A Writer’s Muddled Meditation on Gratitude

Oh, let those thanks go out to whoever’s listening (and whoever’s left over)

The other day I was walking with my girlfriend in the semi-rural area around my house. There’s a paved road, though it’s narrow, winding through some brushy, forested hills among which some houses are scattered. There’s a section of our walk that rolls up and down and into a small flat stretch that we call “the hollow.”

There aren’t any houses that look directly into the hollow, which is surrounded by trees and scrubby underbrush. That’s why it makes a great drop-off site for all the miserable trash—mattresses, chairs, even car transmissions—that miserable people toss there, probably when they find out that the landfill that’s a couple miles away charges money for their discards. We’re always trying to get the license number of the nimrods that do this littering so we can report them, but we’ve never caught anyone in the act.

Have at Thee, Varlets!
That’s why when we started down the hill into the hollow and spotted the two standing people, half-hidden by their truck, that I moved toward them. I wanted to catch them in the act of dumping their trash. Alice and I had both already started to memorize the truck’s license number, but we couldn’t quite see what the people were doing, because the vehicle was pulled into the dirt on the roadside, and they were behind the highest part of the truck’s cab.

It wasn’t until we moved almost behind the truck that I figured it out: no trash, no dumping, just an old guy holding a bucket, which he was going to use to rinse the heavily soaped head of his companion—his wife, his girlfriend, his sister?—who was obscured by the suds and a big draping towel. I had been moments from saying, “Hey, are you dumping crap in here?” to them, but realized that this was a spot they’d chosen to wash her hair. Because they had no shower. I glanced away, and glanced at the back of the truck, filled with some boxes, suitcases, a couple of big coolers.

Not just a truck, a home.

My puffed-up righteousness deflated.

Complaining as Reflex
I complain a lot about a lot of things. Some things I can’t do a damn thing about, but I complain anyway. Some things I could do something about, but I’d rather complain. Sometimes I even complain about what I do, which is write on a broad variety of subjects, and often people pay me for that. I even get to write stories, and sometimes I even get paid for those, which seems a bit of a miracle.

But that guy, washing his sweetheart’s head, looked like he had some real things to complain about. Maybe he does. But that’s not my business. My business is to pull some perspective from that moment, and have a little gratitude for how good I actually have it. Being able to work out of my house, writing for a living, having people around who care for me. A few weeks ago, I got to house-sit for five weeks in Hawaii, only because I can freelance from anywhere. That’s pretty good. Damn good.

When we circled back for the second part of our walk, I was thinking I’d like to offer those guys some money, but I didn’t want to insult them with any presumption. But they were gone, and the truck with them. All that was left behind was some watery dirt and a tire track. No garbage, nothing, just a temporary whisper that they had been there.

Cat Vomit? No Problem
But I want to hold on to that reminder, of how good things really are, for a little bit. I want to consciously pull it up when I fling an oath because a client hasn’t understood my work, when the cat has vomited on the bed, when my dinner seems slightly too spicy. It is challenging to be grateful about cat vomit, but occasionally, I want to rise to the challenge.

Hope you’re able to find some flowers in your garden (and can step lightly over the stones).

Words Are Sleeping in Your Keyboard—Wake Them!

Writing by Candle

I begin every working morning with a pre-dawn ritual involving ear-searing animal cries and a hobbled, bleary-eyed march through darkness. Yeah, before six am, I get up to feed the cat. And thus the day—and all days are writing days, aren’t they?—begins. Think of Gustave Flaubert’s approach: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

What Gustave was getting at is that some orderly routines and habits built around a writing practice can give you a sturdy bourgeois frame upon which to hang your original compositions: metaphorical puce feather boas and thigh-high disco boots. Flaubert’s frame is: first there’s breakfast, then the revolution. And no doubt I can be violent in my work: on many occasions, I’ve slashed a worthless “very” or a “just” modifier out of something I’m editing without considering if that errant adverb or adjective has any feelings at all. Take that, unnecessary word!

In that light of bringing the writing mind from sleep to wake, let’s take a candle into the darkened room of my own daily writing world, so that you can compare your animal screams with mine.

The Morning Harkens
Once that cat has done its rooster act in my ear, there has to be stimulants down the throat: coffee. But for me, caffeine’s sweet song is best heard right back in sleep’s chamber: I always bring the warm cups (one for my sweetheart too) back to bed, where we read for a half-hour or so, and dazedly converse.

By six thirty, I’m up just to get down: sitting down to a 20-minute or so morning meditation. I’ve written about this before—the months I’ve been doing this have really made a difference in my days, and in my peace of mind, which can be elusive. That window-washing of the mind is either followed by a quick run through email, answering those things that can be answered in less than two minutes (and sending to the black hole of deletion those mails most deserving).

