Tag Archives: writer talk

The Food Writer’s Dilemma

There has been much hand-wringing of late about the state of food writing. Amanda Hesser gave stark advice for future and current food writers. John Birdsall gave his own perspective on the industry. Adam Roberts talked about whether or not food blogging is over.

All of this self introspection is navel gazing at best, because the food writer’s dilemma is the same dilemma that most every writer has always had. How do you make a living at this? The answer to this question, at least at a high level, has never changed, one iota.

Here are the answers, or, as I call them, rules to this lifestyle.

Rule #1: Always be Writing: Period. Full stop. Every day, write something down. It’s amazing to me that the amount of people who want to be writers who don’t do this simple task. Yes, take a break from time to time. But one hundred words, or a thousand, it doesn’t matter. Write, write, write as long as you are mentally able.

People who master rule one can feel free to call themselves a writer. However, this isn’t the subtext of Hesser’s, Bridsall’s, or Robert’s point. Because without a paying audience, you’re writing to yourself, and this, unless you’re independently wealthy, is not a viable career option. So you have to add another rule to your skill set, one that allows you to make a living at writing.

Rule #2: Always be Selling: This is where most people slip up, because they believe that if they write something magnificent, the world will come knocking upon their door.

This just isn’t so. You have to sell either your work or your talent. Some of us get other people to sell our work for us. Other’s figuratively pound the pavement themselves and end up with a long term writing gig at a newspaper, magazine, web site, or other medium. But the rule is, if you want to make a living at writing, you have to sell yourself. Sorry.

The discussions that are occurring now are little more than lamenting the fact that the rules have changed. To this end, they are right. The changing media landscape means that traditional paths to (food) writing have shifted, altered, or have disappeared completely. This is the bad news.

The good news is that there are other paths out there. Other paths have yet to be uncovered. You (and I) have to be motivated enough to look for them, or create them ourselves. If writers are unable or unwilling to do this, then your income will always be limited.

There is one way (out of many) which will find these paths more often than not. Sell good writing. I know, I know. “Good” is subjective. But there are two more rules which will help distinguish your writing, and make it unique.

Rule #3: Always be Editing: Any work can be refined. The first draft almost always is horrible, and the second draft is rarely much better. Add into this the fact that every writer has their blind spots when it comes to grammar, spelling, narrative form, thesis establishment, and a host of other writing issues that I could write a book about. Learn to edit. Until you do, find an editor who believes in you and work with them, not against them. This means being critical of your self, and understanding that writing is a craft, first and foremost. Good writing is almost never a solo effort.

The last rule is an extension of rule #3, but applied over the entire endeavor.

Rule #4: Always be Improving: I suck at selling. I realize that, for me to be able to be full time at this, I have to improve at this skill. I am marginally better at writing, and have only recently been confident enough to understand that editing and writing are similar, but not the same to one another. Every single writer out there, whether it’s Michael Chabon, Amanda Hesser, or Kate Hopkins, all can improve in one of the three areas above. To get where we want to be, we should be looking to get better at each of these areas. When we writers get good enough at all three, success, in some degree or another, will follow.

These rules have not changed in five hundred years of the publishing industry. They existed back in M.F.K. Fisher’s time, and they exist today. Yes, aspects of these areas have altered in one way or another since the first published author, but the basic rules are still the same.

If you want to write, then write. If you want to make money at it, then sell yourself. If you want to keep on selling yourself, get better. Everything else is little more than shop talk.

We Get Letters v. 38: Writing Recommendations

Emily writes in:

I have been a casual reader of your blog for a couple of years now. I wouldn’t call myself a foodie, or a big drinker, but what keeps me reading your blog is your writing style. Yours is the best-written blog that I’ve come across. Your posts are always engaging, even if I’m not naturally interested in the subject matter, and your writing is concise and to-the-point.
I’m currently taking courses to become a copyeditor, and I was wondering if you could tell me about your background as a writer, or recommend any resources on writing? Your writing is definitely something to aspire to!

Thanks very much,

Emily

Thank you for the kind words*, Emily. My apologies for getting this to you late (Ed. Note – Emily sent this to me in late February), but the past month has been a maelstrom of activity, one that has kept me from various tasks, up-to and including responding to your e-mail.

To your question as to my background, there’s nothing romantic there, as I’ve traveled the same path that many others have trodden upon. I was a voracious reader during my public school years, I went to college in the  Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education where I focused on Communications, and I have always had an near-insatiable curiosity about things to which I have even a minimal interest. I would hazard to say that none of these items are particularly unique for a large portion of people out there. In 1999,  I picked up blogging as a means to practice writing, as well as a method to, as the professionals call it, “work some shit out”.  Thirteen years, and two blogs later, I’m still here, plugging away.

