Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wait, that's not what I meant! Contributed by Pamela Matlack Klein

These misguided headlines have been making the rounds forever, and you might have already seen them. But they give me a chuckle every time, and I thought it might brighten your day. Thanks to member Pamela Matlack Klein for contributing.

"Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say."

"Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers."

"Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over."

"Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter."

"Miners Refuse to Work After Death."

"Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant."

"War Dims Hopes for Peace."

"If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile."

"Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures."

"Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges."

"Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge."

"New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group."

"Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft."

"Kids Make Nutritious Snacks."

"Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half."

"Hospitals Are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors."

"Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead."


To that, I can add a couple of my favorite quotes from my days as a sportswriter.

1. The University of North Carolina football coach, reflecting back on a disappointing season:
"If we had started out the year 4-0, I guarantee you we wouldn't have finished 3-9."

2. The manager of the Lynchburg Mets, a minor league baseball team, on a bright young prospect:
"The thing I like about this kid is that his whole future is ahead of him."

3. A Virginia Tech football play-by-play broadcaster after the teams came out for the second half with Tech trailing Miami 28-0:
"If Tech is going to win this game, they're going to have to put some points on the scoreboard."

And to follow up with the "stating the obvious" theme, I heard a classic on my local TV news the other day.

After describing a "home invasion" robbery in which a man broke into a house at gunpoint and robbed the occupants, the reporter noted: "Residents say that's not the sort of thing they want to see in their neighborhood."

Monday, December 6, 2010

What I Believe, From Neil Bohnert

I Believe . . .

. . . there is no place like home, no time like the present, no fool like an old fool, no news is good news, and no man is an island.
Money doesn’t grow on trees; you can’t see the forest for the trees; the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree; and a tree grows in Brooklyn.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; good fences make good neighbors; and it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
I believe you are what you eat; you are my sunshine; and you are not alone.
It’s the Pepsi generation and Coke is the real thing.
I believe it’s a small, small world and that it is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.
Seeing is believing; don’t believe everything you see; and I’ve seen it all.
I am convinced that prosperity is just around the corner; that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; that this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny; that the world must be made safe for democracy; that you should ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country; I would rather be right than be president; and if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.
I believe time flies; time stands still for no man; time is money; and if you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time.
A stitch in time saves nine.
A cat has nine lives.
You only live once; once is enough; and once upon a time.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; anything worth doing is worth doing well; and twice done is well done.
Walk softly and carry a big stick.
You’ll never walk alone.
It’s a long way to Tipperary and you can’t get there from here.

I Also Believe . . .
Love is blind; love is a many splendored thing; love conquers all; love is never enough; love is wasted on the young; and you always hurt the one you love.
All is fair in love and war; war is hell; and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

I believe it’s not what you know, it’s who you know; you never know ‘till you ask; and it takes one to know one.
I believe there’s a first time for everything; for everything there is a season; and everything in its place.
Never put off ‘till tomorrow what you can do today; never a dull moment; never on a Sunday; never, never, never give up; and never say never.
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill; don’t count your chicks before they’re hatched; don’t bite the hand that feeds; don’t put all your eggs in one basket; don’t give up the ship; don’t make waves; and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Remember the Maine, Remember the Alamo, and I Remember Mama.

Put on a happy face; put your heart into it; put your best foot forward; and put your money where your mouth is.

I believe life is just a bowl of cherries; the best things in life are free; and there is no such thing as a free lunch;
I believe every dog has his day; every cloud has a silver lining, every rose has its thorn; and every day is a new day.

● ● ●

I truly believe it is impossible in the course of human thought to avoid invoking a tired cliche.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jump Rope With a Muslim (From Tom Gerdy)

(Previously published in the Huffington Post).

I recently was able to hang out with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert in Washington, DC. According to Fox News (and Personal Opinion), I was there with a couple dozen of my young lily-white liberal friends to bash the right wing. If you believe the right-wing accounting of the event, at age 57, I was that creepy old guy in the corner of the party.

Luckily, for my psyche, Glenn Beck and Fox weren’t the only people counting and cataloging the crowds. According to other reports of the event, I spent that Saturday between the Capitol and the Washington Monument hanging out in a very diverse crowd of between 200,000 and 250,000 people.

As I revisit my memories of the group assembled on the mall at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, I didn’t feel old or young. I saw people who could have been my kids, and I saw people who could have been my parents. I didn’t feel particularly white or liberal. It was a beautiful fall day, and I felt good just being there.

