What You Need To Be A Struggling Writer

(circa 1993-1994–how precious! – ed.)

Whenever I meet someone, one of the questions that always comes up is “What are you going to college for?”, usually right after I say “Yes, I go to Marquette University”. I usually respond with “Eleven grand a year,” but I am really going to college to get my Writing Intensive Bachelor Degree. I would have been a Writing Intensive Bachelor without the help of Marquette University, but I would not have had so much fun doing it. After I explain to these newly met people that I am a writer, the proceed to give me what they think is encouraging advice.

The advice is always the same, “Hang in there. Don’t give up. Have something to fall back on”. Thank you very much, but that advice is generic for any occupation. When people get specific about it, they always tell me that it takes a long time to break into the writing business. Well, no, I’d like to point out (but I am too polite to) that Tom Clancy and John Grisham “broke” into the biz. The rest of us, or at least I, have to worm our way in. I, on the other hand, am a practicing struggling writer, and I decided that if everyone else is giving advice, I might as well jump on the bandwagon.

To help out with all you struggling writers out there, I have compiled a list of things you’ll need. Strunk and White, ages of English classes, and last month’s Writers’ Digest can give you all the technical details. You’ll need more than words to make it as a struggling writer in today’s competitive market, and here’s what you’ll need.

  1. The Idea You’ll Succeed.
    When I started, I wanted to put down “Talent,” since that is pretty important to make it as a writer, but it’s not actually necessary when you start your jaunt as struggling writer. You can pretty much start with “The Idea You Have Talent” because your writing will get better as you write, so if you think you have talent, you will write more, and it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Then I thought of some cheap fantasy fiction and pulp detective stories. Some of the stuff I have read has been so bad that I don’t think the writer could have thought they had talent. All they could be running on was self-confidence and the dollar signs they must have been seeing, so to succeed as a writer you just need the idea that it can be done, and not much else, but if you do have talent, so much the better.

  2. Something Written.
    When I told a professor my freshman year of college that I was going to be a writer, he asked me if I had written anything. At that point I had written innumerable bad poems, a few bad short stories, and most of a bad-but-hopefully-salvageable novel. I almost laughed, but you never laugh at a full Jesuit or a full Doctor, so I merely said “Yes, sir”. Since he asked the question, I can only assume he had run across people who were going to be writers who hadn’t written anything, but that’s what they were–people who were going to be writers. You’re not qualified to be an official Struggling Writer unless you’ve written something–and don’t give me that old “Writer’s Block” excuse. That’s like saying you’re on the disabled list without ever having picking up a baseball. So if you haven’t written anything, you might as well not read on.

  3. A Lot of Stamps.
    I mean a lot of stamps. What they say is true, you should receive quite a few of rejections before you get published anywhere. If you don’t, well, I don’t want to talk to you any more. I must have gotten your share of rejections, too. And at four stamps on the envelope to the magazine, four for the SASE (for short stories and articles mailed flat), that works out to $2.32 per submission. It’s more than a lottery ticket, and this should illustrate that you do need the idea you’ll succeed (if you want to get lucky, go to Vegas) and a lot of stamps.

  4. A Stiff Upper Lip.
    And, as you receive a lot of rejections, it might hurt. You might wonder as you stare at your ceiling as the shadows of the tree outside your window dances in the wind because you can’t sleep why you bother going on when all you get are a few compliments from your friends who are probably lying anyway and form letters that were probably written by the same insensitive clod with Rejection Forms Incorporated from every magazine you ever submit to and you might be tempted to give it all up and get into a respectable and lucrative racket like flipping burgers at the local McDonalds, or maybe that’s just me. Keep a stiff upper lip, though. It just takes a while, and once you’re in somewhere, it’ll get easier. Or so they tell me. Keep trying, and if you want a bit of my personal technique, try a dash of arrogance. Remember that that poor overpaid pencil-pushing mousy looking illiterate moron of an editor wouldn’t know a good piece if it was shot through his or her window with a flaming arrow. It’s an immature response beacuse deep down I’d like to project the failure onto the poor editor rather than the quality of my writing. If you can rationalize it, use it. It works for me.

  5. A Paying Job.
    By no means confuse this with a REAL job. I realize that being able to support yourself without writing takes much of the authenticity out of the poverty-stricken living-on-the-streets romantic image of the struggling writer, but if you can almost pay the bills, it’s easier on the stomach lining. Besides, the real world experience you gain will give you ideas for stories and characters, essays and articles, and you will have the expertise to carry it off. The things I have learned as a produce clerk will be invaluable when I start my great novel featuring tomatoes and overripe watermelons as main characters.

