Monday, September 26, 2011

Calling Nonfiction Writers: A Guest Post by Ned Rozell


Meet Ned Rozell, author of four books, most recently Finding Mars, a biography of Kenji Yoshikawa, and most famously Walking my Dog, Jane, a story about his hike along the trans-Alaska pipeline with his chocolate Lab. He has also written more than 700 newspaper columns about science, natural history and adventuring in Alaska. Fairbanks writers, take note:  Ned's course "Nonfiction Workshop," sponsored by 49 Writers and hosted by the Fairbanks Arts Association, begins October 4.

On summer solstice in the Minneapolis airport, on the hustle to catch a connecting flight with a five-year old, I picked up a copy of Outside magazine. Just before the flight, I peeked inside the magazine to see if it was true. Then I closed the magazine and stuffed it in my backpack. Had to chase the five-year old girl.
            But the proof was there. After years of freelancing on the side of other life ventures, I vaulted what seemed to me the highest bar — an editor from Outside said yes to one of my story ideas after a dozen refusals from him over the years. On the cover of the July issue: “Exclusive — Return to the Wild, the lost archives of Christopher McCandless.”
And, inside, my name. Though the story that followed it was so heavily edited I barely recognized it, I had hit the big time.
And, like many goals achieved, this one came with a sense of underwhelm — I didn’t read it until hours after I bought it, when my daughter finally fell asleep on the plane. A few days later, I left the copy at my sister’s house in New Hampshire. I never bought another one before the month passed and don’t have a hard copy. Months later, needing the cash, I bugged the editor for payment. He never answered, but his assistant did. The check was in the mail. It came and quickly evaporated.
The experience once again gives me the greatest appreciation for people who have freelanced for a majority of their living, which has always seemed like a tough gig to me. I’ve made my daily bread from writing for some time now, as a science writer for the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute (mostly half-time). It’s a great job that allows me to follow my interests and never feels like the public relations work that it is. And, it pays the bills. But from time to time I aim higher with a big name publication. Most of my queries are refused, but some turn to gold.
And that, for me, has for some time been my main motivation to write — deadlines that come with a paycheck attached. I suspect many of you have different drivers, like the satisfaction that comes from completing a piece, the zone you enter when writing, the feedback you get from a reader, seeing your name in print. I also dig all of those, but I want to make writing pay, and pay well. I know it’s possible.
I’m teaching a nonfiction course starting in early October in Fairbanks. Our goal will be to emerge in early November with a sellable piece, to a venue (or dream venue) of your choice. We’ll read the work of some pros from Alaska, receive feedback from them on their own pieces, and we’ll critique each other’s work. Maybe we’ll find our dream editor in the process. Maybe we’ll just take what we like and leave the rest. One thing I will guarantee. We’ll have fun.

1 comment:

Tele said...

I'm sorry to see this one's cancelled! One of the many classes that makes me wish I was up north, I would've loved to take this one. (Would've been an awfully long commute to class, though - Bellingham to Fairbanks!)