Freelancing Twists and Turns While Ducking the Coronavirus

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

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

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

Viruses Throw Curveballs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Net

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

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

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

Writers Need Patience (or a Good Meditation App)

Photo by Min An from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rip Van Winkling of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

Fog’s End Distillery Has the Can-do Spirit

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

Do Happy Lights Really Work for Seasonal Depression?

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

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

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

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

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

First Paragraphs Crack the Dam, Releasing a Flood of Words

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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.

Good Writing Requires a Guiding Light

And you guys can’t see the crossbow on the right aimed at my head to make me hit deadlines

History has it that Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day. It’s possible that writing The Human Comedy is worth the price of having a stomach shot with holes. I’m a coffee drinker myself, though I don’t bathe in it. But sometimes I need a bit more lift in my days, and I’m not interested in buying any meth.

The thing that needs lifting is my perspective, and here’s why: Lots of people feel sluggish, or moody or just out of sorts during the winter months. For some people who have an inclination toward mild depression, low-light winters can exacerbate the condition all the more. I’ve had mild depression on and off since adolescence, and have dreaded the seasonal smothering of the light for that reason. So, for the last couple of weeks, I’d been exposing myself to 20- to 40-minute daily doses of a 10,000 Lux light-therapy box.

Mild depression is like a winter coat that’s a bit too tight (and that covers your head too). You’re cloaked, but less in warmth than in something that is vaguely numbing. Not good for a dog, not good for a cat, not good for a writer. Interestingly, the device’s manual says you can have an overdose of sorts with the light, with symptoms like feeling squirmy, or over-caffeinated. Or, in the Mayo Clinic’s words, you can experience “mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder.”

So far, no mania, even though I’m still drinking coffee as well. I haven’t felt like driving my car through the garage door, buying stock in Trump Towers, or starting a chinchilla farm. (Do let me know if these seem like good bets though.) You can see from the image that you need to position the light close to you, at an angle. It’s distracting at first, but after some minutes, I get used to it.

I was amused to see that the model is called a “Happy Light.” Ahh, if only it were that easy! But I’m going to try it over the winter months, and see if I can get a bit brighter, and perhaps have more motivation to write all the pieces that often only get to “I should write about that” before I let them drift off. And even if positive results are placebo-based or in some way psychosomatic, that’s OK too.

I simply can’t spend the same amount of time in which Balzac visited the bathroom after his 50 cups, so the Happy Light will have to do.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Good Festivus to All!

Links

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

Boxing Up the Best of Homemade Nashville

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles who started a business selling subscriptions to homemade and small-production goods (coffee, bed and bath, popcorn, hand towels) made by 300 local vendors. They went from $100 startup costs to $2 million a year. That’s a lot of popcorn. Published in December 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

Adding Aluminum to a Garden of Glass

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor of world fame, with roots in Washington state. He established the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition near Seattle’s Space Needle a while back, which includes a glass-blowing studio housed in a vintage Airstream. Local students check out their mind- (and glass-) blowing classes for free. Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2019 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Texas Banker Teaches Classes on Painting Your Pet

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles a Texas woman who was a banker and MBA graduate who had a mild interest in art, leading to her teaching art in school districts to teaching dynamic painting classes on the side. And the popularity of those classes exploded. Published in November 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

6 Things Your Life Is Infinitely Better With

“An infinitely better life includes these six components: a clear purpose, a core team of business partners and close friends, full confidence and awareness in yourself and meaningful role models. It’s all attainable right now and you might be closer than you think.”

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!

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Sadder

Malibu chilling

 

Animals have an uncanny gift: they can bypass your brain and go directly to your heart. And they do this without guile, and thus are all the more captivating.

My kitty Malibu has been missing for 12 days now, and the weight of her absence is heavy. She was semi-feral when we found her six or seven years ago, and has always been an indoor-outdoor cat, often spending the warmer nights outside. So her not being around in the morning a ways back was concerning, not alarming.

Now we are alarmed.

The Soul of the Beast

When you get close to a creature, and get to know its behaviors, its whims and its eccentricities, you see that some animals have fully developed personalities. You know when a meow means contentment or annoyance, an arch of the back means alertness or calm.

Animals have a sense of humor, moods and aspirations. Look into the eyes of an animal you know well, and you can see their consciousness looking back. I know that this would prompt argument from many corners, but I believe that some animals have a soul, that they have an eternal spirit aside from the blood and bone.

That knowledge does give me some comfort, yet I ache for Malibu’s physical presence.

We have combed the neighborhood again and again, put up posters, gone to the shelter, notified the neighborhood online group, called for her endlessly. I’ve twice seen the shape of her head in the neighbor’s field, but that was just gathered grass. I’ve heard her meow, sometimes plaintively, but the the meows were just trilling birds or the squeaks of farm equipment. Twice I’ve awoken to her meowing in dreams, and rose in bed, only to realize that it was a phantom call.

Not knowing her fate is the hard part.

So, Malibu, my sweetheart, my companion, my friend, if you are out there, come home; if you are gone, rest in peace.

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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.

Five Fiction Sites That Tell the Facts


Once in a while I do a round-up post that lists my go-to sites for fiction-writing advice. Maybe not so oddly, some of the same names come up over and over—not because I’m lazy (don’t roll your eyes), but because the people that populate these sites know their stuff.

