Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

Editors Will Pay for Articles that Play

Me, in the outfit I wear when I write first paragraphs

This writing life is serious stuff, with its cold deadlines, its fusty grammar rules and its dense packagings of data. But readers in most corners are showing less of an appetite for data density, and more for the conversational, the playful, the light touch that can still deliver information, but deliver it with some sweet sprinkles on top. Editors seem to have more appetite for sprinkles these days.

Obviously, some publications—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes to mind—don’t care much for sprinkles, and rightly so. But if you’re a freelancer like me, who writes for newspapers, magazines and online business publications, it’s heartening to know that editors are more enthusiastic than ever to accept pieces that weave in some humor with their copy threads.

To demonstrate that I’m not making this up, here are a few opening paragraphs from three pieces of mine for which some bewitched editor paid actual money. All establish a certain tone from the outset, and hopefully would make you want to read further.

5 High-Proof Truths That Whiskey Is the Key to a Better Life
There’s advice everywhere on how to be a better person. Meditate, be nice to children, pat puppies on the head, eat arugula. But those things are so superficial, and some are plain tedious. We have more practical advice: drink Whiskey.

Drinking Whiskey will make you a better person. And it’s much more fun than arugula. Here’s why:

 
That’s the beginning of a blog post for Flaviar, a spirits purveyor that writes about all things booze. Their style is irreverent and somewhat arch, which is fun to do. It gave me the chance to practice that writing trick of jab, jab, punch, with the setup lines and then the punch delivered in the last line of the first paragraph. This piece will come out on their blog sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Trail Mix: An Oahu Hike — Plus Margaritas
I can forgive you, if you’re on Oahu, all excited about taking a shoreline hike. You toss on the shorts, throw a small snack, some binoculars and sunblock into a backpack and — knowing that there are water bottles in the car — drive all the way up the westside toward Ka’ena Point where the road ends, and get out to begin your hike in the sizzling sun. And then you realize that one water bottle is empty and the other half-filled.
I can forgive you, because my girlfriend and I did just that.

 
This intro is a slight variant on the first trick, using the sustained second-person direct address to put the reader in the driver’s seat—and then pull the driver’s seat out from under the writer with the last line. This is from a short piece recently published in the San Jose Mercury News.

How to Properly Diagnose a Failed Email Campaign
As Mark Twain said after his latest marketing promotion, “The reports of the death of the email campaign are greatly exaggerated.” As any marketing maven knows, email lives, with a vengeance, and remains one of the biggest hammers in any marketer’s toolbox.

But as you know all too well, bad email promotions are death warmed over: email done wrong does your promos and your products a lethal turn.

 
This one has to take a more businesslike tack, since it was written for The Content Standard, an all-things-content-marketing publication. But still, anytime you can open a piece with a [fake] Mark Twain quote, you’re in good hands.

All of these writings establish a sportive, impish slant from the first lines, which works in the context of each piece. This isn’t writing for the ages, but it’s fun to do, and if someone will pay me for it, I’ll type it up.

If you can produce this kind of work without it seeming labored or too corny or shallow (and perhaps that’s how these ledes struck you), it could be a good approach to your freelance pieces. As I’ve said before, it’s often useful to pitch an editor with what you foresee as the actual first paragraph or two of a piece, so they can taste what they’d be getting.

Do any of you use this kind of breezy style in your work? (If you do, don’t pitch my editors—they’ll be on to you.)

Your Writing Niche: Does it Mix Well with Whiskey (and Chocolate)?

I made sure to close the drapes so the neighbors couldn’t see

Update: here’s the published piece: Whiskey and Chocolate: Collaborators, Colleagues,Comrades

Many freelance writers have written compellingly of how finding a writing niche—SEO, senior health care, inbound lead-generation for hiking sock companies—can provoke a steady stream of assignments and income. There are some persuasions: you understand your clients—and their audience—more clearly, your facility with the language and arguments of the narrow discipline becomes sharper and sharper, and as a specialist, you can often charge specialty fees.

I’ve mentioned this before, that because my brain has lobes that tingle over the oddest variety of subjects, I’ve never been inclined towards a niche or a specialty. In the past couple of months, I’ve written pieces about viral marketing techniques, Hawaii, rock and roll, house-sitting, the vulnerability of fictional characters, and issues facing independent contractors.

