Day jobs and nut logs

This is a list of jobs I’ve had—well, it was supposed to be a list but see what happens when you start writing an innocent little list? I was warned by The Daily Post blog when they issued this writing challenge (which they do every Monday) that this could happen. It’s in chronological order but is by no means comprehensive.

1. In elementary school, my brother Pete and I took over a paper route from an older boy who lived in the apartment below ours. Every day afterschool, we folded the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and jammed dozens of copies of it into the heavy canvas saddlebags the Examiner provided, slung it over the handlebars and went streaking off, trying our best to frisbee-flip the papers onto the customers’ front steps. Sunday mornings were like a death march: Up at 5 am, folding papers that were three times thicker than the daily edition and on the road by 6 am. So much paper, I couldn’t turn the handlebars.

2. I sold candy door-to-door: Caramel nougat nut logs, cocoa-fudge loaves…and miniature bonzai plants. The family that ran this door-to-door business had the same last name as me but were no relation. They were nice people and I respected them but in the back of my mind, I thought they were hicks. The mother had a twangy voice was aggressive and the father didn’t talk much. Their son, younger than me, loved Johnny Paycheck. I’d never met a young person who liked country music. All my friends liked Kiss. They all drove around in a white oversized panel van full of kids and candy, the father steering with one hand and…one stump. They’d unleash us in neighborhoods with really long blocks and would bee us hours later at the end. We made twenty percent on each sale.

3. McDonalds. “If ya got time to lean,” manager Howard intoned, “ya got time to clean.” I leaned a lot, so…I cleaned a lot. McDonald’s has the worst-smelling garbage of all time.

4. When I was 15, I was a dishwasher at a Sambo’s Restaurant in Tucson for a summer. I worked with a dude name Randy who in his late 30s. His nickname for me was “Checker,” which seemed like a put-down, but good-natured (I think). Randy was a rabid fan of David Allen Coe, which didn’t register with me at all. I had no idea what Randy was talking about most of the time. All of my friends liked Kiss. When my dad would pick me up at the end of my shift, he’d amuse himself by referring to me as “Chico”—his racially-themed put down (i.e., only Hispanics wash dishes in restaurants). The joke was really on him: My nickname for him was “dad.”

5. I worked at a Swensen’s Ice Cream stand in the Sherman Oaks Galleria for two weeks. I knew I was only taking the job for a short period, to make some money for I-don’t recall-what. What I do recall is that within two weeks, they had me “closing,” which meant I was responsible for balancing the register and all that math stuff. I sure wish I hadn’t smoked all that…marijuana before my shift. I could barely count my own fingers and was just a complete blank trying to figure out that balance sheet.

6. My first job out of high school was as a floor-walker and cashier at a video game arcade/miniature golf course, where I developed a sleazy side business. The entire place ran on tokens–four for a dollar. As a floor-walker, I was routinely called upon to unjam the coin mechanisms of the video game and pinball machines. So, what would I do with that handful of tokens that was jammed up? I would sell them to my friends, eight for a dollar. I was the token connection, doing business with the locals in the bathroom. Surprise: It’s the only job I was ever fired from.

7. The next year, I taught guitar for a summer, out of a small music store in my neighborhood. They sent me to people’s houses to teach them. My first two students ever were blind women. One of my other students was Neil Diamond’s nephew, who was unteachable because he thought he already knew it all. Yet another was Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s nephew. I didn’t know any of Johnny’s music (all of my friends liked Kiss) but I knew he was someone, because I’d seen ads for his album “A Real Mutha For Ya.” His nephew couldn’t have given less of a shit about learning to play the guitar.

8. In my early 20s, I worked for a month or so as a late shift cashier at a “Zippy Mart” convenience store on the Alabama-Georgia border. That meant I froze my ass off stocking soda in the cooler, fell asleep on my broom sweeping out the entire parking lot and sold truckers lots of battery acid coffee and “Cream-filled Boopers” at 3 am. (Yes, that was the brand name. Welcome to the South.) In the wee quiet hours, I’d also sneak looks at the adult magazines.

9. Then I made the near-fatal mistake of going to work in an office. It’s something I thought I had to do and it ended up doing me. This particular office administered used car extended warranties, which I thought was cool, because I liked working on cars but didn’t want to do that for a living (too dirty). That office was a crushing routine of cubicles and papers, constant phone calls and great health insurance. Most who worked there were people with mortgages and families. For me, it was a job “so I could pursue my music” and indeed, I did pursue it. I played in bands and wrote my songs but having that job was a sell-out, an admission that I’d already failed. I was torn between two masters and served neither particularly well.

