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!]

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.

Honey, Somebody Shrunk the Summer

Sunrise

Yeah, it’s a sunrise and it’s the Bahamas, but I needed something soulful, so…

Did you feel summer slip away, like a door quietly closing? I had an unnerving, visceral sensation yesterday, walking in my driveway when the sun was going down. An arrow of information—summer’s gone!—shot into my head, all because, without consciously thinking of it, I noticed how the angle of light from the waning sun was different, softer, recessive. And it wasn’t as though I actually thought about it—the bent beam just went into the processing center, where time’s sequences are catalogued, and it came out stamped “End of Summer Light.” Only then did the painters from Emotional Central rush out with their brushes dripping with blue.

Blue because seasonal passages are always colored with melancholy for me, even if I’m anticipating good things to come. I too often make the error of measuring by “things I didn’t get done” rather than sifting through the Greats, Goods, Pretty Goods, Neutrals and Wretched Circumstances That Tasted of Bile and Longing. Why some personalities (one being mine) might gravitate to bile and longing has long puzzled me, but that’s one for the psychoanalysts I can’t afford.

Dang, I Can’t Even Get an NSA Agent Interested

My biggest goal that I’d hoped to achieve by summer’s end was to get an agent for my novel. Not for want of trying, but so far, all my fiddling with my query, avid agent seeking, fussing with my opening chapter and sacrificing infants on a candlelit altar has been in vain. I’m going to continue to look into traditional publishing, but after six months of querying, it’s looking more likely that I’ll have to go the self-pub route with this, as I did with my first novel. That’s OK, but I’d hoped to get a pass on all that entails with this one (though part of what that entails—a lot of platform building and marketing outreach—isn’t sidestepped with traditional publishing today anyway).

Longing and bile aside (I keep a bucket handy, filled with both, plus a mixer), I am making some progress on a new short story and a novel, so there’s that. Plus, some fun articles of mine coming out soon on various subjects in magazines and papers.

The light slants, fall beckons, still many sentences to shape.

Writers, does the sliding of the seasons affect your work, goals, or cocktail preparations?

To Thine Own Self (Publishing) Be True

Leaded type

I finished a novel in late 2012. Titled Aftershock, it’s based in San Francisco, and the 1989 earthquake plays a central part in throwing—almost literally—some disparate lives together. Nobody’s particularly comfortable in the book, but that’s the prerogative of the author—we get to torture our characters, so that we can be better people ourselves. Or not.

But I don’t want to talk about my psychological problems. (Unless you swing by with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon—I have ice on ice waiting for you.) I do want to briefly talk about publishing. Briefly, because talking about the changes in publishing is an industry in itself these days, and my adding to the din won’t land me any Oprah-time.

Bleary Queries

To this point, I’ve sent queries about my novel to 22 agents. Despite the publishing heavens being torn by demons, agents remain the middle defenders for those writers hungering for the traditional publishing route, with its still-credible distribution structure, now-flagging marketing support, and tarnished-yet-dimly-shiny “Look mom, some NY bigwigs bought my book” cachet.

Depending on the agent guidelines, those queries have included a couple of full manuscripts, a lot of 10-50 page excerpts, or just a synopsis and a prayer. So far, I’ve received 12 rejections; some of the queries are a few months’ old without response, so I’ll probably follow up on the best of those.

But the winds of change have blown their clichéd gusts through publishing’s doors, and floors. Self-publishing no longer has the “I wrote seven poems about grandma’s feet, and had them printed with a velvet cover” taint. I self-published my first novel, had a book of short stories published by a small press after that, and should no agent show real interest in my newest work in the next few months, I’ll go the self-abuse route once more. (I did always love the punchline for the you’ll-go-blind masturbation joke, “Hey, can I just do it long enough so I only have to wear glasses?”)

Resources: Self-pub Grub

I’ve been reading a good deal about the publishing industry and its earthquakes in the last year or so. Here are a few good books that have solid info on the publishing world, self-publishing and how to market your work:

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

Create Your Writer Platform

Sites with Insights

And here are some sites I read regularly that provide great resources and insights into the roiling new world of publishing.

Jane Friedman
The Creative Penn
Digital Book World

And if I do self-publish, this time I’ll have my book edited by some professional other than myself. Woe befalls the writer, even if they are professional editors, who edit their own work. That self-abuse could take the sight from any writer’s eyes, and I already wear glasses, so I know better now.

How Being Short Can Take You a Long Way

Being short, you’ll never have to worry about seeing all of that guck that’s on the top of your refrigerator. Me being the long, lanky type, so shamed am I when I spot that accretion of grime that I have to stop the speechwriting I do for the American Graham Cracker Collection Society, and clean it immediately. But here I’m referring to length, not height, where bigger isn’t necessarily better—in writing.

