Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sprinting Toward Deadlines

I HATE TO DISGORGE week-in-review posts rather than sharing smaller items of interest during the week, but the job has been keeping me later due to the rush to press of the current issue. Also, I have been getting up at 5:00 to 5:30 a.m. successfully for the entire week to get to the gym before the rush, which causes my string to run out by about nine at night. I didn't even do too much to plan for the party, which will make this weekend a goatdance.

Let's start with Monday. As I described here, one of the team members on my magazine left that day. For breakfast, many of us brought in food. I snagged a cheese danish ring from the local bakery (which, by the way, I escaped without buying anything for myself). The managing editor was in the office that day, and took us all out for a goodbye lunch. This after we had been told the week before that we couldn't go out because the issue is late and we need to concentrate on it. The ME had said she would bring in sandwiches from the local joint, but when the day arrived, she seemed to remember this as a nebulous request that we arrange this. You might have picked up that we occasionally have to work around this person. Still beats the other job by a parsec, but a bit maddening when you need to expend the effort to out-think and anticipate. So we ended up burning extra time out eating lunches that put us to sleep in the afternoon, just when we needed to push hard on the issue and send it out the door.

I ended up staying about an extra hour four days of the five to get this done. Not worthy of a medal in the grand cosmic scheme of things. However, I did note the amount of extra time so I could take it back at a future time. Give nothing to an employer without receiving something tangible. Keep in mind that we are now down one person. My services are now even more in demand. It gives me leverage, at least until we fill that spot and the new person gets up to speed. You never like to look at things in this sort of a mercenary way, but fundamentally, unless you're self-employed, you're just an SSN in an Excel spreadsheet. The moment your financial liability (pay, benefits, training, equipment, etc.) no longer brings a company profit, you're expendable. That I have my fingers in a few crucial pies right now is comforting, but what I really need to do is develop skills that can't be outsourced.

One of these is writing. Foreign companies can compose Web pages, lay out text, even edit in a rudimentary fashion. They will never be as skilled a writer as a native with an ear for the subtleties of the language and an eye on the marketplace. When I started at the new place, I was given a writing assignment within days. I had to interview a source, flesh out her proposal into an actual article, and write it in the magazine's idiom and with the available column inches in mind. I succeeded in all three areas. But it's just a start.

With the departure of my coworker, comes the chance to do more writing of this kind. I've been composing short report-type items for columns that contain industry updates for our specialist readership. It keeps my hand moving. I've also had the privilege of heavily editing or rewriting some of our more personal columns, reminiscences from people about their profession: moments that defined their careers, inspirations that might resonate for others, success stories, and the like. These folks tend not to be writers, and the pieces need a good edit at minimum. I've been careful to be sensitive with them, though, because you don't want to bruise someone's treasured memories in the process of crafting them structurally into a more potent piece of writing. I believe I'm succeeding at that; the contributors have been strongly positive over how I've polished their work. I've done the same for a new fitness columnist whose work we've been running. Though there is less potential emotion wrapped up in each piece, and she's more practiced as a writer than the folks I just mentioned, it's still someone else's work, and I've endeavored to let her passion shine through any stylistic or grammatical revisions I've had to make.

None of these pieces carry my byline, however. I want to produce another piece like my first one, or more if possible, so I can show future employers or possible providers of freelance-work my clips. I recall that in my career exercise, I envisioned being a bylined writer. Perhaps it's not as farfetched as I thought it was, upon writing it, back in April. It's still an impressive list of goals.

Now that I think of it, perhaps this exposure to amateur writing, and the work needed to improve it, is an education in how to produce copy that editors will seek out because it spares them the effort of polishing it. Line up three equally qualified freelance creatives before a deadline-haunted editor. Two produce work that needs tweaking or refinement. One hits the marks nearly every time. Who has the edge for future business from this stressed editor? I recall the very first meeting I had with the career counselor, my first workday of joblessness, in which he said our job was to find ways to convince rich people that giving us money makes their lives easier. The statement as phrased struck me then as a touch "classist," but I understood him to intend rich as "able to purchase your goods, services, or expertise." Then as now, it also strikes me as true.

Back to last week. We all said a regretful "see you later" to our departing coworker. Her office is close by, and two former employees of my company are there and still in close contact with folks at their former workplace, so future group lunches are in the offing. Plus we exchanged email addresses, so I can continue to call upon her experience and good spirits as the months at my current place, I hope, become at least a year or two.