  6. A Sense of Humor.
    A sense of humor is helpful in any profession, and it is completely necessary for a writer. Not only will you be able to laugh heartily at lawsuits (“I plagiarized WHAT? I slandered WHOM?”), but you will also look at old things in new ways and give you endless material. Plus, Reader’s Digest pays $300 for short anecdotes, and you don’t have to write them well, and if you’re shifty enough, you don’t even have to live them–just don’t tell them I told you so. A sense of humor keeps me going–I have a collection of my rejection slips that I have kept, and I take pride in showing them off to friends. No, wait, that isn’t a sense of humor, that’s masochism. Maybe I should have added “A Sense of Masochism”.

Well, there you have the official Brian J. Noggle method to becoming a struggling writer. To become a good writer or a published writer is something else entirely, and I’d give you advice on either of the above subjects if I had experience with them. Heck, if you find a good list or magic potion that will give you either of those two powers, give me a copy or mix me up a batch.

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Margin For Error

The common assumption that you’re fairly safe if you’re worth more alive than dead to your peers and family overlooks a slight margin for error available in the equation. The incorrect equation:

Aw > Dw

that we think keeps us from being killed for our insurance benefits pits that value (Dead Worth, or Dw) against potential for future earnings and the future unrealized monetary value of the goods and services rendered as a friend or husband (Live Worth, or Lw) keeps us feeling pretty safe that we won’t get bumped off as long as we remain productive. However, this equation does not capture the slight margin of error represented by the transitional cost. Because we’re actually alive right now, a certain amount of fiscal impact would occur in the transition. That is, we need to add to the Aw a certain expense involved in the actual death, whether it’s $10,000 for a contract killing, a couple dollars for some poison, a couple cents for a bullet, or the trouble of changing the pillowcase after the smothering. Ergo,the correct formula should be:

Aw + CoK > Dw

That is, you can remain comfortably safe if your Dead Worth remains lower than your Alive Worth and the Cost of Killing you.

And that, my friends, is what passes for optimism some days in the mind of Noggle.

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Book Report: The MENSA Genius Quiz Book by Marvin Grosswirth, Dr. Abbie Salny, and the members of MENSA (1981, 1990)

I picked this up at a yard sale or at a book store cheap, much like the MENSA Think Smart Book that I read in 2004.

This book is the same schtick, with chapters on different kinds of puzzles. Unfortunately, this book’s previous owner had penciled in a number of the answers, which really rather spoiled it. I mean, I was trying to prove or disprove those answers instead of answering them myself.

So it’s worth a quick read and a couple pieces of silverage, but for Pete’s sake, open it up and make sure it’s unmarked. Don’t fall prey to the same problem I did. Unfortunately, the next time I pick up one of these books used, I’ll not remember to do that, ultimately proving that I am not MENSA material.

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Police Encourage Driving While Distracted

Police: Cell phones a weapon against drunk drivers:

Many drivers in Missouri and Illinois are armed with an important device to combat drunken driving: Cell phones.

With cell phone use on the rise, drivers are being encouraged to report vehicles that show the telltale signs of driving under the influence, such as swerving into the shoulder and crossing the centerline.

For safety’s sake, take your eyes off the road and dial.

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Swapping The Good For The Citizens For Good For The State

Missouri bill would trade casino loss limits for a tax:

A Senate leader proposed a new twist Monday in the long-running debate on loss limits in Missouri casinos.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, wants to remove the $500 loss limit per two-hour period and impose a 1 percent tax increase on casinos. Money generated from the changes would be directed at a new scholarship program available to all high school graduates attending a public or private Missouri higher education institution.

You see, they placed this artificial cap on spending to make sure that the casino clients had to fritter their savings away on the riverboat “cruises” (that’s what the two hour periods represent, time when the boats would be “cruising” the river; quaintly, riverboat gambling was supposed to take place on boats, not on buildings in an inch of picturesque river backwaters engineered to appease the letter of the law).

But never mind artificial tips to concern for the citizenry; there’s money to be made on it.

Coming soon: decriminalizing murder for hire and replacing it with a licensing fee structure, permit requirements, and an excise tax.

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He’s Already Denied Links To "Hard" Money

McCain denies links to ‘soft money’

His ill-guided support–and passage of–campaign finance reform (aka “make the trained monkeys dance faster when the fundraising organ grinder plays so they can gather smaller peanuts and empower the * Congressional/Senate Committee or Unattributable Issue Advocacy Groups) has ensured I won’t support McCain for president this time around, his attempts to deny candidates access to any money now is misguided.

