Nobody Knows Anything (So, Stay Safe, or at Least Well Hydrated)

It seems we’re all riding that horse named Chance (Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels)

There’s an old quote from screenwriter William Goldman discussing the film industry: “Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The quote has been used in many contexts, from weather forecasting to stock market predictions because, well, nobody knows anything. Not with bulletproof certainty. Fine time to trot that statement out now too, because with this effing virus plaguing the globe and with so many touted cures, predicted courses of spread and the outright lies from our government found out as diaphanous vapors, it’s hard to keep good counsel.

Thank the stars for heroic health care workers and for anyone saying “Let’s continue to be careful,” because—because we don’t know anything.

And instead of writing I’ve found myself looking at things like streaming virtual safaris, and famous old houses and buildings from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and strolling through the Musee d’Orsay, where scrolling through the paintings did soothe.

Even a live streetside cam outside the doors of Wrigley Park, where the viewing might echo the words of a Talking Heads song,

“Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens…”

Writing, What Writing?

As for writing work, I’ve sent out a bunch of pitches and the only responses have been from publications telling me they are reducing staff and freelance budgets, and I’m ending emails to people I’ve never met telling them to “stay safe.” At least I’m getting some work done on my memoir of my spectacular high-school shoplifting career. More happens in that than in that Wrigley web cam.

People, stay safe. But if you find a way to dance around the Maypole today, do it. (And I just heard that my 97-year-old mom is in the hospital, test results pending. Hard days.)

Links

Here are a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful or provocative.

Build Self-Discipline By Forming These Habits
“It comes down to this: Do the right thing and have zero expectations of others. If some people don’t want to do that themselves, it’s not your problem. Keep on setting the right example.”

3 Strategies To Get Motivated
“The idea is simple. You want to reward yourself consistently for small accomplishments. When you’ve made progress on your career goals, buy yourself something nice. I don’t recommend materialistic rewards … When I talk about rewards, I limit myself to things that give me inner satisfaction. That’s what I mean by spiritual rewards. Often, those things don’t cost that much. For example, after completing a big project, I take a week off work and just read books, do chores around the house, meet friends, and relax.”

The Practice of Meticulous Attention
“Give the task, action, person or moment your undivided attention. Notice what this is like for you. See if you can deepen your attention even more. Let go of thoughts about the future and past, if possible, and turn toward what you’re facing even more.”

6 Strategies for Becoming a Better You from the COVID-19 Crisis
“One of the best “medicines” for dealing with a crisis is to take action, any action. It can be related to school, work, hobbies, home, or helping others. Instead of hanging around feeling sorry for yourself, take action on a plan to make yourself a better person, colleague, spouse, parent, friend, what have you.”

Freelancing Twists and Turns While Ducking the Coronavirus

Photo by Alex Fu from Pexels

Man, going viral has never seemed so lousy. I shouldn’t joke about it much, because it’s no joke, but it beats crying. Unless crying is called for. This is an unusual moment for long-time freelancers, because we are very used to working from home, thus presumed equipped to deal with (most) technology issues, and being productive when we could be eating bonbons. Or being productive while still eating bonbons.

Not being rabidly social myself, I’m not sharply hampered by the coronavirus lockdown; my sweetheart Alice and I still get out for some—socially distanced, of course—exercise, shop while veering away from other shoppers, as they do us, and since she is a freelancer too, both hang out lot at home.

My heart really goes out to those who are suddenly jobless, and particularly those with health issues. Or those struggling with kids at home and trying to be a productive remote worker on the fly, and trying to make their hair work for video. And to those people directly affected by the illness themselves—wow, this is as rough as it gets.

