Writers Rely on the Kindness of Characters

Stuttgart train system. (Yeah, and this is just the top layer)

I recently returned from a press trip to Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart is a old, old city, with many historic sites, cultural activities and lively districts. The city has a large railway station for local and regional trains, and the system branches widely, with overlapping and criss-crossing routes. Many people ride the trains, but few ride them like me: I got on the wrong train a few times, went past my stops a couple of times, walked the wrong way to my destination a couple of times after taking the right train, and once went entirely in the wrong train direction.

But here is where the kindness of strangers comes in: most Germans, having the benefit of compulsory English-language education when young, speak some English. Many speak it very well, but almost everyone who had to face the confused American spinning around at various train stations was able to point him in the right direction and wish him well on his journey. I’m back home, and the only thing I seemed to have lost is the ability to easily drink a liter of beer in one sitting.

However, because my writerly thoughts often turn towards an odd angle, it occurred to me how simple gestures of kindness can bring disproportionate happiness, or in my case, relief from the anxiety of being lost in an unfamiliar city. That brought me to thinking of a secondary character in a novel I wrote with another author a year ago. (Dang thing is still unpublished, but we’re working on it.)

Massimo Rides a White Horse
There is a character named Massimo Volpedo in the work who serves as a plot tool to inflame the lead character with suspicion, gloom and capricious action, because he suspects that Massimo is trying to steal his girl. I say “plot tool” because we needed the main character—Pinky DeVroom, and yes many of the character names are colorful—to blow up to almost bursting to move one of the central plot lines along.

But Massimo, who is six-foot-six, broad of beam and white of teeth, is also gay, a fact that eludes poor Pinky until he’s deep into the muck he’s made of his relationship with his lady love. And here’s where I get to something resembling my point: one of Massimo’s cellular-level traits is that he’s very kind. He is long-suffering too, but his travails have never altered the course of his decency.

When Rick and I created him, we had a vague idea of where and how his actions would propel (or pull the rug out from under) the novel. But we didn’t map out the blood and bones of his being before we tossed him in the book. His fundamental decency emerged in the writing. And the funny thing about your characters is that their behavior can reward you, the writer (and it’s hoped, the reader as well). Massimo’s goodness—and it’s not a treacly kind of goodness—made me feel better about people. His kindness was a reward of sorts, the way that I was rewarded for the lost compass of my mind so many times in Stuttgart train stations.

It’s such a cynical time that it’s challenging to even consider creating a character of full integrity, or one whose goodness doesn’t have some stripe of irony in it. But in Massimo I think we did create a person who is an ideal of sorts, though he also stumbles, he also bleeds. However, his life always moves to the light, and in some odd way, that is a beacon for me as well.

Oh, if you were one of those several people at a Stuttgart train stop who blessed me with a good direction to go, the liters of beer are on me.

PS Just a few days left to nominate my novel Aftershock for the Kindle Scout program. Any help greatly appreciated!

Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

I think Milton and I collaborated on this one, before he did Paradise Lost

This past week I’ve been sifting through old, very old and even cobwebbed articles of mine, prompted by a contest requesting an essay-collection submission. The winner will have their collection published, and will probably be knighted in a ceremony involving champagne baths and French horns. (There’s still time to enter if you have hoary archives of your own: check out the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.)

It’s funny to go through old pieces of writing, because it’s like looking at old pictures of yourself: there’s one with a funny haircut, why in God’s name would you wear that, and were you really so fascinated by that dull place? And in the reading, you see that the adamantine habits in your writing that you’ve tried so hard to eliminate—say, using limp qualifiers like “just” or “very” willy nilly—began long ago, and like old scars, are still visible now.

But what really occurred to me in going through this dusty pile of hides in the cellar is that I’ve been doing this for a long time. The contest required between 50,000–60,000 words in the collection, and I had to throw away many candidates—with all the scribbling I’ve done over time, I could have put three collections of published material together. So, I’m lucky that way, because there was a lot of dreck in there, from which to winnow.

