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About Michael Newton

Hack Work: Writing for Hire (10 weeks)



No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. -- Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

A writer--make that former writer--of my personal acquaintance once called me and threatened suicide because a stranger in a bar had labeled him a "hack." The good news is he didn't shoot himself. The bad news: in another eighteen months or so, he gave up writing, logged a DUI and lost his driver's license. Last I heard, he was working in a warehouse. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. The tragedy is giving up a lifelong dream and settling for grunt work, when he already had twenty-odd novels in print.

You may think, "I don't want to be a hack." Perhaps you dream of writing best-sellers, becoming a "brand name" author, and banking $80-some million a year like James Patterson. More power to you. But remember, you have to start somewhere, and even once you're well established, rocky economic times may necessitate picking up odd jobs along the way to make ends meet.

The list of "hacks" who made it big is both long and illustrious. Some names on that roster include Anton Chekov, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson (quoted above), Thomas Paine, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Koestler, Samuel Beckett, Mark Twain, Benjamin R. Tucker, Albert Jay Nock, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Fleming, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Dean Koontz, and ... well, you get the drift.

All those, and many more, eked out livings as reporters, critics, or ghost writers, publishing works under various pseudonyms or "house names," before--and sometimes after--their writing attracted a lucrative following. They wrote "potboilers"--work designed to put food on the table, literally to keep the pot boiling--and were grateful for whatever income they received. For some--Koontz comes to mind--eventual success revived their older work, long out of print, and saw it reissued bearing their own names, adding more best-sellers to their lists.

One more personal anecdote, before we move on. Eons ago, when I was flipping burger patties at McDonald's and writing on the side, a fellow drone told me that he was paying various small literary magazines to print his poetry. I offered him an introduction to the L.A. editor who was paying me $400 per 40,000-word novel, cranked out at a rate of one every other week--two months' rent, in those bygone days--and got a haughty look in return. "I'll think about it," the burger-meister sneered, "if I ever feel like prostituting my art."

To each his own. I don't know what became of him, but I've never seen his name in print, much less in headlines. For all I know, he's still at Mickey D's, wiping the tables down while younger folks prepare the food.

The moral of this story: whether you regard pride as a virtue or a mortal sin, it won't put money in your pocket. "Hack" work will do that, and let you hone your craft for bigger, "better" things at the same time.

Week 1: Who Are You Calling a Hack? Defining "hack work" and writing for hire, including a survey of genre fiction, "potboilers," "formula" novels, and working under "house names." Include the economics of writing for hire. Students select three novels from different genres (thriller, Western, horror, romance, etc.) to read and critique in the coming weeks.

Week 2: Plotting.
Discuss the conventions (or "formulas") of genre work, determined from personal readings and publishers' submission guidelines. Stick with "the program" while avoiding painful cliches. Students submit critiques of plots from their selected novels (approximately one page per novel selected) to the class list by email: do they make sense, are there "holes" or dangling loose ends, etc.

Week 3: Creating Characters.
Stress the difference between three-dimensional, believable characters readers will love or hate, versus cardboard "throw-away" caricatures. Gender roles determined by time and setting, or thrown out the window for dramatic effect. Superman (or woman) vs. Everyman (or woman). Students submit feedback on the work of classmates from Week 2.

Week 4: Say What?
Discuss writing dialogue in genre fiction. Realism vs. stilted pseudo-conversation; avoidance of anachronisms based on time and place; the "problem" of using profanity, ethnic slurs, etc., to define or illuminate characters. Students submit critiques of dialogue from their selected genre novels (approximately one page per novel) to the class list by email, with quoted examples that shine or flop.

Week 5: Action!
Be it romancing a potential paramour, driving cattle to market, slaying vampires, or saving the world from a terrorist cabal, genre writing demands dynamic action. Discuss crafting of action scenes and research to ensure accuracy regardless of the setting (contemporary lifestyles, weapons, vehicles and other technology). Chart the limits (if any) of sex and violence. Students submit feedback on the work of classmates from Week 4.

Week 6: Headlines or History?
Setting-both in time and place-is often critical to genre work. Whether characters remain in a familiar setting or find themselves on radically unfamiliar turf, they must rise to a story's challenges and struggle to survive, either physically or emotionally. Students submit critiques of how time and place contribute to the plots of their selected novels to the class list by email (approximately one page per novel).

Week 7: Under the Gun.
Genre novels stand or fall on suspense. Whether it's erotic tension between prospective lovers, a battle to the death between mortal enemies, or humans vs. Nature in "high adventure," readers should care what happens to the characters, whether they triumph or fail. Discuss ways of building suspense in fiction. Students submit feedback on the work of classmates from Week 6.

Week 8: Manuscript Mechanics.
Writing in plain English and crafting a manuscript in acceptable form. Master the basics and heed instructions from publishers' submission guidelines. Hitting contractual word counts-they get what they pay for-and pleasing editors to make everyone's life a little easier. Students outline a prospective original genre novel (15 to 20 chapters) and submit it to the class list by email.

Week 9: Breaking In. Discuss various methods of approaching genre publishers and provide a list of houses known for genre work, together with online links to their submission guidelines. Students submit feedback on the work of classmates from Week 8 and begin work on a sample query letter for their proposed original genre novel.

Week 10: Judging the Market.
Prepare for overtures to prospective publishers by examining the market, online or in bookstores. What dominates the genre fiction shelves, and how can you stand out from the crowd? Anticipate future trends through research, or refine conventional elements to make your work unique. Students submit their sample query letters from Week 9 for critique by the instructor.

Michael Newton is a freelance author of both fiction and nonfiction, writing professionally since 1977 and full-time since 1986. His work (as of July 2013) includes 265 published books, with 17 more scheduled for release by various publishers through early 2015. Shorter published work includes 88 nonfiction articles, six short stories, and 45 miscellaneous pieces (nonfiction anthology chapters, book reviews, and forewords to the work of other authors), with four pieces forthcoming. Newton's genre work as a writer for hire includes 137 published action/adventure novels, with seven forthcoming; 29 published Western novels, with three forthcoming; and 13 young-adult nonfiction books in the true-crime genre. He has written four how-to books for writers (three from Writer's Digest Books), with a fifth forthcoming (also from Writer's Digest Books). For a full list of published and forthcoming titles, and of his various pen names, see his website .


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