I’m no longer regularly maintaining this blog.
My new blog home is Sisters of the Pen: http://sistersofthepen.wordpress.com/
And for corporate and technical writing work, see me on Linked in: http://au.linkedin.com/pub/charlotte-nash-stewart/28/7aa/9a1
I almost called this post ‘on becoming itinerant’, because that’s really what it’s about. Steadily over the last year my separations from a fixed home have been increasing in number and frequency, mostly due to work. In the next two months, I suspect the fixed home will dissolve altogether. From there extends the life of an itinerant worker and multi-modal wanderer. Life has already felt like an office and hotel archipelago in a sea of plane and train trips, motorbike rides and (actual) sailing. The home mainland was out there, but now, the island trip is getting much bigger.
For a writer, it’s not such a bad thing. Work is easily transportable. And my favourite thing is the act of going from place to place. Which is pretty much what writing fiction does too. It’s a strange synergy. At the heart of every story is desire, hopefully being thwarted until it’s either achieved or lost. And longing for place is the natural companion of the wanderer. It’s difficult at times; spreading thin means less time cultivating social circles – less time spent growing the friendships you have, more difficult to make new ones. You try to make belonging space everywhere you are, and be comfortable with the discomfort of the unfamiliar.
Wanderlust usually means the desire for travel or distance; but longing for place is the balancer. It’s the second act, the middle of the story. You want to go on the journey, but if eventually you aren’t heading for home, there’s no arc. No ending. And longing becomes all there is.
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s true or not. Neat analogies make me suspicious these days … the world is far more complex and contradictory for such simplicity. But a lot of stories I’ve written recently have longing for home (mostly metaphorically) at their centre. One of my favourite sci-fi movies The Man From Earth exemplifies the wanderer, and being oddly at peace with being apart. After all, what else do you do as a non-aging immortal? People notice. You move on.
I am (sadly) not immortal. Circumstances are partially dictating the break from fixed abode, but mostly it’s chosen. It feels like my old sense of place is retiring, without a clear successor. It might be a long trip :).
I haven’t posted for a long time. Mostly, I couldn’t work out what this blog was about. The older posts, while truthful, felt stuffy and unreal. Constructed because they were going public. I write for a living, and usually that’s with a pretty clear brief. I needed something similar for this site, and like many a ficiton project, sometimes you work it out in the doing. I felt only half-done trying to keep commentry here all about corporate writing; I think I’d feel likewise if it was all ficiton. I’m always on the wall between. So, then, the rebranding.
And, to the doing. I’m in the middle of a novella right now, and simulaneously working on jobs for three different clients (one engineering, one corporate, one medical). Coming to the fiction after all that … sometimes I need to kick over a different part of my brain. A leg up over the wall, as it were. One of my writerly sistahs gave me a great exercise the other week, and I’m going to post the result here because … well, I like it. The task was to write a piece that focussed solely on the sounds of the words, and do it fast. If that doesn’t get you from, “This process describes how to … ” and across the wall into lovely fiction land, nothing will. 🙂
Crumble is cake and mountain slide, down, down into cavernous cowling, blistering frost this crevasse that needles deeper than divers, fathoms below where crush prevents breath space, leaves ooze and dead fall. It starts as skittering, pebbles tinking; then growling guttural, rockbed shuck, through air with whistling, Doppler rush. Strikes ice and fractures, interface tussle, foam and decelerate. Then long, slow, languid fall, buoyant but sinking, verdant and fading, azure become inky, til the earth meets seafloor, remembering, the crumble before.
The working life of a freelancer/consultant/contractor (depending on how tied down you want to feel today – I’ve been all three) can render you a masterless ronin, wandering the corporate halls with allegiance-for-hire. When you land a job, it comes with a kingdom attached. Sometimes, that’s a kingdom of one (private clients) but often it’s an office, a department or an entire organisation.
Such an instant community can be exciting for the oft-alone writer, but it also brings difficulties in actually doing your job. This is where the lessons of great fantasy and action movies will help you stay sane. Put simply, there can be only one client (or, one client to rule them all 😉 ).
The ‘one’ or ‘real’ client is the person with final so-say on what work you’re given, how it’s prioritised, and other important freelancer stuff like approving hours, contact when sick, etc. Fail to establish this, and you can easily find yourself being directed by mulitple people with similar levels of authority, leaving you with the difficult task of playing everyone’s want-it-now jobs against each other. Before the situation disintegrates into emulating Christopher Lambert to find ‘the one’, here’s some pointers on setting client expectations:
- Up-front. Do set the expectation up front that you need a single point-of-contact. From a practical standpoint, multiple people can still give you work, but the client should be able to make it clear who you listen to above all others. Once the job is rolling, the idea of ‘one’ client can come as a shock to some.