Thus, niche-less I am. But, that’s not to say I don’t have some distinct interests. One of them is spirits, meaning booze, hootch, firewater, grog—you know, the sauce. I enjoy looking at it in bottles, and out of bottles. I perk up to its piquant aromas. I like the mad-scientist aspect of mixing it with today’s wealth of natural infusions, bitters and botanicals that supply tang and lift to cocktails.

I even like to drink the stuff.

High-proof Publications

It took me a while (probably because of that drinking) to realize that there’s an audience for those interests, even for those subhumans that think Jaegermeister is something to drink, rather than a wood refinisher. So, in the last couple of years, I’ve sent out my share of queries to various publications on various intoxicant ideas, and I’ve published pieces in magazines like Whisky Life and Spirits (now defunct), Draft, and Wine Enthusiast.

One of the most recent tippling magazines I’ve worked with is Whiskey Wash, which is bathed in all things whiskey. After I wrote a few country-specific whiskey histories for them, they invited me to work up my own queries, one of which resulted in a fascinating interview with a professional “nose,” who works with distillers to refine their products in very exacting ways.

But my latest assignment was sweet. Literally. They accepted my pitch for what high-end chocolates might pair best with three kinds of whiskey (straight whiskey, bourbon and rye). So this past Friday night my pal-so-gal Alice and I nibbled, sipped, and nibbled and sipped again. My, was it fun. For hours, I forgot that our president-elect is a misognynist, racist, First-Amendment-mocking orange gasbag.

Pitch Until They Itch

Useless political commentary aside, my point in this is that some freelancers aren’t comfortable, or not interested in establishing a niche for their work. Some might take years of generalized commercial writing to find a niche, which they then lovingly settle into. And some, like me, might write about a whirling world of things, but might also find a way to take their special interests into their writing.

Oh, not to make it sound TOO easy: I’ve sent lots and lots of queries to lots of magazines on a crazy range of spirits pitches. The bulk have been turned down, but that’s freelancing. Enough have been accepted to keep me pitching anew, as any freelancer should do as a matter of course.

Oh, and I’ve tasted some interesting booze too. I’m not sure when the chocolate & sauce article will run, because I haven’t written it yet. That’s for the next day or so. But it will be up on Whiskey Wash soon, and there’s even some chocolate and whiskey left over.

And they pay me for this. Goodness.

[Oh, and a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kraazy Kwanzaa and Freaky Festivus to all!]

A Song of Gratitude to the Freelancing Life

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

Well, my typing sounds better than my singing, so let’s go with this: This past Saturday, I returned from a month in Hawaii, having spent most of the time on Oahu and some on the Big Island. I don’t sleep on golden pillows, so how could Alice and I take off for (and more tellingly, pay for) a month on a tropical island? (And yes, there were mad tais.)

For the same reason we previously stayed for long periods in the Bahamas, Panama, Mexico and Hawaii once before: freelancing.

The freelancing life can often be a scramble, particularly if you do a fruit salad of contract work like I do. I do B2B and B2C copywriting, edit books (both fiction and non), write essays and journalistic pieces, and travel articles too. I’ve never been able to narrow my work to a niche—something that’s undoubtedly affected my income—because my interests are broad. My writing palette has too many colors, and I find that pleasing. More pleasing yet is that, with the glories of the Internet, my office travels with me. As does Alice’s with her.

Thus, when we read of a house-sitting opportunity on some golden isle, and the setting and the situation fits, we go for it. Most of the time we still work close to our regular schedules, using that Franklinesque early to bed, early to rise admonition. But we get to rise in places like Hawaii! And there’s plenty of time to play, in such places where the play is often plentiful.

Sometimes the Freelancing Life Offers No Gravy At All

But I don’t want to downplay the occasional downers of being a contract worker. You do have to deal with social isolation—if you have a water cooler, you’re usually the only person to lurk around it. Some freelancers I know like to go to coffee shops or other public places to work, but that’s never appealed to me. I like the silence, which gives me plenty of head space in which to fret. And I can always go from my Airstream office in the yard to pester Alice in the house when I need some companionship.

You also have to be comfortable with marketing yourself, and with rejection. I send out a lot of article pitches, and often don’t get a response. A long while back I used to steam about that, but really, what’s the point? I just send more pitches. I still don’t hear back from many, but I’d guess I’ve had at least 40 and maybe 50 paid articles published this year. Here’s one that was in the latest Writer’s Market on one of the themes of this piece, Writing From the Road.