10. In my mid-40s, I spent most of a year busking for change on the weekend. (“Busking” means performing in public places for tips). I played my guitar and sang Beatles, Clapton, Springsteen and other classic rock tunes and got pretty good at it. It was something I’d always wanted to do but was completely terrified of. I finally took a personal dare and I rocked it. I made $7 the first night and it only went up from there. I would usually go home on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon with $60 or $70–not bad for having a new hours of fun, making people smile and sing along and besting one’s demons. (Strangely enough, I did not play any Kiss.)

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Steve Wagner is a Los Angeles-based freelance copywriter and editor whose clients include American Songwriter magazine, The Hard Truth magazine, the public relations firm MWPR, in Burbank, CA and the diversity consulting organization Global Collaborations, Inc., in Houston, TX. If you are seeking a professional editor, contact him at swagner (at) writer-editor-etc (dot) com and he will be happy to talk with you about your project.


Streaming for the exits

I am going to talk about why a moviegoer might ask for their money back.

“What does this have to do with how to improve my writing?” you ask. Well, in becoming a better writer, sometimes you need to look at where your writing succeeds—not only at the places where it could stand improvement.

Have you ever walked out of a movie before it was over? If you answered “yes,” can you recall why you got up and left? What was the reason?

Back in my early 20s, I took a girl on a date to see a movie called The Perils of Gwendoline, which looked okay in the coming attractions. “Gwendoline” was played by the young and attractive Tawny Kitaen and the film looked like a lightweight Raiders of the Lost Ark with a dash of Rocky Horror Picture Show…if you can imagine that. Okay, Perils of Gwendoline, here we go!

And we went alright: We were outta that theater 20 minutes after it started and we were not the only ones.

Was there something particularly offensive about the movie? No.

Did its production values look as if it had been shot on Super-8 film and edited with a butter knife? Not at all.

The problem was that it was uninteresting. Boring. Gwendoline failed to “hook” a significant part of the audience, who went streaming for the exits. (My apologies to the cult following that Gwendoline has developed over the years. Perhaps I would view the film differently today than I did then.)

On the other hand, I was transfixed by a movie released the same year called Repo Man—a quirky indie film with a largely then-unknown cast (save for a barely-known Emilio Estevez and perhaps Harry Dean Stanton—if you were an aficionado of character actors). The plot (“Find the Chevrolet with the aliens in the trunk!”) was on the thin side. However, what it lacked in star power and plot line, it made up for with a significant quantity of interesting things that grabbed your interest and kept you interested.

(Interesting, isn’t it?)

In my last blog entry, I talked about redundancy and overwriting—using seven words to say what could be said with three or using the same sentence structures over and over. In pointing out the shortcomings in your own or another’s writing, it’s sometimes very easy to overlook what’s already good.

I took those redundancy examples from a manuscript that became a book called Across the Hall: Real Love the Right Way by author Monique Francisco. But far more important than being a source of such examples, Real Love is a great example of how a good story trumps any technical flaws. Francisco weaves three plot lines and takes the reader up and down the emotional roller coaster: I hissed at the “bad guy” and fell in love with the good guy(s). It held my interest, without effort, and it’s not even a genre I commonly read.

So, Francisco might have had a few things to learn about tightening up a sentence or a paragraph (we all did at one time or another) but there was little I could tell her about how to improve her storytelling or how to improve her book.

Q: What can you do with a perfectly-punctuated yet dull story? A: Use it to start a fire.

The story is the most important factor.

You can always find an experienced freelance editor to correct the grammar, punctuation, etc. (Hey, an experienced freelance editor writes this blog!) You can even find an experienced freelance editor to work with you on the overall flow of your story. (That’s called “content editing” or “substantive editing.”)

So, the moral of the…story is to have a story to tell and to tell it well and interestingly. The rest is technicalities.

Contact me if you need a freelance editor or copywriter.

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Steve Wagner is a Los Angeles-based freelance copywriter and editor whose clients include American Songwriter magazine, The Hard Truth magazine, the public relations firm MWPR, in Burbank, CA and the diversity consulting organization Global Collaborations, Inc., in Houston, TX. If you are seeking a professional editor, contact him at swagner (at) writer-editor-etc (dot) com and he will be happy to talk with you about your project.