Cream Over Pig’s Legs

Looking at some of the material I wrote makes me thankful that a lot of the journals and outlets that published it have properly faded away—the old bones no longer smell. But it’s nice to have a history to sift through, because you can tuck a lot of the pieces that have pig’s legs to the bottom, which means that something—one hopes cream—rises.

It’s also fun—playing the publisher—to arrange the pieces, in some kind of loose thematic scheme: I found an introductory piece that opens up from a colorful memory of a trip to Vegas and it moves into a “what is the American character” flavor, which feels like a good way to gun the engine at the start. The concluding piece supplies a sense of “it’s a shaky cosmos, but we’re all in it together.” As an editor, that was a fun exercise in scaffolding and structure.

Scrivener Makes Them Toe the Line

Speaking of editing, I used Scrivener to pull all the essays together in bulk, and then its wonderful drag-and-drop sorting to instantly move them around. And around and around, since I was working with the first cull of between 50–100 essays, and tossed them all about in the compilation many times, eliminating many, changing some words in a few, fiddling with titles. Then I dumped it all back into Word for final formatting.

So, all of those muscle spasms I’ve had over the years at the keyboard were worth something. I doubt I’ll win the contest, but it was interesting to filter through the perspectives (and use of language) seen in my past pieces, and to see what were constants and what were flirtations. Who knows, I might use the collection as a freebie to induce the innocent to sign up for my email list, so I can torment more readers.

If you’ve been writing for a while, do you ever go back to your old stuff? Do you cringe or do you crow? I saw a fair amount of piffle, but there were some gems too. Enough to keep on writing and see if I can do better.

Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

Tiny Islands Can Bite, But Robert Louis Stevenson Sailed On

You might think that’s a paddle for the kayak, but it’s a mosquito swatter

When I screeched in displeasure and slapped yet another mosquito (this time, the evildoer biting my bony knee) today, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed into my mind. That mind of mine has been salty of late, because the insects are winning here: “here” being a house-sit on a small, lovely island, Bequia, in the Caribbean.

Small, lovely tropical islands often have lots of small, unlovely pests, and the mosquitoes here have been ravenous, particularly lately, where my twice-daily bathings in Deet (not recommended if you want to handle power tools later in life, or perhaps play effective chess) are now failing to take effect. Well, they do have an effect: they make me feel ill, and they provide a slick surface for the mosquitos to ski on my skin, before they dip in their murderous prongs.

I thought of Stevenson, because while my aggrieved groans probably echo all the way back to Santa Cruz, Stevenson, a Scot, author of Treasure Island and other charms, was a dedicated traveler in an era when traveling itself—much less traveling to distant lands with no comforts—was complex and effortful. Stevenson was a sickly child (lungs) and a sickly adult, but he took up world travel early, and had a few bouts of near-incapacitating illnesses during and after his early journeys.

A Complication of Bones

Not long after his marriage in California he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For years after that, he searched for a region and climate that would aid his flagging health, but to no avail. So, rather than bunker up in Europe or the States, he embarked on a series of long, hard voyages to Pacific islands.

Now, I lived on a small Pacific island for a year, and they had many modern conveniences, though we felt the sting of deprivation when the island ran out of beer. Stevenson, chronically ill, was taking arduous sails to remote places where beer—and probably most of the foods he was accustomed to—was a fantasy. In the meantime, while he traveled, this mere complication of cough and bones was writing acclaimed works.

He journeyed the Pacific for years, finally settling on Samoa, where gentleman’s clothes were likely a nuisance. He was 44 when he died there, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Oddly enough, with all those South Seas travels, some literary historians have suggested that Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island based on a stay in the Monterey, CA area, having spent time at shimmering Pt. Lobos.)

At Least the Mosquitoes Don’t Have Lawyers

What am I getting at here? This: I have been heatedly complaining to my boon companion Alice about the dastardly mosquitoes for days now. Spiteful things they are, but I’ve really got to buck up a bit. Mr. Stevenson was just a bag of bones and he wandered the globe in a time when wandering took some real gumption. Here, there’s plenty of beer (though I’ve been leaning more toward the rums).

