When All Your Article Pitches Are Wearing Masks

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This was the worst of times, this was the worst of times. For article pitches, things seem out of time. With apologies to Dickens, and apologies to you for using a cheap line—wow! I’ll try to use words to discuss the state of the union, or of the globe, or of the universe, but it’s feeling more like the state of disunion. The coronavirus and its cruelties hit with such a wallop, and now the anti-racist protests rocking the streets have shunted that exceedingly dire and still virulent virus—who would think that anything could?—to the side. And then there is our alleged president. My god.

Despite the stock market’s carbonation—up and down—resembling the days when I put Fizzies candies in an RC Cola and stepped back to see the liquid hit the ceiling, lots of people are out of work, lots of businesses will close, lots of folks will be underwater for some time. To my immediate, workaday interests, the publishing industry isn’t face-masked against these viral contractions either. In the last three months, I’ve sent nearly 40 article pitches, many to publications I’ve worked with before, though the bulk were to those I haven’t.

Some editors have answered with a “sorry, it’s just not happening now,” and some have answered with a “our freelance budget is locked down now.” Most haven’t answered at all, though what I read online tells me some answers: many major publications—Buzzfeed, Atlantic, Vox, too many to list—are cutting staff and wages. The bell tolls for all, writers and readers. I don’t have the sense that conditions will improve in the near future.

Not a one of my queries landed an assignment; I might not be a genius pitcher of articles, but I generally do much better than that. I did get a couple of assignments from editors I’ve worked with over the years, and have had a long memoir to edit for a client, but business as usual has been anything but.

Keep the Pitches Groomed Even If No One’s Coming Over

What to do? Look more closely at sites that have regularly updated listings for writing work of all kinds, like Pitchwhiz. Though I’ve been working on article writing more in the last year, go back and check out content writing opportunities. Look at the Twitter feeds of more editors and publications—it’s remarkable how many solicitations for pitches come from Twitter (though try to dodge the toxins on the platform if you can).

I’ll continue to look at book editing potentials—I just finished a developmental and copyedit of a long memoir on the assisted-living industry by an insider. The author is a witty, humane, skilled writer who was a pleasure to work with, bringing me back to enjoy work I’d started to lose my taste for. And I’ll continue work on my own memoir, about my high-school shoplifting years. I’m not certain if I’m as witty, humane or skilled, but it’s worth a shot.

One matter is that I don’t want to write about the virus. So many publications are doing so, and there probably are interesting angles and human-interest stories there, but I’d like to find something else to write about. I wrote about it once, in a whiskey context, and that might be enough for me. I was told by one editor of a general interest publication that they were basically only taking virus-related pitches, but that wasn’t enough to motivate me.

However, I have pitched articles where the virus situation is peripheral to the main story, such as distilleries making and giving away hand sanitizer, but where there’s a deeper story there to expand on as well. And I don’t want to be another white male fumbling around writing about how I’m not racist. The bell tolls for me there as well.

I keep a running list of article pitches, old and new, and I’ll look to refine recent ones, and look to refresh the story angles of the older ones. And I’m going to work on my attitude—I’m still a lucky guy to be able to work from home, and often on writing projects I enjoy.

My mom isn’t doing well, and I’m going to try and see her soon and savor the time that she has left. I’m working on savoring the little things and expressing gratitude in general. It’s not going to cure a pandemic and change institutional racism, but it’s a way forward.

Here’s to making the most of your writing life, no matter if it’s fiction or non, genre-neutral, genre-fluid, published or not, keyboard or quill pen.

Links

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

The Shakespeare Society of America struggles to preserve its historic collection

My piece on a deep, eclectic collection of Shakespeareana (including some fabulously illustrated ancient books) in a tiny CA town. Published in the Summer, 2020 edition of Fine Books and Collections magazine.

Make Main Street SHINE: Add 101 Airstreams

Want to boost middle-America commercial and social prospects? Put 101 gleaming Airstream trailers on Main Street. Published in the Spring 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

California’s literary landscapes unfold in 9 — no, 12! — great books

I went through my library for capsule reviews on some selections where California is the setting (and sometimes a character). Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ revisited (with a detour for COVID-19)

My piece about a writer on his quashed quest to recreate Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. Gone viral in the worst of ways. Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Via Negativa: Adding to Your Life By Subtracting
“Not only can eliminating bad habits be a highly effective way to improve your life, it’s also often a lot easier than creating a new, positive habit. Positive habits take a lot of motivation and willpower to cultivate. But not doing something is much simpler.”

How Your Brain Creates Your Sense of Self
“Studies of people randomly pinged on their cell phone during the day indicate that the average person has a wandering mind about half the time. The more a person’s mind wanders, the more it tends to tilt negatively, toward anxiety, resentment, regret, and self-criticism.”

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)

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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

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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.

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.