I’m trying to develop the habit of not burying myself in mail right off the bat, but rather getting whatever writing projects are on for that day in position, whether that’s reviewing where I left off yesterday, or writing article notes, or even putting a bit of concerted writing time in. Then a decent breakfast. (I rarely add bourbon to my corn flakes any more.)

Getting Out of First Gear
Between 8:30 and 11:30 are probably my most productive hours, either delivering words by the count or harnessing ideas to spur that delivery. My work is always eclectic: this week I’m editing two books, one a children’s book and one a book on the history of our financial system (and how it’s bent us into an unbecoming position). We won’t let the children read that one yet. With my broad experience with weddings (more champagne, any one?), I’m working on a long magazine article on how Airstreams were incorporated into five different weddings. The process right now is assembling the interviewees’ answers into something that won’t prompt any divorces.

Pre-lunch Launch
Unless there’s a deadly deadline, I break at 11:30 for some kind of exercise. That could be a nice walk around our semi-rural neighborhood, a walk around one of the many pretty slough trails close by, a walk at the beach, a bike ride, shooting baskets in the driveway, riding the recumbent indoors bike if the weather is unweatherable—anything to move, man!

The freedom to get out and move is one of the greatest things about freelancing. It clears the mind, gets the body breathing, sings lullabies to the soul. And makes lunch taste all the better. What’s almost as good as the freedom to get out and move? The freedom to nap after. For me, twenty minutes in some kind of hypnagogic state after lunch returns me to this world in fine fettle. I really recommend it.

No Swoon in the Afternoon
Back at the keyboard at 1:30 or so, bolstered by another cup o’ joe. If I have a main project, I’ll put a couple of hours in there. When I have two fairly big projects at once, like the two books I’m editing, I’ll often split the time between, so that each work feels fresh. When the later afternoon hours roll in, say between 3:30 and 5, I’m usually all about the housekeeping: check/answer emails, send out article queries, check my calendar for upcoming projects, deal with money matters (where does it all go?), set up any existing projects that need a push for the next day. It’s also when I will work on my own personal writing projects.

But at 5, I’m done. Shut the Mac down, go in and do some stretches, maybe lift some light free weights. (I only want to stay toned enough to easily lift an Old Fashioned or two.) Of course, if I have a heavy deadline, or some project is really flowing, I won’t staunch that river. But I rarely work into the evening hours, because my productivity declines. There’s dinner, there’s PBS, old movies, an occasional inane show, reading—and there is feeling the world breathe and breathing with it.

I do get the iPad out at a couple of points in the evening to check if any client or potential client has asked me for anything, and I might answer a few emails or look at a video of cats teaching French to kindergarteners, but I don’t do heavy screen time after dinner. My life isn’t in startup mode, so I figure 8 or 9 hours of the electron bath is enough.

Do Weeks Ever Really End?
I do work on the weekends, but as a writer, I don’t look at that as work. I’ll usually put in some hours working on personal projects: articles, or fiction, or essays, or like this very Sunday minute, this blog post—but none of those projects pursued with any brain-banging sense of pressure and anxiety. (Well, maybe never is too strong a word.) Weekend writing is an expression of my life. Except for those weekends—and there are many—where we get out of town to see some sights. San Francisco beckons, as does Big Sur, and myriad other places to play. And don’t forget the travel articles that can come of that.

So, how about you? When you night owls are hooting, I’m snoozing. Are you a burner of midnight oil? And some writers I know will only work some prescribed hours, say 10am to 2pm. And then there are those folks out in the corporate wastelands who can only work on their writing after they return home from the cubicle.

That takes some dedication, and I admire that effort. Gustave would be proud.

My Year of Sneezing, Chipotle, and Fake Jon Stewarts

Old calendar

I’m not that big on end-of-year summation or highlight posts. When I read others, I’m reminded of how much I’ve forgotten over the year, or how much I missed. Or worse, who died, and how that makes me feel bad all over again.

If I’d thought of it, I would have kept track of something more arbitrary or offbeat, like “How many times over the year I sneezed more than twice in a row,” or “Which days at lunch I reached for the chipotle pepper and then thought better of it,” or “Day I once again was sure that I saw Jon Stewart at the airport, but it really wasn’t him.” Because sometimes those little forgettables are as much a notable moment as having published something in the NY Times.

Mostly I’m simply grateful for having made it through the year, without major losses. Many people didn’t.

However, in reading some of the advice given by Michael Hyatt on attaining goals, I did decide to put a few in writing for the coming year. He convincingly says that putting an intent down on paper (well, in this case electrons) solidifies it in your consciousness: it clarifies what you want and motivates you to take action, among other things.

In that spirit:

  • I will finish the content of my nonfiction “how to see through a writer’s eyes” book by the end of January [preparing it for epub will take a bit longer]
  • I will publish my second novel by the middle of the year [again, going to be a self-pubbed masterpiece—after I do some master-piecing on it.]
  • I will get an article/essay in a national publication by the end of the year [shooting for NY Times. The travel pieces I’ve had in the LA Times and my work in The American Scholar don’t count.]