I’ll get to your second part of the question in a minute, but in the name of developing and/or communicating a site philosophy, something to which I’ve been doing a fair bit of late, I think it’s important to point out two other characteristics that I have that which I think can serve any writer well. 1) I have a fair bit of drive/willpower when it comes to accomplishing goals that I have set; and 2) I have a finely honed sense of pragmaticism that prevents me from setting unobtainable goals.  You’ll also note that I’ve mentioned “goals” twice in those two points. That’s not a coincidence, as I am a huge believer in goal-setting, for only then do you know which direction you want to go**.

As far as resources to recommend? The best resource recommendation I can make manifests itself in two ways – Libraries and book stores. Period. End of sentence. There is no one book which points you down a path of prosperity and bliss. Read anything and everything you can get your hand on and consume that which you find valuable, and dismiss the rubbish. Question everything.  Keep skepticism at your side like a guard dog. And read, read, read.

After about your hundredth book, you’ll find you’ll have, not just an opinion on the subject at hand, but on how that subject was communicated to you.  Was the book entertaining? Did the writer take thirty pages to make a point that could have been made in one? Why did the binding fall apart in your hand and how did that affect your opinion of the book?

While doing all of this reading and questioning, you have a second task. Write, write, write. Every day, no questions asked. It can be as small as a paragraph, or as long as 10,000 words.  But write.

Then, all of the answers you’ve come to from the questions you asked while reading will seep their way into your writing.  You will create a rule structure for yourself that will shape what is loosely termed “your voice”.  As you read over what you’ve written, refer to my point above – question it. You are not so special that you get off of the hook, and you have to hold yourself to the same level of scrutiny that you hold to other authors.

So, for my recommendations, I have no specific book or resource to point you to. But I do have a path that has worked for me.

  1. Go to your library and/or your favorite book store.
  2. Read everything that interests you, even if it only interests you a little bit.
  3. Question everything about what you’ve read.
  4. Write everyday.
  5. Question everything that you’ve just written.

I recognize that this likely doesn’t answer your specific question, but it’s the only answer I have that allows me to sleep at night. If I point you towards one resource, it demonstrates a preference, and preferences are as temporary as the wind. Those five points above? Those are the best recommendations I can give.

*Note 1: I could be all humble and (correctly) note that my writing has many flaws to it. So many, in fact, that it makes me question my talents on an everyday basis. However, I’ve just had a shitty month, so I’m going to let Emily slide on this one, and accept her compliment graciously.

**Note 2: Not that I have anything against those without goals. Being directionless has its benefits as well. As with nearly everything, having goals and intentionally seeing them through is little more than a question of choice. As the great philosopher Geddy Lee once belted, if you choose not to decide, you’ve still have made a choice.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing From Authority – Power Dynamics and the Roles of Writer and Reader

 

I find it coincidental that yesterday, Adam Roberts asked the question “are food blogs over?”, during the same time I’ve been trying to figure out the role of the individual blogger and their relationships with their readers. The two points are intertwined, in my point of view, as there seems to be something of a innovation vacuum in the food blogging, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what blogging “is”.

It needs to be stated that this last point is strictly my opinion, but it’s based on an idea that was reinforced by my shaping beliefs about writing, as well as a post from Terrible Minds entitled 25 Lies writers tell (and start to believe). I was particularly struck by #9:

 ”I write only for me!”

Then don’t write. Sorry to be a hard-ass (ha ha, of course I’m not), but writing is an act of communicating. It’s an argument. It’s a conversation. (And yes, it’s entertainment.) And that necessitates at least one other person on the other end of this metaphorical phone call. You want to do something for yourself, eat a cheeseburger, buy an air conditioner, take a nap. Telling stories is an act we perform for others.

For the longest time, I’ve said that you only need one thing to blog  - to know why you’re blogging. Everything else will fall out of that.  But my assertion had an aspect that I didn’t take into account – the audience.  I was blogging, at first as a place where I could store items I could use for larger writing projects, then I was blogging as a means to communicate some of the most egregious behaviors of food companies, and then I was blogging as a way to either distract myself from, or, at times,  highlight aspects of my larger writing projects.  Not once did I take the role of the reader into account. Unknowingly, my own reasons for writing had backed me into a corner.

