Story Terrace

Late last year, I scored a gig writing for Story Terrace, a UK-based company that’s expanded into the US.

Story Terrace publishes memoirs and autobiographies ghostwritten by a stable of authors, who interview the subject at her home and then compose a finished book complete with photos and a professional layout. The company has gone through several rounds of investment, including a crowdfunding effort this past summer which raised more than £617,000.

So far I’ve written three books of varying lengths for Story Terrace: the first was a memoir of a successful lawyer about his years growing up in Queens in the 1930s and 40s, while the other two were biographies of an Italian-American couple and an Irish-American woman, all of them immigrants who left the poverty of their homelands and achieved the American dream. It’s fun and rewarding work — much more rewarding, in fact, than I had anticipated.

Initially I was reluctant to write about the gig publicly because the position was originally advertised as “ghostwriter.” Years ago, in addition to the bylined articles I wrote for them, I did some ghostwriting for Dig and Calliope, the children’s magazines about archaeology and history. That, I now realize, was ghostwriting of a very different stripe. The editor loathed having to deal with PhDs with their jargonized writing styles, outsized egos, and complete lack of respect for any form of deadline, so in a few cases she found it easier to assign the writing to me and then, after a cursory review by the academic in question, slap Professor Dumdum’s name on it. I didn’t particularly care about the byline — as long as the check clears, I’m good! — but I was also sworn to super-duper secrecy with cherries on top, lest the professor be unmasked as a fraud by his peers, ridiculed, and driven like a mangy dog from the ivy-covered halls. The editor took pains to stress how seriously I needed to keep my lips shut — because we all know how tolerant our colleges and universities are.

The work I do for Story Terrace is ghostwriting of a less stringent sort. It’s work-for-hire, so the copyright goes to the customer, but I get a small credit inside the front of the book so there’s no top-secret surreptitiousness involved.

Further, Your Most Obedient Servant actually receives a commission for referrals that lead to projects, so if anything, the company wants me blabbing about it nonstop (not to mention that they have my headshot on their front page). I’m happy to recommend them.

So — if you or someone you know has always said, “I should write a book,” but never has, Story Terrace may be able to help make it a reality. The company has three different standard packages you can buy or you can tailor a project specific to your needs. All of the projects I’ve worked on were commissioned by adult children for their parents to capture their memories and experiences before they were lost forever. If you’re interested, just drop Story Terrace a line and mention my name. If you’re local, we can even arrange for me to write the project.

Makes a great stocking stuffer!

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

At Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument advice column, an author asked how to absolve herself from the shame of publishing a book she now feels is “juvenile:”

I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?

Elisa Gabbert, the Blunt Instrument’s fount of wisdom, replied in part:

It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer.

I don’t disagree with anything Gabbert said and her entire response is worth reading, particularly for her discussion of how the vagaries of publishing often result in a disparity between the fondness an author feels for a work versus its popularity among readers.

Yet what’s significant to me is that Gabbert explicitly underscores such shame being an issue of experience. Writers who are early in their careers — regardless of their age — have smaller portfolios and therefore are more conscious of it. If you only have ten published pieces to your credit and one is awful, that’s ten percent of your bylines; but if you’ve written 100 pieces and one is bad, the stink is confined to a negligible percentage.

All writers produce bad copy — God knows I have. Thankfully most of it is lost to the mists of time, but before you tell me that Google forgets nothing, keep in mind it works both ways: yes, some of my bad stuff has fallen down the memory hole but so have some pieces I’m particularly proud of, even though they were authored in the age of search engines. Publications come and go, and often they take their servers with them. The Internet is no elephant.

If you dug up one of those old pieces of mine, the kind I’d prefer were forgotten, and waved it my face, I wouldn’t be happy. But neither would I lose sleep over it. I have a number of aphorisms I’ve developed over the years. For example: The best response to a piece of bad writing is to create another piece of writing. When I start something and realize it’s not proceeding well, I set it aside and write something else. Sometimes I will cannibalize it for words or ideas but at the very least the act was a warmup, a prelude to a new thing. To the inexperienced, a setback or criticism can seem monstrous but to the jaded rodeo clown it’s like, Meh whatevs.

This subject resonates with me, I think, because this week I’m putting the finishing edits on my current WIP, a 37,000-word novella. Today I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but while I can’t imagine ever hating it, five or ten years from now I may view it more critically. That’s OK because I’d like to think that in five to ten years I’ll be writing even better stuff.

And that, ultimately, is what you have to ask yourself: Does what I’m writing today reflect the best I can do in this moment? Is it a product of my current talent and ability? If not, throw it in a drawer. But if it is, then hustle it, and if your future self doesn’t like it, then tell him to STFU and get cracking on something better. Move forward. Forget the past. Let the dead bury the dead.

Short News, Struggling Scribblers Edition

Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953
Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953

Do your job. Electric Literature says writing is a jobeven if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would.

[S]ometimes the money just isn’t there. If you are writing weird poems on a friend’s Tumblr page that only a handful of people will read, you can’t expect to be paid because there is no money being made. But if you are writing for, say, a big website that gets massive traffic, you should absolutely demand to be paid

I previously inked some thoughts on writers and rip-off publishers here.