And a couple of “soft” goals, which doesn’t mean they aren’t hard:

I’m going to try to be more of service to others this coming year. I can too often get in a crabbed, selfish state, which is fear based. As I recently wrote in a comment on a Jeff Goins post, “I spent too much time working from the poverty mindset last year: too much grasping and the hearing of repeated refrains of the tired song of “me.” This coming year I intend to be of more service to people and to stretch the kinds of writing I do.”

So, yes, giving and stretching—not playing it so safe. But still playing: I’m going to drink more unusual cocktails this coming year, because my sweetheart was given an eclectic collection of bitters—what’s better than adding bitters to make all of life seem a bit more sweet?

Hope you guys had a good year, and that this next is going to be a humdinger. And if you want to write a few of your goals in the comments, who am I to stop you?

Packing a Travel Writer’s Suitcase

'you can take it with you' photo © 2008, kelly taylor - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The best thing to relieve the daily drumbeat of deadlines, projects, and pressures is travel. Bust out of your current coma conjured by daily tasks like these: replace the pepper grinder, check on the termite inspection guarantee, and because an evil editor refuses to respond, send a follow-up to your follow-up on your query follow-up.

Instead, flip your flip-flops into a bag and head for balmy climes where your biggest decision is the choice of an over-hopped IPA or a gentlemanly session beer.

If only it were that easy.

Travel is a happy habanero for me, but my no-account bank account often demands that I mix a little biz with my pleasure. Thus, I’ll be going to the Florida Keys for 5 days at week’s end, and not long after that, to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for 3 weeks. But I’ll be packing my tokens of the writer’s trade along with me: The Florida trip is all about the writing, since the trip is paid for by a Keys PR bureau looking to have a travel writer pen some lyrical lines about the loveliness of the Keys. The Mexico jaunt is a house-sitting gig, where my girlfriend Alice and I will be basically working our regular hours—and I do keep regular working hours, despite the roguish look of my soul patch—while trying to catch the flavorful San Miguel sights.

Less Wool, More Woolgathering

When Alice and I packed for a year in Micronesia, I made some colorful mistakes. The first one that comes to mind is the wool blanket I packed. Now I knew that the temperature on that island rarely went below 85, and the humidity usually hovered at 90 percent or so. But what if an asteroid hit the planet and plunged us into the next Ice Age? The flannel pajamas I brought would surely help with that too. Uh, no. The blanket and pajamas slept untouched in the closet until we returned.

But, even if I think I don’t really need a defibrillator in my carry-on, I do want to make sure I have the fundamentals for fun and get my writing done. So, for these upcoming trips, some essentials come to mind:

Suitcase
For the Florida trip, I can get away with a carry-on. It’s six days/five nights, and I don’t want to have to do any laundry, but I can still get six shirts in there, and mostly short-sleeved casual ones at that. It’s going to be around 90 in the daytime, so shorts are essential, and a bathing suit (with bow-tie) as well—one of the venues will require some snorkeling to properly write about. (See how demanding these trips are?). But Tevas and flip-flops will do the heavy leg lifting, with one pair of all-purpose shoes and decent Levis, plus a light windbreaker for the rain, which can happen this time of year. No black-tie events scheduled.

For Mexico, a checked bag, because more time = more packing room needed, and more time out in venues where it could possibly be dressy (and dressy for me is just a buttoned-down shirt and clean pants.) Plus, we might throw in a couple of pounds of our favorite coffee, which isn’t available there, though it’s a fairly big city, so most things are available. No wool blankets or flannel pajamas needed on either of these trips.

Computer backpack
I have a decent but aging computer backpack that has a padded compartment for the computer, and plenty of compartments for charging cables, chargers, a mouse, cell phone and other accessories. It’s not the type that screams “computer inside!” though an educated guess would pin that down, so I am careful in airports and the general surroundings where I put it down. It easily and securely slips over the handle of the carry-on or regular suitcase, so I can move easily when my luggage is my load.

Computer
I’ll take my Macbook Pro on both trips. I try and type up notes for travel writing or blogs on the day that I took them, and my handwriting is execrable, so I have to translate it as soon as possible. I also need to keep tabs on email, because I usually have some article queries circulating and works in progress, and I want to be able to answer swiftly. I’ll be uploading some stuff to Dropbox or iCloud beforehand and during these trips, to ensure that I have backups of current projects if I do drop my computer into the Atlantic.

Keyboard/Monitor
I won’t take an external keyboard or external monitor on the Florida trip, though I always use both at home: they make for better ergonomics and multi-window computing convenience. Too bulky for a carry-on though. I may be able to use the external that’s at the Mexico house. I did take a 22” external monitor to a two-month stint in the Bahamas, and I’m glad I did, but it was a hassle in transit, and I sold it there before I left. I might take an external keyboard to Mexico—I’m a much more efficient typist with one, and they don’t take up much space in a checked bag.

