Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Archive for the tag “journalism”

Professional Development: Welcome to the Dark Side

Somehow I forgot that I was going to regale y’all* with a synopsis of the latest PWAC take-your-writing-on-a-completely-different-tangent seminar.  Last month’s edition focused on public relations writing…. a.k.a. Welcome to the Dark Side.

If you come from a journalistic background, resisting the Dark Side is ingrained. See, while journalism attempts to present all sides of an issue or story without bias, public relations writing is all about putting the most advantageous spin on something.  In other words, anathema to dyed-in-the-wool journos …

But here’s the rub:  the public relations writers of this world are currently making a far more reliable living than those of us who cling irrationally to our principles.  Which has prompted more than a few to examine their, um, moral flexibility.

Truth be told, the two worlds need not be mutually exclusive.  If one can compartmentalize a bit, one can easily crank out magazine articles in journalistic style, and public relations copy as … okay, a well-paid flak.  Different hats, different jobs.

So you burn for all eternity in the ninth circle of hell…. that was probably gonna happen anyway.

And the stupid thing is, in the eyes of Bay Street traders and waste management technicians and day-care workers and teenage lifeguards and producers of reality TV …. public relations pros get a whole lot more respect than the journos do.

So it was with an open mind and a continuing thirst for re-invention that I scribbled down the thoughts of three esteemed PR pros:  Alix Edmiston, Virve Tremblay, and Susan Crossman.  (Here are their bios.)

From Edmiston:  “The future is bright for those who want to embrace change.  PR writing is moving towards digital media and tablet apps, and away from physical products.  And social media is the ultimate game-changer, encouraging companies now to be completely transparent.

“PR writing is about enhancing and/or protecting a company’s image, and often includes crisis management.  A PR person’s skills can make or break an organization in a crisis situation.”

Edmiston said she hates the term “spin”, because PR writers (at least the good ones) function by a code of ethics, just as do journalists.

One good thing about PR writing?  The “content beast”, as Edmiston called it, needs constant feeding.  In all sorts of formats, from white papers to 140 character tweets. “I don’t see that diminishing,” she emphasized.  “When you create a community through social media, you then have to keep that community informed, and that content can’t be generated by machine.  It requires good writers.”

As for finding opportunities?  “Look at corporate websites and discern their needs.  Then figure out how you can fill them.”

She added, “You have to take the objectivity hat off and grasp the company message.  It’s not very different from altering your journalistic style to suit different magazine markets.”

Tremblay identified 14 trends for freelancers.  And you KNOW how I love a list.

Based on research from the Communications Executive Council (an organization I didn’t know existed, which represents several hundred international corporations):

1. Budgets are recovering.

2. Budgets have grown in 2012 vs. 2011.

3. The increase, if you will, is increasing.

4. Communicators (of the PR variety, presumably) are feeling optimistic about the future.  (Um, less so in Europe, where things are still pretty grim, career-wise.  See, it could be worse, I could live in Greece.)

5. In a business-to-business setting, corporations tend to have 1.2 communications staff people per 1000 employees.  In B2C (business-to-consumer) settings, it’s 3.8 communications staff per 1000 employees.  Larger revenue companies tend to have larger communications departments.  Hence, the best opportunities are in large, B2C companies.  Start-ups generally don’t have the budget to hire writers (nor understand their usefulness, though maybe that’s me, editorializing).

6. 25% of money spent on communications is devoted to freelancers, 25% for materials and commercial vehicles (like videos, newsletters, and so forth), and 50% of the budget tends to be spent on in-house staff.  That’s a fair bit of freelance opportunity.

7. Vendor budgets are expected to increase in 2013, with an average expected increase of 12%.

8. Responsibilities for communications professionals over the past five years have shifted dramatically towards social media.  SM can account for up to 80% of a communications pro’s time and energy in 2012, vs. 0% in 2007.  The #2 priority?  Analytics (measuring and monitoring the impact of those SM efforts).

9.  (Still with me?)  Communications departments are becoming less integrated.  There’s a trend towards separating marketing budgets from communications budgets.