Tuesday through Thursday were blurs of fitting copy, writing last-minute pieces, and getting them down to the artist before having them go through the approval process. Copy was still being approved on Wednesday, and even on Thursday, I had to compose and stick in one more small (100-word) item because the ME thought we needed more in one column. I also secretly wrote a second short piece in case this one didn't work out. (I can use it next issue, though.) This was the craziest schedule since we redesigned the magazine in September. I am told we used to have considerably more time to assemble issues, and I'm not sure how we might reverse the current just-in-time trend, what with one seat unfilled now. I barely have time to plot out items for future issues while racing through the copy for the current ones. I'm sure there's some way to render that state of affairs into a positive resume entry. I did manage to make up a couple of schedules for myself, so pieces get produced and sent around for approval at regular intervals. Such a schedule has been used some months before my arrival, but when they were down one person (sound familiar?) it went off course. I hope to avoid that fate by structuring the production of copy very rigidly, so I don't have to hustle as much and potentially trip while sprinting toward the finish and wreck a deadline. Further.

The ME was in the office through Wednesday before returning to Maryland. We spent Thursday sending PDFs to prepress and approving them via an online proofing system. My immediate supervisor was out taking a much-needed day off, and our other editor was working from home to push a late piece out, so in contrast to the rest of the week, Friday was far more relaxed. My task that day was to compose a spreadsheet of all the articles for the outsourcing folks to make our Quark docs into Internet files. Next week, I will spend two days working on the Website reviewing this work and approving or tinkering with it, then make the site live. My first couple of trips through this process reminded of the last bit of Star Trek II, when Spock has uncorked the Enterprise's reactor and is diddling with its innards while getting a gamma-ray facial. I had instructions for what to, and they seemed to make sense, but Jeebus, do they really want me noodling around the front page only 2 months into my stay? Don't they know I know nothing? Evidently I knew enough, as the process worked, and the calls for assistance I've had to make during the procedure have been getting less frequent.

The only snag is that this sheet is now being reviewed by the ME, who has two other whole magazines to work on in addition to ours. Last time, she took 2½ days to approve it, sending it back at the useless time of 4:00 on a Friday. How do I forward this to the next guy and say with a straight face, "Can you get this out before you go?" I've repeatedly stressed that I will be out of the office (and unlike her, not working while out) next Friday and Monday, so I hope this lights the right kind of fire under her progress.

The exercise plan has been progressing without flaw. When I weighed myself Monday morning, after the siege of Thanksgiving calories, I was gratified to see I had lost a pound since the pre-holiday weigh-in. No small feat, what with my diabolical mother replenishing the M&M dish each time I came back to their house. (She has sequestered several tons of holiday M&Ms in a bag of holding.) I followed the same schedule this week, hitting the gym slightly late only on Wednesday, and only because I decided to take some of the time I'd been spending at work back and get in a half hour late. I regretted it: The gym was significantly more populated. Best to arrive at five. I cannot argue with the results.

I didn't even have to decide whether to play cards or exercise. Either the game didn't roll, or I was left off the invite list for this week. I'd said last Saturday afternoon that I'd play in the usual game, which hadn't rolled Thursday due to the holiday, but by the evening, I was exhausted, so I canceled. The host sounded pissed, but he only had six people to begin with, and he has an unrealistic sense of optimism during busy weekends like this one when he tries to assemble an off-schedule game. One of the players who'd committed did not want to play if we only had five players, which my cancellation caused, but I refuse to play if I'm too tired to make good decisions, and I don't much care for short tables myself. Besides, I was (and still am) mulling a trip to Atlantic City on an upcoming weekend (or may be going there as part of a bachelor party; still in flux at this point). Why play tired, at a short game where the blinds are gonna peck me to death like an insistent duck, with some of the superior players in the gang, when I can just wait until another Thursday or play against certified mongoloids at AC or Foxwoods?

The game might actually be slowing down. Full tables have been less common. As I mentioned in my last post, losses have caused some of our regulars to call a temporary or permanent halt. The host has not grasped the power of restraint, in that he has sometimes hosted two or even three times in a week, which accelerates whatever win–loss trends are present in a group. He needs a little help with impulse control (which admittedly proves profitable at the table sometimes). My own impulse-control problems mostly have resulted in me being a fatass. My job now is to reverse this trend. The cards will come when they come, and they'll be sweeter when they do. If I put my ass in a seat after a long drought of no play, and I've gotta wait an hour for a playable hand, so be it. I'll wait. Let the losers toss chips in on every marginal holding just because they haven't seen a pocket pair all day.

For that matter, let the losers eat all of the holiday sweets that will roll into the office between now and 2008. I've got three scheduled binges: the company party, my own, and Christmas. Outside of them, I will rein in my impulses and enter the new year feeling better than ever.

Today brings a binge of cleaning and party prep. And maybe a little food shopping too: Tomorrow is supposed to be a genuinely foul, wintry day. Good for staying in and writing some Christmas cards while brewing chili and watching the local football teams founder. With the bright sky beckoning me into the cold afternoon, I will get my ass in gear and enjoy being my own boss for a couple of days.

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