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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost Kitty Update

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

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

Links

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

This Is the World’s First Carbon-Negative Vodka

The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained

Why the Big Boy 4014 Is Such a Badass Train

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

How to Become the Best in the World at Something

Four Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times

Good writing and reading to all!

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.

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

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

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

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

One and Done?

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

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

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

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

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

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

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

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

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: Drink the Champagne While It’s Bubbling

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!


There’s a lot of dreck you have to wade through as a writer, whether you’re working a day job and writing on the side, working on commercial writing for the dough and on creative writing for the love, or writing creatively full-time. Or maybe writing only a haiku every ten years.

You have to wear the high boots for the dreck wade because the obstacles are considerable:

• The vast numbers of entertainment options these days has most people reading less.
• Self-publishing opportunities (and their variants, like hybrid publishing) are excellent ways for underserved voices to get their works out there. But that means their works are out there competing for mind-time with yours.
• Very few people make a living with their creative writing. In fact, very few people can afford their daily lunch with what they make from their creative writing. (Once in a while I splurge on sparkling water.)
• Maintaining a writing habit, particularly with some of the hindrances above, is challenging, particularly when you get little recognition or praise.
• Some days you just can’t remember how apostrophes work.

There are a hundred and one other ways that writing is hard, but I don’t want to type them out, because they make my nails sore. What I do want to focus on is giving yourself a clap on the back when you take a writing step forward, dreck and all.

Shush the Grumbly Inner Editor
If you have a grumbly inner editor like mine, you hardly ever hear “That’s great! Good work! Do it again!” Instead, you might hear: “That’s how you’re going to phrase that? Sheesh, my cat could write a better line.” But that inner editor is a bully and a fraud.

Instead—and this isn’t at all a call to sugarcoat some writing realities—nod agreeably at that editor, and leave the room he infests. If you wrote 500 pretty good words, whether on an assignment, on a short story or on the novel you’ve been groaning through for six years, acknowledge to yourself that those are 500 pretty good words. Even if they took you a week to write.

They are still 500 pretty good words. And that ain’t moose urine.

Deep Feelings for Fiction
Since I’m the one sitting here, I’ll use me as an example. I am lucky enough to get a fair amount of things published, even enough to buy sparkling water. But almost all of my work that’s out there is nonfiction. And that’s great—really!—and I’m grateful for it.

But the fiction writing, the painting-in-the-mind’s landscape writing? Not so much. I’ve written three novels (well, two-and-a-half, since the latest is a collaboration), but I’ve only self-pubbed one of them and the rest wait for God. I had a small press publish a book of my short stories that has sold enough copies to buy some ice for the sparkling water.

So when any of my fiction gets accepted, it feels like a breakthrough.

Example: a couple of years ago, I wrote a creepy story about a woman who obsesses over her vast horde of realistic-looking dolls in her basement, arranging them having tea, sitting up in conversations on beds, having dinner with guests at tables. Her tenants go down for a look, and weirdness ensues.

I sent it out to a bunch of literary magazines over time, with no acceptance. But I sent it a couple of months ago to Catamaran, a lovely magazine I’d had a nonfiction piece in a ways back, and this week, goodness gracious, they liked it and want to publish it.

So, small victory. But a victory, nonetheless! One that crotchety inner editor can’t take away.

Two items here: celebrate the victories, and keep sending stuff out (and send it out again), because without doing that, no one will ever get a chance to accept it. As for the rejections, cut them into ribbons, mash them up into a malleable pulp, and make a Donald Trump voodoo doll.

(I wrote a post some years back on writing rewards that touches on some of the issues here, and it’s good fun: Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages.)

Writers, keep celebrating the victories, no matter how small. Writers: drink the champagne—then keep writing, to prompt more celebrations.

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.

To Thine Own Self (Publishing) Be True

Leaded type

I finished a novel in late 2012. Titled Aftershock, it’s based in San Francisco, and the 1989 earthquake plays a central part in throwing—almost literally—some disparate lives together. Nobody’s particularly comfortable in the book, but that’s the prerogative of the author—we get to torture our characters, so that we can be better people ourselves. Or not.

But I don’t want to talk about my psychological problems. (Unless you swing by with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon—I have ice on ice waiting for you.) I do want to briefly talk about publishing. Briefly, because talking about the changes in publishing is an industry in itself these days, and my adding to the din won’t land me any Oprah-time.

Bleary Queries

To this point, I’ve sent queries about my novel to 22 agents. Despite the publishing heavens being torn by demons, agents remain the middle defenders for those writers hungering for the traditional publishing route, with its still-credible distribution structure, now-flagging marketing support, and tarnished-yet-dimly-shiny “Look mom, some NY bigwigs bought my book” cachet.

Depending on the agent guidelines, those queries have included a couple of full manuscripts, a lot of 10-50 page excerpts, or just a synopsis and a prayer. So far, I’ve received 12 rejections; some of the queries are a few months’ old without response, so I’ll probably follow up on the best of those.

But the winds of change have blown their clichéd gusts through publishing’s doors, and floors. Self-publishing no longer has the “I wrote seven poems about grandma’s feet, and had them printed with a velvet cover” taint. I self-published my first novel, had a book of short stories published by a small press after that, and should no agent show real interest in my newest work in the next few months, I’ll go the self-abuse route once more. (I did always love the punchline for the you’ll-go-blind masturbation joke, “Hey, can I just do it long enough so I only have to wear glasses?”)

Resources: Self-pub Grub

I’ve been reading a good deal about the publishing industry and its earthquakes in the last year or so. Here are a few good books that have solid info on the publishing world, self-publishing and how to market your work:

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

Create Your Writer Platform

Sites with Insights

And here are some sites I read regularly that provide great resources and insights into the roiling new world of publishing.

Jane Friedman
The Creative Penn
Digital Book World

And if I do self-publish, this time I’ll have my book edited by some professional other than myself. Woe befalls the writer, even if they are professional editors, who edit their own work. That self-abuse could take the sight from any writer’s eyes, and I already wear glasses, so I know better now.