“Should we always play it safe?” Barrelhouse has a great graphic essay on writers and writing.

File under Asylum, lunatics taken over the. Trumpkins swarmed the Goodreads page for author Laura Silverman’s latest book, inundating it with one-star reviews because she dislikes their clown prince of politics. Punchline: the book hasn’t been released yet — it’s still in copyedits. Allies responded with five stars to counteract the attacks; meanwhile, Goodreads lethargically removed the troll reviews. Silverman said the incident “scared me a lot, because they were taking it to the next level.” If it’s any consolation to Silverman, I wouldn’t worry about it affecting her career — that’s just another Tuesday for Goodreads.

Freeloaders

It never ceases to amaze me as a professional writer how often I am solicited to write for free.

For some months I’ve been having a simmering dispute with a longtime market of mine over language (or lack thereof) in our contracts, and for awhile I believed the matter was resolved. Then this week it erupted again. Without going into the nitty-gritty, the company basically said to me, Jackson, we’ve enjoyed your work so much all these years that instead of paying you, we want you to write for free. But don’t worry — if we happen to find any spare change under the couch cushions, we’ll think about sending some your way! Unwilling to continue under their absolutely Mephistophelean terms, I resigned this past Wednesday in cold disgust.

Being a writer is like being a restaurant owner whose clientele is just as likely to sprint for the door, half-eaten burrito in hand, as to pay you. And yet while anyone — even the culprit, else why would he run? — recognizes dining-and-dashing as theft, no one blinks an eye at not paying a writer. The writer, the artist, the photographer is the first to initiate the chain of commerce but the last to benefit from it, the first to act but the last to be paid.

The majority of my career has been spent freelancing and yet the bulk of my income has always been from web-related services, not writing. The few individuals I’ve known who wrote freelance full-time lived in near poverty. The gravest problem with freelancing is not the low pay — many jobs pay terribly — but the erratic or late payments, making it impossible to depend on them to cover bills (although Mrs. Kuhl is quick to point out that many companies suffer from late or non-payments; the difference is that bigger entities have the capital to ride it out or absorb the losses, whereas a freelancer — a company of one — feels the razor’s edge more sharply). Just ask this Columbia J-School grad, although for what it’s worth she can take solace in the fact I’ve run up much larger tabs than $1,200 with delinquent markets.

I am not a Harlan Ellison I-don’t-take-a-piss-without-getting-paid type but I believe in writing without payment in only two situations. The first is if I’m promoting something — like, say, Smedley or an anthology I’m in. This is easy to double-check because generally the title of the thing I’m promoting is right there in the article. Whatever time and energy I’ve invested in such promotion is a marketing expense, a commercial sent across the airwaves that may, or may not, result in a sale of the thing. If I think my efforts have led to at least one ring of the cash-register bell, then I count myself ahead.

The second instance is when I’m trying to grow my platform or, to put it another way, promote my brand, whatever that is. Writing a personal blog pays dividends, if only to telegraph to readers that the cats haven’t started eating your corpse yet. Where you have to be cautious is when you don’t own or control the content. There is a species of coprophage that will try to entice you to write “for exposure.” Any editor who uses the word “exposure” is a BS artist, because either their readership is too low for it to be worthwhile or it’s so big they could actually pay you in the first place. “Exposure” is the recompense offered by amateurs and thieves.

The big red flag is if an editor or publisher won’t pay but nonetheless charges readers for the content. A few months ago I was asked by an editor for permission to reprint an article of mine in an e-magazine she publishes for tablets and e-readers. The magazine is not free; in fact, its cost is comparable to other e-magazines on the market boasting much higher circulations. The only compensation offered was a link to my website. In sum, this editor is assembling a virtual magazine in her kitchen from contributions she hasn’t paid for — so her overhead is effectively zero — but charging a non-nominal price for subscriptions and single issues, and therefore all of the money she makes on the magazine is profit, or at least goes to pay the salary of her single employee: her. Apparently, working for exposure is fine for some animals, just not for others.

Even if no money exchanges hands, I still have to question how much effort is spent growing my platform versus growing theirs. I cannot believe how frequently I’m asked to commit to regular contributions to other people’s websites. Half of me is flattered and the other insulted. Once in a blue moon I will scribble a post for John O’Neill at Black Gate, and even if my time is wasted doing so, based on what scant behind-the-scenes knowledge I possess, I can hardly complain I’m being taken advantage of. This type of writing is very dependent on circumstances and must be handled on a case-by-case basis, but my natural instinct is always in favor of my time, and hence the answer to regular contributions is always no, and to occasional articles a hard maybe.

While I wish the ending had been less acrimonious, I’m happy I’ve severed ties with the company. Installed in our gorgeous house with the renovations complete, Mrs. Kuhl and I feel that our lives are on a new trajectory, and we’ve been consciously embracing better habits and choices while simultaneously pruning dead wood. I’ve been in this business long enough to understand there are rarely hard breaks or fast stops; rather, writing is a series of waves, often overlapping, in which you write on a subject or for a market for awhile and it builds and it crests but by the time it recedes, you are already surfing another flow.