You also have to be comfortable with fluctuating income. As I said, no golden pillows, but I do have socks. I’m not breaking any banks (or breaking into banks), but I’ve been doing this, with a short corporate-writing break, for 25 years, and I’m still here.

But Sometimes the Gravy Is Very Good

I first sketched out above some real benefits of a freelancing life, but here are a few more:

Control: for the most part, you get to choose for whom you work, and what you work on. Sure, freelancers sometimes take on projects that are dull or tedious, but you really do have the choice to say no. And to say yes!

Choice: speaking of choices, they are vast in the freelancing realm. You can work for large businesses and small, you can sell products from your website or a place like Etsy, you can work at 3am if you are a night creature, you can use your expertise to design an online course, you can write books in your downtime, you can take online courses to spruce up your old skills or learn new ones. Choice and control are kissing cousins, but having lots of each is positively positive.

Exercise: one of the choices I make is to exercise every work day. Might be a hike, might be a bike, might be a stroll on one of the many picturesque slough trails in our area. Or if the weather is lousy, a ride on the recumbent bike inside. Many people think that exercise is a tedious chore, but for me, so much the opposite: you get to move the legs, move the blood, see some sights, change your perspective. And maybe eat a larger lunch because you did all those things. I always look forward to the mid-day exercise break, and it’s something that most office workers don’t get a chance to easily do.

Naps: what’s better than a short nap after exercise and lunch? And better yet, on the orange plaid of our ’66 Airstream? I rarely actually go to sleep, but the 20–25 minutes of hazy glow make for a more focused afternoon.

So, freelancing: there might be a pimple or two, and some days the clouds race in, but most of the time, the face and the weather are fine.

Vin Scully and the Voice in Your Head

I must mention a delightful coincidence that came from the Hawaii trip: I got to hear Vin Scully, the legendary voice of the Dodgers, announce his last six games. In the 60s, growing up in Southern California, I was a baseball maniac. It’s not that I simply played baseball a lot (in the streets at home, in Little League, in public parks), but I read bunches of baseball biographies, memorized statistics—even the heights and weights of players. My brother and I would spend hours pitching a tennis ball to each other in our driveway against the back gate. (We used a tennis ball because I’d broken so many neighborhood windows with hardballs.)

I loved baseball, and more so because I heard a voice in my head while I played, declaring my glory on the field. The voice I heard was Vin Scully, the announcer for the Dodgers for SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS. Sixty-seven. Because I’d grown up with Vin, I thought all baseball announcers were like him: sunny, smooth, always ready with a story that no one had ever heard or told before. A great, boundless lover of the game, but never a “homer” for the Dodgers. It’s almost impossible to express what warmth and human connection came through the radio from this modest guy—he was baseball’s easy-spoken orator, an open-hearted genius behind the mic.

There’s a quote from the writer William Dean Howells about Mark Twain that says, “Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes—I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another, and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Vin Scully was the Lincoln of baseball announcing. It was a profound pleasure that I happened to be in Hawaii to listen to the last of his games, when since moving from Southern California forty years ago, I’d hardly heard him at all.

Vin, you lazy guy, you’re only 88, why not go a few more?

That was a gift from the freelancing life as well—Vinnie, wishing us all a pleasant evening, wherever we are, forever.

[Note: the gracious folks at Invoice2Go, who make simple-to-use invoicing applications for freelancers and the like, are going to excerpt some of this post on their site for a helpful infographic on freelancing tips. Check out their stuff if you have invoicing needs.]

Writers: Drink the Champagne While It’s Bubbling

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!


There’s a lot of dreck you have to wade through as a writer, whether you’re working a day job and writing on the side, working on commercial writing for the dough and on creative writing for the love, or writing creatively full-time. Or maybe writing only a haiku every ten years.

You have to wear the high boots for the dreck wade because the obstacles are considerable:

• The vast numbers of entertainment options these days has most people reading less.
• Self-publishing opportunities (and their variants, like hybrid publishing) are excellent ways for underserved voices to get their works out there. But that means their works are out there competing for mind-time with yours.
• Very few people make a living with their creative writing. In fact, very few people can afford their daily lunch with what they make from their creative writing. (Once in a while I splurge on sparkling water.)
• Maintaining a writing habit, particularly with some of the hindrances above, is challenging, particularly when you get little recognition or praise.
• Some days you just can’t remember how apostrophes work.

