collections were prominent among the books I took to work every day. Why not try fiction?

Why not, indeed? Years of reading had left me with some idea of the structure of fiction. I noticed how sentences were organized, soaked up dialogue technique, and studied the styles of various writers. I was already editing stories in my mind, changing characters and outcomes. (It helped that my 7th-grade English teacher had drilled us on sentence diagramming so much that for weeks afterward I was mentally diagramming sentences as I spoke them.)

So I spent a lot of hours at the typewriter, pounding out mainstream and science fiction stories that were more wish-fulfillment fantasies than marketable fiction. I found it gratifying to write short stories, but I was frustrated that my stories didn’t read as well as published work, and mostly didn’t have satisfying endings. (Some had no endings at all.)

After a few hundred pages I decided to seriously attack the problem of writing style, to answer the question of why my writing was so ... clunky. I studied how writers like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein achieved certain effects, and slowly developed sets of rules to help me produce smoother prose. Heavy editing and rewriting reinforced what I was learning.

The six-month summer eventually came to an end, and I had to find a job. I returned to the automotive industry; family connections help me “get on” at the local Ford transmission plant. Big money, big benefits. I was in Fat City again--but with a killer schedule.

Night shift. Noisy. Grim, bleak, and depressing. Midnight to 8:00 AM four days a week, and Midnight to Noon three days a week. Reading was forbidden, a covert activity. I was lucky to get in 20 pages a night. I drove home each morning (or early afternoon) to toss and turn for hours before I dropped into a fitful sleep, only to wake up a couple hours before I was due at the plant--when everyone else was going to bed. No time for writing. I wanted out, but it seemed to go against all logic to walk away from the kind of money I was making, the equivalent of $3,500 a week in 2007 dollars.

One morning I stopped by a Walden Books store (they were two words back then) to find something to read myself to sleep with. I was perusing the science fiction shelves when for whatever reason my eyes shifted to the right, into the Reference section.

A title on a book’s spine jumped out at me: Writer’s Market.

“I wonder if that’s what I think it is?” I asked myself. I slid the book off the shelf and flipped through it with growing excitement. It was what I thought: a directory of magazine and book publishers for freelance writers--imagine that! Inside I found magazines that I read, and--amazingly--most of the magazines paid money.

I paid my $7.95 and took the fat paperback home. It was a revelation. I had never thought of just sending an article to a magazine, or even sending a query. Magazines were put together by editors in faraway places, people beyond the pale, people who would ignore submissions from someone in Cincinnati, of all places.

But Writer’s Market indicated otherwise. These publishers actually seemed to be inviting submissions, from anyone. As I paged through the book that morning, I was set on a new road. (Little did I suspect that one day I would be endorsing this book in full-page ads in Writer’s Digest.)

Thrilled, I wrote up a short humor piece and sent it to a magazine called Modern People. I’d never seen the magazine, but the WM listing said the editor wanted humor. A few weeks later I received a check for $25. Wow! I was hooked. Maybe I could make some decent money at this stuff, enough to let me take a more sane job.

I may even then have been thinking, in the back of my mind, about making my living as a writer, but consciously I was still thinking of engineering.

The next time I took a newspaper story to Leona Farley I told her about the sale, and Writer’s Market. As it turned out, she knew all about it. And she gave me a dozen or so back issues of Writer’s Digest, a magazine I didn’t know existed. (I was so busy reading marketing listings in WM that I didn’t notice it was published in Cincinnati by Writer’s Digest.)

This was a real boost. Here were people telling you how to write better, and how to get your work read and published. I started sending out more articles, and queries, too. And it didn’t bother me when I learned that Modern People was a tabloid when I finally found an issue at a downtown newsstand. The checks didn’t bounce, and that was good enough for me.

Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing all of this, I enjoy hearing how people get their starts. I'm a struggling freelancing working on getting started myself!

Michael A. Banks said...

Thanks for the good words!

adam said...

Nice story, Uncle. It's inspiring. I'd love to write and have tangible results. I need to find my niche though.