I felt proud as an American that we could gather for such an event. As I sat on the mall looking over the thousands of people at the Capitol, I couldn’t help but think that the people who gave birth to the United States had this in mind when they talked about freedom of speech. The rally was a powerful symbol of freedom and America. A couple hundred thousand people from every point on the spectrum of life gathered on a sunny October day. I met people from all over our country. I sat with fellow citizens from Ohio, California, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. The skin colors were as diverse as the changing leaves on the trees. I think I even saw an orange-skinned Jersey Shore Snookie wannabe, but it might just have been a Halloween costume.

This strong collection of people came to join hearts and hands. They came to laugh together. They came for inspiration, and they came to make a statement. This gathering was not about religion, color, or heritage. This gathering was about our future. The media and the politicians both are spending a great deal of time attempting to drive us apart. The rally made it clearer to me than ever before, that we must work to eliminate the hate and the polarization our current system is cultivating.

Two strong images of the event stand out as reminders of the lunacy of hate. At one point in the rally, Jon Stewart introduced possibly the tallest Muslim American, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Kareem was admired and respected for his basketball ability. As an NBA pro, his religion meant nothing to America. He was just another tall American playing hoops, and he was good at it. Kareem told the thousands at the rally, “We’re all on the same team.”

Four rally attendees supplied the second image. Two women held the opposite ends of a rope. Two young men held up signs. One said, “Don’t jump to conclusions, just jump rope.” The second sign said, “Jump Rope with a Muslim.” I watched many different types of people jumping rope and grinning. As I started to leave the area, I saw a young man dressed as Jesus (yes, complete with the crown of thorns) start to jump rope. Watching spectators and participants alike grinning, I thought how, sometimes, the best ideas are simple. It’s hard to hate when you are jumping rope. Maybe we should all jump rope with a Muslim, a Republican, a Democrat, a Christian, a Jew, a black, a brown, or even the creepy 57-year-old guy in the corner. As Kareem said,
“We’re all on the same team."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Little man, big personality. (From Candy Czernicki).

"It all started in Cannon Falls, MN, in a strip bar."

That, friends, is your first clue that you are in for an adventure. Meet 4-foot-6 "Bad Boy Brian" Thoe, 37, professional midget wrestler.

He's also been a drummer in a heavy metal band, an Oompa Loompa, a security guy in the Jerry Springer Show and a human bowling ball.

"All I'm doing is living a dream," he said.

The dream began when Eddie Sharkey, a legendary professional wrestling trainer who counts Jesse Ventura among his students, approached Thoe in that infamous Cannon Falls club and asked if he was interested in becoming a professional midget wrestler.

"I was working at Fiesta Foods at the time, and used my vacation time to see what it was like," Thoe said. "I came home and gave my two week's notice."

Learning to wrestle "was almost like going into the military," Thoe said. "I trained at this gym in St. Joseph, MO with no air conditioning. It was a wood wrestling ring -- no air circulation. You learn each move and get up and do it again."

There are two things people always want to know. One is, if wrestling is fake.

"Yes, but no," Thoe said. "It is, but it still hurts. Sometimes they do hit you hard or stomp or kick. The bottom line is, it still hurts. If you don't have a pain tolerance, you won't make it."

The other question is if he's offended by the term "midget." That answer is a straight no.

"I call other people midgets," he said. "I don't care if they like it or not.

"I love midget jokes," he added, proving it by offering up a rapid-fire string of them.

Thoe has appeared on WWE shows, TNA and Whacked Out Sports and does a number of imdependent shows. Although he's a family man now, he still loves the road.

"The things I've seen happen on the road -- you name it, I've seen it. But knowing me, I'll probably be doing this until the day I die. It's in my blood, hardcore. It's like the world's strongest legalized drug. I'm addicted to it."

His only non-wrestling addiction, he added, is copious quantities of Mountain Dew.

"My Lifestyle now is Mr. Mom. But as soon as I leave, I'm Bad Boy Brian."

Thoe grew up in Lake City and now lives there with his fiance, their infant daughter, two stepchildren and assorted other family.

"I was baptized, confirmed, graduated in this town," he said. "I lived on the farm for most of my life. If I ever have a big contract deal, I'd buy the farm right back."

Wrestlers play different styles and call each other by their stage names at all times, Thoe said. His road family bears similarities to his Lake City one.

"You gotta get along or it just doesn't work," he said. "I avoid drama as much as I possibly can. Even if I know (what's going on), I don't know nothing. I just want to do my job and mind my own business."

For now, he's enjoying life as an entertainer.

"I study entertainment constantly," he said. "In the next 20 ore 30 years, I'd like like to find a movie producer or do a book on my history and experience in the entertainment inudstry.