There are a hundred and one other ways that writing is hard, but I don’t want to type them out, because they make my nails sore. What I do want to focus on is giving yourself a clap on the back when you take a writing step forward, dreck and all.

Shush the Grumbly Inner Editor
If you have a grumbly inner editor like mine, you hardly ever hear “That’s great! Good work! Do it again!” Instead, you might hear: “That’s how you’re going to phrase that? Sheesh, my cat could write a better line.” But that inner editor is a bully and a fraud.

Instead—and this isn’t at all a call to sugarcoat some writing realities—nod agreeably at that editor, and leave the room he infests. If you wrote 500 pretty good words, whether on an assignment, on a short story or on the novel you’ve been groaning through for six years, acknowledge to yourself that those are 500 pretty good words. Even if they took you a week to write.

They are still 500 pretty good words. And that ain’t moose urine.

Deep Feelings for Fiction
Since I’m the one sitting here, I’ll use me as an example. I am lucky enough to get a fair amount of things published, even enough to buy sparkling water. But almost all of my work that’s out there is nonfiction. And that’s great—really!—and I’m grateful for it.

But the fiction writing, the painting-in-the-mind’s landscape writing? Not so much. I’ve written three novels (well, two-and-a-half, since the latest is a collaboration), but I’ve only self-pubbed one of them and the rest wait for God. I had a small press publish a book of my short stories that has sold enough copies to buy some ice for the sparkling water.

So when any of my fiction gets accepted, it feels like a breakthrough.

Example: a couple of years ago, I wrote a creepy story about a woman who obsesses over her vast horde of realistic-looking dolls in her basement, arranging them having tea, sitting up in conversations on beds, having dinner with guests at tables. Her tenants go down for a look, and weirdness ensues.

I sent it out to a bunch of literary magazines over time, with no acceptance. But I sent it a couple of months ago to Catamaran, a lovely magazine I’d had a nonfiction piece in a ways back, and this week, goodness gracious, they liked it and want to publish it.

So, small victory. But a victory, nonetheless! One that crotchety inner editor can’t take away.

Two items here: celebrate the victories, and keep sending stuff out (and send it out again), because without doing that, no one will ever get a chance to accept it. As for the rejections, cut them into ribbons, mash them up into a malleable pulp, and make a Donald Trump voodoo doll.

(I wrote a post some years back on writing rewards that touches on some of the issues here, and it’s good fun: Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages.)

Writers, keep celebrating the victories, no matter how small. Writers: drink the champagne—then keep writing, to prompt more celebrations.

Deadlines: The Sacred and the Profane

Only 55 years late sending in my jazz class homework—think the teacher will notice?

Only 55 years late sending in my jazz class homework—think the teacher will notice?

Around eight months ago, I saw a notice for a travel writing contest I wanted to enter, so I pulled the site’s URL icon on to my computer’s desktop. Being the tidy sort, my desktop isn’t very cluttered—there are usually only 8–10 items on it, a few related to work that’s current, and a few, like the travel writing contest, related to upcoming prospects or something I’m researching. Or something totally frivolous.

Because of that tidiness trait, I sweep the desktop clean of extraneous things fairly often, so I was regularly reminded—at the very least at some murky level of consciousness—that there was a contest deadline out there in the vague future. Hey, I still had seven months, right? Or was it six?

Even though I have been trying various productivity processes lately (“Get out of bed”), and I could have set an electronic alarm to insist I write the dang thing and get it submitted, I continued to check the link out every month or so and continued to think a bit more about what I’d write about.

Word Seeds Don’t Grow Without Water

Maybe two months ago, I wrote some notes, what I call “word seeds” for the contest essay, sort of scribbled writing prompts that can, even from a single word, provoke a paragraph or two and suggest a structure for an article. But I didn’t check the contest link itself, because, hey, I still had a few months, right? A month away, I did click the link to check the deadline again, and thought, “OK, plenty of time.”

No.

A couple of weeks ago, I clicked on the link, and saw that the article was due THAT DAY. I’d had that wily URL on my desktop for months and months, had patted my ideas for the piece into nice little mental cakes, but hadn’t written a sentence. But, like a shiv to the back, a deadline is very bracing. However, taking my barely germinated word seeds out of their box and growing a 1200-word tree in a few hours is gardening that’s usually beyond my pay scale.