Viruses Throw Curveballs

Here are a few oddities, both positive and not, about being a freelance writer like me, one who often writes one-off articles for various publications, in a time of social disruption. Like I suggested above, I’ve got it easy compared to many people. But here are a few recent things that have happened related to my work that were unpredictable:

I had set up an article interview through Jameson Distillery’s PR people on a Prohibition-themed piece (Jameson almost closed for good then) for a spirits site article. At least I thought I’d set up an article interview. They’d wanted it to be through email, with their Marketing VP. So, I’d sent the emailed questions and then waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

My PR contact was professional and apologetic in a long email thread, but finally said that my interviewee was too busy, with all the recent coronavirus madness, to do it by deadline. Damn. But a week later, a bottle of Jameson and a bottle of a Jameson whiskey/cold coffee infusion arrived in the mail. I was sorry to not get the article in, but I was soothed by their offering.

Freelancer 1, Virus 1
Then, I’d sent a pitch on another subject to another spirits site I’d written for before. The publisher turned that down, but, virus-minded, asked me if I could find an infection specialist to discuss how many people had tragically died because of a mistaken belief that drinking large amounts of alcohol could stave off coronavirus infection or provide a cure.

I located a University of Nevada, Las Vegas epidemiologist through a ProfNet request (also asking that they be a whiskey drinker) and we did a Q&A on the subject. Whiskey drinkers are apparently whiskey readers too, because the article has 85K views and 1.6K shares.

You win on a virus article, you lose on a virus article: I finished a piece for Vox on the proliferation of profanity that you can see on all kinds—shirts, socks, books, desk calendars, pencils—of products now, which was assigned five weeks ago, turning it in last week. But right now, Vox is only publishing all-things virus, and my editor, who liked the piece, said it has to be shelved indefinitely.

They did give me a 50% kill fee, which is 25% higher than most publications, but still, it was a fun piece to write (including an interview with a marketing psychologist) and I’d love to see it out there. Virus-willing, maybe I will.

Freelancing has a lot of unpredictability built in already, but take an uncontrollable situation like a pandemic, and all bets are off.

Stay safe out there, and wash your hands. Really.

Links

Here are a few links to my most recently published articles, followed by a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me
What better time to spill on death than a time of global terror? (Yes, I’m a riot at parties.) Some personal reflections on the cruelties of the passings of friends, and examples of how death works as a plot and revelation factor in literature. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in March 2020.

Whiskey Is a Bad Chaser for Coronavirus
Some people have some mistaken—and tragically dangerous—ideas about using spirits to prevent or help with curing coronavirus. Nope. This interview with a whiskey-drinking epidemiologist sets that straight. Published in March 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Redwood Hikes and a Whimsical General Store
A hike in the redwoods should be part of the prescription to cure whatever ails you (let’s ignore the coronavirus context part of that). But you have to follow that redeeming stroll with a visit to the odd and unusual San Gregorio General Store. Mom and Pop’s it ain’t. Part of my Trail Mix series (note: pre-virus shutdown of the parks). Published in March 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Getting Steamed Has Never Been So Cool
Oh sure, sure, you can have a fancy TV in your Airstream, or a sink that rules them all, but a steam room? That’s cool. Or hot. Published in the Winter 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Freelance Writing Funk? 3 Mindless Productivity Hacks from a Pro
How scribbling a few vivid words or phrases—“word seeds”— on a story or article idea can prompt your brain to work on expanding them, often to a rich level, while you dawdle. Published in February 2020 on the excellent Make a Living Writing site.

From the Net

Want to Be Successful? Stop Thinking About Failure
“You put your mind through every scenario where failure is possible to the point where it feels real. You’re simulating these experiences so frequently, it feels real, even though nothing has actually happened. After a while, your mind tricks you into believing you have all this “experience” around failure, when you’ve never actually experienced it — just thousands of simulations of it.”

Neuroscience Reveals 50-Year-Olds Can Have the Brains of 25-Year-Olds If They Do This 1 Thing
“However, the neuroscientists also found that the meditators had more gray matter in another brain region, this time linked to decision-making and working memory: the frontal cortex. In fact, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age.”

Why Happiness IS Just a Choice
“Happiness is not something that happens to some people and not to others. You get to choose.”