Mouse
Even though my Mac’s trackpad works fine, I’ll still take an external mouse, the wireless kind that work with a USB transceiver. Again, my writing flows more freely (fewer mouse droppings) when I use a mouse.

Camera
Even if you’re only a middlin’ photographer, sometimes the images you take while traveling are the ones that best accompany a trip, iStock be damned. Your shots might specifically illustrate the points or places you describe in your article, and your editor will want them (or at least want to take a look at them). Any decent digital snapshot camera of today can take quality photos if you have a adequate eye for interest and composition. I’m no National Geographic photographer, but I’ve had lots of my photos published with my articles. And the camera has to fit easily in a pants (or in this case, shorts) pocket.

iPad
I might be tweeting from some of the venues in Florida, so I will bring my mini-iPad with me. I don’t use a smartphone because I’m on the ding-dang computer 10 hours or more a day anyway, and I don’t want to be lured by the siren of incessant email and text and Net by a phone—ever. But the iPad is a good compromise, and a good way to check email on the go if necessary (more likely back in the hotel room if I’m too weary to boot a computer). I’m a doddering fool on its virtual keyboard, but can make do.

Digital recorder
I’m bringing a tiny digital recorder with me in case I want to speak notes into it rather than write them while I’m on the move. This might alarm some of my fellow travelers, but these are the days when people talk aloud into space while on the move—some of them are even speaking to human beings; others are communing with the cosmos.

Notepad
I’ll bring a pocket-sized notepad on each trip. I often scribble (mostly unintelligible) notes while I travel that can come in handy later, and you don’t have to rely on not fully reliable technology. You will have to rely on the technology of the pencil or pen, however. But sometimes even a single word—macaw!—can bring back the full import of a scene you want to write about later, and notepads are great for that.

Of course there are a number of other incidentals a travel writer’s suitcase could contain (a world globe with a six-foot stand, maybe a javelin), but listed are some core things a writer might think about (and possibly forget) when they are planning a trip. If you need a wool blanket, let me know.

PS I am bringing toothpaste, so feel comfortable sitting next to me if you see me.

How to Successfully Write Like a Turkey

Turkeys

Not the best shot, but they were running around like, well, like turkeys

For the last couple of months, around 20 wild turkeys have been strolling their gobbling paths through the open fields of my neighborhood. It’s amazing when they cruise by the field close to my Airstream office, because they are startlingly big birds, and in their turkeyness, quite odd-looking ones too.

Since spring is just a snapped window-shade opening away, lately the male birds have begun to whip up their tail feather tuxedo, to give the ladies a peek at the splendid side. If you don’t spend a lot of time looking at a turkey’s backside, you might never have seen their flashdance, where they fan those tail feathers in a broad semicircle, displaying the the bright bands of color at feather’s end.

It’s an eye-catching sight, and an impressive one too. One of the reason it impresses is that the birds don’t do it constantly, so that the amazement threshold dims; instead, they putter and poke around, grubbing in the fields in their civilian clothes. It’s only when some kind of unseen “Showtime!” signal occurs that they feel the need to fan out their deck of face cards, and then quickly put them away.

Just a Flash, and No More

The flash of color, of intrigue, of insight—I think that’s what we should do with our writing. No one likes heavy writing, that draws attention to itself by pounding you in the face, then in the gut, then the face again. But what if in what you’re reading, a curtain quickly opens and you see something intriguing, only to have it close again? Wouldn’t you read a bit further to see what’s behind the curtain?

Though there are many ways to insert elements in your writing that might be considered revelations—surprise, your lead character was actually a lovestruck alien from the 25th century!—here I’m just talking about interesting turns of phrase, vivid language used with sparing care. Flashes in writing are momentary: they offer a promise, provoke intrigue, suggest something more. It harkens to the same psychological mechanism of the slot machines: there are small payoffs (and they are loud and colorful) in between stretches of quiet. It’s a mechanism you can use to send a flare of interest, no matter if you are writing business copy or a novel.

Words Take Wing

I’m a word guy first, so I gravitate toward language to put the trot in my turkeys. Be conscious of flat turns of phrase in your work, whether you type for business or for tale. Give flat phrases a face by filling in their features: stronger verbs, interesting syntax, varying sentence rhythms. Let’s look at a standard sentence turkey, followed by one flashing his charms:

He walked unsteadily through the crowd.

He careened, he lurched, he staggered, he chugged—we see his tripping traipsings with more vigor, more clarity, more delight.

Rearranging how your words fall can make them rise:

Dullard: Benjie was besotted, and his head lolled on his sloped shoulders.