"I have no regrets in my life. I live it to the fullest. If something interests me, I'm going to give it a shot. I'm going to die happy because I've given everything I've got, no regrets."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Questions For Your Creativity (From Lael Johnson)

Sit down and ask yourself some of these questions, during your free and quiet time. Listen carefully to what your creativity has to say to you.

What is the cost of pursuing your creativity?
What is the cost if you don’t pursue your creativity?
How much time does nurturing your creativity take?
How much time are you willing to give to your nururing your creativity?

What resources do you need to nurure your creativity?

How much time are you willing to experiment with your creativity?
How much percolating time do you need?
How much production time do you need?

What associations do you need to join?
What type of artist buddy(ies) do you need to find?
What type of networking do you need to pursue?

What kind of personality do you have?
How comfortable are you with experimentation?
How comfortable are you with developing your creativie discipline?
What is your first reaction to the phrase “problem-solving”?

What artistic invitations would you like to receive?
What artistic events do you see yourself pariticpating in?
What artistic events do you find enjoyable, stimulating or inspiring?

What venues does your creativve ability thrive in?
What venues do not fit with your creativie ability?
What venues can you create for your work? Or can you create to display the work of others?

What causes touch your heart?
Are you inspired to use your art to support your favorit cause(s)?
What artists inspire you, because they produce their art to support a specific cause?

Where do you develop your creative themes?
How long does it take for you choose an idea?
What are some of your least favorite themes?

Why do you want to express your creativity?
Why do you want to mentor other creative people?
Why do you maintain your daily creative discipline?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Volcano Surfing (From David Wilson).

Jagged ash, stinky gas, shoe-melting heat: on the surface, an active volcano's attributes make it a poor platform for sport, even the extreme kind. But "volcano surfing" or "ash boarding" exists and consists of what you expect: surfing down the side of a volcano.

Bare bones

All you need is a metal-bottomed board and nerves of steel (or a streak of insanity). Like a sledge-rider, you start by slogging up your volcano's sooty slopes on foot.

Rough cut

Then, like a sandboarder, whoosh!

You skid downhill, sitting or standing and trying damn hard to keep your balance. Because wiping out hurts, at the risk of resembling a mad scientist you should wear protective gear — boiler suits and goggles. Only lunatics wear bikinis.


Speaking of lunatics, in July 2008, after leaving an offering for the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele on a nearby beach, Hawaii-based pro-surfer C J Kanuha approached the world's most active volcano: the Big Island's Kilauea.

Positioned by a canoeist and a jet skier, Kanuha paddled as close as he dared, edging within just 6 metres of the lava. Reportedly thrilled by the experience, he then beat a retreat from the water that reached 200°C in places, melting the wax on his surfboard and peeling skin from his legs.

Kings of Leon

If you fancy a crack at volcano surfing without being boiled, the volcano to visit is Nicaragua's Cerro Negro (Black Mountain). Since 2005, over 13,000 adventurers — including five Survivor contestants — have surfed Cerro Negro, according to tour firm Bigfoot, which runs sessions on plywood boards (a better vehicle than mattresses, which have been tried).

Miracle birth

Charred and bare, Cerro Negro stands some 30 kilometres from the northern Nicaraguan colonial city of Leon. Like a miracle, Cerro Negro just appeared in 1850 in the heart of a cornfield.

Ever since, the sulphur-stained, wind-buffeted oddity without a speck of vegetation has been growing. Now, Cerro Negro stands over 700 metres tall.

Vicious temper

Despite its barren looks, Cerro Negro has erupted over 20 times. That makes it volatile compared to your average volcano, which is content to let the grass grow.

Cerro Negro last erupted in 1999, vomiting rocks and sending farmers scurrying. Even now, smoke and gas spew from its various vents. You can smell the sulphur.

When, after a 45-minute hike, you reach Cerro Negro's seething peak, you may admire the local national park's lush contours. In the meantime, in case your soles melt, you must keep moving and deflect the advances of updraft-borne stinging insects.

Speed demons

When the time comes to unwind, go with gravity. And unless you want to eat granite for breakfast, keep your mouth shut. Spine straight. Lean back. Smile for the radar gun!

During your eight-second ride, you will travel far faster than lava — up to 82 kilometres an hour, unless you are French extreme speed cyclist Eric Barone.

Red baron

In May 2002, on a first run down the steep lava bed, sat astride a standard mountain bike, Barone smashed the world record he set there two years before, clocking 163 km/h. His second run, on a specially modified bike, ended in horror. Apparently striking a rock, his bicycle snapped in two — the one-time Sylvester Stallone stunt double flew downhill.

