I have been writing professionally for a long time now, and almost all of that time has been spent writing nonfiction-sort-of. Marketing, in other words, which is essentially fictional nonfiction. My start, however, was in factual nonfiction.
The very earliest stuff has been lost to time. I spent my 90’s youth screwing up, learning through trial and a lot of error, and jumping on any opportunity to write that I could (which didn’t come along often). Most of my material from that era consisted of documentation, tutorials, and such that I wrote at various thankless jobs. I also wrote a few lost pieces for the various Linux-related news websites of the time.
I began taking my writing life seriously at the end of 2001, so really, that’s where the story starts.
American Red Cross (2002). I spent about a year volunteering for the Tampa Bay chapter of the American Red Cross, as a writer in their Public Affairs department. My hope was that it would help me hone my writing chops, get me out to look at the world a bit, and allow me to do some good at the same time.
I spent most of this period writing for their newsletters. This issue included a piece I wrote (“An Evening of Life”, page 7) that my fellow writer Steffen Strayer referred to as a “Tolkien dwarf”. I took that as a compliment, as back then I was really, really focused on trying to master compact writing and doing the most that I could with limited word counts. We also spent a lot of time arguing the finer legal points of the Chicago Manual, which I don’t think I’ve opened in about ten years now.
“Is Your Cat Safe?”, Cat Fancy (September 2003). Coming off my time with ARC, I was trying to get my copywriting practice off the ground, while also pitching ideas to various magazines and not starving. This was my first real publication, a feature article about protecting your pets during a public safety evacuation situation. No, it wasn’t Esquire. But it was in print dammit, and I assure you, I got a LOT of mileage out of it. Don’t let anyone ever downplay your achievements, fellow writers – a win is a win.
Things got a little weird after that. I started picking up copywriting work, the magazine pitches just vanished into a black hole, and so I did the logical thing and stopped thinking about magazine writing. Too much lag time, too much work for too little money. I’d have loved to continue doing it, but I had bills to pay. So copywriting it was.
Then one day, two years after sending an unanswered query to Florida Monthly magazine, I get a call from them. We love this idea, they said, still want to do it? The last managing editor lost your letter and it’s been in the back of a file cabinet for two years.
(No, that’s not an exaggeration. That’s literally what happened.)
So I started writing for Florida Monthly magazine (Jan-Mar 2005), doing historical pieces about my adopted home state. Again, long lag time and pathetic money, but it got me out and around. It was publication. I’m still fairly proud of those pieces, and researching them showed me that even your boring home town has odd and interesting ghosts hiding around unexpected corners.
By this point I was starting to pick up regular paying freelance copywriting work, so that’s where I threw all my energy. Occasionally, something of the journalism-for-hire bent would float by, and I’d pounce on it. One such project happened late on a Friday in fall 2005; the call was from a PR rep who needed someone on the ground on Monday to interview technology CEOs who were on the cusp of announcing a big strategic partnership deal. I picked up that ball and ran with it.
“Starfire + Clariant = Clever Chemistry” (Clariant Factbook, October 2005). The partnership was between two companies cooperating on a new nanoceramics venture. One of the companies, Starfire, made the in-flight repair sealant for the Space Shuttle Discovery. Interesting gig. I basically showed up to a trade show, my backpack slung over my shoulder and digital recorder in hand, and just started asking questions. This is another piece I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from over the years. It paid quite well, too.
Most of what I’ve written since then has been in marketing copywriting. The nonfiction form, however, still remains the formative base of my writing life, going all the way back to those Chicago Manual debates in the Tampa ARC Public Affairs bullpen. I’m very glad I started there. I shudder to think what would have happened, had I built my base on something less attuned to getting the facts right.
Fun fact: Years and years later, I learned that Neil Gaiman’s first book was a biography of Duran Duran, for which he ultimately got shafted on royalty payout. So these days, not feeling real shabby for that cat article, Steffen.