And that stuff is all about how to write, how to think about writing, how to write about thinking. As well as all that gritty craft stuff: story arcs, theme, setting, character development, side plots, secondary characters, beginnings, endings, denouements and other fancy words that might be spelled “climax,” and maybe even how to use a semicolon once in a while. (Hint: use tongs.)

Most of the solid citizens below have newsletters that will remind you, with pleasure, why you subscribed.

Writer Unboxed

Consistently good pieces on craft and craftiness (and an occasional jeremiad on the trials of the writing life), written by established writers, up-and-coming writers, and writers who recently realized that every letter of the alphabet is theirs. This is a strong writing community: the comments section is often the heart of the writerly dissection, and that’s saying something, because the posts are gold.

Steven Pressfield

Frank discussions on writing foibles and follies, from a guy who made “The Resistance” mean more than just rolling your eyes at the White House. Pressfield is a novelist and nonfiction writer who writes with succinct zing on what keeps us from writing, and how to wipe the cobwebs off your keyboard and get going.

Jane Friedman

Friedman covers all things publishing, which is a lot of coverage. Tons of info on self-publishing and indies, with example best practices and how-tos. Her material ranges from good cover design to Amazon analytics (and speaking of Amazon, her information covers the industry practices as well). There are also guest posts on matters of craft for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.

The Creative Penn

An established thriller writer and writer of nonfiction books on writing subjects (many on self-publishing), Penn seems tireless, since she also puts out a great podcast on publishing matters. Good tools/resource lists on a spectrum of writing concerns. Do check out her free Author 2.0 Blueprint book. Penn, who probably couldn’t stand still as a child, now has a travel and writing blog and podcast too.

Funds for Writers

No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you, you underfunded writer you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests, job markets and guest columns on writing, both fiction and non. Hope Clark, the author of many mystery novels (recommended!) who runs the joint, is tough and charming at the same time. Her column is personal, sometimes blunt, and always worth the read.

Bonus Lie
K. M. Weiland

Hah, I lied, so I could preserve the alliteration in the subject line. I must recommend six sites, because the sixth provides some sixth senses about writing fiction. Weiland, writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction writing guides, gives solid advice on pretty much every brick in the writing castle, from outlining, to writing scenes, to understanding the differences between plot and theme to every little way a character can wiggle. (And I have to say, “and much more,” because there really is a lot more on her site as well.)

Discount Shrubbery!

For the next 5 days, my novel set in Prohibition Boston, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, is discounted to $2.99 for the ebook version. You can get a lot of background information on the characters and the time period Rick Wilson (my co-writer) and I put together at www.swirledshrub.com.

Buy the hundreds of copies you crave here on Amazon or here through other online retailers. And if you already bought a copy, please consider a review at the retailer of your choice—we do so crave attention (and it really can help sales).

Gratitude Comes from a Place of Hope

Even at my age, I think I’d do well on the local basketball team

I’m a grumbler. Why does my hip hurt so much today, why didn’t that editor respond to my query, why is our government run by madmen and thieves? I’m so used to my brain’s radio playing Classic Grouch in 24/7 rotation that I can barely hear it, even though my legs dance to it.

But once in a while, when fresh winds blow from a different direction, when my closed lids see that there’s actually a rainbow of colors, when I get out of my own #$%!@&^!! way, I realize that this life stuff might be OK. That there might be good reason to cheer, to celebrate, to acknowledge.

I was reminded of that in a church soup kitchen in the small town of Cotacachi, Ecuador a few days ago. My galpal Alice and I are house-sitting for a month in Cotacachi, at the home of some expats from Atlanta. Cotacachi has many charms, friendly folks, good food, famed leather-goods artisans, and some beautiful surroundings at 8,000 feet in the Andes.

A Little Means a Lot

But all places have their poor. Before our Atlanta homeowners left for a stateside visit, they took us to the Lugar de Esperanza (Place of Hope) soup kitchen where they volunteer to help with food preparation, serving and cleanup of a large breakfast meal to 50–60 indigenous seniors from the town and surrounds.

Most of these people have very little: tiny incomes, tough living conditions, scant belongings. A few even walk a couple of hours to get the meal, which might be their only meal of the day. Some of them are barefoot. The volunteers first hand out vitamins to the gathered souls in the church courtyard, and then they proceed into the soup kitchen building to sit in rows at long tables.

On their way to the building, nearly all of them greeted Alice and I, clasped our hands and smiled and laughed. My Spanish is bad enough, but my Quechua (and all the variants) is non-existent. However, the communication was clear—good cheer and gratitude in all the faces, the body language, the talk among themselves.

They sat at the tables and chatted, and waited patiently waiting for grace to be said by one of the breakfast recipients. At the end of the meal, they filtered out, some with leftover food, again clasping our hands and nodding and thanking us, in Quechua and Spanish. One old guy even kissed my cheek when I bent to shake his hand.

Gratitude Is Better Than Kale

I’m used to my regular meals, my shelter, my health. It’s easy to forget just how good I have it;
gringo privilege is as unconscious as that grumpiness I mentioned. But the thin air up here in Cotacachi let me see clearly that gratitude is an attitude, one that can be encouraged and summoned and cultivated. And my goodness, it can even be good for you.

Alice went back and helped serve one of the meals a few days later; I hope to do it as well. She reported that the group was much the same, in manner and attitude. They appreciated the breakfast, and felt appreciated by the volunteers who appreciated them, a two-way street. That’s a street I need to drive on more often.

Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.