Barone broke several ribs and his sternum, but triumphed. When the crash happened the action hero nicknamed the Red Baron had crossed the speed sensor, clocking 172 km/h.


Unlike Barone, who is now nudging 50, most of the everyday speed freaks in overalls who zoom down the slopes are tousle-haired 20-somethings. The youngest ever, according to Bigfoot, was 12 (too young to do an official tour). The oldest was a Swedish 74-year-old, who must have been tough.

Raw nerve

Deceptively, the uploaded clips that you see make surfing Cerro Negro look like a party. Do not underestimate the courage it takes to face the dirty granite dust sharp as broken glass, plus the plunging gradient and heat of up to 40 degrees — damn hot in a boilersuit.


After rocketing down from the summit, you may well be cut, but one-up on those wussies who think that surfing cold wet waves is exciting.


Surfing Cerro Negro just might be the ultimate thrill ride — the mega-adrenalin hit which extreme sports addicts crave and perpetually seek. The quietly seething magma mountain could erupt any second.

Getting there

The nearest commercial airport to Leon is in the country's capital, Managua. From Managua, you can easily hire a rental car and drive the remaining 90 kilometres along a new highway. Or you can take a bus from Mercado Israel or the microbuses that leave from La UCA (La Universidad de Centro Americana).

For more information check out Bigfoot Nicaragua, Tierra Tour or Tours Nicaragua. The cost is about $30 and the duration about five hours. Expect a dawn start.

Friday, November 26, 2010

In the Sweet Buy and Buy (From Linda Van Slyke)

Black Friday, so-named because it helps change the red ink of debt into the blank ink of profit, has become the high holy day of consumerism.

Worse than that, it has become the ultimate symbol of what Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. calls “economism” - which he defines as “the conviction that economic values are the most important, and the restructuring of society to express that valuation.” Economism not only encourages consumerism, but also fosters a clinging to wealth (investments, possessions, savings) as a means of insuring security and worth.

Since insuring security and worth used to be the purview (and lure) of religion, Cobb also defines economism as “the first truly successful world religion.” He describes it as “the most powerful and successful idolatry of all time.”

Case in point: Are people rolling out of bed and shivering on long lines in order to catch Sunday morning’s sermon? How about Saturday morning’s minyan? Friday’s noon prayers? Are the masses stampeding the pearly gates the way they are the mall ones? Do they come bearing gifts – or do they leave buying gifts?

A person’s true faith is more often revealed by a checkbook than by an autobiography. Money not only goes where the mouth is, but also where the heart is. The beloved Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, claimed that everyone has a religion, many just don’t know it. Religion is focused upon that which people have confidence (faith) in. This can often be determined by where they commit their time, energy, attention and resources.

Mart or heart? For some, there’s a huge theological gulf between the two…


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Keep an eye out for helicopters

I heard an old joke recently (you may have heard it, too) that I think is quite applicable to freelance writing.

With the water rising rapidly in a flood, a truck pulls up to a man's front door and offers to take him away before it's too late. He refuses, saying: "I'm a Christian, and I know God will save me."

A few hours later, the man is forced to retreat to the second floor as flood waters creep up the side of his house. Some rescuers arrive with a boat, but he sends them away, declaring: "I'm a Christian, and I know that God will save me."

Finally, the man is on his roof, clinging to the chimney, when a helicopter hovers just above him and drops down a rope ladder. "Thanks, but no," the man yells against the noise of the rotors. "I'm a Christian, and I know God will save me."

Soon after, the water closes over the roof, and the man drowns. He finds himself at the Pearly Gates, standing in front of St. Peter, and he says: "You know, I have to tell you, I was really hurt that I trusted God to save me, and he didn't."

St. Peter shakes his head in disbelief.

"What do you want?" he tells the man. "He sent you an truck, a boat and a helicopter."

I sense that this parable applies to a lot of freelancers. There are rope ladders dangling all around us -- on-line newsletters, writers' groups and services like this one -- but you have to reach up and grab them. Put other way, you can't sell anything if you don't try. And if you wait for editors to contact you, you'll probably drown.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Frustrations, and possible solutions

Last week, I asked for insights into the current frustrations facing freelance writers. One Writers' Bridge member, Marilyn Noble, put it very well -- therefore, I'm posting her thoughts here, along with some comments and possible solutions.

