The Brutal Tango
by Ian Birnbaum

Freelancing begins with an intricate 1, 2, 3! 1, 2, 3! dance of the following: Writing, Editing, and Identifying Markets. It's a horrible, never-ending tango: much like being forced to dance at your cousin's wedding with that overweight aunt that you hate because she smells like cats and dead flowers (and always pinches your cheeks and gives you lipstick-caked kisses), this tango doesn't end until you've stepped on enough toes to finally call it a day.

Step 1: Writing
I can't help you here. Take a class or read a book, then copy the author's style, but it's not something that can be taught in a book, magazine or blog. Though I can't help you on how to write, I should also mention: it doesn't matter if you think your work sucks. It really, really doesn't, and you should go ahead and put everything you write into the process that I'm outlining here. Even if you don't like it much, someone else may love it, someone else may have the perfect publication for it - but you'll never know until you mail your letters.

ww2.jpgAlso, you WILL get rejected. It WILL happen, no matter how good you are. And, because it is such an inevitability, go ahead and completely forget about all the editing, all the markets, all the rejection letters, all the crap; while you're writing, just focus on the writing. You'll probably be happier with the end result.

Step 2: Editing

Editing is a tricky business. I find that the best way to start editing is to first let your writing sit. Much like a terrible beer, letting a piece grow old and dusty will help bring out the flaws until they reach up out of the page and pluck a nose hair; it is much, much harder to edit a piece that you have just finished writing because your mind is just too close to it, and you can't view it objectively. If you can, let a piece ferment for about 3 weeks (also much like beer) before you dive in.

I have a painful little system at my desk that I think works pretty well. First, I always work on a hard copy: I find it much easier to see what you're working with when it's not on a screen. I just keep going over and over a page with a pen (the classic color being bright red) taking out words, putting in words, comma here comma there, until I'm tired of looking at it and the carnage looks something like the picture to the right.

The second half of my editing process is something I stole from Douglas Adams , a favorite author of mine. What I do is arrange each page of my story side by side on my wall. When I edit a page, I move it up towards the ceiling; those that I haven't worked with are still down towards the floor. The happier I am with a page, the higher up it goes, and when I've got to retrieve my entire story from the top edge of my wall, my story is ready to mail.

And yes, it does take as long as it sounds like it does. Girlfriends are also notoriously unhappy with the state of their fluttering, New Times Roman double-spaced wall paper, so I use a cork-board and just proof 5 pages at a time (the picture to the right was pages 1-5 earlier today).

ww1.jpgStep 3: Finding Markets
A Market is a fancy term for someone-who-will-buy-your-writing. If you use this term, you will prove to everyone around that you are mentally superior, and this will, in turn, make them want to have sex with you. Really.

Finding a market is done almost exclusively through The Writer's Market so, class: open your textbooks and start looking. Keep the specifics of your story in mind while looking for a market. My story, for example, is a retelling of Greek myth to poke fun at modern vanity and the cult of celebrity. It is also dark and features a crazy man starving himself to death, so Turtle Magazine For Preschool Kids on page 569 of The Writer's Market would not be a good choice - my story would not be bought, no matter how good the person on the other end of PO Box 567, Indianapolis, Indiana thinks it is. Instead, I found a magazine who demands "a healthy knowledge of the great works of antiquity and an equally healthy contempt for most of what passes today as culture"; this market sounds perfect for my story.

While looking for markets, keep your eye trained for anything that might potentially be good in the future. For example, I found a college prep magazine that pays pretty well - I'm sure they'd buy an interview with my University's Dean of Admissions, whom I can email and set up an appointment with relative ease.

And that, my friends, is the brutal tango, and it won't end as long as you're trying to make money in the writing game.

So, what stories are you guys working on? Do you have an editing process that works?

Also: "1. Getting very drunk is the best way to deal with rejection. Discuss."

Ian doesn't let rejection by small minded editors bother him. Archives


I really like your editing idea. I might try that.

I have a ton of new ideas half started, but I think what I should really do is go back to my old, completed writing and rework a lot of that. By rework, I mean edit heavily.


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