Writers Need Patience (or a Good Meditation App)

Photo by Min An from Pexels

It’s more clear than ever: rather than taking on the writer’s life, I should have been a Zen monk. One with patience aplenty. Besides looking good in robes, that ability to sit in stoic silence would give me a handy talent. As the Buddha-inspired protagonist said in Hesse’s Siddhartha, “I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.”

Me, I say, “I think that waiting for my articles to be published is not fast.”

To wit: last spring I spent a month house-sitting in Ecuador, and wrote a long piece about the interesting and wildly talented handicrafts artisans I saw there; I submitted it in early May to the travel section of the Los Angeles Times. They accepted it. And held it for a while, telling me they were waiting to put together an entire South American section. OK.

Then there was some unrest in several South American countries, so they didn’t want to publish any pieces on that topic until that died down. OK. And then, amidst newspapers consolidating and some dying outright, the paper’s managers decided that they were going to have the weekly travel section of one of America’s biggest papers go to a monthly format as of this March.

So, the editors are scrambling to decide where to put their backlog of articles, if they are going to put them anywhere. OK, sort of, but not really.

So, that article (which will only be paid for when published) has now languished for 9 months, sad whimpering thing I, er, I mean, it is. I’ve published 11 articles in the Times over many years, so I know the travel editors, who are reasonable and apologetic (and probably worried about their own skins). But dang, how can I pay for my monk’s robes if the dough just dangles?

The Rip Van Winkling of Writing

The Times deal/not deal is not an anomaly. Let’s look at the fate of several of my articles over the last year or so:

Popular Mechanics has held a piece of mine on a famous steam train since accepting it in October. The editor I’m working with there, a great guy, had published two other pieces of mine on historic trains (and another one on historic vodka) pretty quickly—the vodka one was published three days after submission. But this third train is late to the station, though I hear it’s scheduled for mid-March. One good thing about PopMech: they pay on acceptance, not publication, not the case for many publications.

That wasn’t the case for a piece of mine on pitching articles published in The Writer—they waited until WAY after publication, many months, to pay me. The editor there was profusely apologetic through our long email string, telling me that they were having trouble with incoming advertising revenue and couldn’t pay their writers until that was settled. This is a magazine that was founded in 1887, but being the old print guy on the block don’t get you much respect—or revenue—any longer.

A piece I wrote on Big Sur’s eccentric Henry Miller Library was accepted by Cathay Pacific’s in-flight magazine Discovery last June, but didn’t see print (or payment) until January. Henry’s dead, so he’s more patient, but I do fret.

I could include a couple of other stories from the past year about articles losing their knife’s edge in the current Pandora’s publishing box, but the above should suffice. But my whinging shouldn’t indicate that these situations are a rarity in a freelancer’s world—publications often hold pieces for a while and payment upon publication is not unusual. It’s just that patience until publication is—unusual, that is. For me, at least.

And even when a writer already has the dough, like with me for the Popular Mechanics piece, I still wanted to see the article get daylight. It’s as much the circulating words as the money, always. Writerly patience is a virtue, but goldurnit, these virtues take some work. I suppose I could pivot the dark energy of my impatience to sending out more queries, so I can get this cycle back in gear. In the meantime, I’m shopping for those robes, because clothes make the monk.

Links

Here are a couple of links to my most recently published articles, and a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

Fog’s End Distillery Has the Can-do Spirit

A quick profile of Craig Pakish, who works some grain-based alchemy in his one-man distilling operation in Gonzales, CA. And by “one man,” I mean this guy truly does it all. Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Carmel Magazine.

Do Happy Lights Really Work for Seasonal Depression?

The last couple of weeks I’ve been blasting my face with a light therapy box, to treat my winter blues. Does it work? Hah, you’ll have to read it to know. Published in January 2020 on The Bold Italic.

How to Get Major Life Decisions Right
“Second, don’t base decisions on something that may or may not happen in the future…There no way to know what unexpected and wonderful things may happen. Plus, serendipity has an amazing way of changing our lives.”

3 Ways to Manage Worry by Perspective Shifting
“Few things are certain in life, but at the time of this writing, death is still inevitable…It can be incredibly helpful to remember and contrast this fact with the smaller concerns that keep us from appreciating and enjoying our lives. It’s hard to hold too tightly to our more trivial problems when we appreciate our finite time on this planet.”