Or maybe I misread the headline.

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Book Report: High Profile by Robert B. Parker (2007)

Oh, my God, they killed Rush Limbaugh.

Well, maybe it’s not really supposed to be Rush, but a national radio/media figure is strung up in Paradise, Mass, and that means Jesse Stone has to figure out who did it. It’s a decent enough crime fiction piece, but it’s padded out with the Stone/Randall era Parker relationship musings.

Unfortunately, whereas the Susan Silverman/Spenser stories have 30+ years of real novels to work through, where the relationship was often secondary and vividly lived in Spenser’s adventures, in the Stone series the Jesse/Jenn Stone issues are actually co-hosts (and, apparently, the Sunny Randall/Richie issues are special guest stars). Stone, his lovers, his shrink, his co-workers, and pretty much all of the eastern seaboard represented in this book spend an awful lot of time talking about not understanding what’s wrong with Stone and his “love” for his ex-wife.

Which almost ruins a decent crime fiction story.

You know, if it evolved as small portions of the books or if the crises were lived out instead of talked out, I wouldn’t mind so much. But these Stone novels really do amp up the worst portions of the Spenser novels. As though the fans were saying, “More psychobabble, less detection.”

But I still buy all the latest Robert B. Parker books new.

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Book Report: Fields of Wonder by Rod McKuen (1971)

Man, no one can make the quest for sex true love seem as banal as Rod McKuen over the course of several books. I had nice things to say about In Someone’s Shadow; I endured Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows. But this book? Blech.

I started reading this to my poor son, but his mother heard the first couple of lines of the first poem:

I began by loving nobody.

Then nobody’s face
became the face of many
as I traveled not to Tiburon or Tuscany
but battled back and forth between the breasts and thighs
of those who fancied for a time
my forelock and my foreskin.

Well, I guess that is a bit graphic. But it’s not sexy; it’s the banal wanderings of a poet narrator beginning the 1970s hangover to the era of free love. Worse, it’s the pseudo-stylings of a longing romantic who seems to be longing for a collection of faceless body parts in his quest for real love or real feeling.

The clever turns of phrase I thought were present in In Someone’s Shadow? Nothing. Sure, these poems are as accessible as regular prose without the line breaks, but I didn’t want to.

Worst of all, I have a couple more of these books left.

Oddly enough, the course of these books makes me more tolerant of Emily Dickinson’s misfires. Over the course of the 1,775 poems collected in the volume I’ve been wading through for over a decade, Dickinson’s pieces run the gamut from simplistic to inscrutable to wow, but her average seems slightly better than McKuen at this point.

Which is why she was taught, almost, in college in the early 1990s, some 130 years after she wrote most of her poems, and Rod McKuen was not, some 20 years after he became an industry unto himself.

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The Field of Dreams Development Strategy

If you build thousands of lofts downtown, will thousands of loft dwellers appear from the corn fields? Maybe not:

Even the strongest supporters of downtown growth say that, at least in the short term, demand isn’t likely to keep up with the supply of new units.

“I don’t want to be na├»ve about it,” said Jim Cloar, executive director of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. “There’s quite a bit coming online in the spring, and there will be a natural drop-off (in occupancy numbers). But in the next few years, it will get better.”

Demographics, however, suggest it could get worse before it gets better.

In all, 834 rental and 471 for-sale units are under construction downtown. Another 2,669 rentals and 865 for-sale condos are proposed or planned over the next five years.

If all of the proposed units are built and occupied, the downtown population would increase by about 9,800 people in less than five years. That would be a 50 percent increase over the growth rate from 2000 to 2005, based on the downtown partnership’s estimates.

The culprit for this glut? The Keynesian flat tire:

But many developers keep going because projects are being driven by tax incentives, such as historic tax credits, rather than market demand, said Dan Woehle, first vice president for CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate services company.

“It would be better if the units come online as the demand builds, but developers are scared that the incentives are going to go away,” Woehle said.

Kinda impedes thoughts of the downtown revitalization, eh, Williams?

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Waiting For the Mail

Sometime in my younger days, when I was living with relatives in St. Charles, Missouri, I got it in my head that receiving mail was a grown up thing, and that it was prestigious to get something in the mailbox with my name on it. Particularly if it said “Mr. Brian Noggle” on it. My Uncle Jim got stuff all the time like that, and I hoped he was impressed when I did. Hey, I was twelve years old, and it was seemed like a good idea at the time.