Darrell, thanks for the nudge. I think freelancing has become markedly more difficult since I started more than a decade ago. I'm seeing challenges in several areas: Getting paid -- While there are many more markets now than there used to be, the vast majority of the...m pay so little that you can't make a living writing for them. The magazines that will pay a buck a word are few and far between, and a good number of those have seen their page counts shrink with the economy so they buy fewer articles. Magazines demand more rights than they used to and tend to pay later (after publication rather than on acceptance), making cash flow management tricky. Competition -- There are many more people freelancing than there used to be. So many journalists have been laid off and can't find jobs, and many of them have turned to freelancing. And then there are plenty of hobby writers who are willing to write for next to nothing or worse just to see their names in print. Quality -- Many markets, especially on-line, are willing to print almost anything, and they pay so little that they get inferior work from people who are either lazy or don't know better. Content mills seem to be driving this trend. So if you're a professional writer who spends time on research and lots of rewrites before you submit your work, your hourly rate is below the poverty level, while those who can slam out 300-word, semi-literate but optimized blog posts can at least make pocket change while they keep their day jobs. I guess what it boils down to is that good writers and good writing are no longer as valued as they used to be. I'm usually pretty upbeat and optimistic about the world, but I think this is a sad situation for those of us who are professionals. I don't know many writers any more who make a living solely from freelance work -- everybody is taking on whatever projects will pay the bills. A friend of mine calls this "giganomics" -- having to do lots of different gigs to make a living. So that's my take on things. What is everybody else experiencing?

A few thoughts ...

Alas, there's nothing any of us can do about the "content mills" that pay $10 an article. A lot of this is obviously exploitation, but I also know some of the folks in that business who can't afford to pay any more. And while some writers will take those jobs, no one is forcing you to be one of them. Getting mad about it is just a waste of energy.

So how do we, as experienced writers, go about standing out in the crowd with the higher-paying markets? And how can The Writers' Bridge help? I have a few long-term ideas ...

1. I would like to finish building a bridge to the other side, meaning the editors and publishers of magazines, newspapers and Websites. What TWB can do, ultimately, is provide a collective credibility. If we can guarantee as a group that articles will be written as agreed upon, submitted on time, and completely free of typos and grammatical errors, we can break through te natural reluctance of editors to use writers with whom they are unfamiliar. Every success story needs to have a matching validation from that customer. Eventually, word will get around.

Of course, how to build that bridge remains an issue. These days, there is often a "cyber-moat" around the castles of media, and one never knows if a pitch or a query or an invitation ever gets to the right person. It may take personal visits or attendance at editors' conferences, and I'm willing to do that.

2. We need to build our membership. This is obviously essential for me, since that's what pays our bills. But it's also essential for the group as a whole. The more writers we have, in more places, the more chances we have of coming across unique stories that will sell.

3. My goal is to start up at least one magazine, with TWB members as the contributors.

Any other suggestions would be welcomed. My primary reason for asking for freelance problems is to open the door for freelance solutions.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Five qualities all freelancers need

1. MOTIVATION. It's easy for freelancing to slip to the bottom of your to-do list, especially if you don't have any clients at the moment. Your "day job," your family (or your dog or cat) and the necessary rituals of living all all conspire to claim your attention and time. These responsibilities are immediate and obvious; freelancing is not. What harm will it do if you wait until Thursday to write that query you were going to produce on Tuesday? And when Thursday arrives, why not Monday?

Somehow, from somewhere, you have to dredge up the motivation to advance your freelancing career. Sit down with your partner and/or family and enlist their aid in carving out some quiet writing space each week without neglecting your other duties. If you ask them, they will probably offer support.

When you think about it, it's a lot like finding time for daily workouts or adhering to a diet. The advantages are down the road, but they are no less real.

PATIENCE. For every 100 writers who try to earn a living (or even a second income) at freelancing, I would estimate that 80 percent fall away from lack of patience. I often employ a fishing analogy -- sometimes the fish (or the clients) are biting, and sometimes no bait seems to work. Often, the first market you query isn't interested. At such times, I would invoke a line from a Jimmy Buffett song: "Breathe in, breathe out, move on."

It also helps to distance yourself somewhat from your efforts. Send out as many queries as you can, then forget about them. The worst thing you can do is pitch one major market, then sit and wait for a response that may never come.

CURIOSITY. I would list that as the No. 1 quality for any writer. If you are blessed with that, you will rarely run out of ideas. Every waking hour of your life, you'll be surrounded by them.

FLEXIBILITY. Things rarely turn out the way you envision in freelancing. The market that you've decided is perfect for one of your ideas doesn't feel the same way. On the other hand, a throwaway query for which you had no hope bears fruit. An editor sends you an e-mail asking you to rewrite an article completely. That source you really needed at the last minute is on vacation without a cell phone.

It's always good to have a plan, but realize that plans must always be fluid.

CONFIDENCE. This is perhaps the hardest quality to muster for a freelancer, because there are so many reasons to be discouraged. Even established writers often suffer from a lack of faith -- no matter how much you've achieved, you're only as good as your last project.

