Sager Says—My Unlikely Conversation with a Best-Selling Author

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It was by design that I was at Mike Sager’s talk with Chuck Klosterman on the University of Arizona campus during last month’s book fair. It was also by design that I harassed ever single writer and editor at the event that I could get to bend an ear in my direction.

It was completely by chance, however, that I actually got one of them to not just hear me for a moment, but to actually talk to me in their free time. Woah.

Perhaps it was because I promised to buy one of his books (which I eventually did), but when I asked Mike Sager for advice or (yeah right) help with my writing career, I was stunned when he (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed to hear me out. I was knocked on my ass when he later agreed to talk with me on the phone. Imagine—little nobody freelancer Craig talking with a big-shot writer for Esquire Magazine. The guy has won awards. He was a peer of Hunter S. Thompson, for God’s sake, so as a writer, I am not fit to lick the mud off of this man’s boots. But, believe it or not, most writers, it turns out, were once nobody nothing freelancers just like me and they, too, had to put a little extra elbow grease into paying their dues in order to finally get noticed.

Mike, like a lot of other writers from the last generation of greats (Mike is known as the “American Beat Poet of Journalism), got his start young working for a newspaper. That mike sagerpaper just happened to be the Washington Post. Once he had proven himself indispensable there (and this is what he says you’ve got to do to keep getting the big stories), the door opened itself to bigger and better things.

But it was persistence, confidence, and perhaps even a little bit of measured arrogance that kept those doors open. Mike explained to me in his slow style of speaking that somehow melded both Californian and Brooklyn dialects that he used what charms he had to his advantage—being a small guy allowed him to approach men that would have perhaps been intimidated by guys bigger than he was. “Oh, girls love me too,” he said, largely because he made himself so deliberately approachable. The reason he ended up forming his own publishing group after years working as a journalist—“I just got tired of hearing no all of the time (from editors)”.

In lieu of the daily reporting jobs, Mike advises you find a way in to your alternative weeklies, your local lifestyle magazine, and whatever bylines you can get. Can’t find a place to publish? Put it online. The point is, he told me, (and I paraphrase here) that as a writer there are going to be a lot of times when it all feels too tough—like nobody cares about you or your work and that all of your hard work to date has been for naught.  But for the writers that find success, this can’t be a stopping point.

You have to get out there. Pursue the stories that mean something to you, assignment or not. Make connections, get out and do the leg work, send out queries, then send out more queries. You have to keep on working, even when it feels like the entire industry is working against you. “You know, it’s weird,” said Sager, “that these editors are so overloaded with queries and people that want to write for them that they can get overwhelmed—but they are always looking for good people—people they can trust to do the work and do it well.”

As a writer, you need to know that a ‘no’ is not always a no, but more often than not, it is more like a “try again.” If an editor didn’t want to give you the time of day, you wouldn’t even get a proper rejection. So save your ‘no’s’ in your contact list and put together a new query for those editors—do some research and make sure this one is better than the last. Knock that editors Goddamn socks off and take the nail polish with ‘em. Keep at it until you do and the ‘yes’s’ will come. Eventually.

Until that day, I can only follow (and, I suppose, share) the most poignant piece of advice given to me in my forty-minute conversation with Mr. Sager, and this one really is a direct quote. “You’ve gotta produce like a motherfucker,” he told me.

And so I am.

Check out Mike Sager’s website for some valuable tips for writers or read his latest book, The Someone You’re Not (available on Amazon) for insight into creating stellar pieces of “Journalistic Anthropology”, or just for a great read.

JUST KEEP MOVING!– A Hiker’s Guide to Writing Fiction

Sometimes a bad day writing can feel like you are fighting against yourself, as in this Self-Portrait by Tucson artist Joe Brown. Click to see more of his work.
Sometimes a bad day writing can feel like you are fighting against yourself, as in this Self-Portrait by Tucson artist Joe Brown. Click to see more of his work.

I am lost.

I am in the middle of nowhere, wandering aimlessly, and I am almost out of water. What do I do?

My instinct– Bail. Curl up into a ball and weep for my misfortune. When hiking in the Arizona desert, this is the equivalent of death. But as a writer, I have to admit that for many years, this had always been my instinct. Frustrated, I would crumple up my fourth draft (which was by that point clearly just another garbage attempt at capturing a spattering of fractured thoughts), get a damn glass of water, and abandon the project to the kitchen wastebasket, from whence it could never be salvaged amongst the scraps of food and coffee grounds therein.

My action– Breathe. Now, after eons of practice and self-guided anger management exercises, I have learned to (first) put the pen down calmly and (second) get off the couch to get myself a glass of water. I then (third) put on some music (something that invokes in me the feeling I am striving to attain in my piece) and (fourth) sit down in front of that horrible garbage-draft once again. Maybe I strike-through every word on the page, maybe I don’t. That is not important. But what is important is that I keep on moving, lest I find myself stranded in a desert of my own thoughts, lost and wandering like a child ill-prepared for an adventure of his own design. Prepare yourself to be lost and at least you will never find yourself hopeless.

