I’m a failed novelist.
It began so brightly too. I published my first short story in a small press horror mag when I was 19*. It was a piece of shit to be sure, but then I published another story in another small press horror mag that also contained a tale written by Dean Koontz**. It was also crap, but, hey, look at me, rubbing elbows with a best-selling machine. I placed a few other short stories but I soon shifted to the novel format because that’s where I belonged. Soon after, I took a meeting with a Hollywood executive who wanted to discuss a movie treatment for my first, as-yet unpublished novel; I remember sitting in her office and suggesting Sean Penn for the lead role and she nodding her head as if that was a great idea. I was around 23 and on my way to becoming the newest member of the literary brat pack. It was only a matter of time before I was out on book tours and hobnobbing with self-trashed artistes and batty Hollywood hotties, adoring fans hanging on my every word.
Flash forward a couple of decades and some three-quarters of a million words. Somewhere in the house is a manila folder, about the thickness of a novel-length manuscript, packed with rejection letters. What the heck? I mean, I spent years working on my writing chops. Quentinesque dialogue, lush descriptive passages, breathless action sequences. Writing fiction was always my pathway to ultimate freedom, a chance to unharness my heart, soul, and guts.
I still remember finding that guitar hero flow when the words surged forth with groove and intensity and utmost confidence. Never mattered whether any of it was good or if I eventually eighty-sixed all of it—the solace of the outpouring, the solitude and deep embrace of the journey, that was what I was after. I had a visionary, cinematic sort of imagination that seemed years ahead of Hollywood; every time I turned around, ideas and imagery that I’d put to unread paper years prior wound up on the big screen. The Matrix, Twister, Independence Day, Deep Impact, my shit kept showing up in all kinds of 1990s movies like that***.
I write like a motherfucker, but with one fatal flaw: I’m a shitty storyteller. What a brutal realization. Almost on an existential level. I was supposed to be a writer, a novelist, but I didn’t have a story to tell. I was a .44 Magnum with no bullets. So I did something I swore I’d never do. I quit writing fiction.
It might’ve been my infamous cornfield treatise on the old Brand X forum (RIP)**** that convinced the Martins that they just had to have my particular skill set on board with their program. I took on editorial duties and wrote a few things for the CrossFit Journal. But after the Martins were fired and before I was cut loose, my position on the CFK staff kinda changed and I found myself looking for extra writing gigs.
I answered an ad seeking academic writers, spent about five hours scratching out two pages of bullshit on Jimi Hendrix, and soon found myself on the phone being interviewed for a job writing papers for college students. Say what? Yes. The ad said as much, but I thought there must be something I was missing. Nope. I was horrified, but they wanted me and I want to be wanted, so I took the job. I never actually wrote a paper, because helping students cheat seemed, I don’t know, sketchy, but also because the job required things like 10-15-page term papers written by the end of the day. I couldn’t write a reasonably researched, perfectly formatted article of half that length in that time. They eventually purged me from their system. I felt cleaner for it.
I then applied for a writing position for a content development firm producing SEO (search engine optimization) articles and other crap for websites. I had to pass a test much like the other place, except I didn’t get to write about Jimi, I had to write about “content marketing,” which was the company’s business. I was expected to create compelling and informative content that sells a client’s services or products without actually appearing to be marketing anything. Well hell, I can write compelling shit.
They hired me on. I would get paid just over a penny a word to produce scintillating, 100% original works of content marketing genius. In the tutorials, I learned that most articles, between 250-1,500 words, should take at most twenty minutes to research and write and that most writers made like $15-$18 an hour. Really.
It takes me about that long just to quit staring at a blank screen in mild terror and type a first sentence that’s immediately deleted. Maybe another fifteen minutes to peck something that sticks, and likely changed later. That’s when I’m absorbed with the topic.
My first “article” was on purses. Not just any purses—camouflage purses, cuz camouflage is perennial. They wanted 525 words. I vomited forth 635 words. It took maybe two hours and was probably the single greatest work of literary art on camouflage purses. I was told that I would get faster as I learned the ropes and, by the way, please be careful not to exceed the word count by more than 75 words.
The rules governing content marketing and SEO article writing are bewildering. Don’t know much about it, but it seems the goal is to articles and whatnot to conform to, harmonize with, whatever, search engine algorithms so the website ranks as high as possible on a retrieval. Don’t game the system or Google will bust you.
Turd by Turd
These ropes I was supposed to learn, they were chains. I knew it. And I willingly shackled myself to a rock and allowed an eagle to devour my intellect, creativity, and soul over and over again. Each link was forged from an alloy of SEO bullshit about keyword density and word count and do this and never do that and watch out for those.
Everything had to be just so. Just so…
Don’t get lost in researching the topic, I was told, just start writing. But be titillating and timeless. Be original. I don’t know if it’s ironic or paradoxical or both, but if you go light on the research, you’re forced to stick with the first few websites retrieved from your search. They’re at the top because presumably they’ve been “search engine optimized” or whatever. So the business model favored by companies providing content marketing solutions calls for fresh but requires rehash if they are to be profitable.
“Dan,” you say, “Dan, Dan, Dan. You’re supposed to take that content and find a novel and thrilling way to say it. What was that about your cinematic vision or whatever the fuck delusional gibberish you sputtered a few hundred words ago? Didn’t seem to have too much trouble spitting out all that vapidness between there and here, did you? That’s why nobody reads your blog—you just blather on and on. Ain’t nobody got time for that, dude. Blogs are supposed to be short—there are rules about that sort of thing—check the Internet.”