- Availability. Try to ensure this one client will actually be available to you. Not great if they’re in a different building to you, worse if they’re in a different state or spend lots of time travelling.
- Review. Try to set a regular review meeting with the client to keep them updated with what you’re doing and with what priority. Don’t wait for them to do it. This protects expectations on both sides.
As happened to me in the last two weeks, sometimes, you find out your manuscript has no legs (or, at least, has shorter legs than you’d hoped). Legs is really not the right analogy either … in the spirit of sci-fi, let’s go with thrusters. Now, I was somewhere down the writing-space path of self-realisation already, but third party opinion can really sharpen your vision. I had a Pitch Black moment, not because it involves scary night-creatures who want to chomp your bones (though, it can), but because it’s like you just opened the bridge window and found—oh, yes—you’re crashing to planetside. Right. Now. (And if at this point you’re wondering what I’m going on about, you’ll want to see Pitch Black: Fantastic crash scene, shot in Australia, Vin Diesel and scary aliens. Awesome.)
Ahem … the point is (and now I’m going to flog the metaphor to death), hopefully you have a Mission Plan with a section on unexpected crash trajectories. Broadly, here are the options:
- Planets. The solar system is full of planets (i.e. publishers/markets) and you’re riding the manuscript-ship. Now, you spend a lot of time in the void when you’re writing, but as you get closer to the planet, you want to make sure it’s the right one. You want to fit in when you get there, and not find scary aliens who want to chomp your bones. This doesn’t mean comprising your ‘creative vision’ but if your manuscript-ship ain’t going to survive down there, best to do a gravity assist before you’re in free-fall and head somewhere else.
- Co-pilots. Anyone who advises you on your manuscript is a co-pilot. But they haven’t always been to the planet you’re heading to. So, get advice, but remember, you’re still the pilot. Land or crash, it’s your manuscript-ship.
- Trajectory. Maybe the issue isn’t the destination. The route down obeys reasonably strict rules and relies on the natural pairing: make friends, and make no enemies. Following submission guidelines and not being the crazy pilot (or at least not acting it) help a lot. Trajectories down to planets are often congested with other manuscript-ships, so it helps to have friends in the control tower. Acting like you don’t know the rules of space won’t help.
- The rescue plan. Sometimes, you need to abandon ship, because these thrusters are never going to cut it. You learnt a lot about how to plot a course, but the engines are dead, and your knowledge can now only serve other ships. So, you jump in the escape pod (i.e. second manuscript) and head back to the void. The great thing about writing-space is that abandoned ships are instantly transferred to orbit the tiny Bottom-Draw planet, where they can be easily retrieved by a salvage team.
I ended up going with a gravity assist/rescue plan combo. It’s nice out here in the void 😉
Editors have the grim privilege of seeing people reveal themselves in text. But however large their knowledge arsenal of maladies and infelicities, editors must resist the urge to go all first-matrix-movie on the unsuspecting writer, especially if you’re freelance. Here’s why.
You just met, right. So you need to establish rapport or no-one will like you. Rapport and track-changes through every second word are mutually exclusive.
Your knowledge base is (hopefully) bigger and more recent than your client’s. You are therefore in a power imbalance. Be the benevolent monarch, not the dictator.
People will hold onto the last time they formally learnt writing ‘rules’. That might be Mrs Brown in primary school. No-one likes having torn down things they’ve held aloft as truth, and you may find yourself the brunt of the displeasure.
All this means not being liked, or worse, and that’s not fun or productive. So what to do? Here’s how I approach these issues.
- Firstly, signal:noise and Pareto principle. Most people have consistent habits in their writing. I pick the two or three that are most problematic (Pareto Principle) and deal only with these in the first instance. This means the writer gets a clear notion of what to work on (signal) without all the other little stuff that could be improved later (noise). In corporate and academic work, the most common ones I encounter are verbosity, nominalisation, and passive voice. However, everyone is different.
- Remember most problems are issues of style not correctness. Therefore, it’s not productive to tell people they are wrong. This is usually where Mrs Brown’s teaching is invoked to defend what someone has been doing for a long time in their writing. Be gentle. My approach is to explain that writing conventions have changed over time to make modern writing more engaging and easier on the reader. Research supports a lot of the changes, and going into this, especially with technical clients, can help. I still have to be sensitive to the needs of particular industries where tradition puts a big brake on all this modern progress.
- Remember the power imbalance. The editor is always able to spot problems more easily than the writer, who is very close to the document and often grappling with serious technical subject matter. Gain trust and rapport, and you’ll both come down on the right side of the line between the written document and what it really represents.