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.

Turkey Tales and Turkey Tails: An Island Christmas

I’ve been spending time on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera for the past 7 weeks or so. “Spending time”—such a peculiar expression, as though time could be counted like pennies or pomegranates. Time is much more like taffy, in that in some instances it can seem to stretch and stretch, and in others, break off or shatter. My time here has had many shattered moments, some where the blindingly sharp sun and brilliant blues of the ocean have been more like make-believe metaphors than the cloth that clothes my days.

Let’s skip past wrestling with the quirks and questions of time and move more toward its standard December measure: Christmas. Alice and I will not be on Eleuthera at Christmas, instead stealing away from here just a few days before the date. At some level, I regret that, because Christmas in a foreign country, especially on an island, is just that: foreign. And that foreignness is a good reminder that customs and traditions are just arbitrary, where cultures that might share a holiday like Christmas, don’t share it in quite the same way.

In that spirit, I recently wrote a piece on an island Christmas I did experience some years ago, when we lived on a little stretch of land in Micronesia. Courtesy of Squidoo; look for the Santa wearing flip-flops.

How to Unsuccessfully Try to Convince Readers That You’re Suffering

Digging the local brew at Tippy's, a fine institution of learning and scholarship

They do say travel is broadening. I’ve found it can also be narrowing. I lost 15 pounds in my first six weeks of my year in Micronesia, mostly because we didn’t understand how to shop on our island, with its scattered roadside stands, few stores (none of which resembled the supermarkets my suburban upbringing inured me to), the oddity of some of the local foods (i.e., dog), and gastro-tremblings from the water.

If you know me, my losing 15 pounds meant that I then weighed about as much as a pair of socks. I do have big feet, but still …. But once we adjusted, and learned how to island-shop, there were wonders at the table, mostly from succulent lobster at $2.00 a pound, and yellowfin tuna at fifty cents a pound. (I never inquired about the price of dog.) And when I say “adjusted,” I meant we learned to relax and go with the weirdness of things, and in many quarters, to truly appreciate the weirdness.

That suburban upbringing I alluded to—that was the condition that needed broadening, and broaden it did. Though I might thin out again here: a half-gallon of milk is $6.00, a box of cereal is $7. Maybe I’ll be eating my socks, since I don’t really need them here.

“Here” is the island of Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, where Alice and I are house-sitting for a couple of months. Eleuthera is one of the Bahamas’ “out islands,” meaning it’s not one of the glitzy resort islands, like Nassau. Even though it’s 110 miles long, there are less than 8,000 people here, which is about the number that lived on Kosrae, the Micronesian island where we lived a few years ago.

No, Really, I’ll Be Working
Eleuthera bears some tropical kinship to Kosrae, in that they share warm, azure waters, hot sun, warm, damp air, coral reefs, and that certain languor that seems native to islands. This isn’t a vacation for us: we’re going to be toiling at the keyboard as usual, though more sweatily; however, being able to take a mid-afternoon dip in the nearby shimmering waters will remind us that this world isn’t like our own. It is amazing to be sleeping so close to the sea again, with that big, blue womb’s encyclopedia of sounds—whispering, churning, crashing, slurping, whooshing—rolling over us in the night, since there isn’t any reason to close a window here.

Except for the gigantic insects. And the mosquitoes. And the snake we saw on the walkway yesterday. All those hermit crabs. And those crazy, charming curly-tailed lizards that are everywhere. The profusion of local wildlife also reminds me of Micronesia, detailed in a “travel surprises” piece I wrote for the L.A. Times: surprise, there’s a spider bigger than a spaniel in the living room! (One does adjust: one never goes in the living room again.)

So, my intention is to write a number of travel pieces while I’m here, and soak up some local culture. (That means rum.) I’m going to write some more about the travel-writing process in times to come. In the meantime, I’ll try to see where that beetle dragged off my briefcase…

Free Your Stories—Put Them in Cages

I futzed away on a tiny short story today for the Esquire Short Short Fiction contest, which honors the magazine’s 78th birthday with a contest for stories of 78 words. Mandated word counts are an interesting exercise: they are both constrained and liberating. Constrained, because if you go 79 words here, you’re out. Also because they force you to examine every branch of your story’s tree, and to see that a careful pruning can open up the air and the light in a tale (as well as a tree).