I managed to mail away for some anti-abortion arm bands that Jerry Falwell was sending out, and once you’re on Jerry’s list, you can plan on being Jerry’s list for a long time. I also found a religious magazine, the Plain Truth, that mailed out free booklets on request, so I got a good helping of those sorts of things. For a while, I was reading quite a bit of religious material. Strange, when you look at my general lackadaisical religious attitude these days, that I was quite a conservative little guy, almost, at one time.

Well, through my various machinations and an abortive flirtation with subsidy publishers (I was going to send in my first volume of poetry by December 1984, I seem to recall–I was still twelve years old, but ambitious), I managed to get myself onto a number of mailing lists. Hopefully my uncle was impressed, but then I moved out of his house and my love of receiving mail followed me to Murphy, Missouri. I was still getting stuff from The Moral Majority, but eventually they realized I was broke and/or disinterested so their trickle ceased altogether. Somewhere along this time, I sent my first short story, “Cricket: A Dog’s Life” to McCall’s magazine, or maybe it was “A Walk in the Park” to Hitchcock’s, but the transition began.

Soon the only things coming in the mail were the usual money-bearing cards from relatives for holidays, but when I started to send my works into magazines, there started a new flow of –well, rejection slips for the most part, but with each article in the mail, there is always the hopes of publication, and those self-addressed stamped envelopes could be the bearer of wonderful news. The beauty of this, I suppose, is that the possibility of money from heaven (or at least the Postal Service) all year round, but then it is based on my ability and not the duty of relatives–and so far, the return has been so nil that I often question my ability. But, with each new piece and each new mailing, there is new hope, so I continue on.

There is a half hour to go until today’s delivery. What could it bring? Well, it is the end of the month, so at least there won’t be any bills–which, as a full adult, I have come to recognize as a majority of modern mailings. I even look forward to bills, probably for some deep philosophical reason that they affirm my objective existence or something. I could, in theory, get an acceptance letter from a magazine–I currently have several submissions on the wing, er, on the postman’s back. More likely than not I shall receive at least four rejection slips, which would be fine, too. I only have a rejection slip from one of the five magazines, and the other four would be wonderful additions to my rejection slip collection.

I could, in theory, get a letter from one of my friends or my brother in Hawaii, but I just visited Missouri in June of 1993, and so no one would be writing me this soon. The possibility exists, though, and anticipation is tickling my stomach.

I could also get some little catalogue of something strange and wonderful- -such as the Firebird Arts and Music Catalog that I get every season even though I have not actually purchased anything from them in five years or one of the computer catalogues that have discovered me. Probably, though, if I get anything, it will be a notification of the urgency of a sweepstakes entry or the application for an American Express card–if there is one constant through life, it is junk mail. It has lost its relevance in my life, but it keeps on coming.

But, I must say, it makes me feel like a grown up, and an objectively existent one at that.

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Name That Muzak

Heart, “Alone”, Bad Animals, uh, Capitol Records, 1987. No, I don’t think years of working in the retail industry has changed me at all. I mean, I have come up with maybe a few, A-ha, “The Sun Always Shines on TV”, Hunting High and Low, 1984, Warner Brothers, character tics.

Like playing Name That Muzak. I realize it might not be the sanest thing in the world, but I like it anyway. To relieve those long hours of tedious, repetitive hours of labor on a sales floor (unless, of course, my bosses are reading in which it was challenging and intellectually satisfying, of course), a couple of associates and myself might have taken to playing guess the song that’s piped in to the store.

Our store doesn’t have the variety with, “Passionate Kisses”, Mary Chapin Carpenter, lyrics, so it always poses just that little bit of mental work that gets us through the day. There’s nothing like hearing some strange thing done on a piccolo and determining it to be, “These Eyes”, The Guess Who, it’s on These Eyes, a re-release I own, a song you know. It impresses your friends anyhow.

The rules are simple. Just take, Denise Williams, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy”, Footloose soundtrack, the next song that comes onto the Muzak wherever you have to suffer through Muzak. It’s always better if there’s someone with you so that you don’t go babbling off titles to yourself in a crowd of strangers, though. Try and place the melody and name it.

The points are scored for naming the song, the artist, an, “Three Time Loser”, Dan Seal, album the song appears on, the year it was released, the record label, and any covers of the song since then. Points are also given on how well you lie if you don’t know any of the answers, but can quickly spiel off an answer that might really be it. Easy tips for this are to pick the song title or the artist’s name as the album title, and hitting one of the big players for the label. That way, “Life in the Fast Lane”, the Eagles, Hotel California, 1976, Asylum, you can get points and not even need to be right. A knowledge of music helps, but is not essential.

