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.

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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.

Redundancy strikes…again!

Let’s take for granted that you write for the sake of your reader. You have a feeling, an image or an idea. You write, consciously or unconsciously, so that the reader will feel the feeling, see the image or duplicate the idea.

Words are plentiful and free, hence there is no penalty for giving your readers more of them and likewise no benefit from conserving them.

Or is there?

Correct answer: if you can achieve your aim with five words, there is no added benefit for anyone in doing it with 11 words.

Consider that you, as the writer, are Point A and the reader is Point B.

In writing, as in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Between you and your reader, the straightest line is the one that uses only as many words as is necessary. More often than not, when the writer does not take the shortest distance, the result is redundant or “overwritten” text.

(I can just hear some people reading this and saying “Oh, so we’re all supposed to write like Hemingway, in five-word sentences, eh?” That isn’t what I am suggesting but, then again, Hemingway is one of the most widely-read authors of the last 100 years, so….)

For some, the idea of the shortest distance makes perfect sense when traveling from St. Louis to Los Angeles but may not be as clear when applied to writing.

I will illustrate my point with examples taken from a recent editing job I did for a client. But first, a disclaimer: Despite some redundancy, this author displays a strong ability to tell a story, weave a plot and cause the reader to feel various emotions. So, while I am about to point out a few flaws, none of them subtracts from this writer’s innate talent.

Examples: 

1. “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver by default just in case.”

“Default” is a noun meaning “a preselected option that is adopted…when no other alternative is specified.” This usually refers to settings on a computer or other device or system but could also be applied to people (i.e., “The response of ‘whatever’ was his default to anything his mother suggested.”) In this author’s sentence, the phrase “by default” is used with the meaning of the noun. However, the phrase “by default” means something different than the noun “default.”

Additionally, “always” implies a default; there’s no need to state it.

Lastly, “in case” is also unnecessary: Sober individuals are the designated drivers because it is understood that the other passengers are going to drink. It’s not an “in case” scenario but a predetermined selection.

So, it’s only necessary to say “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver.”

2. “It dawned on him and he realized that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”

The expression “dawned on” means “become evident in the mind” or to understand. Hence, one only needs to say:

“It dawned on him that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”

3. In some cases, the writer may reiterate who is being written about, when the reader already knows:

“Getting ready for church was a pretty uneventful thing for her: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door.”

In this section of the story, the reader already knows that main character is getting ready, so no need to mention “her.” Also, the writer has already named the “thing.” It’s “getting ready,” so no need to reiterate it:

“Getting ready for church was pretty uneventful: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door.”

4. Another form of redundancy is the use of the same sentence structure over and over. In this case, the author starts nearly every sentence in this paragraph the same way:

“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa. Jerking back after almost tumbling onto the floor, she sat up on the edge of the sofa. She was stiff from the awkward position she had laid in. She felt in her pocket and retrieved her cell phone. 7:45, if she rushed she could still make it for the 8:30 service. She hurriedly dressed quickly into a brown wool sweater dress with brown boots and was ready in record time. She dashed her face with a few strokes of makeup to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”

It’s clear from the first sentence that “she” is the subject.

Using the same sentence structure over and over can create a static effect, similar to a melody with only one or two notes or a movie where the camera is still and none of the characters moves much. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, vary sentence structure:

“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa and, jerking back after almost tumbling onto the floor, sat up on the edge, stiff from the awkward position she had lain in. Reaching into her pocket, she retrieved her cell phone. 7:45. If she rushed she could still make the 8:30 service. After pulling on her brown wool sweater dress and brown boots, she dashed her face with a few strokes of make-up to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”

My suspicion is that redundancy and overwriting are the products of a desire to be perceived as “sophisticated” or from assuming that the reader can’t “connect the dots.” I will admit I have been guilty of this (particularly the latter) myself. Eliminating them and becoming a better writer comes with awareness and practice: Write, write and write some more but then go back and re-read and re-write. I suspect that you will usually find things such as the above examples and perhaps others.

If you don’t care to review and rewrite, you can always hire a freelance copy editor (like me) to do that.

Here are some testimonials from my clients.

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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.

The importance of doing

You can read, read, read books, magazines, articles and how-to’s on your subject of choice but when it comes to learning to do something, nothing takes the place of doing.

There is something that occurs for a person when they actually perform the little and then big actions of a desired skill that provides as much or more “know-how” than spending a lot of time reading about it. Surely, one needs to read and gain the history, theory and other aspects but the doing is what gets it under your skin.

That is how I began editing: One of my superiors threw some written material at me and asked me to check it over. I started editing by doing it.

This applies to writing as well. There may be no subject in the world that is written about as much as the subject of writing itself. However, the most one will ever learn about writing will be while engaged in the act of writing.

This is not my big original idea but one that I have proven to myself over time.

My writing began to spiral out of control.

My writing began to spiral out of control.

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was a devoted follower of author Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and its guidance and writing exercises. I carried a dogeared copy of the book, a spiral-bound notebook and several pens in my backpack no matter where I went and I did those exercises,to become a better writer, daily for four or five years, filling up notebook after spiral-bound notebook. In doing so, I “wrote out” a lot of the  clutter that can get in the way of clear communication. Writing is much easier now. I did it by doing.

This “doing” idea was summed up by the words on a t-shirt I saw while standing in line at a Starbucks in Venice, CA in 1993: “The key to writing is writing.” That seemed too simple but the big truths usually are. I didn’t get the full understanding of what it meant until I had been doing it for a while.

So it is with cooking, playing the piano, starting a business, editing a book, etc.

The key is to do a little bit and gradually do more and more. Don’t get upset if you don’t knock out a novel at your first sitting.  Do a little and then a little more. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Sooner or later you will find you have a “feel” for the activity that you didn’t have when you started. You will be able to do it.

Remember to do: It’s the secret of good writing.

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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.

 

Freelance copy editor or content editor

You write out of a need to communicate, whether that need springs internally or is impressed upon you externally, such as when your boss says “Get that press release done and out of here.”

You have a desire to communicate but you may not be a grammar and punctuation expert. It may have only recently occurred to you that professional-level writing is often a matter of re-writing and editing. You, as a writer, may not want to wear the editor hat. You just want to write and, frankly, that is generally how it’s done: Writers write and editors edit.

You may think that you can’t afford to hire an editor to review your book or your story to ensure that it’s world class before you publish. However, if you are writing for the public and have the slightest insecurity that your work is not 100 percent professional and presentable, then you can’t afford to not hire an editor. The reasons are summed up in Will Rogers’ famous quote: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Editors can be expensive, particularly if they have a long list of credits and a university degree.

There are plenty of editors, like myself, who didn’t go to prestigious universities and who have not yet edited bestsellers and the like.

A degree from a school with an immediately recognizable name is a good thing to have. However, it’s no guarantee that the degree holder has a “feel” for words, for trains of thought or for the effects writers are seeking to create in their readers.

I have that capacity. I have satisfied customers and my fees are reasonable.

You can find an affordable editor for your book, your web content, your business campaign pieces and whatever else.

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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.