10.  There’s an increasing focus on corporate social responsibility, as opposed to companies just making charitable donations to worthy causes.  “Giving for a reason” is the emphasis that needs to be played up.

11.  Companies are devoting more and more of their communications budgets to social media and analytics.

12.  It pays to know what the shifting priorities might be in the industry you’re targeting.  For example, in the health/pharma field, Tremblay said community relations is the #1 priority.

13.  There’s an increased emphasis on employee engagement — ie. getting your staff to “live the brand”.  And some of the advice on how to do that, is best delivered by an outside contractor.  IOW, a freelancer.

14.  Improved partnerships are a priority for almost all businesses.  Again, this is a result of social media:  interactions with clients/customers are now two-way instead of one-way.

Now here’s the kicker:  according to Tremblay, PR agencies can charge anywhere from about $100 an hour, at the lower levels, up to $360 an hour for a consultation from an agency CEO.  Gulp.  “That’s a huge opportunity for freelancers, because many companies would rather go with a freelancer than a big agency with big overhead.  You can charge what the market will bear.”

Crossman broke down PR writing into four sectors:  internal communications, consumer communications, government communications, and crisis control.  And she offered five important lessons for would-be PR peeps.  (Be still my heart, another list!)

1. Not every client is a good fit, and that’s okay.  It’s good to play to your strengths.  But sometimes you have to get outside your comfort zone and take a chance.

2. Be the best version of yourself for every job, every time.  Preserve, protect, and enhance your reputation.

3.  PR writing is not journalism.  There are certain conventions you need to understand, so get some training or find a mentor.  That said, journalists are often well-suited to doing PR writing, because they know what makes a story.  The trick is to understand which facts you emphasize in a PR piece.

4. Acquiring your first clients is about marketing yourself.  Network, network, network.  Be prepared for any conversation, any time — you never know where work might come from.

5.  Your on-line reputation will precede you.  Manage your social media footprint very carefully.  (Read:  don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your mother to see.  Question:  does this blog cross that line?)

And most importantly, don’t forget to ask for the business.  Every time someone connects with you, whether it be through LinkedIn, Twitter, or a Fetish Night party, thank him or her, and mention that if he or she ever needs a writer you’d be glad to help.

“There’s plenty of business out there,” Crossman said.  She suggested that $80 an hour is an average freelance rate for PR writing.  “Break it down for the client so they see real value for money, and place parameters on things like revisions to protect yourself.  Send out a confirmation note or contract, and make sure the client has communicated what they want.”

Some recommended resources from the speakers:  International Association of Business Communicators including PIC (for independents); the Canadian Public Relations Society; marketing webinars from HubSpot; articles from Ragan Communications; and Public Relations for Dummies.

* Canadians never say y’all.  Sorry.  Don’t know what I was thinking.

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I Don’t Work for Free. Please Don’t Ask Me.

I really didn’t want my next entry to be a rant.  I fear I might be coming off as negative.  ;-)

But this subject just keeps rearing its ugly, venomous little head, and if I don’t do it now, it’s just going to sink its nasty needle-sharp teeth into my cranium and gnaw away until I’m gray-matter hamburger.  So forgive me. 

It’s the whole “we don’t really have a budget for content/photos but we’d like you to donate your work to us anyway” thing.

Drives me fucking nuts.

I’ve never been able to fathom why anyone and everyone thinks they can get into publishing in the first place.  It seems to be one of those things where skills and experience have no bearing on the decision.  I have no background in plumbing, so to date I have never woken up with an uncontrollable impulse to plunge my head under the sink and rip out a few pipes, because really, how hard could it be?

But publishing a magazine or a website?  It’s Mickey Rooney territory.  “Hey, we’re show folks … we can put on a show in the barn!  Sally can dance, and I can tell jokes, and Mom can sew all the costumes.  It’ll be swell!”

And then they proceed to launch a magazine (or website, or whatever) with absolutely no editing skills, only the most rudimentary grasp of the language, and zero emphasis on quality content.  There are three typos on the cover alone?  No matter, it still looks SPIFFY, doesn’t it!  We’re so proud.  Advertise with us.