Writers, then, most learn not only to like themselves, but what they write. Even more importantly, they need to arrive at the sober realization that any creative endeavor is prone to subjectivity.

How many times have you confidently recommended a movie or a book to a friend, only to have them come back later with: "You know, I really didn't like that at all"?

Not everyone is going to applaud or approve of what you produce, no matter what it is.
Leave the back door open for criticism, because some of it may make you better, but know that different opinions are what make the world interesting.

Let me offer another scrap of song lyric, this one from "Garden Party," by the late Ricky Nelson.

"But it's all right now; I've learned my lesson well. You know you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."

Bookmark that.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A two-word freelance mantra: Why not?

In case you haven't noticed, freelance writing is capricious.

You come up with an idea you think is perfect for Magazine A, which pays enough to hold your mortage at bay for months. A search tells you they have never published an article on that subject, but have accepted quite a few along the same lines. Chuckling to yourself with anticipation, you fire off a confident query. A few weeks later, the response comes back: "Dear Writer: Thank you for thinking of us, but this is not what we need at this particular time."

Resisting the strong impulse to reply: "Are you people morons, or what?" you settle for simply sulking.

Conversely, you send out a random query to a random market on a subject that has only a peripheral connection to what they do. A few weeks later the response comes back: They're interested.

Just as it sometimes rains on picnics and outdoor weddings, or 70-degree days appear in January in Maine, nothing in this business is certain.

As I've mentioned before, and will continue to repeat ad nauseum, it's important to keep freelancing in perspective. We sometimes weigh the decision of who and how to query as if we were preparing a death penalty appeal or a wedding proposal.

Sure, give it your best shot. Make sure the query is relevant, coherent and free from any grammatical mistakes or typos. But also remember: The worst they can do is say no -- or, in some cases, say nothing. If that happens, no one will know about it except you and them. It won't be posted on some gigantic wide-screen scoreboard for all the writing world to see. Moreover, if your contact with that editor is efficient and professional, he or she will probably remember you the next time you query.

In other words, you have nothing to lose by sending out a query.

I'd suggest keeping a small notebook in your pocket and jotting down ideas when they come to you. Then, when you get home that night, send a query to somebody on that idea. They might say yes.

Many of us obsess about queries because we're thinking about it from our perspective. Rather, imagine yourself as an editor.

If that were the case, chances are you would want the queries you read to be short and to the point. You don't really care about the entire work history of the freelancer. You don't care where they went to high school, or how many cats they have. You don't care that it's really, really important to them to get published. You care about:

1. Whether the article suggested would fit into your magazine or onto your Website.
2. If this seems like a good person to write that article.
3. If this seems like someone who would actually finish the article and send it in.

One suggestion I would make would be to briefly qualify any idea that may not obviously fit a magazine's format. It's OK to say something like: "This might seem like a stretch for you, but here's why I think it would work." Otherwise, you run the risk of being exiled to the ranks of the clueless who send the same query to every editor on the planet, regardless of relevance.

Another suggestion is to write down those two words and post them somewhere in your writing space: Why not?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Building your own pipeline

These days, "pipeline" has become a dirty word, especially if you live in one of the Gulf states. Yet pipelines of information are non-polluting -- and, for freelance writers, essential.

To switch metaphors for just a second, a lot of freelancers are dying of thirst when a river of ideas is rushing right past their door. All they need to do is tap into it.

One reason they don't, I think, is the sense of isolation that freelancing can engender. Those of us with journalism backgrounds tend to fare better, because we're used to reaching out to others for suggestions.

The thing is, the world is full of people who want to give you information and tell you stories. What I'm pushing with the Writers' Bridge is a system where you take as many of these nuggets as you can and try to recycle them for pay.

Sure, I hear you -- with your day job, your family, etc, you're too busy to spend a lot of time chasing down these nebulous story subjects. Fair enough. But here are some ways you can bring them into your own space, as simply as turning on your computer. All it takes is a few initial contacts ....

1. Colleges. Identify every college within a reasonable driving distance of where you live, write to the public relations person there, tell them you're a freelance writer and would love to be put on their mailing list.

I live in a small town of 60,000 in Central Virginia, a place where residents take a perverse pride in being one of the largest cities east of the Mississippi not served by an Interstate highway. However, Lynchburg has five colleges, and over the years that has brought me into contact with best-selling authors, pop culture icons, experts in every imaginable field, sports stars, guitar heroes, heads of foreign countries, congresspeople and every U.S. president since (and including) Jimmy Carter.