If a writer, blogging or otherwise, needs an audience – and we all do, or else what’s the point  - then the writer should look at the relationship between themselves and their audience.  That relationship can be looked at in a multitude of ways, and can manifest itself in ways from loving, to hateful, to everything in between. Regardless of how it manifests itself, the relationship between a writer and their audience is a power dynamic. The writer has the ability to influence that dynamic through words, and establish the relationship with their readers based off of differing levels of charisma, knowledge and expertise, writing skills, celebrity,  and power of persuasion. The writer, by definition, dictates the relationship, although the readers can shape it as well through a variety of methods.

A long time ago, I made a decision to base my writing on knowledge and, later, expertise. This was a conscious decision made from the simple, controversial opinion that I believe that writers, when communicating to/at their audience, should know what the hell they are talking about.

(Side Note: This is power dynamic is clearly on display in both of my books, but from the opposite side of the coin.  Both books start with someone at the start of the book lacking knowledge (Krysta in 99 Drams, and myself in Sweet Tooth), and then using history’s narrative to fill us in on the details of the relevant subject.  The idea was to give the reader an avatar-of-sorts to which they can share the experience and keep them engaged in the book. How effective I was at that is up for debate.)

When it comes to food blogs – heck, blogging in general – such consideration of the power dynamic between reader and writer never occurs.  The result is that we have blogs out there where the writer is talking at their reader, rather than with them, and their authority comes only from the skill of their writing and “loudness of their bullhorn”.

The “loudness of their bullhorn” needs some explanation. It’s nothing more than a metaphor, really, with the bullhorn being the medium in which the writing is conveyed, and its loudness being the amount of readers that come to the site.  The Huffington Post or Eater.com both have a louder bullhorn than mine here at Accidental Hedonist.  This would change if I had more everyday readers than either of these two sites. However to do that, I would have to sacrifice some things very dear to me, like sleep, and some aspects of my personal ethics.

Authority and power dynamics are  weird, intangible variables that are very rarely considered when someone starts a blog.  When everyone has access to tools that allows them to have a bullhorn, then what distinguishes one person with a bullhorn from another? Some use technology to gather more hits on their sites – this is where SEO and publicity and marketing come into play. To extend the metaphor further, this tactic is little more than turning up the volume on the bullhorn.  The risk with this tactic is that if your loudness is the only arrow in your quiver, then eventually you will come across as shrill and/or vapid.

No, writing has to be more than the size of the readership. Quality of the writing needs to come through at some point. Now quality means different things to different people. For some, as long as the content created by the writer is entertaining, that’s enough.  For others it’s being informative, and still others it’s grammar and spelling.  It’s in this aspect that a good writer will consider many of these variables and address them to one degree or another. In my experience, the less variables considered, the less chance the writing has of being any good.

I could go on about this all day. But my point here is that good writing and good blogging comes down to how well the writer considers their role in the power dynamic they have with the reader. If all the writer is considering is how well their food looks on their screen, or how to shape their posts to get the most readership exposure, or how many posts they have to make in a given day to please their editor, then the trust they have with the readers is minimal to non-existent.  Good writing comes from somewhere else.  If blogs, and by extension food blogs, want to break out of their stasis, they need to find ways where they are communicating with their readers, not communicating at them. Because if they don’t, then they are doing little more than adding irrelevant data to the fire hose  that is Internet.

More importantly for myself, I have to hold myself to the same standard.

 

New Book Topic Announced, kinda, sorta

This is a brief note to let you know that I am writing a new book proposal, which means a change in the book topic* that will be covered here. The new book proposal is actually an old book proposal – Beer and Beer history.

What this means is that you’re likely to see some posts on beer (other than pilsners) on this here site from time to time, until the proposal is finished and out the door.

The reason for the change is simply one of circumstance. An opportunity has arisen to take advantage of some of the ideas in the old book proposal and package it in a different manner, and try to sell it. If the proposal doesn’t sell to a major publisher, then there’s an alternative path that I want to take the book down. In essence, it’s a proposal that has a multitude of opportunities, with new challenges to face, and I couldn’t pass that up.

I will return to the Spice Trade book proposal after the beer book proposal project is complete.

 

*Note: For those not acquainted with the new policies on “topics”, see this entry.

Book Proposal Help

This is a call for advice. I’m in the midst of writing up a book proposal for a piece of non-fiction. I’ve been using a basic template that I found on the web, but I have no idea if it shows an adequate amount of detail that one would need in order to impress either an agent or publisher.

If anyone out there has any experience in writing up book proposals, I would love to hear from you.

You can e-mail me at Kate AT accidentalhedonist DOT com.

Thanks!

-K