Deadlines, the Bitter and the Sweet

Ahem, the deadline. Deadlines have always had a salutary effect on me, from way back in my college days, having spent four years on the college paper. Even when I’d had a long date with Jack Daniels—such a cute mustache!—the night before, I always made my deadlines. That has been the case for most of my professional life, unless I was in the hospital having a limb stitched back on. I’ve even become much more accomplished in getting pieces in before the deadline, which surprises me more than the publication.

This deadline was personal, not an assignment, but it was still fixed as a deadline in my mind. And I was embarrassed that I’d had it lurking for months, and guilty that I’d written nothing. (That old Catholic in me is always muttering in my subconscious.)

So, to it: I pulled together the convoluted pieces of my story, which is an account of the crazed experiences I’ve had driving in foreign countries (ever destroy your host’s car, anyone?). And wrote, for several hours, with a small break.

And lived.

What I can report is that I made the deadline, and that the article is serviceable—in other words, it’s a decent travel piece, though I doubt it’s a contest winner. But the contest outcome isn’t the point of this post. The point is that a hard deadline can throw ice cubes on your bare back when you’re sleeping, and that you can go from nekkid to clothed, article-wise, faster than you might imagine.

But next time, I’m setting a simple alarm: “Tom, article on nutzoid driving due in three weeks. Start it today.” I’ll keep the ice cubes for my cocktails.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Perhaps everyone would be  in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey...

Perhaps everyone would be in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey…

Out in the old Airstream office again, starting to work on an essay. “Starting to work” means looking out of the windows for a spell, straightening a counter that’s already ruler-straight, peeking at Twitter—but with eyes wide open, so that a peek becomes a stare—and on and on.

If you’re an at-home working writer, and one for whom discipline is a comrade who sometimes leaves early for lunch, you might shy from the tyranny of the page, and look for like cronies to complain to. But it’s been years since I’ve had office mates that could tolerate hearing my sighs about bad sentence structure over the cubicle walls. Sometimes my cat comes out to the trailer to discuss subject-verb agreements, but most of the time, it’s just me.

A great privilege it is to be able to work from home, and a greater gift to be able to work with words, the dizzying whirligigs that they are. Writers need to sequester their minds in order to stew, consciously or not, over their word soups, but sometimes the kitchen seems a little quiet. The habitual patter of your mind can be a little wearing, especially when it flies off center, and you start thinking things like “Tom, when you tilt your head just so, you look a lot like Madeleine Albright.”

When the Idea Salon Is an Asylum

But when you realize that the errant voices in your head are, shockingly, less crazy than the ones on the Internet, you know that going out in that uncivil commons is no way to relax and exchange ideas in the idea salon, finger sandwiches at the ready. I have a standing policy to not read the comments pages of many postings, because their curdled sourness doesn’t offer companionship to any but the crazed.

Even more crazed than me.

But thankfully there are a few spots on the InterTubes that can offer solace—and even fine writing advice, so you can coddle yourself into thinking you are working, sort of. One of the best is WriterUnboxed, with its daily postings on craft, marketing, personal writing foibles, the publishing industry and much more, written by a splendid range of seasoned experts, newbies and specialists. Equally as helpful as the sound writing advice is the collective community of peers and writing chums, who share comments in the sandbox that are insightful and warm, but without too much mush. (Mush causes mold.)

For writers like me, living in their hollow, echoing wooden heads, a place like WriterUnboxed is a godsend. Now and then, they even let me write something there.

Combat the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer: Collaborate

Another way a writer, who might be out in his ’66 Airstream with screaming orange plaid upholstery for eight hours a day, might reach out and still get some writing done is by collaborating with another writer. Rick Wilson and I have been working on a novel together, based on this short story, for a couple of years, and the final chapter is just a whimsy of words away from being done.

Working with Rick has been delightful, and in the many moments when I’ve staggered in the process and lost my oxygen, he’s opened the valves on new tanks of enthusiasm. And since Rick’s a dentist, I’m going to ask for nitrous for the home stretch. I’ll post more about the book in blogs to come.

Lastly, when a writer is feeling low or lonely, there are the works of other authors to lift and educate. Books are great companions too, and have been through my life. I just finished the delightful and hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I shock myself by never having read a Toni Morrison work before, so Jazz is next.

Books themselves are quiet company, even if the upholstery is too loud.

