Packing a Travel Writer’s Suitcase

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

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

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

If only it were that easy.

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

Less Wool, More Woolgathering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Successfully Write Like a Turkey

Turkeys

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

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

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

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

Just a Flash, and No More

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

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

Words Take Wing

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

He walked unsteadily through the crowd.

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

Rearranging how your words fall can make them rise:

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Troll the Thesaurus

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

Putting Some Mustard on the Turkey

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

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

Warm Applause for Writers Who Give Generously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It All Started in Catholic School

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

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

Pathetic Wastes of Time and Other Jolly Pursuits

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

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

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

Copyblogger Essay Contest Deadline

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

Copyblogger Essay Contest Participant

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

Licking the Cat and Other Writing Tips

Drunk Kitty

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

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

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

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

Writing in Bursts (of Bourbon)

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

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

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

Forget the Beach—Bathe Your Brain Instead

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

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

Editing: the Big Gazoombah to the Ant’s Antennae

The Editing Hand

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

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

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

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

Proofreaders, the Chimney Sweeps of the Editing World

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

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

Here a Theme, There a Theme

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

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

Writing Contests: Yea, Nay, or Meh?

 

 

Steinbeck award copy

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

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

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

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

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

Paying to Play

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

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

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

Contests (With Caveats), Si!

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

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

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

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

Pick Your Writing Berries When They’re Ripe

Ripe and unripe strawberries
Writing Berries Have the Juiciest Syntax (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Strawberry season is in full bore on the California coast. Today I drove back from a beach walk past fields filled with pickers, backs bent, boxes at their side. Because I live right across from acres of strawberries, the labors of the laborers aren’t far from my mind.

Here in my home office, a box of another sort—a computer—defines my workspace. I bend over the keyboard, straightening when the consciousness of ergonomic violation rings in my brain—or in my back. I have the luxury of being able to look out of my window at the pickers, and to look back into the window of my screen, and think about the nature of work.

I’ve been a freelancer for many years now, and I should be accustomed to the harvest of my vocation. But it still seems odd to me that this gossamer fruit—an electronic window painted with language—is what I exchange for my daily bread. It seems so removed from “real” work, work that results from your body’s toil, or work that produces a tangible thing.

It’s easy to scorn this slant, which has a seeming smack of the patronizing in it—sure, here’s a guy who gets to sit at home all day, drumming up some artificial envy for work that is ill-paid—and that sometimes results in ill workers. But there’s something about the substance of work done by the motion of the body that has a different kind of reward than that done by the motions of the mind. Admittedly, it’s a luxury to be in the position to even ponder the differences.

The Bricks and Mortar of Creative Connection

I think my true worker’s envy might be toward those people that can build things, and touch them after the building. That process seems a true creative connection, a thing conceived and then a thing concrete. It has to be a pleasure to be a carpenter who passes by houses or buildings he or she has worked on, and who can say, “I made that.” I’ve always been amazed by people that can build, whether it’s a cabin or cabinet.

I’ll always be grateful to my mother, who taught me the love of reading, and my father, who taught me the love of athletics, and to the both of them for revealing that the world can provoke laughter. However, my upbringing didn’t urge that craftsperson’s understanding, where your fingers gain a native appreciation for constructing the objects of this world. I didn’t pick up the building skills that many kids learned—and I didn’t go out and learn them on my own. I’m much better with a dishtowel than a hammer. In work as in play, it does seem we’re all jealous of the other person, but if it’s any consolation, they’re probably jealous of us.

Many are the times that I’ve griped about not hearing back from an editor on a story pitch, or tugged hard on my hair when I can’t bring to life on the page a character that shines in my mind. However, it takes some real effort to credibly mope over most aspects of my own vocation. I hope it’s not some lame wishful thinking to think of working with words as a kind of carpentry: stories are crafted of words, the hammers and nails that build a tale. Some stories have strong joints, some weak. All stories have foundations, good and bad. There’s pleasure in seeing a story’s sinews, running your mind’s eye over its rough spots, calculating how much more cement is needed to settle a paragraph.



Writing Has Its Harvests Too

Here in the small hills, the strawberry season is at its midpoint; there will be workers in the fields for months to come. I wonder if the same workers will return again for the new plantings, if they look forward to another season of these pretty hills and ocean breezes. Or if it’s just all backbreaking drudgery, surrounded by stories of Silicon Valley successes, which boggle the imaginations of people sweating to stay alive.

I hope not. I still remember my own forays into orchard labor, from many summers of picking apples. So long ago, but I still carry the memory of the crisp explosion of flavor and the sharp gratification gained from munching orchard apples at 6am at the beginning of a long summer day. It’s hard to forget the tang of homemade applesauce made for the first time, and the fine feeling I had picking the final apple of a harvest season. But I knew it was only another summer’s labor, and that my future didn’t lie in those trees. Other workers aren’t so lucky. I hope the strawberry workers still feel some satisfaction in those long workdays, and that the strawberries still taste sweet.

I’ll try to look more for the writing berries, and to remember to savor the labor.

Writing Small, Thinking Big

Tiny pencil

Tiny but mighty: stand back—this is a sharpened word sword!

I had a tiny piece about the Las Vegas Hangover Heaven bus published in Draft magazine the other day. Draft is highest-circulating craft-beer magazine, with a frothy lineup of stories about breweries, industry personalities and innovations in the brewing world. My little article is just a whisper of words, but I’m still happy to have it published, for a number of writing reasons.

Many magazines today, from Smithsonian to Seventeen, have lots of small articles and light pieces in their brightly designed front (and sometimes back) pages. It speaks to the reading tastes of the Internet age: colorful and chunky. For writers, and especially ones trying to break in to a magazine, these areas (called “front of book” or FOB) can be a quick keyboarding to good money and wider opportunities.