Curiosity Is the Secret to a Happy Life
“The more that experts examine curiosity, the more they find evidence to suggest that it’s the secret sauce in a happy, fulfilling life.”

5 Powerful Ways to Stop Worrying About What Others Think
“The truth is, other people’s opinions of us are none of our business. Their opinions have nothing to do with us and everything to do with them, their past, their judgments, their expectations, their likes, and their dislikes.”

First Paragraphs Crack the Dam, Releasing a Flood of Words

Photo Credit: awebbMHAcad Flickr via Compfight cc

Steven Pressfield has pointedly dubbed it “The Resistance”—that jumble of fear, miscast self-protection and paralysis that prevents us from stepping out of artificial boundaries. Where we tell ourselves, “No, I could never take an acting class, I’m too shy; no, I can’t do math, I’m bad with numbers; no, I can’t apply for that job or ask that person out—that’s out of my league.”

The status quo, even if it’s the drabbest of miserly things, is known—it’s safe, even if that safety is delusional, and doesn’t ask for you to reach, to explore your actual capabilities.

The key to smothering Resistance is getting that first paragraph written.

Well, it might not be the key to landing that part on Broadway, but I have to come at it from the writer’s point of view. When I have a writing assignment, no matter that I’ve been writing pieces for publications for 30 years, I still fret, fuss and dither.

I will begin writing—but only after I clean up that old paint spill near the garage, only after I make sure all the clocks in the house are set to the exact time, only after lunch. Which becomes dinner. Which becomes tomorrow.

But, get the first paragraph down—whoosh!

Avoidance, Anxiety—and Then Flow

For me, all the avoidance of the first few sentences of an article is a concentrated anxiety. So that when I finally get rid of all my old paint stains and my neighbor’s down the street, and set down to type, glory happens.

The dam breaks. Words, supple and galloping. This is not to say that that first paragraph might not be completely changed in the submitted draft, might not be the right words at all, but that getting that one chunk done, that is liberation.

The first paragraph is a tree in the clearing, a map, an open hand.

I experienced this just this past Friday, when I FINALLY began an article that I’d avoided for 10 days. I’d let the Resistance really dig in its heels because the deadline for submission was loose. Where are those paint stains?

But I wrote the initial first two paragraphs on Friday, felt good about them, and Saturday the next 1,000 words came out to completion (with minor editing later, of course). I knew how this would work all along, but still, my fears that the piece wouldn’t come out well, my writing would sag, I’ll never be able to buy a cup of fancy coffee again, those demons whisper yet.

You can beat the Resistance, my friends. Just write that first paragraph.

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Walking on the Wild(er) Side in Santa Cruz—Plus Beer!
Taking a stroll above the dramatic cliffside ocean-wave carvings at historic Wilder Ranch State Park and heading north to a brewpub with great grub and beer. Part of my Trail Mix series. Published in January 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

In Search of Henry Miller’s Bohemian Legacy in Big Sur
Big Sur has many charms, not least of which is the Henry Miller Library, which is neither a library, nor a bookstore, but more of a cultural experience. Weirdos encouraged, as Mr. Miller encouraged them long ago. Published in January 2020 in Discovery magazine, the in-flight mag for Cathay Pacific airlines.

11 Mental Tricks to Stop Overthinking Everything
“When we don’t know something, we tend to fill in the blanks, often with garbage assumptions. Why? Many of us would rather be unhappy than uncertain.” Some mind tricks that seem simple, but actually implementing them could make a sea change.

Freelancing Fluctuations, from the Gaps to the Gravy and Back Again


Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels
 
Freelancing rolls in odd waves, sets of growth and sets of ebbs, but not as consistently (or mostly predictably) as the waves surfers rely on. The last couple of months I’ve had several articles published in national magazines, but not from my usual pattern of sending out flurries of queries and getting the standard higher percentage of “no thanks” or no reply at all—and the occasional “yes.”

