Note: I’m reorganizing this site. Moving stuff around. Modifying it. Might look different from one day to the next. Just so you know ….
I discovered narrative nonfiction while on my first writing gig back in the late ’90s. My job: to write articles destined for tony dog breeders’ magazines. It was nonfiction, but it sure wasn’t narrative. My topic? The genetics of canine retinal diseases and how DNA testing predicts which dogs are genetically wired to go blind long before you want them to. For breeders, this is crucial information, telling them which dogs in their kennel not to breed and which they can. Golden labs, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, briards, cocker spaniels, Irish setters, Portuguese water dogs. Breeds you’ve heard of, breeds you haven’t.Of course, I had to be able to write. By then I’d doubtless begun my love affair with William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, picked up at a used book store. To the extent that I write well, chalk it up to Zinsser. To the extent that I don’t—time to break out Zinsser again.
It was a trip. I mean, I had to be conversant in genetics, right? Lucky for me that they (that would be the good people at Optigen LLC) didn’t want a scientist writing these articles. Honestly, the best I could remember—from grade school, I think—was smooth peas and wrinkled peas. Which is about heredity, not genetics, though granted they’re in the same ballpark. They (the Optigen crew) handed me The Cartoon Guide to Genetics which helped, sort of. And they possessed a remarkable amount of patience, walking me through every piece of the puzzle. But boy, what a slog.
I can’t remember how much I got per word. Fifteen cents for starters? Sounds about right. I swear, though, considering the time each article took, that my take averaged, oh, maybe five cents an hour. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was true, at least for the first half-dozen stories I wrote. I remember trying to do the mental arithmetic but hadn’t tracked my hours; I was too damn busy; the kids were still at home. Didn’t matter anyway. I was determined to write.
And then there was my computer. A clunky used IBM outfitted with DOS. Yet more of a slog. The whole thing was a slog, a massive, relentless, almost surreal slog.
So here I am skimming through Zinsser again and see I shall have to make a page just for that genre: my faves among the great books on writing, style, etc. But I am rambling, as I’m wont to do. If this were a story I’d have to ditch these last three sentences.
Meanwhile, please bear with me as I remake this section and populate it with links to my favorite articles and snatches from my failed but no-regrets book proposals.