There’s a situation that brings this to mind: I’m going to the Writer’s Digest West writing conference in LA in late October, and there I’m going to engage in a frolicsome thing called a pitch slam. A pitch slam isn’t where you test your curveball to see if you can strike out Albert Pujols; it’s where a hoard of peevish, underfed literary agents listen to your strangled proposal for your book, and then press a button that puts you in a trash compactor, while you hear the waning sounds of their maniacal laughter.

The slam part is this: you have 90 seconds to pitch your book. Ninety seconds: that’s easily enough time for me sit in front of the agent, swallow my tongue, fall to the floor and writhe spasmodically. I have scanned the agents who are available for this particularly torture, and I see that I will have at least five chances to pitch—a fit—in front of them. Thus my writing exercise for the next month will be to put the novel I’ve just finished into a readily digestible pill: sweet, vivid and utterly condensed.

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie

I’ve written before on how challenging (yet oddly freeing) it can be to be forced to write with brevity. It’s refreshing, like ice in your underwear. For ballast, I’ll be checking out some information on pitching and synopses from the Guide to Literary Agents blog, where I’ve gleaned good information before.

Writing short is a useful art. A couple of months ago, I won a great MediaBistro Literary Festival conference pass just by tweeting what I judged to be the best sentence I’d ever written. (Never mind, with counting the hashtag, that my first three choices were longer than Twitter’s character count allows). As Dorothy Parker said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” Thus, to display my lingerie, I just entered the Gotham Writer’s Workshop 91-word memoir contest, where you are supposed to deliver your biography in 91 words. Here’s my first half:

A Cardboard Fort, Conquered by Language
At six, long backyard hours in cardboard refrigerator-box fort, alone with clock, dinosaur books and languid time. At twelve, graduating to Hesse, Twain, Steinbeck, and hearing the sweet siren call of language. At twenty-four, English-degreed, writing crabbed copy for catalogs, questing.

You’ll just have to wait for the rest; I don’t want to reveal the part about my secret marriage to Doris Duke while the contest is pending. Have to run—have to figure out how to squeeze my multi-points-of-view tragicomic opus into 90 seconds, without including all the sighs, cries and lies.

(And hey, if any of you agents happen to read this, I don’t really think you are peevish or underfed. I will remember all your children’s birthdays forever.)

Bonus Material! Missing Teeth, Dangerous Drugs and an Unsober Man

And for a little comic relief, of the not-so-short variety, take a look at my guest post on the charming aspects of hysteria experienced in the dentist’s office. That minor play of neuroses is courtesy of Dr. Richard Wilson’s Bite Point blog; Doc Wilson is the author of many a toothsome tale, including the forthcoming epic, The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks.

Polished Heads Mean Cleaner Writing

Colleen Wainwright

C. Wainwright, Sans Locks but w/Lots of Love

Quick updates: I’d posted here earlier about Colleen Wainwright’s leadership in trying to raise 50K for WriteGirl, the L.A. program that instructs high school girls in the love and practice of good writing. Colleen set out from nuttin’ to raise the dough, and promised that she would shave her industrious head if her project made her milestone. Yes, with 10K to spare. Thus you see her beaming, polished pate in the photo above.

Check out Colleen’s video on all things head-shaving here, and about the post-fundraising sort-outs. Huge round of applause and appreciation for Colleen demonstrating that a single person (with the help of many) can drive an idea home against strong odds. She believed in her project, and shared its strengths in a way that others could connect with. Well done!

Literary Agents Liberated—We Have a Winner
In another fascinating recap (hey, slow news week), the stirring contest to see who would come away with the free copy of the 2012 Guide to Literary Agents is over, and Laura Stanfill came away with the prize. Laura is a writer, of all the damnable things, and is giving away books on her blog as well, so check it out. (I am going to start giving away talking eggplants—this book giveaway stuff is too conventional.)

In the Bread and Circuses Vein
I can’t provide any writing advice in this episode other than letting you know that writing badly over and over again is painful, but less so than childbirth or living near a Brussel sprouts farm. But writing badly on a regular basis can lead to writing better. Now that we’re finished with those sententious pronouncements, here’s an opinion poll: which means of having your cocktail mixed would produce the most palatable beverage:

2012 Guide to Literary Agents Giveaway

Guide to Literary Agents

Ooh, free stuff. Better yet, good free stuff! That good stuff is the 2012 edition of the Guide to Literary Agents, which has comprehensive contact listings of agents and agencies, tells you what they are looking for in regards novels and nonfiction books, and supplies submission tips and writerly suggestions. And one of you glittery souls who merely puts in a comment here will be shipped a free copy of the guide. (Gotta be a U.S. address—sorry!)