Instead, out at dinner, I had a train enthusiast friend rave about the biggest steam train in America being restored after years of dormant slumbers. Because I’d recently seen a solicitation for pitches from an editor at Popular Mechanics, I queried and got a yes, thus this article steaming down the tracks.

And from that friend’s little story, now my collection of train articles on PopMech are three.

A little later, I thought the story of me selling an empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on eBay might make an amusing tale. So when I pitched it to an editor at Vox, she countered, asking instead for a broader industry piece on the world of collectible whiskey. That was a much more interesting (and lucrative, for me) dip into a weird world.

Not long after publication, a PR person in LA who read the whiskey story pitched me (wonder of wonders) on the story of a company she represents that’s producing the world’s first carbon-negative vodka. Because I’d seen that Popular Mechanics had also been publishing some pieces on the spirit world, I approached the editor who’d done my train pieces, and he went for it.

That’s a strange, not-quite-round circle of call-and-answer, and none of it would probably have happened had I not eaten dinner with my friend who had the old steam train on his mind.

That breaker was rather a rogue wave in those steady sets of freelancing queries and responses and one that had unexpected ripples.

So, next time someone tells you an interesting story over your rigatoni, make a note or two. You never know where that tale will take you.

Lost Kitty Update

I wrote earlier about my sadness over my cat Malibu having gone missing, at that point 12 days in on her absence. As of today, she is gone two months, and it’s still hard to reconcile that we probably won’t see her again (though there are many tales of cats returning after longer absences). It’s startling to me how thoughts of her jump into my mind unprompted, and how nondescript things around the house remind me of her absence.

I hear of parents who are crushed, devastated when something happens to their children. I can only imagine, woefully the depth of that kind of loss. But Malibu was so much a part of our family that her absence is a harsh void. I’m happy to have known her.

Links

Here are some titled links to my articles mentioned above (and a bonus LSD trip!), and a couple of pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

This Is the World’s First Carbon-Negative Vodka

The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained

Why the Big Boy 4014 Is Such a Badass Train

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

How to Become the Best in the World at Something

Four Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times

Good writing and reading to all!

It Takes a Lot of Wax to Get That Article Polished

My ride in the mid-80s, a ’62 Caddy. Lots and LOTS of wax.

There’s a spate of great long-form journalism these days. When the time is good, I hunker down and read thoughtful, or provocative or hilarious or touching pieces from Medium, The Atlantic, GQ, Esquire—there’s a long list. And often, these pieces read so smoothly that I forget—even though I’m in the trade—just how many winding roads articles can travel before they reache home.

Case in point: I had an article about a legendary train published in Popular Mechanics the other day. I hope that readers took that in with the same sense I allude to above: fun piece, and it reads easily. But in order to even begin communicating with the right Union Pacific PR folks, I had to leave three voice messages and send seven emails. The UP employee I needed to interview (and it seems, many UP employees on the project, including the PR people) was exhausted from the train’s complex restoration. So I had to grab a garbled transcript of a YouTube video to get many of his quotes for the piece.

Then there was a fair amount of back and forth with UP PR folks, obtaining photographs, talking with some other people involved with the train, and plenty of back and forth with the PopMech editor on how the piece was shaping up, and whether I could make my deadline, which at one point looked unlikely. But it did all come together.

Same thing with this piece I wrote on pot politics in Santa Cruz County. I had to interview five separate people for the article. But ALL of the initial emails to various growers and dispensaries and cannabis advocacy groups went unanswered. I had to dig around for a while to get the goods. And locating an illegal grower (who spoke on the record, but anonymously) took some legwork too. I had my doubts about this one as well, but it did come together in the end.

Articles Are Built in Stages (and Some Collapse)

My point (and there is one, really) is not to whine about how little Tommy’s spirit is crushed because people don’t answer his emails. The point is that articles are built in stages, and that sometimes there are gaps in the walls that have to be filled in later. I often request some time padding when an editor gives me a deadline, because getting primary-source information is often trickier than it might seem.