Benjie, Better: Shoulders sloped, head lolling, see besotted Benjie.

Even being conscious of the sound of words (and how they sound strung together) can give your writing resonance:

Barely a Sound: He drove the taxi for hours through the dark streets of the suburban neighborhood.

More Music: He drove, the taxi’s sharp lights sniffing out the darkened curbs, the dull patches of suburban lawn grey-green in the bleak light.

Don’t Troll the Thesaurus

I’m not suggesting here that you become a thesaurus troll, someone picking canned words from a list—that will only make your words listless. Many are the sentences that are best served with solid Anglo-Saxon words. I’m also not talking about using unusual words just for the sake of novelty. Look not to pad your sentences, but to spice them, with language that is your own—but perhaps your own language after additional caffeine. This kind of word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence vigilance might seem wearying, but more wearying is reading writing that has no spark.

Putting Some Mustard on the Turkey

If you’ve every watched a turkey fly, you know it can look like someone tossed a large, unbalanced sack of feathers into the air. They are ungainly, awkward flyers, but they get the job done. And as I mentioned above, with their neck-stretching pecking-and-lunging walk, they can look peculiar on the ground too. But with that feather flash, they perform a magic trick: they turn their turkey trot into a show of style.

Yeah, I know—who wants to be identified as a turkey? But learning how to successfully write like a turkey has its benefits. As the old saying goes (with some editing), every turkey has its day.  Show your tail feathers.

Warm Applause for Writers Who Give Generously

'Writing Home In Calling Lake Alberta' photo (c) 2011, Mennonite Church USA Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

I spend entirely too much time reading about writing and reading about writers rather than writing myself, but when I am reading, I want to be provoked, challenged, stimulated and amused. Over the course of 2013, many writers I read have done these things, and some of them consistently do them all. Here’s a list of writers who through their blogs, podcasts, newsletters and ululating cries from the tops of (non-ivory) towers give generously of their time and talents to the benefit of other writers (and readers of every stripe, of course). To all of you, a hearty thanks!

Carol Tice is a long-time freelancer and author who is the brains behind the great Make a Living Writing blog. She founded the equally great Freelance Writers Den, which is a rich resource for support and education for all levels of freelancers. She knows her stuff—and is willing to share.

Linda Formichelli is the head renegade at the Renegade Writer blog, and one of the helpful “Den Mothers” at the Freelance Writers Den mentioned above. She sends out to her email list daily (and juicy) “Morning Motivations for Writers.” She recently published Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race … and Step Into a Career You Love, which I recommend to those weary of rat-racing.

Ed Gandia is an exemplary freelance copywriter, author, speaker and coach—and a great guy (at least from seeing, reading, and hearing him online). His The High-Income Business Writing podcast hosts informative writers talking on practical freelancing topics. He’s the co-author of the bestselling and award-winning book The Wealthy Freelancer, as well as the founder of the International Freelancers Academy.

Peter Bowerman is another great writer, strong writer’s counselor, and also a great guy, one whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in person. His The Well-Fed Writer and The Well-Fed Self-Publisher are essential books on the freelancing life. Check out his Well-Fed Writer blog.

Joanna Penn is one of the standout voices in the maelstrom that is the publishing world. She provides an always perceptive take on what’s what in publishing, and how to take the reins of your writing career in firm hand. Get her fine counsel at The Creative Penn and check out her novels and nonfiction too.

Jon Morrow is the agent provocateur who regularly kicks writer’s butts with his posts on not just thinking or talking about writing but actually taking risks and getting real writing work done. He was the associate editor of Copyblogger (a marketing/copywriting site I can’t recommend enough), and now throws lightning bolts from his site at Boost Blog Traffic.

Jonathan Fields is a guy who almost seems like a data-delighted high priest of writing, and you’ll often see on his blog a winning blend of logic, science and especially the human touch to plumb and understand the depths of communication. His Good Life Project is a probing, reflective series of interviews with people who have struggled in their work and personal lives and gained great (and instructive) ground in understanding and elaborating on the human condition through work and play. And how to live richly and well within that humanness. Fields is a fine author as well.

Hope Clark has long sent out a writing newsletter that’s been chockablock filled with writing tips, grants and other publishing opportunities for writers. I’ve subscribed for years, and am always delighted, particularly with her thoughtful editorials. She’s also a mystery novelist of some acclaim.

Chris Brogan is an author, entrepreneur, and genial gadabout who runs Human Business Works and other ventures to help other entrepreneurs and businesses make their fully realized and authentic way in the world. His weekly newsletter supplies great motivational tools—and he will answer every reply.

Porter Anderson is one smart cookie, who writes with insight and wry wonder at the crazy minefield of the publishing industry. He blogs seemingly all over the durn place, but prominently at Publishing Perspectives, Jane Friedman’s (see below) site and (see below again, if you dare) Writer Unboxed.

