Tag Archives: freelance writing

A fallen ‘Lancer: Richard N. Côté, 1945-2015

Today I learned of the sudden passing of a good friend and fellow traveler in the writing world: Dick Côté. Evidently he fell on some steep steps at his home office, hit his head, and suffered major brain trauma. When brain death was determined, those close to him let him pass in peace, as he would have wished.

I first came to know Dick through my Amazon reviews, perhaps ten years ago, perhaps longer. I believe he sent me a review solicitation, and I accepted. I found him a highly competent social historian, and continued to review his books out of my interest in the subjects. We became friends, and I can remember many of what I fondly called Chardonnay conversations. He was a tremendous source of knowledge about writing and publishing, and I listened more than I talked. He always called me “my fine young friend,” which I found bemusing up to my early fifties.

Dick had an interesting life. A Connecticutian of French descent, by the time I knew him, he was living in South Carolina. His views were not largely mainstream in Charleston, but Dick was the sort of man who looks past such differences and inspires others to do the same. We have too few of his kind today. After college, he served in the Air Force in Vietnam, a role that troubled him all his days. He was a freelance writer who ghosted a great many books during the days when one could make better money doing that. The most notable might be Safe House, the autobiography of defector Edward Lee Howard. He flew to Moscow and spent several weeks mining Howard’s memories, then set forth to turn those plus Howard’s notes into a credible book. He later learned that it had all been a setup (unsuccessful) to lure Howard back to US custody. Dick was forgetful, so he retold me the story during nearly every phone call, which is why I remember it so well.

His last really major book project nearly broke him: In Search of Gentle Death. This was his social history of the global right-to-die movement, spurred in part by friends of his who were active in it, and in part by his memories of his mother’s unpleasant passing due to ALS. It was a first-class job of writing and research, and an absolute money sink from day one. I had the privilege of serving as proofreader, which was exhausting, invigorating, and fun. That’s how it was when one rode with Dick, those three adjectives. A man of perpetual good humor, no matter what the hour of the day, he always advised me to take the rest of the day off. A passionate hard worker, I know he understood the comedy inherent in that good wish.

Dick was a fairly outspoken atheist, so he did not believe that he is still with us in any spiritual form. (Think about the oddity of those verb tenses.) I, however, am not an atheist. I know this: I have lost a good friend, a fundamentally decent and caring fellow, and a source of wisdom about our line of work. I also know that if Dick was wrong, and is in fact eating crow watching us from an afterlife, he’s laughing at himself. He is also, in that case, breathing an enormous sigh of relief that he never had to face the question of how to end incurable earthly suffering, nor were his loved ones confronted with Schiavoian agony.

He has a Wikipedia page under “Richard N. Côté.” I am not sure the accents will work with a link, and I admit that I am not exactly in the frame of mind to twiddle with technical details. You can find it easily enough.

Dick, my fine old friend, take the rest of the day off.

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That Titanic feeling

It’s a strange feeling, it is. While calling it after a massive maritime disaster isn’t really appropriate–my situation is not disastrous, but hopeful–it conveys a similar feeling. Within five weeks, six at most, I’ll be leaving the state in which I came of age. I look around at all the familiarities, and know that their days are numbered, just as the ill-fated passenger liner’s crew had to confront reality: in two hours, nearly all that they saw would be submerged.

A part of me is tempted to mourn early and often, which is irrational. I should not mourn. I lived thirty-nine years in Washington without considering myself a Washingtonian (nothing against the concept). What is ahead is appealing, reuniting and promising. How many local vendors am I eager never to give one more dime? I will be saying farewell to a city government that is a poor steward of the public trust, a library that cannot find useful volunteer work for an author, provincial myopia about the region’s past and present, complete social stagnation, mostly mediocre dining, and dust storms. I just placed a simple phone call to my ISP and got four different answers from four different people, only one of whom seemed the least bit concerned about the variance. The rest were resigned to it. Said it all.

Yet for a long time it was home, and here I met some of the finest people I’ve known, had many good times, loved our house with its strong natural privacy and kind neighbors. And though I should not mourn, I know I will. My last ride to Boise will be a contemplative and emotional four and a half hours.

Soon we part, Washington. Thank you for all that has been good and wonderful. You’re a beautiful state with many fine folks, and you will always be a destination for those seeking climatic diversity and free spirits. People will also come for the weed.

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In a complete topic segue, it’s about time I made written record of my usual analogy for my status as a published author.