And I’m not an investigative reporter. Those people (or writers that are given assignments that require long days/weeks/months of research) have a special stamina. Here’s a piece I read yesterday on a crazy con man that lets you in a little on how much time it took to piece it all together—but know that it was actually a good deal more. The writer assembled this from bits and chunks, and it took time, but the engaging read is worth it. Here’s another about the “new sobriety” that’s gaining currency (not in my house), a piece with a lot of moving parts.

These writers built these articles a brick at a time, and from my own work, I know that some days they ran out of bricks. Sometimes they improvised, sometimes they left and gardened instead. But it’s funny how when you see the end product, even if you wrote it, you are both amazed that it came together, and forgetful of the wrinkled forehead of endless details. Probably just as it should be.

Writing Rejections Give You a Glimmer of Hope


Having been a freelancer writing both nonfiction and fiction for many years, you get used to writing rejections. They used to chafe more years ago, but my skin has thickened, so that I normally can simply say “Next!” and mean it without too much teeth-gritting. Not too much.

But once in a while, rejections are motivational. And not just in the sense of “That blasted editor doesn’t know a good story from a cucumber! I’ll show him/her/it!” (“It” because I’m sure AI will soon be used to make editorial decisions in some offices.) Vengeance can certainly be motivational, but here I speak more of a connective motivation, an empathetic one.

Case in point: Glimmer Train, the fine literary journal and press, has been publishing writers for nearly 30 years. They often champion unknown writers, and are willing to dig around the edges in fiction and nonfiction to bring interesting and exciting voices to the page. I haven’t subscribed to their journal (shame!), but I’ve picked it up in bookstores here and there over the years, and have always been delighted in the reading.

And the yearning.

Getting to the Counter Before the Shop Closes

The yearning is this: I’ve known for a while that Glimmer Train is one of the premiere literary journals, and that to be published there is a new feather in any writer’s quill pen. But I haven’t had confidence in many of my short stories, so I’ve sent only a few pieces over the years. Looking at my submissions spreadsheet (I started tracking electronically in 2003), I sent GT stories in 2007, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s where the motivational parts come in. Early this year, I heard that Glimmer Train was going to shut down in 2019. Not from lack of success, far from it. The reason is easy to understand: the two sisters (one of the appealing things about the magazine—it’s been run by two sisters, all this time) have been the conductors of the train for 30 years, and they are ready to close the station. They read every story that’s submitted: I read somewhere that they read thousands of stories a year. Crickey, I’d be tired too.

In early May, I didn’t send them a story, but a note:

Glimmer Sisters, my stomach dropped when I read that you guys were going to pull the shades on the train and picnic in green pastures. You have done such great work for writers for so long, it seemed like you were a perennial season—Spring comes to mind.

Thank you for your deep and generous work, Tom Bentley

And got this back the same day:

What a kind message, Tom. Thank you. Susan
P.S. Our stomachs dropped, too!

Sending the Story Before It Turns into a Pumpkin

At that point, I hadn’t been writing fiction for a while, spending all my time getting a novel published and marketed. But knowing that the train was pulling into the station, I was motivated. I’d had a story idea for a while and went for it; I sent it off to one of GT’s summer contests, hoping not to get a lump of coal. The “Sorry, no dice” form letter came through yesterday.

That didn’t cut too deep, despite my disappointment, so I sent them this message:

Susan and Linda, thanks for taking a look. Hope things are going well as you prepare your final salutes to a fine publication.

thanks, Tom

And again, a same-day response:

What a kind – and welcome! – message. Thank you, Tom. Susan

Motivation again: they are still accepting submissions through May of 2019. I have another idea for a short story. They are going to get it first.

You have to take your writing motivations where you can get them. If they come from the (rejection) kindness of strangers, all the better.

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

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

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

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

One and Done?

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

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

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

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

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

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

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

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

Editors Will Pay for Articles that Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I even like to drink the stuff.

High-proof Publications

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

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

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

Pitch Until They Itch

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

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

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

And they pay me for this. Goodness.

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