Jane Friedman’s site, magazine and general work examine with an analytical but empathetic eye the windings of many writing roads, from individual authorship to self- and traditional publishing to diverse matters of writing craft and business. She is on top of the latest developments—and offers clear interpretations from that peak.

Writer Unboxed is not a single writer, but a site that hosts daily posts on issues of writing craft, writing business and the vagaries of the writing life. The posters run the range from aspiring writers to authors with decades of experience and decades of publishing success. And the spirit of the site is open, generous and deep. (And they’ve even let me post a few times, despite my hairdo.)

And I wasn’t going to include any of my personal friends in this list because I don’t want you to think I can be bought off (I can, but send fifties), but I’m compelled to salute Joel Canfield, who counsels authors looking to self-publish at his Someday Box site, guiding them from the starting of sentences to the polishings for print (and wiggling electrons too). He’s a mighty nice fellow as well.

Thanks to all these writing stalwarts, and great success to all in 2014!

Poking the Eyes Out (At Least One) of the Green-Eyed Writing Monster

'Jealousy' photo (c) 2011, William Shannon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 Yes, I know—it’s his face that’s green.  But go with it.

I occasionally guest-post over at Writer Unboxed, the fine writer’s site that has daily posts on all aspects of writing craft, the publishing world, and the business of fiction. Its regular roster includes many traditionally and self-published authors, premier agents and book doctors, and writers who haven’t experienced a lot of commercial success, but who are working religiously on their skills.

I was slotted for another post in early 2014, and my topic was going to be writing jealousy. Specifically, jealousy at the success of other writers. More specifically, MY jealousy of other writers’ successes. If you’ve read a sampling of my posts, you might have noticed that I can be a wise guy on my topics, throwing in a joke here and jibe there. I intended that for the green-eyed writing monster post (and will be guilty of it here), but since I can speak for pretty much every one of the 143,345,981 writers in the world, trust me—it can be a problem.

But some other treacherous writer at Unboxed just wrote a post on jealousy, that underhanded fiend, so I’ll roll with the topic here.

It All Started in Catholic School

For me, I think the problem started in Catholic school. (When in doubt, blame the nuns.) You see, they had us learning the 10 Commandments in first or second grade, glazed-eyed reciting by gathered tykes on an almost daily basis. Consider: If you were a seven-year-old, and you were told not to covet your neighbor’s wife, what would you think? I hadn’t even known if I had any talent at this coveting thing, and now I was being told not to do it. I immediately went back home and checked out the local wives to see if they were up to some covert coveting. But I wasn’t so busy with that that I couldn’t covet my neighbor’s house as well. Covet, covet, covet.

I am only an amateur psychologist (though I will accept money for my analyses), but I got the sense that my Catholic brethren were priming the pump for us on the sin thing. You know, telling us what not to do, so its fascination impelled us into that forbidden, coveted quest. But back then, I had the mercy of confession to hose off my juvenile sins. However, since I am a lapsed Catholic, I suppose this blog post is my confession.

Pathetic Wastes of Time and Other Jolly Pursuits

This I know: being jealous of your fellow writers’ triumphs is a mighty pathetic waste of time. As Carrie Fisher said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. ” Too often I’ve squirmed and twitched when I’ve read about the incredible contracts given to contemporary authors, soaring sales figures, critical acclaim, while I’m still grubbing about trying to get an agent to spend 15 minutes with my manuscript. As I commented on the Writer Unboxed post, “It’s not that I want successful writers to die; perhaps just have gangrene. Still working on it.”

So I am working on it. It’s my pre-New Year’s resolution. It might sound like pabulum, but I am going to remind myself to congratulate those who do well, and to try and work all the harder on my own writing. So somebody can be jealous of me. No, I don’t mean that. Well, not all that much.

Is it OK if I still covet my neighbor’s iPad mini, though?

Copyblogger Essay Contest Deadline

I guess the first thing I’ll do that other writers will be jealous of is win Copyblogger’s essay contest. Who cares if a zillion other socially climbing copywriters have entered? Anyway, Copyblogger is one of the best sites on the Interwebz for useful advice on copywriting and content marketing. These guys and gals are so damn smart it smarts. (That doesn’t have any trace of jealousy, does it?) Those smarty-pantsers have an essay contest happening now, with great prizes, and the deadline is December 4 at 5pm PST. Click below to get the details. Take your shot!

Copyblogger Essay Contest Participant

Enter the contest or get more content marketing tips from Copyblogger.

Licking the Cat and Other Writing Tips

Drunk Kitty

Poor cat had a midnight deadline—had to hit the hootch hard afterwards

Scuttlebutt had it that Barbara Cartland, the doyenne of romance writers, did much of her early writing at the piano, stark naked. However that strains credibility, everyone’s heard of writers who insist they can’t write without their ancient manual typewriters with the missing keys, or their favorite fountain pens (or maybe even a stylus and hot wax). Writers can be a peculiar lot, and it’s not surprising that their composing methods can be all over the map.