Many magazine editors don’t have the time or patience to try out an unknown writer on a feature piece, but query them on a 200- or 300-word filler article, and they will more often acquiesce. And those appetizer articles are often a way to set the table for a full-meal article later.

In the case of Draft, I’d written a long feature piece on moonshining for them a while back, so I know the editor. I pitched the Hangover Heaven piece as a feature, but was still happy when the editor came back with the offer to make it a short FOB article. Happy because those articles often pay .50 to $1 a word (the case here), and more so because it kept me fresh in the mind of the editor. I’m about to query her with another feature pitch this week because I’m fresh in the magazine and fresh in her mind.

Short Articles Can Pay the Long Green

Short is also sweet in terms of demonstrating that you can consistently carry a certain kind of article to completion. I just wrote my fourth FOB piece for The American Scholar, for a section called Works in Progress. These articles have all been 250-word pieces, which again pay well. Better, after having written a few of these, the editor now inquires if I have any ideas for the next quarterly issue. I’m in good stead with that editor for stories to come—possibly longer stories to come—and potentially with editors of other good magazines, because the Scholar is a national magazine of high caliber, focusing on public affairs, literature, culture and more.

One other consideration on short pieces: you can often use the research done for a longer piece as the basis for another short article. I just wrote an article for Airstream Life magazine on Edward Tufte, the professor who is famous for his work in rendering complex information into a comprehensible whole. He also is a designer of very fanciful sculptures, among them one that uses an Airstream in a most improbable way. After I wrote the Airstream Life piece, I realized that some unused info and quotes from the interview could be shaped into a short piece for The American Scholar. Bingo, a twofer! (And I’m grateful that the editor of Airstream Life now brings potential stories to my attention as well, since I’ve written for him for years.)

So, don’t think writing small pieces for magazines diminishes their stature. If they are big enough for a byline, they are big enough to stand on their own. And they can lead to bigger things down the road.

How Herons and Frogs Bring Zing to Your Writing

Pajaro Heron

 Careful—this lawn jockey can bite

Last week a cousin of the fellow above flew into my neighbor’s field. It’s not that unusual to see herons in the general neighborhood—after all, I took the photo of this sharp-beaked beauty just a few miles from my house. But he was near a watercourse, where there are all kinds of wiggly things for him to eat. My neighbor’s field is weedy, scraggly land where no fish worth its saltwater would venture. So, seeing the heron fly onto the property and strike one of those heraldic heron poses was noteworthy.

Any excuse to abandon my work, I scuttled over to the window nearest the bird in my old Airstream office to watch him work. If you’ve ever watched herons at play in the fields of creation, they’re often pretty deliberate about their doings. They might neck-jut a few feet or so into some shallow water, and then fix that acute-angle head for minutes at a time, undoubtedly trying to come up with some heron haiku. This featherhead did his kind proud by freezing in place.

But then he chicken-footed forward toward our wire fence and started doing a fascinating bob and weave, his long neck shimmying from side to side, cobra-style, while he simultaneously ducked up and down. I thought for a moment that he was sick, and was about to collapse in the field. Not quite. On one of his swinging swayings, he shot that head forward to the base of the fence and came up with a big lizard in his beak. I didn’t have time to even gasp before he flipped his head a bit and swallowed him whole.

Galvanizing Readers with Electric Characters

That moment was shocking and unexpected—I was agog. The bird sauntered out of sight of the Airstream—probably to see if there were any armadillos around to play poker with—and when I came out a few minutes later to check on him, he had vamoosed.

Now, you’re going to think that I’m bending a stiff bird to make a point, but honestly, after my head had returned to my body after watching that lizard slurping, I immediately thought that the bird’s behavior was a good illustration of an approach to working with characters in stories. You can give your reader a good clap on their forehead by making a character do something astonishing once in a while.

You have to be careful here: I’m not talking about having a character spontaneously speak Swahili when they were raised in Brooklyn. I’m referring to having a character do something that’s possible (and that indeed might be integral to that character’s nature), but that’s not probable, that breaks boundaries. Something that expands the character’s potential or place in the reader’s imagination. That kind of developmental concussion can push a story, or shape it in new ways.

The Frogs Are Not What They Seem

The second nature lesson—and one that again relates to writing—is something I’d learned earlier, but was reminded of again because it’s the beginning of croaking season. By that I mean that this time of year, the frogs that do their philosophizing near our water garden start to do it more boisterously. And they are loud.

When I first heard this resonant chorus years ago, my city-boy background prompted me to think it was the loud-mouthing of some large toads, maybe even bullfrogs. I’d look all over the place for the source of the croak-storm, but I could never see the buggers. It took me many searches to finally spot one. No wonder: Pacific tree frogs, the wide-mouthed worthies that comprise this orchestra, are only a few centimeters long. But when they are soliloquizing about their romantic talents to any lady frogs in the vicinity, they give it their all. They are Danny DeVito with an aggressive hangover.

As with the heron, the frogs nudged me in a writerly direction as well: work with characters that aren’t quite what they seem. You might have a scrawny, wiry guy who turns out to have extraordinary strength, or a reserved little sister who later turns out to wail skronking bebop sax in a secret band. Stick some herons and some tree frogs in your writing—it will give it a stronger pulse. And this isn’t just for fiction: God knows that business writing could use an phrase that’s on fire or a trapdoor opening and swallowing up the beautiful bride. Wake the audience up.

Oh, you probably should stick a swallowed lizard in there every once in a while too; some characters turn out to be the eaten, not the eaters.

Any animals making mischief in your writer’s mind?

PS Psst! If you’re looking to compel your customers, I write blog posts for businesses as well.