I’ve been saving up the material of the many island stays I’ve had—there’s the wet clay of a novel amid all of that sweating. But in the one I’ll write, the mosquitoes will all be butterflies.

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.)

Writers All Start Out as Drooling Eeegits

twain-maui

The image above is from a four-page brochure, published by the Hawaii Promotion Committee in Honolulu. The Hawaii Promotion Committee was a tourism organization formed in 1902 and replaced by the Hawaii Tourist Bureau in 1919. So, the brochure stands a good chance of being over 100 years old, but Twain’s writing of the glories of Hawaii is much older than that.

Twain spent four months in the islands in 1866 as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, not long after his 31st birthday. This brochure excerpts one of Twain’s 25 “Letters from the Sandwich Islands” published in the Union, devoured by California readers hungry to read of such far-off, exotic lands.

My mini-history lesson has a literary point, which I’ll arrive at after a bit more throat-clearing. The letters were collected into a book called Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, and it’s a mongrel dog—not without a dog’s charm—of reading, with occasionally a mongrel scent.

Mark Twain, Hack
I almost feel like a traitor with this one: Twain is my favorite writer (and I think the greatest of American writers), but the jumbled, episodic nature of this work—something I so often love in Twain—didn’t sit that well with me. I had read some of these letters before, but never in a collection, and they way they jumped from wry anecdote to ledger-detail commercial appraisals of Hawaiian business opportunities for the US marred any continuity.

And there’s a bit too much of “the savages are restless” language too. Twain wrote these when he was in his early thirties, still making a name for himself, and his broad views on racial justice—which he expressed eloquently in many other later pieces—aren’t to be found here.

Some of his descriptions of Hawaiian vistas and charms are manna indeed, with inventive prose and perspective. But, being a travel writer myself, and having succumbed to the temptation to write about cloud-capped vistas and purple majesties more than once, I know the road-often-traveled mechanism of it. Sometimes you stitch in a lovely view here with a savory sandwich there and a glance from a fetching lass there and voila: a travel story!

Working Words with Multiple Coats of Polish
It’s not that Twain phoned it in (and not just because phone service was lousy then), but that he wasn’t inspired in the way that later travel works, like Innocents Abroad (published just three years later) demonstrated: a man in full command of his word-roping powers, who could ride backwards on a galloping horse of words, have his hat fall off and snare it with his literary lariat while with his other he lit a weedy cigar.

And now, that promised point: some of the Twain’s writing of this period was mundane, or unexceptional. The boon for writers here is to know that Twain, the pen behind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the pilot of Life on the Mississippi, was writing serviceable material, not deathless prose. The key is that Twain kept writing. He kept wrasslin’ words, no matter if they were wiggling in short stories, essays, lectures, speeches, travelogues or novels.

He kept pumping them out. His work got better and better. Even though I’m many burnt biscuits past Twain’s callow 31, and undoubtedly have more forgettable, throwaway lines in my future, I’m heartened to think that there’s fair evidence if you keep at it, keep writing, your writing will get better. (Of course, you might become an evil weasel too, but you’ll have good company among other writers.)

Damn, it’s almost worth it.

PS By the way, Twain was an unheralded surfer. Before many mainlanders had any sense that water-sprite Hawaiians were riding gigantic, impossibly heavy wooden boards on the waves, Twain saw it first-hand, and decided to try it himself. He set down his cigar long enough to paddle out to wait, as he had seen naked locals do, “for a particularly prodigious billow to come along,” upon which billow he prodigiously wiped out. “None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly,” he wrote.

Yeah, but Twain’s punctuation was better. Keep writing, my friends.

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.]

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.

Tropical Breezes Are Best Accompanied by a Foot Fetish

SunriseWalk small

Bit of an infrequent blogger of late, and longer days yet since I’ve read one of my stories aloud here. I know how much my audience has been waiting for a story set on a tropical island. With the main character having a foot fetish. Make that both feet. Done.