This total lack of journalistic training results in a complete disregard for people who produce content, and almost invariably, nothing allocated in the budget for said content.

Photographs are free, after all. You can get ‘em all over the Interwebz.  The photographers won’t mind, because we’re giving them (wait for it) … Valuable.  Exposure. In Our Fine Publication.

(More on this in a moment.)

And editorial ….?  Well, we’d like you to write for us of course, because you are well-respected and clever and we have read your articles and we looooooove them.  Look how honourable we are being, asking you to write something original instead of stealing your content from said Interwebz and running it sans permission.  (Oh, wait, we did that too.  Oops.)

We would like you to write for us for free because (choose one or more):

a) we’re a struggling little start-up and if you’re nice to us, maybe we’ll be able to pay you something sometime in the dim, dark future if we don’t fold first

b) we’ll give you a byline and what fantastic (wait for it) EXPOSURE it will be for you

c) we’ll barter you some ad space or give you a free subscription or something else equally worthless.

d) we’re a non-profit (but we’re paying our editor, our production team, our printer, our marketing agency, and a host of other people, including the plumber who had to rip out the pipes under the sink in our office because we wouldn’t touch that stuff with a 10-foot pole).

Ohhhh, who hasn’t sung this refrain to me?  Most recently, I was approached by a start-up which is going to cover all the sparkliest and most luxurious elements of the horse industry.  It plans to attract ads from Ferrari and Rolex and cover high-goal polo and multi-million-Euro warmblood auctions and such … and it isn’t paying its writers.

So, um, I’m supposed to somehow sneak into the sponsor’s tent at Aachen in my ripped Walmart jeans and my beaten-up Blunnies with the soles peeling off (only because the Prada is at the cleaner’s, you understand) in order to interview the latest royalty who has purchased six showjumpers for the Beerbaums?

Cuz hey, I was gonna be there anyway …

I’ve had requests that are even more insulting than that, actually.  A few years ago, a local lawyer who was enamoured of Canadiens (the horse breed, not the Habs) decided to launch a slick, glossy magazine celebrating Canadiens at work, at play, and in provocative poses (or something).  I encountered her at a trade show and she was positively ecstatic to meet me, gushing that she had read my books and my articles and how WONDERFUL it would be if I were to write for her fantastic magazine.

I gave her my card.

Two days later, she e-mailed me, gushed a little more, and then offered me what she clearly considered an unparalleled opportunity.  If I would like to sell a few full-page ads for her new effort, then I would be welcome to write about the advertisers.

For free.

Was there some satisfaction in seeing her magazine last two issues, then fold?  You betcha.

Once a writer, now re-classified as a “content provider” (sometimes with gratis ad sales, apparently) with all the appeal and value of an intestinal parasite.

(My friends say I suffer from low self-esteem.  Hmmm.)

This has been the evolution of the publishing business.  I dabble in photography, but I have many, many friends who are Real Photographers, and I know the world of hurt that has resulted from the digital revolution.  Where once, a photographer’s skill was valued, now anyone can plunk down for a professional-quality camera body and some decent glass, and get publishable images — if one isn’t too fussy about composition and such.  Photoshop is your friend …

And likewise, where journalism was once a respected profession, now everyone’s a bloody blogger.  (Gawd, including me.)  “Citizen journalism” is free, and it amazes me how many people apparently have time on their hands and are tickled enough to see their names in print, to contribute it, no matter how inaccurate, badly written, or flogging-an-agenda it might be.  It’s free, so by gum we’re a-gonna run it!

All of which makes we professional content providers, I guess, look rather cheeky to be expecting to get paid for what we do.

On the photography side, here are a couple of blogs which tackle the subject even more frankly than I’m doing right now.  Please have a look — they’re well worth reading.

Tony Wu’s “Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free”

Tony Sleep’s “We Have No Budget For Photos” 

and Mike Spinak’s “When Publishers Request Freebies”

Though photogs have been particularly outspoken on this issue, you could pretty much insert the word “writer” wherever you see “photographer” in any of these articles.  Or “graphic designer”, “illustrator”, or just about any creative content provider.  The issues are essentially identical.