I am not the sort of published author most people think of, and yet I’m not self-published (though I may change that). I have contributed to a good number of books, but all had other contributors. One might say I’m a freelance writer who is entitled to call himself an author, having done his share of authing for pay and print. I edit, write and proofread. Most of my paid writing work is done on contract, which puts me at the lowest tier of the authorly ziggurat. I usually describe it thus:

You probably saw Titanic. In fact, you’ve probably seen it eight times in reruns whether you wanted to or not. You observed that the ship operated according to a class system, which had direct relevance to one’s chances of ending up in a lifeboat. This has direct analogy to the security of one’s position in the literary world. Thus:

Suppose that the literary world is a Titanic. (The way New York is handling things, the analogy is apt enough). The highest class are, of course, first class passengers, would Madame care for some more champagne, veddy good, sah, socializing in that rotunda with crystal chandeliers overhead and an orchestra playing, more caviar, please, waiter. These are the J.K. Rowlings and Danielle Steels, anyone who is always on the endcap at the bookstore. Almost all of them are getting off the boat.

The next class, second, are the leisure tourists. They do not receive the fawning deference reserved for the big spenders in first class, but they are treated well. They enjoy some amenities and general respect. They are the top-selling science fiction authors, the more famous travel writers, and sometimes the self-help book gurus. Most of them are getting off the boat.

Down in steerage is the third class, the people making their own music who live in a different world than the prominent. This category includes most of the crew. These are most indie authors, history writers, the folks that pen Harlequin romances, cookbook authors, most children’s authors, writers of books on religion, and so on. Most people have never heard of most of them. Most of them aren’t getting off the boat.

Continue into the bowels of the monster and you will come to the engine room, full of people stripped to the waist and sweating quarts as they shovel coal into the boilers. These are the stokers. Without them, the ship couldn’t have set sail, but no one in first class can name a one of them. Not only have they no security, but in time of danger, more important people will shut the watertight doors on them. They aren’t getting off the boat.

I’m a stoker.

Bloggings will continue until morale improves

When you are a ‘lancer, you write for anyone who will fork over, presuming it doesn’t violate your basic life principles (hope you have some). When it’s slow, you have to get creative.

With that in mind, this winter I turned my pen to technical writing on contract. No, it is not la vie litteraire. I honestly don’t think much of said vie, with all its pretense, pomposity and poseurs (and frequently poseuses). It is my belief that there is no such thing as writer’s block; there are people who want to write, and they do that. There are people who don’t want to write, and they do not do that. Right now I want to write, and I am obviously doing it. Well, to be a ‘lancer, you have to ‘want to write’ because you’ll get paid, if for no other reason.

Which explains why I spent the morning assembling a document concerning specifications for cable plants. (No, you goof, you cannot grow them in your garden. Silly gardeners.) Would I prefer to be approached by a major publisher to write a balanced history of the United States, one that would thus piss off everyone with a political filter and earn me hate mail calling me a Commie pinko and a Fascist pig in the same day? Moot point, for I will not be so approached. In the meantime, should I be expanding the ways I can present my ‘lancing résumé? If I don’t, I evidently don’t want to write that badly.

So, I’m writing about cabling. There are some benefits to this besides the money. While my engineer boss is a very good writer as engineers go, it’s fun to be engaged because of the perception that I know more than him about my trade. I realized that when I had to explain to him some of the proofreading marks and issues with punctuation. Mine to present the knowledge, his (as owner of the firm) to say how he likes it and wants it done, and mine in turn to do as all good ‘lancers do: produce quality content to spec on time with a diligent work ethic and a positive attitude.

Here’s the interesting revelation from the process of application. He had quite a few applicants, most of them fresh out of college with liberal arts degrees. I did not expect my nearing-fifty age to be an advantage, but it was. He found his applicants not mature enough for what he wanted in his workplace, which was someone who would show up on time, work without texting every few minutes, observe the recognized protocols of workplace dress, demeanor and focus, and in the end, do as asked without making some excuse. As I was working on my first assignment on my first day, he took a call from one applicant that pretty much said it all. The guy was checking on the status of his application, which had not received a response because he had misspelled his own e-mail address on his résumé. Let’s see. I’m applying to work for an engineer. Should I assure that my presentation demonstrates some attention to detail? Why, yes. Yes, I should. If I cannot manage that, should I pretty much fold the tent and find a new line of work? One thinks so. In any case, my new boss was urbane and courteous to the caller, but within my hearing, advised him that the position was filled. I smiled to myself and kept picking apart the proofreading I had been assigned. I perforated that sucker.

It’s not full time, and it’s not as many hours as I’d like to get, but that’s ‘lancing. You saddle up, you find out what is asked of you, and you do.

It is better training for your own writing work than you might think. It’ll expand your knowledge (I’ve learned a lot about how telecomm cables are organized, and why). It’ll give you the happy glow of cashing checks.