Word cages are liberating because knowing a story’s boundaries allows you to map it all the more clearly. You chop that subordinate clause there because it droops too heavily with verbiage. You might even have to chop out a subordinate character for the very same reason. (Note: you cannot do this with your relatives.)

Shaping Stories by Word-Slicing
Thus, being told by a child “Tell me a story” can be so much more challenging than “tell me a story with a princess who bets on the horses and ends up becoming a big-wave rider in Hawaii.” Riding the waves is easier when you can see their definition. Also, there is an almost surgical sense of control when it’s evident that you can change a sentence’s flavor just by excising some sagging skin. Even the whisking away of a “that” or an “a” can put more pepper in a phrase.

Which reminds me of the Twain quote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

War AND Peace? Please Choose
Sometimes writing to a theme and a word count is just plain fun. I have a piece coming out in the Nov/Dec issue of Writer’s Digest, for their “Reject a Hit” page. The challenge is to act as though you were the cruel, benighted editor that turned away a literary classic, and you must do such in 300 words. Like for that handicapping, wave-sailing princess, the theme constrains and liberates. Here’s mine:

Mr. Tolstoy: Re: your “War and Peace” query—my God man, one word: editing! Readers today are busy counting the serfs, polishing their mazurkas and dusting their Pushkin collections. They haven’t the stomach to digest a twelve-room dacha of a work. Think a brightly lit (but slight) tea garden of literature for today’s busy readers, or at most an airy drawing room. And let’s be reasonable—War AND Peace? Confine it to one, and save 350 pages.



Now, some specifics: Instead of the original Petersburg setting, it’s best to confine the whole thing in a tiny village, eschewing all those dreary travel scenes. If I had to read again about the boorish behaviors of a panoply of grubby roadside characters, I’ll scream! Keeping it to a village makes it more like a tidy play. In fact, perhaps this WOULD make a fine play—study your Chekov for pointers.

And let’s avoid all that violence and mayhem; we can’t found literary works on sensationalism, you know. And any drinking scenes have to go—that’s a fusty Russian stereotype that could use refreshing. Perhaps all the villains could be low-level clerks? Everyone hates a clerk. 

You do show some promise with character, though must you go on so? No more interminable sighs for the women, or long-winded hortatory oaths from the men; think clean, declarative, adjective-free sentences. It should go without saying that no women should die in childbirth, ugh! And really—including the French, even if the portrait is unflattering, in a popular novel? No. No French.



In summary, the work shows no small promise—but it’s TOO LARGE! Tighten its belt, shave its unshorn soldiers, pare 10 peasants for every one saved, remove all those fluffy word-curtains and showy emotive splashes and you might have something here. In fact, this might make a perfect piece of flash-fiction. Cut it down to 500 words and re-submit.

You can see it how it will be printed in the magazine here. And if you really want to put some tight wraps on your writing, hie on over to Smith Magazine, home of the Six-Word Memoir project. Every day lots of folks work on putting their words on a diet by posting six-word stories. (Dirty trick: use hyphenated compounds and cheat!) The editors even collect some of the entry categories for publication in books. So get cracking, but remember: six words is a story, seven is a stultifying bore.

How Being a Weirdo Writer Benefits Society

Isseta with Trailer

I was at a vintage auto concours yesterday, where there was an eyeball-scorching field of gleaming chariots, where the “oohs and ahhs” were many and involuntary. But then I saw this rig pictured above, a BMW Isetta with a teardrop trailer behind. The Isetta took more than 30 seconds to reach 31 mph, topping out at around 50. That the owner of this one had the peculiar cant of mind to hook up a tiny—but usable—trailer behind struck me with its whimsicality.

I don’t know where the quote “Normality is what cuts off your sixth finger and your tail” comes from (I’m sure it’s not Michele Bachmann), but the Isetta is an exemplar of the quote’s creed. So this post is rather a coda to the Katherine Hepburn one that preceded it—sometimes that sixth finger is the only one that can get a grip on an unusual idea, so it’s a shame to cut it off.

I recently read an article in an April 2011 New Yorker about David Eagleman, a professor of neuroscience and his work on how the brain conceives, interprets, and filters its sense of time. The article is wholly fascinating, but one of the tangents discussed in the piece was the “oddball effect,” which at its essence posits that the brain reacts with great focus and avidity to things that are outside the standard pattern, pushing the norm or subverting it, so much so that time itself seems to be dilated as a result of the brain’s attention.