No points are scored during the Christmas season, however, because there are only so many Christmas songs to go around. Points can be scored, too, if you can name the artist that is doing the Muzakal rendition, but if I come across anyone that does, I won’t play. I can’t stand losing to people who are either that big into Muzak or who can lie that much better than me.

Contrary to popular belief, “You Belong to the City”, Glenn Frey, Miami Vice Soundtrack, this innocent pastime does not become a compulsion, and you will not find yourself blurting out random titles and singers in restaurants, elevators, malls, or other public places. Even if, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, Blue Oyster Cult, it does, they can’t put you away for it.

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Putting Too Fine A Point On It

Robert Isenberg writes a piece called Private Eyes Exposed wherein he looks at some of the plucky and adorable gumshoes of television private eyes. Here’s his list:

  • Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote)
  • Columbo (Columbo)
  • Monk (Monk
  • [Hercule] Poirot (Poirot)
  • Cagney and Lacey (Cagney and Lacey)
  • Matlock (Matlock)
  • Dr. Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder)
  • Perry Mason (Perry Mason)

Come on, doesn’t everyone see the problem here? A list of private eyes from television, and we’ve got:

  • Author
  • Police detective
  • Police consultant
  • Detective
  • Police detectives
  • Attorney
  • Medical doctor
  • Attorney

Even at our most giving, only two of these characters can be considered true private detectives.

What about:

  • Cody Allen, Nick Ryder, and the Boz (Riptide)
  • Spenser (Spenser: For Hire)
  • Sonny Spoon (Sonny Spoon)
  • James Rockford (The Rockford Files)
  • Thomas Magnum (Magnum, P.I.)
  • Rick and A.J. Simon (Simon and Simon)
  • Laura Holt and Remington Steele (Remington Steele)
  • Maddie Hayes and David Addison (Moonlighting)
  • Mike Hammer (Mike Hammer)

Now those were some television private eyes. I guess it’s also apparent the decade in which I did most of my television watching.

What about you? What are your favorite television private eyes that were actual, you know, private invesigators?

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Book Report: Mortal Prey by John Sandford (2002)

So here’s a book about an elite assassin named Rinker coming to St. Louis to settle some old scores. I can relate to that.

So this is the second book in a row featuring a female assassin out to avenge the loss of her family (see also Dirty Work). In this case, it’s a woman whose boyfriend and the father of her child are killed in an apparent hit in Mexico. As he belonged to a crime family, the common knowledge is that he was the target, but the woman bolts and returns to America. She, an elite assassin, was the target. Now that she’s lost the baby and her lover, she wants to end the war her way.

So she makes her way to St. Louis, where she had been a hired gun for some organized crime figures. Since she had once danced with Lucas Davenport (in an earlier book, no doubt), he comes to St. Louis to help the FBI track her.

She goes on a pretty good tear, shooting her enemies and hanging out in my current environs, but then she kills an FBI agent, and they turn serious.

Come on, I was reading the book not so much for the plot at that point, but to see how well Sandford did with St. Louis. He spent some time here, that’s for certain, because he gets most of the details right. The better he did, though, the more the game became to spot the inaccuracies. Like when Davenport talks about the town of Ladue, as though the municipality were anything but a suburb. Or when he continually capitalizes the C in Laclede’s Landing. Or, most egregiously, when someone rushing out of Soulard gets onto I-44 instead of I-55. Silly Minnesotan!

So it was more fun than playing pin-the-fakery-on-the-Randisi.

So I liked the book enough; as you know, gentle reader, I’m becoming a minor Sandford fan. However, like the aforementioned Dirty Work, the book ends somewhat poorly. There’s a murder at the Botanical Gardens, an improbable escape and recovery, and then even more of an improbable final act that ends in the death of the elite female assassin. But it won’t stop me from reading further Sandfords, which is fortunate; this book represents the earliest of the three or four my beautiful wife gave me for Christmas, and I have to read what’s on the shelves.

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Home Depot Tries Jedi Mind Tricks On Its Customers

I caught the headline of the pad of entry forms as I stood in line to buy nine volt batteries, and I didn’t think it was legal, but closer examination told me that the Home Depot had it covered:

Home Depot Spend $100 and Enter Form

Spend $100 and Enter, No Purchase Necessary

Maybe that’s more Subliminal Man from Saturday Night Live. I don’t know. I do know, though, that Home Depot was hoping to push those $95 spenders into buying an additional hardback book or bunch of candy to make up for it. I feel bad for those taken in by it, particularly on the day I was in the Home Depot and saw the forms. February 4. Over a week after the contest ended.

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