Most of all, it will teach you to write whether you are in the mood or not, whether you have a headache or not, because it’s time you did some writing. That’s how this blog post came about. It was time to do a blog post. I did not grant myself the option to just go upstairs and read my S.M. Stirling book, which was my personal whim–at least, not until I finished this post. Enough people have shown that they will visit here regularly that it is incumbent on me to continue supplying content I think will please at least some of the readership. Do that, and unless you have no idea what people like, that readership expands. Decide that you are in a blah mood and don’t want to write, a little too often, they forget about you soon–as good ol’ Stroker Ace taught us. “Blow their doors off, Stroker.” Just listen to that banjo work.

When in doubt, remember that bloggings will continue until morale improves. This one improved mine, at any rate.

Researching on the phone

One perk you get as a ‘lancer is that when you are researching a subject, not only can you pick up the phone and call people, many will talk to you. I’ve learned the hard way not to bother leaving a message. By the time I hear back, for the most part, I’ve already turned in my work and can no longer benefit from the conversation.

Why would they talk to me? Most are curious to know what I’m working on, with an eye toward how it will portray their museum/city/project/company. I have to be fairly vague for contractual reasons, but I can at least explain why I’m bothering them. If a real person answers, most are helpful, especially historical society/museum curators. They like this. Someone wants to know the things they know! (I can relate, having a mind full of information people rarely want to know.)

Of course, if the matter you’re researching is controversial, expect a full spin cycle and attempt to rinse away anything sordid. I had that with a major toy company, back when I was trying to learn more about the debate over who invented a very popular toy. They handed me over to their PR flacks, who did their job: try to kill me with helpful kindness, sending me numerous PDFs relating the official history–which is good to know, but is by no means the last word. I give them credit, though, because their job is to get me to write the party line, and if they make my life difficult, they know it will perk up my nostrils. They hope to make it easy for me so that I’ll just use their source material.

Unfortunately for some, I’m not the sort of ‘lancer who takes the easy path. A major MLM company got a taste of that. The firm (one I loathe enough that I had to discipline myself to careful objectivity) claims two prominent founders, but reports all over the place refer to a third and very obscure co-founder. Even allowing for the Internet copycat factor, it was suspicious enough to wonder: was there really a third co-founder, and if so, what became of this person? Dispute? Bought out? Dead? I called the company, whose flacks asked some older fellow who has evidently been around since the reign of Tiberius. They flatly denied this third founder. Then I asked (by e-mail, now) the question that ticked them off: “Sir, if that’s accurate, then people are spreading false information far and wide about the company’s origin. You haven’t even asked me where I heard about it. Aren’t you at least concerned about rooting out such possible misinformation?” I never heard from them again. I interpreted that to mean that I’d lit up their ‘hostile’ display indicator and would get nothing further from them on the subject.

That set me to shoveling twice as hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t turn up anything useful, so the most I could do with the third individual was to mention the name and stress that it was an unsubstantiated rumor. What that meant, of course, was that it went into print. Did I learn the reality behind the rumor (if any)? No. Is it possible someone with more time on his or hands than me might see this in the book, and dig long and hard enough to penetrate the wall of corporate sanitization surrounding the subject? It wouldn’t break my heart…

Working while sick

It’s one of the hardest parts of freelancing.  Suppose you feel like hell.  Are you going to do your work? Well, let’s put it this way.  If you have a tight deadline, if you are conscious and can function, yeah, you’re going to do your work.  Now, the editors I work with are generally very understanding and kind folks, but it isn’t that way everywhere.  Plus, understanding and kindness would surely wear thin if you played the card all the time, or even often.

So the bottom line is that yeah, I’m going to do my work.  I have a number of entries that must be rewritten by Wednesday, and a timeliness track record to protect.  What is more, it must be up to the standards my editors expect from me.  Never mind that I’m not physically or mentally up to the standards I expect from myself; an editor reviewing my MS will see only whether it’s okay or not okay.

This is one of the hardest things to convey to prospective writers.  There is a writing mentality that I call the “Oh, for a muse…” perspective.  It savors la vie litteraire, a world of bons mots and clever epigrams.  It yearns to sprinkle random French terms with deep savoir faire.  It imagines an ivory tower of eloquence, insight and not having to explain what ‘onomatopoeia’ means.  It is pensive people in berets sipping sophisticated coffees in proper coffee shops, as opposed to realtors sipping extra large super-skinny caramel lattes with four shots of mandarin syrup.  It hankers after a sense of intellectual superiority, the mojo of being able to say “I’m a writer” and have people coo over you.

Well, I’m a writer, and what it means right now is gluing myself to my machine and getting my work hammered out fueled by Ricolas, coffee, tea, a pizza most would consider toxic waste.  The upsides are that I don’t have to talk (I barely can; I sound like Darth Vader) or socialize (always a battle for me to begin with).  But I do have to write.  I don’t get to plead ‘writer’s block,’ a concept in which I don’t fundamentally believe anyway.  If I write, I will get paid and preserve my rep for producing (thus probably getting to write more later).  If I don’t, I won’t.

It’s as simple as that.