So please, launch a magazine.  Sew the costumes, hang the curtains, pass out the playbills.  But have the sense to hire a director who knows what he/she is doing, and create a budget which allows you to fairly purchase the content you’re doing to need to earn you that Tony … er, Pulitzer.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

And please, pretty please, don’t plead poverty to me when you come, cap in hand, to my doorstep, all obsequious and ingratiating.  I could teach you a couple things about poverty.  Sheesh.

The Great Canadian Novel … or Not …

People are always much more impressed when you can say you’re an author, rather than just a writer.

Writers (so public perception would have it) are self-deluded basement trolls who scribble incomprehensible stuff about self-actualization through crystals, or talking cats, that never sees the light of day unless it’s self-published and handed out as Festive Season gifts to unsuspecting relatives.

But authors have written books.  Real books with the names of real publishing houses, and ISBN numbers opposite the title pages.

Admittedly, as self-publishing gains legitimacy (in the eyes of the general public if not in bookstores and libraries), this line is blurring.  You can now be the author of a real book with a real ISBN without ever having hired an agent or an editor; all you have to do is hire the printer (and get your friend from high school to do the illustrations in return for promising to never reveal that thing she did back in ’87 …).  Unfortunately, since even Stephen King and Stephen Hawking need good editors, that means there is a lot of unreadable, grammatically excruciating rubbish issuing forth from these self-publishing  companies.  But there are also some exceptionally good self-published books … and if the authors are good at self-promotion, they sometimes even get read by someone other than Great Aunt Bernice.

Still, the perception lingers that having your book published by a real publishing house is superior to getting it self-published — if only because it got read and accepted by someone, after which it was edited and fact-checked, and the company invested some small amount in making that happen.  In essence, they gambled that your content would sell well enough to at least pay them back on their investment.

The day I was first contacted by a book editor with a proposal to write a book, was one of the most thrilling of my career.  It was also one of those ‘little did I know’ moments, of course …. I was sooooo flattered just to be asked to turn my columns on equine nutrition into a real book with a real cover, that I signed my name to a contract that, really, should never have been signed.  It was what you call a ‘work for hire’ contract, and it meant that, after the token royalty payment I received for entering into the agreement, I’d never see another cent from the sales.

Just my luck.  It sold well and went into a second edition.  It’s being used by several Canadian and American colleges as a text for their undergrad equine nutrition courses.  Sigh.  What have we learned, class?

I’m now a veteran of six published non-fiction books, and quite a bit wiser.  I still don’t have an agent, having brokered the deals for all six on my own (a circumstance some of my colleagues have reacted to with palpable disbelief.  ‘Tis true, I swear.)  The second adult book, I made no money whatsoever on, despite having negotiated what, on the surface, looked like a much smarter contract.  (Factoid:  JK Rowling may get book advances of seven or eight figures, but the reality is most authors barely get four-figure offers for putting together 60,000 – 100,000 words.  Publishing ain’t like it’s portrayed in the movies, honey.  Sorry to bubble-burst.)

I can’t complain about my four kid’s books, for Scholastic Canada, though.  I lucked into an offer from a kind Scholastic editor, with whom I had a very tenuous acquaintance, after I had pitched a more complex idea and she turned it down.  Would I be interested instead, she asked, in doing a simple book on breeds of horses for kids?  And did I know any good equine photographers?

I was and I did, and Shawn Hamilton and I ended up doing a series of four of these books before we ran out of breeds we could access to photograph, without using up all of Shawn’s air-miles for the next decade.  The price-point on the little paperbacks was right, the target market was horse-mad little girls (no shortage of those), and Scholastic is one of those rare companies which actually still markets its books like crazy, in multiple countries, instead of expecting the authors to do all the legwork.

Shawn and I made a tidy little sum from those books … and even now, little royalty cheques still arrive a couple of times a year.  They’re usually under $100, by this point,  sales having tapered down to a trickle, but again, I’m not complaining.

