Tuesday, July 06, 2010

I just finished polishing the final draft for the next Stranger column, so in honor of that, my answers to a few often-asked questions about me and The Stranger.

I get a lot of emails telling me the columns are too short. I love hearing that you like my column. I wish it was longer too. Writing something interesting in 490 words is very, very challenging. Very.

But, The Stranger sets my word count, and I cannot exceed that. It's a business decision. Each dead-tree page of the paper costs money to print. In order for The Stranger not to go bankrupt, the paper can only be so many pages long. On each of those pages, there is a certain percentage of space dedicated to editorial content (like: my column), and a certain percentage of space dedicated to the advertising that pays for the paper. Removing an ad so my column could be another hundred words long would make you and me happy, but it doesn’t make business sense for The Stranger. And I’d like them to stay in business.

So there is no wiggle-room on the column length, that's it. If I write it too long, someone else will cut out parts to make it shorter, and ooooo, writers hate that. So it behooves me to make it the right length.

Maybe you should just print the first part of the column and put the longer version online. We tried that a while back, actually, and I didn’t like it. I had a lot of people coming up to me saying, “Hey, I read the first part of your column, but I keep forgetting to go online and read the last part. What did it say?” This is the sort of question that makes a writer want to scream. Apparently The Stranger didn’t like this system either, so we scrapped it, for which I am profoundly grateful.

You should write one version of a column for the Stranger and do a longer version of the same column for the blog. That would be a rather unprofessional thing to do to The Stranger. They don’t pay me a lot of money, but they do pay me, god love ‘em. And when you pay me to write something, you get an exclusive.

The fact that certain words are printed in bold? I get many emails about this. No, I don’t do that, it’s not under my control. Someone at The Stranger does that. If you have an opinion about it, I’m sure they would be happy to hear it.

There's about a 7-day gap between my submitting a column and it being printed. The column I turn in today, for example, will be in the paper published next week. There's some cushion there, time-wise, in case an editor reads what I turned in and decides he wants a big revision of it, but that very rarely happens for short pieces like mine.

If you're imagining me at The Stranger editorial offices, verbally sparring with the other staffers like a kinky Rosalind Russell in His Gal Friday, I fear I must disabuse you of that charming notion. I am very rarely in The Stranger offices. I just email them a column when it's due.

The person I submit to (yes, yes, I said submit!) will show me whatever edits he's making to what I turned it. But our exchanges about it are usually pretty brief. My mother was an editor for years, and I learned from her that while all writers think every single word they write is like the perfect tear of a unicorn falling upon a golden page, editors... don't. They are not butchering up your precious creation just to be mean, it's their job. And they get cranky if you spend a lot of time arguing with them about the placement of a comma or some such thing, because they're on a deadline and they have a damn paper to put out.

Most of the time my column doesn't get edited very much. It galls me only slightly to say that the edits that do get made are usually an improvement, because the editor has a fresh eye.

I choose my own topics, too. Very occasionally someone from The Stranger will make a suggestion to me about an idea, and when they do, I usually do it.

Can I reprint this very recent column of yours in my small publication? I cannot grant you permission to do that. Obviously people do, and I cannot stop them, but once again – The Stranger paid me to write that for them. It’s rude, at best, for me to then turn around and immediately give it away to someone else.

It’ll be ten years this fall that I’ve been writing for The Stranger. Ten years. That’s hard to believe when I stop and think about it. I’m grateful they took a chance on me then, given that I had no noticeable writing credentials when I pitched them the idea. And the way the newspaper industry has gone, I’m damn lucky to still see be seeing my name in ink-on-paper. I have no plans to quit, so we’ll see what the next ten years bring to me, in my adventures in tabloid journalism.