Persistence Pays the Persevering Writer

My own shiny beauty. I lost my first one on the road (it might be in space now)

I keep a running list of article queries that haven’t landed a published home. Some of them are many years old, but I still like many of the ideas, and know that even an old query can still shake the right editor hand if the pitch is well-timed and properly directed. I didn’t quite realize just how wobbly-kneed the oldest of those queries is until I got an editorial yes on one that was several years old.

Today I breezed through the entire list, and saw that the geezer at file bottom was a pitch for a review on the best Palm OS-based exercise software. For those of you that exist in this world, Palm hasn’t produced one of its PDAs (a term as hoary as my pitch) since 2010, but people stopped buying them well before that, and my pitch predated 2010 by some years. By the way, if you’re wondering, PDAs have essentially been replaced by a device dubbed a “smartphone.” Who knows—they might catch on.

I’m amused by the fact that the file name of my query list is called “New Queries.” On reflection, “New and Essentially Deceased Queries” has more ring, but I’ll leave that for now. What I did want to emphasize is that if an article idea grabbed you once, grab it back, and send it out on its rounds now and then. The piece that was just accepted, by Wired UK, is about the history of the Fisher Space Pen, which wrote its way into history by its gravity-defying ink, first used in space in 1968, on the Apollo 7 mission.

The Space Pen just had its 50th anniversary (and continues to make its presence on all manned U.S. space flights), so perhaps it was newsworthy again. I’ve sent that query out to between 10–15 publications over the last three or four years, and finally got a hit.

Persistence pays, grasshopper. (Don’t think the Palm pitch will be exercising any editors now though.)

Free Circles

I’ve made the Kindle version of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, free on Amazon and at other online booksellers. Circles is a lively story about a couple of high-school doofuses who hitchhike across Canada, getting their eyes widened due to their naiveté about the ways of the road. Wise guys they are, but wisdom is in short supply. Check it out—won’t cost you a thin dime.

Trimming the Shrub

And a request for anyone who has bought my newest novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. If you didn’t bite, it’s a Prohibition-era piece about a sozzled society reporter and would-be author who blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Crash Boston. If you have read it, please consider an online review at Amazon, or Goodreads or any other online book vendor. Reviews help a great deal with a book’s success. Thanks!

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.

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!]

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.

Writing Ideas Are Spring Flowers for the Plucking

North Flowery Trail

I’ve written before about how writing ideas are everywhere. It’s a commonplace that people ask writers how or where they get their ideas, as though there’s a shortage of the little buggers. Hugely the opposite: whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer, or both (like me), ideas will rain down on you like monsoon waters—you only need to stick out an empty glass to have it filled.

One of the keys to filled glasses is to Think Like a Writer, which is why I titled my latest book such. Thinking like a writer means that when you see an interesting snippet of news in a magazine article, instead of mumbling to the cat, “That’s interesting,” you go and write down a note to research it further. Writing it down is key, particularly if you’ve reached my state of age-induced somnolence. Ideas are everywhere, but they are like a puffed dandelion’s seeds, which will all blow away unless you capture them.

Wait—Was That a Falling Idea?

This past week is a perfect example of ideas falling on my noggin and me catching them while the bumps were still rising on my head. My sister-in-law was visiting, after having gone to a Mission Day event at Mission San Antonio de Padua. She casually mentioned that she saw an exhibit there from a company called Access Adventures, which provides outdoor recreational opportunities for disabled people.

They provide free “therapeutic driving events” and other special opportunities to people with restricted mobility. The company was founded by Michael Muir, great-grandson of John Muir, and a person who has lived with MS since he was an adolescent. There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

My Name Is 409 (and I Don’t Do Windows)

My galpal Alice and I had a little dinner party the other night. One of our guests is an old car enthusiast, as am I. He was describing how he is having the 409 engine for a ’64 Chevy Impala SS rebuilt. The guy who is rebuilding it has worked on 409s for thirty years, and nothing but. His name is Jack, but they call him “409.” There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

Last, I was skimming through the annual typography issue of Communication Arts magazine. It’s a beautiful design magazine, and I’ve had a mild interest in typography for years. But combine that interest with the one I have for distilled spirits and you have a story knocking: there’s an article in the issue on a design firm (with wonderful images) that designs labels for craft spirits bottles. I write about spirits now and then, and love the labels shown in the article. That’s another potential article I can drink to.

Writing Ideas Not Acted Upon = Dead Ideas

Of course, these are just article ideas. I still have to research a good publication that would be a good fit and that would pay. I have to write the query letter and get it out there. And probably get several query letters out there. Then I have to be on the lookout for new ideas. But as I’m trying to make clear: you don’t have to look that hard, as long as you keep your writer’s eyes open.

This same mechanism of idea and story association works for fiction too. Seeing a face might trigger a story idea (or perhaps more often, a story scene), or seeing a dark doorway, reading an article or having a simple conversation. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it often provides the match to light the way of a story.

So get out there and look—and don’t get any paper cuts from picking up all those fallen ideas.