Here’s to the Oddballs
Though I don’t even play a scientist on TV, I can’t address the measures or implications of that phenomenon, so I’ll just turn it to my purpose: The oddball effect is often a sensation of incredulity, mixed with delight. It’s when you pull up next to a car at a stoplight and the driver is wearing a gorilla mask. Good God!

So, like the Apple ad that saluted the crazy ones and the misfits, I want to salute the eccentric writers, who stroke and poke our brains. People like Tom Robbins, who never met a metaphor he couldn’t bend around a shooting comet, or Oscar Wilde, who while studying at Oxford University, would walk through the streets with a lobster on a leash. Or Lord Byron, who when told at Cambridge he couldn’t keep a dog in his room, discovered that there were no rules against bears. So he got one. (Note: Can we draw any conclusions about prestigious English academies and lunacy?)

Bertrand Russell said, “Orthodoxy is the death of intelligence.” Here’s to the guy that owned a truly oddball car, an Isetta, and thought, “A little trailer to go with it, that’s the thing!” He probably would have put a bear in there too, if he’d thought about it long enough.

Chopping the Copywriting and Creative Writing Salad

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

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

You might guess that I’m a generalist.

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

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

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

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

Magazine Editors (Gasp!) Are Actually Human Beings

I know, I know, all of those editors who have rejected your queries or articles are obvious emissaries of Baal, troglodytes, fresh steaming cat poop or much worse. Over the submission years, I have declared them among the seven princes of Hell (or at least in the league of incompetent cable installers). But I recant my earlier denunciations, and with good reason.

For all of the queries flatly unanswered, or for those receiving the peremptory “We can’t use this,” there are editors who take the calculated moment from the lunacy of today’s publishing world and offer a statement of encouragement to the anxious author. Or better yet, a response that leads said author to explore another editorial opportunity with the publication, if the initial submission doesn’t cut it.

Here’s an example, using two magazine editors who both exhibit those alarming traits of decency. I’ve written for Airstream Life magazine for years. The editor, Rich Luhr, originally solicited me to write for his then-new magazine after he’d seen a piece of mine on Airstreams on the Net. Now, having an editor ask you for a piece out of the blue is gift enough, but over time Rich has grown to know my work, and often assigns a piece that’s tuned to my sensibilities. Props to the man.

Recently, he was working on a new specialty magazine for Mercedes owners. I put in some time on a few articles, but Rich couldn’t find the advertising base to support the publication. He had the grace to offer me a kill fee above the price I’d requested, because he knew I’d done a lot of research time. Above and beyond.

Do the Article Two-Step
That ties in well with an editor I just started corresponding with. She runs a Mercedes magazine in the UK, and I sent her one of the articles written for the lost US mag. We went back and forth a bit, and finally she decided that it wasn’t right for her. But I mentioned VERY casually at the end of my “thanks for listening” that I could write a piece about my chariot, an aged-but-stalwart 1981 SL 380.

Bingo! I have an assignment that I initially hadn’t conceived of, just because an editor took the time to explore the potential of other article ideas—or because they simply opened a conversation. There are a few lessons here, but the main ones are that once you are actually having a conversation with an editor, be conversant: recognize that they are open to you as a writer, even if they’re not immediately buying what you’re writing.

And once the conversational door is open, you can walk in so much more freely than if you are sending out your first (and oftentimes) stiff query. I recently had a series of email exchanges with the editor of an in-flight magazine. She didn’t go for my initial query, but took the time (in just a few sentences) to go over what the magazine was looking for. I sent her another query, which was discussed, and which prompted another. Now, none of these ideas actually worked for the magazine, but I know from the quality of our exchanges that I can approach this editor on a comfortable, conversant basis in the future.

Second Dates
And if you’ve published even one piece for a magazine, think to approach those editors again, if you have a quality idea. I have written pieces for a couple of editors who publish wine-and-spirits world magazines, and now I don’t have to write a formal query with my publishing credits and other tedium; I can start right in with “Hi Tim. I had an idea for a piece…”

Obviously, you don’t want to badger editors with lame queries so that they wonder why they ever published you in the first place, but once you have an editor’s ear, you’re miles ahead of the game. (If you try to get their other ear, though, they might press charges.)