Besides all the agency listings, the book has lots of articles on what makes agents happy with your submissions, and what makes them cranky. There’s also a section on writing conferences and screenwriting. This is the book for you even if you can’t decide if your novel is YA or DOA. The guide also includes an updated online subscription to agent listings.

Shameless Plug
What will undoubtedly thrill you down to your very tippy-toesies is knowing that there’s an article of mine in the book. It’s somewhat of a how-to on setting up (and getting something out of) a personal writer’s retreat. That’s a freebie too.

Even if you don’t have a manuscript or book proposal ready for an agent, you might want to swim in the comment stream just to get stimulated. I’ll take all your names and select one at random. I’ll cut off the contest a week from today, and I’ll let the winner know by email.

And to my pals who drop by and comment on a regular basis, no, I’m not going to cheat and choose one of you just because you’re pretty. Grow up. This is legit. (But you still have a chance in the random drawing. And you’re still pretty.)

Anatomy of A Failed Book Proposal

The deed to my deep holdings in the fabled Hollow

I’ve been copyediting the forthcoming Guide to Literary Agents 2012 book, and seeing all of the do’s and don’ts on sending your queries and proposals to agents reminded me that one of my big ideas for a book flamed out a little while back.

Since I was familiar with the fundamentals of writing a book proposal, I think I put together a reasonable effort, one that addressed the usual requisites of Synopsis, Chapter Outline, Sample Chapters, Market Overview, Platform, and Blithering On About My Background. If you Google “How to Write a Book Proposal” you’ll get results out of the yin-yang (wipe them carefully), but Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal (updated to its 4th edition) is considered a classic.

If you can no longer bear the act of reading words on a page (the horror!), you can listen to Ted Weinstein’s Book Proposal Bootcamp audio recording, which is quite good. He has other proposal-writing tips on his site as well.

It All Starts with a Drink. No, I Mean an Idea!
Of course, you need an idea for the book. Mine started with a callow, whiskey-drinking youth who, upon seeing a prompt on a Jack Daniel’s bottle urging fans to write the distillery, wrote something like this: “Why, not only do I enjoy consuming Jack’s finest in a conventional way, but I also brush my teeth with it, and keep a glass on my bedside table, at the ready to ward off night sweats and other less congenial spirits.”

Little did I know that would prompt a tide of strange letters and documents, and even stranger objects (a rabbit’s foot, rubbing stone, chewing tobacco, sippin’ glasses and more) sent from the distillery to me. My first return letter from them came 35 years ago. I received another a month ago and I’ve faithfully returned the favor back to them, quirky letter for quirky letter. Even when months would go by without receiving a letter, that’s a lot of correspondence, marketing gimmick or not. (A lot of whiskey too.)

Thus, my thought that were I to package up the correspondence, and scans and photos of the mailed oddments between us (sent through their sister organization, the Tennessee Squires), and include a kind running chronology/commentary of what was happening personally and socially over the course of the correspondence, that would make for a weird, whiskey-soaked memoir. Egads, a book!

Putting the Kibosh on the Korrespondence
Anyway, if you scan the proposal, you can see that it’s a fair amount of work to put one together. It was composed a while ago, so some of the info is out of date. But one issue that Little Tommy forgot (and which was pointed out only toward the end of sending it out to a number of agents): I don’t own the copyright to letters sent to me. And when I politely inquired of the Tennessee Squires (of which I am a bonafide landed-gentry member) if I could assemble all our correspondence in a book, they politely turned me down. I asked twice, but no go. They just weren’t interested in publicity about the Tennessee Squire organization. Or they didn’t like the smell of my breath, who knows?

Anyway, I still might publish a shorter recounting of all this high-proof business, because it’s amusing. The next proposal I write, about Hugh Hefner’s pajama collection, will have all copyright issues solved in advance.

Chopping the Copywriting and Creative Writing Salad

Copywriters that have a clearly defined niche—”I write sales letters for mid-tier businesses selling nuclear-powered rabbits”—are both constrained by their choices and freed by them. They are constrained in that they may have always dreamed of writing sales letters for nuclear-powered goat companies, but instead they are known as the rabbit guy, and thus they don’t want to dilute their focused offering, and potentially blur the boundaries of their defined space.

However, they are freed from casting their “I-need-new-work” lines in the thistle-tangled fields of businesses small, medium and large, who might peddle soap made from recycled comic books, or tongue scrapers for denture wearers. Generalist copywriters tend to a casual work garden of mingled (and sometimes flopping) stalks, colors and scents, while the specialist might have a sturdy monocrop of clients and cutoff dates.

You might guess that I’m a generalist.

