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So You Want To Be A Writer?

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Novelist
Desired Address: Park Slope

Preferred Hangouts: Young hopefuls still impressed by Dave Eggers and looking to get published in The Believer, his latest venture, should show up for readings at Eggers’s retail outpost known as “the store” on Seventh Avenue (free pancakes! accordion music!). There are also readings-cum-concerts at Galapagos in Williamsburg, where a McSweeney’s-affiliated rock band showcases lyrics by writers such as Rick Moody and A. M. Homes. Older literary hopefuls who’ve already picked up an M.F.A. and written book reviews for Time Out know to show up for readings at KGB, plus any book party to which they can cadge an invite. They’ll insist they’re there to meet an agent or publisher. But just as important, it’s a chance to sip free wine and sample the I–am–Norman Mailer–in–the–sixties fantasy. Another hangout is online. “Mobylives.com is the place for angry nobodies to get together and vent about not getting published,” says one young writer.

Icons of the Moment: Dave Eggers (for self-franchising), Jonathan Safran Foer (for self-promotion).

The Route In: There are skeptics, but many who go through a top M.F.A. fiction program at Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, or Iowa end up getting what they’re really paying for—a contract. “Agents come to the thesis readings every year, and everyone seems to sign on with someone and get published somewhere,” says one Columbia graduate. “ I knew one student who was furious that his teacher wouldn’t hook him up with his agent. He just said, ‘That’s what I’m paying for?’ ” Then again, there’s always the starving-artist route. “My first job was stuffing envelopes at Hyperion,” says Marc Nesbitt, a Brooklyn writer whose first short-story collection, Gigantic, was published by Grove last year. “You just have to keep sending stuff out. The same story of mine that got picked up by Harper’s was rejected with a form letter by The New Yorker.”

The Payoff: For a first advance, you hope for $50,000 but will accept $10,000—happily. You dream of the paperback rights going for $1 million.

Fashion Item: Black horn-rims, à la Jonathan Franzen.

Pet Kvetch: If writers are the new rock stars, then where are the groupies? It helps if you’re young and pretty and “multicultural.”

Late-Night Comedy Writer
Desired Address: Montclair

Preferred Hangouts: Comedy showcases like “Eating It” on Mondays at Luna Lounge, where producers and agents troll for talent; also, stand-up nights at the Gershwin Hotel on Thursdays, or the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on West 26th Street any night.

Current Icon: Tina Fey. But SNL’s late Michael “Mr. Mike” O’Donoghue is still the archetype.

The Route In: Harvard’s Lampoon and the Hasty Pudding theatrical group are de rigueur for sitcoms, and excellent for late-nights too, particularly working for Lampoon alum Conan O’Brien. The Onion is a hot proving ground, particularly for the news-oriented Daily Show. Premier national improv troupes like Second City in Chicago and the Groundlings in L.A. remain labs for top talent. Stand-up is the masochist’s option. “It takes a very different personality to do improv or stand-up than it does to write,” says Daily Show writer Eric Drysdale, “but it still really helps to get the attention.”

The Payoff: Hurray—it’s union-scale work; the Writers’ Guild minimum is about $3,000 a week (usually for a thirteen-week cycle). Senior writers can make several hundred thousand a year on a show like SNL, at which point there’s only one triumph left: “The real goal is to be invited to Lorne Michaels’s castle, but nobody even knows what country it’s in,” says former SNL writer Hugh Fink.

Fashion Item: Younger writers sport Diesel jeans and vintage Pumas; older ones go for the Gap and hi-tech Nikes.

Pet Kvetch: At Letterman, you’ll never last. At Conan, you’ll never get in, because no one ever leaves.

It Helps If You’re: Jewish and male.

Magazine Writer
Desired address: Bank Street

Preferred Hangouts: The front room of Michael’s if you’ve already arrived. The Condé Nast cafeteria if you’re still getting there. Beige at B Bar on Tuesdays is where the gay media mafia meet. In summers, try Gibson (“Media”) Beach in Sagaponack.

Current Icon: Anyone (Jon Krakauer, Sebastian Junger) who’s leveraged a feature into a smash best-seller and/or movie—and won independence from ever having to hawk a 500-word service piece to Self again.

The Route In: The Columbia Publishing Course is the rare formalized route into the glossies. It’s competitive, with only 100 slots open per summer, but this six-week program tends to deliver. “You pay $5,000 to get a job. And you get one,” says one graduate. Indeed, everyone seems to wind up an editorial assistant somewhere.

Don’t bother with J-schools—they mint pious newspaper types. Each magazine is a bit of a club, and the point is to get tapped. Get your foot in the door via interning or freelance fact checking or copy editing. Then you can start sneaking cigarette breaks with top editors, all the while pitching relentlessly.

The Payoff: Contract writers make anything from $35,000 to $350,000 a year, depending on the number of stories and the reverberations from their byline. Freelancing at home can be lonely, but those who can pull it off can pull in $2.50 a word and sleep late. Some even get up to $5, if they’re v. hot and the person with the checkbook is Tina Brown.

Fashion Item: Stella McCartney micro-minis for women, Helmut Lang for gay men—or for straights who understand the value of coming off a little gay.

Pet Kvetch: “If I knew I was going to spend so much time watching my stories killed and my phone messages ignored, I would have gone to Hollywood and suffered in the sun.”

It Helps If You’re: Status-obsessed, Ivy-educated, and quippily bitchy in a Martin Amis sort of way.

Poet
Desired Address: Columbia housing; parents’ housing

Preferred Hangouts: Readings at St. Marks Church, or Poets House, or KGB, or Zinc Bar, or the Cornelia Street Cafe; also at Barnard or the National Arts Club. “When you hit town, you must go to as many readings as you can until you find one where the poetry sings like yours, and then get dedicated to it, because the only way you get a reading here is by hanging out,” says Bob Holman, director of the Bowery Poetry Club. The Club hosts one of three poetry slams a week in the city, which are judged by audience members and poets. Newish journals Fence and Good Foot offer useful exposure.

Icon of the Moment: Billy Collins, poet laureate and cuny professor.

The Route In: Internships at Poets House, the Poetry Society of America, or the St. Marks Poetry Project. Meanwhile, submit work to local mags like Insurance, Pierogi Press, and Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Rail for the exposure.

The Payoff: Many of those ambitious little literary magazines pay, well, nothing. A university reading in the hinterlands might not be enough to cover the cab fare to JFK, or it might pay $1,000 if you’re a name. Current financial fantasies center around pharmaceuticals heiress Ruth Lilly’s astonishing $100 million bequest to Poetry magazine. All that money has to trickle down somewhere! Inevitably, poets teach.

Fashion Item: Vintage clothing—even though you bought it when it was new.

Pet Kvetch: It rarely changes, this season or others. T. S. Eliot, in fact, put it best. When asked if his tortured life as a poet had been worth it, he said, simply, “No.”

It Helps If You: Commit suicide.


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