Find out the schedule of speakers for the colleges on your radar, and the entertainers who come there and the professors who are considered experts in their fields. The PR person will be delighted to keep you informed.

If one of these speakers interests you, send a query to a magazine or Website telling them that you plan to interview that person when they come and would love to do an article for them. Then contact the speaker's press person and ask for a phone interview in advance. I've learned the hard way that it's often difficult to get "face time" with an important person once they get to a college campus, but find out if they're speaking to a class prior to their public appearance and ask if you can sit in.

2. Chambers of Commerce. As with colleges, contact every oine of these in your area, and tell them you'd love for them to feed you ideas. Is there a new business in the next town with an interesting product? What are some tourist attractions that people in other places might be intrigued by? The Chamber people would love to see you get something in print about their city or town -- that's part of their job.

3. Google alerts. I talk about these all the time, but you can use them in connection with subjects in which you might be especially interested. Try to keep them as specific as possible, though, because otherwise they'll cause you to tear your hair out. Target them to your area -- "Autism + Central Florida;" "Deer hunting + Western Pennsylvania," "Music + Cleveland."

4. Blog. By all means, blog. That doesn't mean you have to be a slave to it, but if you post fairly frequently, that's another tap for the pipeline. People will begin e-mailing you with subjects they'd like to see you address.

5. Your local newspaper. As much as you can, read it. There's no law that says you can't take a story that appears there and write your own on the same event or subject.
Also, once you have your blog up and running, ask the newspaper if they would care to provide a link to it.

6. Entertainment venues. Get in touch with the ones in your area and get a schedule or what bands or comics or speakers will be out in the community.

I could think of more, but this should be enough to prime the pipeline.

Monday, May 31, 2010

What kind of writer are you?

OK, so you're a freelance writer. What does that mean? Or, more importantly, what does that mean for you?

Thanks largely to the Internet, there is no shortage of opportunities to make money writing these days. Job-oriented newsletters arrive in thousands of in-boxes each morning, like dessert carts rolling up to restaurant tables. On-line newsletters and magazines have proliferated, even as their more traditional print cousins have been decimated by the economy.

The drawback, of course, is that competition has also been accelerated. It isn't just the newly laid-off newspaper and magazine writers who have been hurled into the mix, but people out of work in other areas who always thought they could make a living writing if only they had the opportunity.

Against this backdrop, it's more important than ever for writers to take inventory of their skills and schedules to determine where they might fit in. If you approach freelance writing as a hobby, it will probably play out like most hobbies -- enjoyable, perhaps, but costing you more money than you bring in.

Some things to consider ...

1. How fast can you write? This has nothing to do with ability -- some of the greatest writers of our time have been excruciatingly slow. It does, however, have to do with the sort of jobs you might want to accept.

I hear a lot of complaints from writers these days about markets offering $10 for an article. If you examine the situation further, however, you realize that not all of these people are philosophical descendants of Ebenezer Scrooge -- some have simply started their projects on a shoestring and can't afford to pay any more.

Either way, it's your choice. But here's where speed comes in. If you can knock out two or three of these little articles in an hour, that's $20-$30 an hour. If they require much in the way of research, or a phone call or two, your return on that investment of time shrinks dramatically. If it would take you an hour for each, your time could probably be better spent elsewhere.

Moreover, if you are a person who takes considerable pride in your writing, these "content mill" jobs will only leave you frustrated and empty. Best to leave them alone.

2. What are you an expert in? If you raise Dobermans, that makes you an expert on Dobermans. If you're struggling with a particular disease or physical ailment, that's another area of expertise. If you grew up in Terre Haute, IN, you're a Terre Haute expert. Given that, you might consider starting a blog on "your" subject, working the search engines and blog-ranking sites, and pulling in traffic. That could lead to advertising on your blog, or freelance opportunities elsewhere.

3. How much time do you have? Like everything else, freelancing will reward you in direct proportion to the amount of effort you can put into it. If you already have two jobs, attempting to freelance on top of that will only cause you more stress.

4. How good are you? You need to find someone without an agenda who can give you an honest and informed critique on your writing (do you know any English professors or journalists?). You wouldn't try to join the PGA golf tour if you couldn't break 100, so see where your current ability level might guide you. This doesn't mean there isn't always room for improvement.

5. Can you prove it? Writing is a very democratic profession. Generally, the people who hire you don't care about your college degree, ethnicity, haircut or sexual preference. They do, however, want to see examples of your writing. Again, starting a blog is a good way to generate that, even if you're not getting published "outside." If you do work for someone else and they seem pleased with it, make sure and ask them for a referral.