“Oh… well, since you put it that way, F. Scott, maybe you can demonstrate how you would, in 20 minutes or less, fashion enthralling, 100% original prose about gravel. Or maybe wristbands, and not just any wristbands, wide silicone wristbands. Or bookcases, but not just any bookcases, solid wood bookcases, but don’t forget that you also have to use the keywords “Danish bookcase,” “black bookshelves,” “white gloss bookcase” (note singular), and “slim bookcase” three-four times each (but don’t repeat the same keyword within 100 words). Make that bitch a page turner, Elmore Leonard.”
I don’t know which I despised more, the stultifying mundanity of keywords such as “lighting products” and “franchise” or esoteric stuff like “torsion meter” (specifically for marine applications), “Hall effect sensor,” “CCNA lab kit,” and “ALTA surveys.” Easy on the research, Dan, and electrify me with nuggets of utterly oh-riginal expertise in as fast as fuck.
For one particular set of articles, the keyword was “used cars ‘smalltown’ area” with only the town name changed. The rules demand using the exact keyword in the title, but as you can surmise by reading them, these keywords wouldn’t work as is, so each of my titles was some variation of “Finding Used Cars in the Smalltown Area.” I figured they must expect me to add “in the” for the title to make sense. I figured wrong. I soon received editorial feedback saying I was only allowed to break up a location-based keyword by one word, eg, “in,” which apparently is referred to as a Google stop word. The editor admitted that it may sound a little awkward. Ya think? But I guess you don’t want to confound the Google algorithm by speaking proper English.
I wasn’t talented enough for authentic writing and I wasn’t fast enough for junk writing. The implications of that kind of between-ness disturb me.
I had something of a Sophie’s choice: work faster and contribute to the dumbfuckinizing of civilization or somehow hang on to a tiny shred of self and attempt to compose something eloquent about “leather menu covers” and “purchase order finance” while earning a rate that was on a par with a human rights violation and bludgeoning my creative impulse over the head again and again and again.
Since forever, I’d wanted to be a writer because I had a profound need to be creative, be unique, be liberated. After decades of pursuing the high of unfettered imagination, I was using my craft to produce riveting pieces of shit on “pavers” and “inventory buyback.”
This was not Dillard’s writing life.
Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Write
During this same time period, I almost worked as an editor for a similar company that, among other things, boasted about using only writers whose first language was English to produce thrilling website content guaranteed to increase your bottom line. I was told that the submissions would need almost no work other than confirming minimum word count and keyword usage—15-20 minutes for 1,500 words. I didn’t get past the trial assignment.
I don’t know, maybe English wasn’t this writer’s first language after all, or he was not a writer period. Or both. Or the poor bastard was working so fast to adhere to the dumbass SEO specs and meet an absurd deadline that he served up a warm bowl of end-stage Ebola discharge. Which got dumped in my lap. For more than two hours, I tore into the craptastrophe in an effort to make it appear a little less like the barely coherent ravings of a frightened, Ramen-less college student. Then after receiving fucking wrong feedback from one of the “experienced” editors who didn’t seem to know how her own procedures worked and realizing that from this side of the process as well I would be earning slave wages, I politely walked (there will come a time when I don’t go as gently).
“Dan, please, for the love of all that is brief, act like a pencil sharpener.”
“Make a point.”
Point: Everywhere we go on the web, we see this faux writing. Dreck primly and deliberately salted with hyperlinked keywords like the sesame seeds on a TV commercial bun and savagely compressed or stretched into a ponderous slop. Nobody cares much about it though. It does its job so we can do our business. And business must be good. Or good enough.
But what would happen if real writers were paid real wages to write real shit? Could business get better? Or would Internet commerce grind to a halt because SEO rules were broken? If the latter’s the case, maybe there’s something wrong with the rules or, fundamentally, with the Internet itself. Have we considered that?
I think that’s the case with the youth sports system. There also seems to be a set of “optimizing” rules in play that must be adhered to if you wish to avoid getting dropped in the ranks. Everybody wants their name at the top. Not enough people find it troubling that the system is a funnel, a profit-driven sphincter that celebrates exclusivity, and not enough people are willing to nut up and explore whether there’s a better way. A different structure, a different algorithm. The dysfunctionally Darwinian, money-fueled path dependence of the system not only squashes kids, it quashes the creativity and freedom of the rare far-seeing coach.
A lot of chit chat, chit chat—If you’re not talking about how to help kids with their sports, you’re listening to people talk about how to help kids with their sports. Even the moneyed interests talk. Is there action? Yeah, I think there are some great sports programs operating in isolation. But when has isolated agitation ever ended broad-based oppression? We need collective action.
We can carry on with the fakery, the cheap talk about cheap talk. We can continue to read, write, and drive-by like dickless “just so” stories about how parents and coaches can make sports better for their kids*****. Or we can stand up and rally behind smart programs that if united could actually disrupt the system.
Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance. ― Anne Lamott
And the music swells…Tear apart the sphincter of oppression (heh). Remake the system. Rewrite the rules. Kick off the movement. Become Unbullyable.
I still don’t have a tale to tell these days. Not the kind I thought I had years ago. But if I did, it would involve an AC-130 and a massive horde of zombies boiling over abandoned traffic on I-70 toward a last line of defense. World War Z missed a golden opportunity.
* Factoid: Years later I discovered that the editor who accepted my story is the High Priestess of the Church of Satan.
** My first paid gig: $1.50 and a contributor’s copy. I never cashed the check.
*** No, I don’t think anybody ripped me off. Do I look like a lunatic to you? I only mean that after the fifth or so idea I’d imagined all on my own played out in a film, I began to feel that I had something going on but it was like a bad dream where you try to run but can’t and what you’re chasing is getting away.
**** Check out the new forum: http://forum.thebrandxmethod.com/
***** I particularly can’t stand those smug “essays” that bullet-point the things that parents are supposed to say to their kids before, during, and after a game. Yeah, fuck you.