Writing Ideas Are Spring Flowers for the Plucking

North Flowery Trail

I’ve written before about how writing ideas are everywhere. It’s a commonplace that people ask writers how or where they get their ideas, as though there’s a shortage of the little buggers. Hugely the opposite: whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer, or both (like me), ideas will rain down on you like monsoon waters—you only need to stick out an empty glass to have it filled.

One of the keys to filled glasses is to Think Like a Writer, which is why I titled my latest book such. Thinking like a writer means that when you see an interesting snippet of news in a magazine article, instead of mumbling to the cat, “That’s interesting,” you go and write down a note to research it further. Writing it down is key, particularly if you’ve reached my state of age-induced somnolence. Ideas are everywhere, but they are like a puffed dandelion’s seeds, which will all blow away unless you capture them.

Wait—Was That a Falling Idea?

This past week is a perfect example of ideas falling on my noggin and me catching them while the bumps were still rising on my head. My sister-in-law was visiting, after having gone to a Mission Day event at Mission San Antonio de Padua. She casually mentioned that she saw an exhibit there from a company called Access Adventures, which provides outdoor recreational opportunities for disabled people.

They provide free “therapeutic driving events” and other special opportunities to people with restricted mobility. The company was founded by Michael Muir, great-grandson of John Muir, and a person who has lived with MS since he was an adolescent. There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

My Name Is 409 (and I Don’t Do Windows)

My galpal Alice and I had a little dinner party the other night. One of our guests is an old car enthusiast, as am I. He was describing how he is having the 409 engine for a ’64 Chevy Impala SS rebuilt. The guy who is rebuilding it has worked on 409s for thirty years, and nothing but. His name is Jack, but they call him “409.” There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

Last, I was skimming through the annual typography issue of Communication Arts magazine. It’s a beautiful design magazine, and I’ve had a mild interest in typography for years. But combine that interest with the one I have for distilled spirits and you have a story knocking: there’s an article in the issue on a design firm (with wonderful images) that designs labels for craft spirits bottles. I write about spirits now and then, and love the labels shown in the article. That’s another potential article I can drink to.

Writing Ideas Not Acted Upon = Dead Ideas

Of course, these are just article ideas. I still have to research a good publication that would be a good fit and that would pay. I have to write the query letter and get it out there. And probably get several query letters out there. Then I have to be on the lookout for new ideas. But as I’m trying to make clear: you don’t have to look that hard, as long as you keep your writer’s eyes open.

This same mechanism of idea and story association works for fiction too. Seeing a face might trigger a story idea (or perhaps more often, a story scene), or seeing a dark doorway, reading an article or having a simple conversation. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it often provides the match to light the way of a story.

So get out there and look—and don’t get any paper cuts from picking up all those fallen ideas.

Turkeys, Tilted Windmills and Imaginary Writing Enemies

Turks

Yesterday, they conquered my garage. Tomorrow, the Vatican!

There’s a flock of wild turkeys, maybe 20 in all, that has been periodically visiting my neighborhood for the past couple of years. They are expressive birds, and their neck-bobbing, en masse hillside treks, gobbling bursts of flight, and prancing posturing is a pleasure to watch. And to laugh about. Since they frequently pass by my Airstream office when moving through the neighbor’s fields, I have a fine old time seeing close-ups of their antic behavior.

A trio of the males displayed a new move the other morning, when the recycling truck came by on its rounds. It’s a rumblingly loud vehicle, and it descends the narrow road flanking my house with a roar. I was in my yard and three male birds were on the other side of my neighbor’s fence. When the truck began going down the hill above both our houses, I was looking at the birds. When the truck’s clamor hit them, they reared around in unison, facing the truck’s direction. They lined up side-by-side, almost symmetrical, beaks raised and thrusting out, synchronized swimmers on the land.

They froze in this posture, and when the truck passed, they shot their heads forward simultaneously, and as if on signal, together gobbled a furious cry. Then they all ran out to the road, and down toward the truck, which would have taken several hundred turkey soldiers to have taken it down. But these birds were up to the challenge, running in that splaying, hunching, ducking way that large birds do, ready to remove that truck’s transmission and make the world safe for democracy.

Talking (and Thinking) Turkey
Because I often turn these natural neighborhood expressions into writing fodder in my mind, I had a few quick thoughts. One was marveling at turkey bravado—no 6,000-pound truck was going to rumble through their territory without a challenge. The other was to puzzle over turkey thinking: how did these featherbrains come to the conclusion that it was in any way a sound gambit to take on a giant truck armed with three beaks?