Here are just a few of the job possibilities for writers today, with upsides and downsides:

1. Content mill writer. Upside: Easy work, for the most part, and something you can arrange around your schedule. Downside: The pay stinks.

2. Magazine writing. Upside: More money, much more satisfying in terms of creative accomplishment. Downside: There are a lot more potential magazine writers than there is article space, so be prepared for a lot of dead ends.

3. Website writing. Upside: The bar is generally set lower, and you don't have to be as economical with your prose. Downside: The people who run Websites are generally not William Randolph Hearsts -- don't expect to get paid a lot.

4. Technical writing. Upside: Since this is a much more specialized field, the money gets even better. Downside: You can't fake this. You're either a tekkie or you're not.

5. Newspaper writing. A lot of newspapers are using freelance "stringers" these days, usually to cover local government or sports events. Upside: The money isn't bad, but it's sporadic. Downside: These gigs tend to come at the last minute, so you have to be flexible.

6. Book writing. Upside: This is a golden age for writers willing to self-publish, because the options are almost limitless. Downside: Given the diminishing ranks of traditional publishers, the "find an agent, get published, get rich" dream has become even harder to achieve.

7. Resume writing. Upside: You can make a lot of money doing this. Downside: It's boring.

8. Copy editing. Upside: This seems to be the fastest growing writing job field, and there are jobs aplenty. Downside: The pay is all over the map, and the work can be tedious for a creative person.

9. Book editing. Upside: Also a lot of opportunities. Downside: This is extremely labor intensive, and it's hard to find clients who will pay enough to be worth the trouble.

Friday, March 26, 2010

For mental health, reject rejection

As someone who works with freelance writers, I reject the word "rejection" -- at least in our world.

Specifically, I reject its implications. "Rejection" indicates active opposition, as in "The government rejected the latest demand from the rebels." Or "The body of the transplant recipient rejected the new organ." Or "The 6-11 center rejected five of his opponent's shots."

In most cases, that's not what happens when an editor decides not to use something you have written or queried. And calling that a "rejection" only feeds into the self doubt and self loathing that destroys so many writing careers before they start.

I remember a wonderful cartoon that showed a small, balding man walking dejectedly away from the pearly gates, clutching a note that read: "Thank you for applying, but you are not what we need at this particular time." The title of the cartoon was "Hell for editors."

Like probably every other writer who saw that cartoon, I laughed. And sure, it's annoying when you get one of those notes (I'm often tempted to reply: "So, is there a particular time when it would be what you need?"). It's even more annoying when you never receive any response at all.

But those are not rejections. They're choices.

What I always tell writers is, it's similar to when you go to the grocery store for a loaf of bread. There are a dozen different kinds of bread hanging around on the shelf, all perhaps hoping in their passive breadlike way to be chosen, and you pick one.

Does that mean you're rejecting the other breads? Of course not. Maybe the one you picked is the cheapest. Maybe it has oats in it. Or maybe it's the one you saw in a commercial the day before.

It's like that for magazine and Website editors. I know, because I used to be one.

In that capacity, I would have a certain amount of space -- a "newshole," in the vernacular -- that needed to be filled. Every month, I would have more queries and manuscripts than I needed to fill that space.

Sure, there were times when I would decide that an article wasn't up to our standards, either because of the writing or the subject chosen. More often, though, it had to do with length, photo possibilites, and whether or not we had run a similar story in the last year or so.

So instead of saying "I just got a rejection on that idea," I call it a "no." There's a subtle, but important difference. Words have power.

Here's how I've learned to limit the destruction to my writers' psyche by bypassing rejection.

1. Always send queries, not a completed manuscript. Editors like to be able to decide on the length, tone and focus of an article, and you take that away from them when you drop a finished piece on them. Also, if you get a "no," you can take comfort in the fact that they aren't saying no to your writing ability, just the idea. If you're pitching a short story or essay, tease them with a few paragraphs.

2. Keep lots of queries in circulation. That way, having one shot down isn't that big a blow.

3. I interpret the phrase "no simultaneous submissions" to mean the editor doesn't want to receive what is basically a form letter. But one idea can be crafted for different markets -- and if you send that query the next day, it isn't simultaneous.

4. Respond to "no" responses. It's rude for editors not to e-mail or write back to us when we query them. But when you think about it, it's also rude for us not to answer them when they do.

When I receive a no, I always fire off a quick e-mail or note that says: ""Thanks for your consideration. Perhaps I can tempt you another time."

Don't expect a response to that, but it may implant your name in that editor's mind.

5. Sure, you're mad about losing a sale. Use that. I try to immediately send off another query on the same idea that day.

Rejection sucks. But not calling it that might ease the sting a bit.