Putting Your Pen in the Contest Ring: Writers Saying, “Why Not?”

Startup Stock Photos

image via Startup Stock Photos

There’s a lot to be said for saying “no.” As hard as it can be to put up the stop sign, “no” can save you from taking on projects for which you are ill-suited, going to events that don’t enlarge your life, or drinking that fourth Brandy Alexander when you know that Alexander himself stops at two.

The writing life can be a harried one, particularly if you have a day job, and the only time you have to plot out your nine-book saga on intergalactic love between a sentient vaping pen and a 19-legged Venusian dog is your lunch hour (and for the 30 minutes after dinner before you do the dishes).

But there are some writing opportunities for which saying “Why not?” can deliver an unusual sense of gratification, and sometimes some exotic rewards. I’m talking about writing contests. I’ve written about contests before, but because I’ve had some recent success with a few, I want to write about them again. Getting recognition from a contest—no matter if you are the first-place winner or receive an honorable mention—can give give you some sweet cream of satisfaction. That juice is qualitatively different from that gained from crafting a zingy sentence for your last chapter, or having your beta readers say that your Venusian dog puts them in mind of Cary Grant in his prime.

Contests Give You Warm Gravy
Here’s the kind of thing that placing well in a writing contest can do for you:

  • Validation – Most contests are judged by credible writers. Them saying you are a hot tamale can do wonders for the tender egos of most writers.
  • Exposure – Many publications publish the winning works, and sometimes they have a big print circulation and/or online traffic, so your work can get attention. Publication at many contest venues will include links to your site or other work.
  • Swag – I’ve won all kinds of things from writing contests, including poker chips (nice ones), licorice, and luggage tags. Oh, and money. Sometimes a pretty good chunk. Or the equivalent of money. For instance, last month I was at the Catamaran Writer’s Conference in pretty Pebble Beach, which offered me four days of good writerly cheer and good advice on a work in progress of mine. I won a $750 fellowship to the conference by submitting a short story I’d written a while ago. I didn’t think I’d win anything, but I already had the story: why not?

Have Pen, Will Travel
MarketingProfs had this essay contest going last month, and I won a first-runner-up award, which lets me get into all the conference sessions free and gives me some other goodies, to the tune of $1,800. I don’t know if I can make it out there, because flights and lodging are expensive (and the evil first-place winner took those). But writing a 500-word essay—easy. What was my essay about? How pizza is actually marketing. Yes, being a goofball can pay.

And my latest serving of confectionery, a roundabout way of “winning” a contest: a couple of years ago I entered an unsold travel piece I had languishing on my computer to Dave’s Travel Corner, a popular travel site. I won second place in that contest, which awarded a hundred bucks, some travel books and some other oddities. But it won me some attention from Dave, who later invited me to be a writer for his site for some press trips, one though the Florida Keys and one at a luxury hotel in Vegas.

These trips are all-expenses paid, where the writers get treated to all kinds of amazing scenic/historic/crazy venues, gobble foods at places most couldn’t afford to gobble, and be out and about, goggled-eyed, in this wondrous country of ours. Or in other countries: the latest one I was invited on leaves late this coming Thursday for 9 days in Myanmar. Myanmar! That ain’t the Long Beach, CA suburb I was raised in.

Contesting the Contests
Yes, writing contests often have entry fees, but they often are reasonable: $10–$15 dollars that might win you $500-$1,000, plus some of the perks mentioned above. And you might find contests for which you already have the story or essay written, but never found a home for it. I won $1,000 for paying $15 to enter a National Steinbeck Center fiction contest a long ways back, for a story I’d written in college. I didn’t think I had a prayer to win that contest, but I said “why not?” and entered. That was a good feeling.

Subscribe to Hope Clark’s free (or paid, for more entry opps) newsletter that has lots of good contests. So does Moira’s Allen’s Writing World newsletter. And Poets and Writers magazine has a searchable list of writing contests that you can filter for fees and genres.

Say “why not” to contests. Why not? And if you happen to be in Mandalay in the coming two weeks, let me know.