That had me musing on the Don Quixote aspect of it all: tilting at windmills, a heroic, impossible—and quite blind—quest. Our birds, no matter the courage tucked in their puffed-out chests, had manufactured an unconquerable enemy where there was none, fabricated a problem out of thin (if noisy) air, and were chasing illusory victories.

Gobble, gobble.

Fewer Writing Turkeys in 2016
I found that colorful scene to be a fine example of how not to treat my writing in 2016. I conjured up a few false enemies of my writing over the past year: treating time as an enemy, writing from a sense of scarcity and not abundance, letting dull doubt overrule my instincts—too many trivial (but in effect, consequential) things to list.

This year, I’m going to work more creatively, not reactively. Not sternly guided by having to write so many words, make this much money, read this many books. But rather, to write at a good pace, without always looking over my shoulder. To write with more feeling. To take energy from idea windmills, rather than joust at them. (And to act less like a turkey.)

How about you?

New Year’s Cake
Feel like getting your writing voice in fine tune? My ebook, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, is reduced from $5.99 to $2.99 until January 11, if you use the coupon code BM85N on Smashwords. Check it out. There are a couple of turkey stories in there, but only ones that help your writing take flight.

Writing Tips, Ticks and Tics

Malibu, tickled that she's tick-free

Malibu, tickled that she’s tick-free

A couple of days ago, my cat came in with a large tick between her shoulder blades. Ticks are things that should never be invited to champagne parties, debutante balls or bar mitzvahs. They are vile things, going from the size of a fairy’s sneeze to a small olive in a few days by gorging mightily on their host’s blood. When I discovered the tick, I immediately did the wrong thing: I Googled “how to remove a tick from a cat.”

Juggling hand grenades would have been safer. Not only did I learn that ticks can give a cat Lyme disease, kitty paralysis and illegible handwriting, but removing them in the wrong way (and all suggested ways were deemed wrong or contradictory in the next link) would leave behind all kinds of tick mouth machinery, plus a toxic squirt of the poisons ticks carry when the tick-removal service (me), in his stress to remove it, inadvertently squeezes the tick.

The Tick (or Tic) of Writing Paralysis

What has this to do with writing? This: Invariably, with writing projects or assignments pending, my brain freezes. “I can’t write about that, I’m not qualified, I don’t know the subject well enough, the editor won’t like it, my keyboard is dirty.” These are the songs in the skull that stop the first word of a story, article or essay. Thus, after thoroughly immersing myself in how to remove a tick, I got to work: for 24 hours, I fretted on the tick’s removal from my skittish cat, which resulted in my tick swelling a third again in size, and tick lobbyists everywhere rejoicing.

Note: this feckless ticking coincided with me not having started two article assignments for which I had the interviews transcribed and the background info recorded. Why hadn’t I started? My keyboard was dirty. Besides, the editors wouldn’t like what I came up with. [Note, I know from years of experience that just starting writing, even if the writing is crackers, gets the story in gear. But why should I listen to writing tips from me?)

When I touched the tick the next morning, its ghastly growth sickened me. I dithered for a bit, then grabbed Malibu (who is quite resistant to more than a moment’s grabbing), got my fingernails under the hairline and twist-yanked him out clean. She took it placidly. Look, 30 hours of shilly-shallying, and with two seconds of work, tick-free!

Or so I thought. I was astonished when I thoroughly ran my hands through Malibu’s fur again, and I found another tick! Much smaller than his engorged ancestor, but head in, and working away. But this time, I didn’t spend any time thinking about the process. Same procedure, same result: Tick in a jar of rubbing alcohol, cat on the floor not acting as though anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Grabbing the Assignment by Its Bloody Neck

Oh, after I removed the ticks, I started (and finished) one of my writing assignments. I started and finished the other today. I KNOW that I have a brain-itching resistance to starting a piece, I know that once I start that the gates of serendipitous writing will open, but yet, I have to dance this same ding-dang dance almost every time. Ticks me off.

Lesson: just start. Start anywhere, start with random words, start with a single sentence. Type and ye shall be free. And you ticks out there—I’m on to you.

Please share your tick-removal tips (no blowtorches) in the comments. Or how you manage to start a writing project without bedeviling yourself. Happy Holidays!