You would think that the map for business writers would have to be a bit more restrictive, at least in terms of how they approach deadline destinations, but it ain’t necessarily so. I’ll peek here at some variegated methods that freelance writers use to get to the same place—the delivery of deadline material. Since I am a freelance writer (mostly for the tech industry), perforce my attentions will focus on my own methods. However, since I have kept the company of fellow miscreant scriveners in the tech-writing world, I’ll toss in a couple of contrasting approaches.

One sidestep I’ll take is taking on the startup mentality: though you can still hear of Silicon Valley employees working 15-hour shifts, the sleeping bag rolled at the ready under the desk, with maniacal managers patrolling cubicle fields exhorting the troops to donate their iron-poor blood to the cause of one more development deadline, that’s no path to writing productivity. At least qualitatively.

Writing in Bursts (of Bourbon)

My distaste for those fervid accounts is personal (and relevant to this account, thank god). My general view is that even with business writing, even with pressing deadlines, the stacking of ever-tottering hours of effort just results in a diminished return: your stack will topple (and so will you). This view is prejudiced by my own writing methods: I think writing is best crafted in short bursts, somewhat like synaptic patterns, the mind sending out a sheaf of arrows that hit targets, and then reloading. I recognize that sometimes you absolutely must grind out time at the keyboard (or on your papyrus), if you know that tomorrow’s brochure needs an eighth page and you’ve only got seven, or if you’re inputting “final” edits for the 10th time on a print-ready book project at 1am, but those are times when prayer or bourbon (or both) might ease you through.

What I’m addressing is where you have writing requirements for which the scope is pretty clear: this many words on this subject gets you this check. I know writers who can just bang out a first draft by sitting down and getting up hours later. For me, taking mini-breaks is the breathing of the mind after exercise: sprint through a paragraph, get up and wander to the front window to see if anyone is undressing in the neighbor’s house, sprint through another paragraph, pay the invoice for that fountain pen you regret buying, sprint through .…

These writing tips tilt favorably as well for so-called “creative” writing, corralled in quotes here because I believe that business writing can be quite creative. I finally realized that I couldn’t wait for inspiration, a muse whose answering machine is all I get when I call. Often, I can only work on a fictional piece in half-hour or one-hour bursts, then need to read a magazine article or wipe grime off the stove knobs or use my hair to apply polish to my shoes. Then, when I go back to the work, the windows open again for fresh writing air. Contrary to those tech-industry beliefs, dawdling is an integral component of productivity.

Forget the Beach—Bathe Your Brain Instead

It’s a laugh to have seen so many ads in tech magazines past of people at the beach with their laptops, or writing on their decks in the blazing sun (“Stay Connected All The Time With Our Wireless You-Don’t-Know-How-Asinine-You-Look-At-The-Beach-Now High-Speed Modem), as though that was incredible freedom. Nah, freedom is when your brain does the work for you while, away from the keyboard, you peel an orange: “Ah, the hollow-but-compelling marketing phrase I was looking for just appeared in my mind—a miracle!”

So, whether you need to lean back between writing jaunts and listen to Hendrix playing Purple Haze at bleeding-ear volume, or choose to give the cat a good five-minute grooming (whether with a brush or your tongue), consider it all part of the writing process. Whether you decide to bill your client for that “passive concentration” time is a matter for you, your accountant and your conscience, you conscientious scribe, you.

Editing: the Big Gazoombah to the Ant’s Antennae

The Editing Hand

This guy’s so good he doesn’t even need a head to edit well

Editing a book-length project is an intriguing undertaking for the sheer variety of the material an editor might see. I’ve edited both fiction and nonfiction works for years, having cut my eyeteeth on big software manuals years ago (the writing of which can be more creative than might be imagined), and having moved into novels and nonfiction projects as time’s train has moved on.

There’s some argument as to what an editor does (slash the soul out of an artist’s heart might be one angle) and divergent discussion yet about the types of editing. But I set up my lemonade stand with three: developmental editing, copyediting (or line editing) and proofing. You could stack a lot of words to describe the distinctions—and other editors break them down into more categories yet—but for this discussion, let’s call developmental editing the big-picture shakeout: you assess a nonfiction work for its structure: does it have a solid foundation, are the walls of its ideas well-framed, does the front door open to the living room rather than the bathroom, does the roof of its concepts leak, are the floors of its logic cracked?

You get much more granular with a line edit, inspecting paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of the espoused ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Proofreaders, the Chimney Sweeps of the Editing World

Proofreading might be considered the lowly chimney sweep of the editing ranks, but if your work is blackened by misspellings, typos, transposed words, extra words (so often I’ll see a stray “a” next to an “an”), or inconsistency of usage and style (writing “versus” when it’s been “vs” all along), the book’s fire just won’t burn clean. And sometimes a work will need an extra sweeping, because when initial errors are corrected, new errors are introduced. (Which should be some kind of law, like the Uncertainty Principle.)