The 360-degree Rotating Exorcist Head
I’ve thought about trying to restrain my 360-degree rotating Exorcist head (minus green spewings) of writing endeavors, but it’s just not my nature. While I can admire the ferocity of focus some copywriters employ, I can’t join their ranks—I don’t think I could breathe. And, genial bigot that I am, I have to sing the praises of the generalist’s keys, because polymath writing pursuits are inherently interesting for their variety. This month alone, to wit:

  • I finished an article for Fine Books and Collections magazine on the makers of exquisite and zany handmade books, touring the U.S. in their gypsy wagon.
  • Finished editing a book on social media for nonprofits.
  • Edited the first in a series of short books on Nonverbal Communication in Dentistry.
  • Wrote logo taglines suggestions for a home design and remodel company, and begin writing their brochure copy.
  • Discussed writing “replies” for a company that’s developed an advanced virtual personal assistant chatbox app; the replies will cover the branching potentials for suggested questions that users might want answered.
  • In discussion with a company that needs someone to update the documentation for the new version of its novel-writing software.
  • Am writing my two monthly articles (a recurring gig) for the Airstreamer, Airstream’s email newsletter.
  • Sending out queries for a variety of articles, many of them travel-related (though a few are about whiskey and one about old cars).
  • Sending out short older short stories of mine to some lit magazines.
  • Berating myself for pausing in what had been a steady (and productive!) half-hour of writing per day on my novel, having used Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then my father’s death for an excuse for not doing the work. Get after it, man!

Building Expertise, by the Paragraph and by the Project
Now, I have varying degrees of expertise in the areas above, but having written and edited nonfiction books, having written question-and-response dialog for software products, having written a novel (unpublished), having written travel pieces, having written brochures, heck, having written lots of grocery lists, I’m confident I can deliver what each organization needs, granting the many iterations of review and rewrite that some projects necessitate. For many writers like me, once you write website copy for a company, they may call you later to write headlines for an ad.

You might not have written headlines for ads before, but the good generalist will always pipe up with a merry “Yes!” when asked about their ability to write a heady headline. Many fundamental writing skills translate across boundaries—cross-writing is often more comfortable than cross-dressing. (High-heeled pumps just don’t work well with my size 13s.) So, if you are breaking in to the copywriter’s fold, and you’re thinking that you could write sales letters not only for the nuked goats and rabbits, but perhaps for radium-isotope gerbils too—go for it. Next thing you know, you’re a reptiles-with-battery packs specialist too.

How to Make Your Writing Word Wishes Come True

This is an IDEA (though it resembles a butterfly)

I’m a guy whose wishes are words. And whose wishes are FOR words. By the clock, the wished-for words are straight-spined and modest, assembling in tight, orderly rows. But when work gives way to whimsy, that’s when words can stretch, flop, and peep around corners to see who’s looking.

The division is due to the fact that I’m both a business writer and a fiction writer, and not only do the twain not meet, but the twains don’t even arrive at the same station. And that pun is not nearly as painful as trying to reconcile the two worlds of words.

Sometimes, there is a truce of sorts: a brochure on streaming video might have a little stream of consciousness, or a character sketch might call for a pencil tipped with the driest of logic. But most of the time, when I have to travel between the word-worlds, it’s a difficult, deliberate journey—an enterprise that requires even more than Thoreau’s dreaded change of clothes.

However, I want to avoid the sense that being a painter or writer or sculptor confers any elite status or implies some exalted perspective. I’ve been a staff copywriter, freelance essayist and fiction writer for years, and it’s often more a matter of managing deadlines than swooning in inspiration. Keeping the queries fresh. Being thick-skinned about the seemingly inevitable “no” that you get from most publishers. I’ve learned to just shrug and go to the next query or project.

Words for the Plucking
However, there are some moments in the writing process, where words seem to be bright objects that can be plucked out of the air and strung together in serried ranks of complement and charm. Out of nothing, a paragraph that prances—or one that cries and bleeds. In those moments, it’s less the affected pose of practiced art, but rather a kind of verbal husbandry, a farmer grateful for an unexpected crop.

This isn’t precious wordsmanship, it’s grace—and I’m grateful when it occurs.

What I’m getting at, is that at some times in the creative process, it’s less a “me” than a “Wow!” (Conversely, it’s more often, “That’s shit!”—but that’s realistic, not wallowing.)

But perspective is king: there can be beauty in the way a bus driver weaves her route, how a seventh-grader whistles a made-up tune, where the making of a good sandwich is an artful act. Those moments of grace can be fleeting, but a good sandwich is forever. Well, until lunch.

Consider this:

“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. 
How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the
moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone;
life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his
fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.”
— Vita Sackville-West

Keep hopping, and snap a net on that nervous mind.