I keep all of those horrible drafts now. I store them somewhere, usually, out of sight and (mostly) out of mind, but I know they are always there when I need something to get me moving on a story that is struggling to gain traction. Twenty pages of horrible drafting may one day reveal one gem-of-a-line amongst a field of verbal debris, but it may be that one line that saves my story’s (or my main character’s) life, so to speak. Or even better, perhaps that one line becomes the line that injects my story with life for the first time, makes it so my readers can not only feel my prose, they can smell and taste it too– reading that is less like a kitchen sponge, and more like a roasted chicken.

If you find yourself lost in your own story, keep moving. Feel free to wander and do not be afraid of getting too far off the beaten path. The important point is to get the ideas down on paper while you have them– save your frustrations and let them out in red ink during the editing process rather than letting them dominate the writing process altogether.

Always remind yourself (as I often need to do) that you really like– check that– you absolutely love the act of writing. It is the process, the journey you appreciate as much, if not more than the by lines and the finished products themselves. Never forget that many of your favorite writers were  never published in their own lifetimes, and many of those that were are long forgotten by history.

So write. Write for you. Write for your life, and always keep crawling forward in your craft. Dwell not in wasted words or on the roughness of your drafts, but rather rejoice in your surroundings once in a while along the way. Stop and take it in every now and then; have a coffee or a cigarette, take a walk or do whatever it is that you do to calm your nerves, and then get back to work.

I mean, when it gets down to it, fighting against that frustration is what makes a good writer great, and as bad as it may seem at any given point, it’s not like it’s gonna kill you.

Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare Made Easy– Picking a Specialty Stress-Free

zoo bday 2012 082 Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in my professional career. With the launch of this blog post, I will have completed the finishing touches on my new website (www.CraigSBaker.com) and officially made my profile available to the masses– an intimidating thought, to say the least.

As such, I felt it important to draw everything together with respect to my image as a professional writer, editor, and copywriter. This blog is the culmination of that effort.

The time stamp on this blog post will forever mark the moment that I, traditionally a generalist in every sense of the word, will give myself a topic of specialization and take that leap feared by every writer, author, marketing or public relations professional, filmmaker, and artist alike.

I owe the decision, and the confidence I needed to make it, to a video posted by PR Wiz Brendon Burchard on how to position yourself as an expert in your field (Click Here). I recommend watching it if you are looking into going into business for yourself in any capacity.

What I realized while watching that video is that, though I may not be the world’s foremost expert on freelancing (yet!), I do already know a thing or two about getting started. After all, I have landed several lucrative and repetitive contracts, formed a relationship with the editor of a well-respected magazine in my home town, been in contact with just about every other editor in a 50-mile radius, set up two websites, made marketing material for myself, and held literally weeks-worth of non-stop professional correspondence– a heck of a leg-up for any fledgling freelancer, I would say. I may not have the coveted dollar-a-word blog offers yet, but I am helping to pay the bills at home. And since a good writing gig pays about 3-5 times what my last customer service job payed hourly, I have found time everyday to  keep on top of my housework as well.

In all honesty, I am not getting rich. Not by any standard. But I do have the best job on earth– getting paid to do what I love!

So how, you may be asking, can you do the same thing for yourself?

First off, YOU JUST NEED TO START WRITING! Start today. Start now. Go and get yourself a blog if you don’t have one– open a new tab in your browser, go to WordPress.com and register. No, really. I’ll wait. It’s free and if you are reading this post, I know you have the spare time.

Once you are comfortable with your blog format, read some blogs by other people that interest you. Make notes to immulate your favorites and put up one post tonight. Then one a week for a month or two. Don’t worry about picking your specialty– just write about what comes naturally. Once I had a medium for free writing, I found that my mind was always open to story ideas and, over time, coming up with article pitches simply became part of my regular thought processes. Share your posts with your friends and family and ask for feedback. Make sure you ask for honest feedback and take all criticism as compliment– after all, a critique is simply testifying to your level of toughness in telling you how bad you really are.

Then, sit back and review. What do you write about the most? What topics always seem to draw you in? What blogs are you following and who do you like to comment on the most? If you have put in the work you are likely to find that your specialty has been calling to you the entire time. My personal posts and interests, for instance, always seemed to lead me back to the same thing– HOW TO BECOME A BETTER WRITER.

And so here I am, writing about it. When I left the mall to work in the written word, it was scary. The big dogs occupy a lot of space in the field already, and pushing your way in hardly seems like an option. So I say don’t push. Do what you love and your experience will come organically, and it is precisely that experience that will see you develop from amateur to expert. If you find yourself writing and you don’t love it, then stop. Don’t force it– if it feels disingenuous it will sound that way to your readers. Take a break, try a different voice, a new topic or a new format altogether– video montage, podcast, audio journalism, digital photography, whatever.

When you finally do find the thing that you want to learn more about just because it excites you, or that goal that  you want to keep pursuing despite the fact that nobody is paying you to do so, you can stop looking.

Once that happens, it is time to write about it. So do that, and get back to work.