The reason I’m going into this “What’s an Editor Do Besides Unnecessarily Charge You?” is because I’m editing a blend of a memoir/personal development book right now. The work consists of a series of essays, some a couple of pages, some thirty, filtered through the author’s spirited perspective, founded on her extensive travels and her interesting background. The author engaged me to copyedit the book, but in checking it out, it begged for a developmental edit first.

Here a Theme, There a Theme

I ended up moving essentially all the chapters around, and grouping them into six themes. Because there wasn’t a grounding voice that began the work, I wrote a main introduction and then six short introductions to each theme (all vetted by the writer, of course), and will suggest adding any needed transitions at other points in the book. I think this greatly strengthened the framing for the work—the roof, walls and floors are in the right places now, and now I can start looking at whether the furniture fits the rooms and whether the knick-knacks fit the furniture.

And my mom wanted me to be a brain surgeon. She just didn’t realize that editors are pretty much surgeons too. And sometimes politicians. And psychologists. And—oh, don’t get me started.

Writing Contests: Yea, Nay, or Meh?

 

 

Steinbeck award copy

No, I didn’t get a pawnbroker to re-etch my name over the real winner’s

It’s great to get published. I’ve had the good fortune to be published in lots of magazines and newspapers, and I’m grateful for the editors who have given me the opportunity, particularly when I first started out, and had nary a clip to my name. But there’s a special—and sometimes odd—kick that comes from doing well in a writing contest.

There’s some ego investment there for sure. But I think the ego vector comes less from “Wow, did I kick Shakespeare’s old booty all over the place in that haiku contest!” than Sally Field’s famous, “… this time I feel it—and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

Writers can be inward sorts, languishing a league or two below the surface in their writing caves, so validation of any sort is manna precious.

The reason I bring up writing contests right now is that I recently won second place in a travel-writing contest over at Dave’s Travel Corner. Dave had solicited contest prizes from some of his travel industry connections, so in addition to $100 cash, I received two travel books, a certificate for a private tasting for six ($180 value) at a fancy-schmancy Napa winery, a Vegas.com promotional kit (my article is set in Vegas) that included a deck of cards, nice poker chips, coasters and more, and last but not least chewy: two big packs of licorice vines. Now them’s some winnin’s.

Paying to Play

Dave had the generous spirit not to charge for entry into his contest, but many contests do require entry fees. I’ve seen novel writing contests where the fees went upward of $125, but of course, reviewing novels for contest entries could take up a great deal of reading time. Many contests I’ve entered were free, but a good number of them required entry fees between $10 and $25. Some years I’ve probably spent between $100 for contests, others maybe half that much. But I’ve had fair luck with my entries.

Right now I’m enjoying the tail end of a free year of Carol Tice’s Freelance Writing Den (normally $25 a month), and have found the Den a deep well of excellent writing resources, as well as a congenial place for writers to congregate. I won that free year just by writing—no fee—a blog post. Here’s my doffed cap to Carol and Linda Formichelli for choosing me.

I’ve won tickets to a Broadway play; admission, lodging and meals at a good writer’s conference; a few cash prizes of $100 or more, and long ago, that lovely glass plaque that adorns this post. That plaque is one of my prized possessions: being named on anything with John Steinbeck’s name is good gravy. The fact that it came with $1,000 cash and that Leon Panetta presented it to me (in lieu of an ill Thomas Steinbeck, John’s son) made that gravy all the warmer.

Contests (With Caveats), Si!

So, to answer the question that this post poses: I have to say Yea! Contests can give you good exposure. They can also stretch your writing: you will often be given a theme or a prompt to follow, and it can be a helpful challenge to push your words into places they wouldn’t go otherwise. And sometimes you might be able to enter an article or a story with a piece that you’d written some time ago and hadn’t found a home for. Don’t forget that Sally Field thrill. Not to mention, there’s the potential for licorice.

Make sure the contest is credible, make sure to follow the contest guidelines to the letter, and of course, don’t spend money that you can’t afford. (I’ve lost WAY more contests than I’ve won.) I was going to list a lot of writing contest resources, but the smart fellow at The Competitive Writer has already done that.

He provides links to writing contest advice and resources, like Hope Clark’s great Funds for Writers newsletter and Moira Allen’s Writing World, two newsletters I always look forward to receiving. He also lists contest databases, care of fine publications like Poets and Writers. One other source not on his list is the yearly Writer’s Market, which can be obtained in print or online or both. That publication has a Contests and Awards section that lists contest specs, fees, deadlines and prizes.

Oh, but don’t enter any of the ones I intend to. I’m sensitive, you know.