Alas, even that log-flume ride had to come to an end.  Last I spoke to my editor at Scholastic, the market for kids’ non-fiction had pretty much dried up.  She tells me kids just go to this Interwebz thing now to look up facts, instead of buying books.

Curse you, Interwebz!  May the fetid breath of a thousand camels fog up your windshield!

So I’m at a bit of a cross-roads.  I would really like to get another book project going.  The whole process of writing something 80 times as long as a magazine article is daunting, yes, but it’s less so once you’ve done it a few times.  And as I’ve pointed out, it adds so much cachet to one’s credibility.  Still, I am not sure in which direction I should go.

I have friends who keep telling me the real money is in fiction.  The afore-mentioned Ms. Rowling would certainly serve as proof and example, though we’ve all heard the stories about Harry Potter having been rejected umpteen million times by supposedly wise publishing houses before it finally saw the light of day and became an unstoppable marketing machine.

My squeeze recommends churning out murder mysteries. Trouble is, it’s really not my genre — I don’t even read them.  And my father (don’t choke) once suggested to me that the real money was in porn …. excuse me, women’s erotica.  (So much more genteel and tasteful.)

It probably is, but I dunno if I could channel my inner vixen to that degree without giving myself a fatal case of the giggles.  And I live in horror of unwittingly winning the “Bad Sex in Fiction” award

All writers are supposed to have a Great Canadian (or American, or Insert Your Country of Origin Here) Novel lurking somewhere in the deepest recesses of their hippocampus.  I just really have never been able to locate mine.

I’ve churned out some bad short stories, yes, and some even worse (and, ahem, anonymous) fan-fiction (and no, I’m not telling you which fandom(s)!), and a lot of angsty poetry in my lifetime.  Some of the poetry actually bordered on okay, but if you want to pick the one branch of writing that earns you even less than writing for magazines and newspapers … well, three guesses.

If there’s a novel in my sub-psyche, it probably has not yet surfaced because I don’t have an ending for it.  And I can’t imagine all that many things more demoralizing than churning out 300 pages of plot and character and exposition and then not being able, for the life of you, to wrap it up.

(My sympathies to my writer friends who may be wrestling with just this dilemma as they near the end of NaNoWriMo month. You are braver than I, and I salute you.)

Even if you visualize your Great Work of Fiction as a series of seven (or eight, or however many bloody Harry Potter books there are), you’ve still got to sell a publisher on that first one, so it better be firm and tight and bouncy … (Oh, dear, there’s that subliminal porn sneaking in.  Eeekk!)

It’s possible that after almost 30 years of being a journalist, that I’m just hard-wired for the non-fiction angle.  And I do have two sort of half-formed concepts for non-fiction books kicking around my skull.  I think I just need a kick in the tush to flesh them out enough to start peddling them to publishers.

Feel free to deliver same if you’ve read this far and are so inclined.

You Say You Want an Evolution …

Depending on who you talk to, insanity — or stupidity — is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The writing, if you will, has been on the wall for some time, career-wise.  It has become virtually impossible to make a living writing, as a  freelancer, for what we affectionately call the “nag mags”.  I’m far too fried tonight to look up the stats and provide a happy little link for you, gentle reader, but trust me when I tell you that the studies have been done and that freelance pay rates have not improved to any appreciable extent since the 1970s.  Meanwhile I’m pretty sure I’m paying more for groceries and rent.  And while freelance advice blogs are still lambasting we under-achievers who accept anything less than $1 a word (which has been the Magic Number since I started this foolishness 20-odd years ago) … the reality is most niche-market publications have never paid anything close to that, and in the current economic climate are less likely than ever to do so.

Have you noticed that your favourite magazine is a little less substantial than it used to be?  As ad sales have plummeted, so have page counts.  And fewer pages mean that magazines are buying less freelance content, and when they do buy some, they are nickel-and-diming their writers to death in the hopes of meeting impossible bottom lines sent down from (gasp) Management.

We writers can’t help but get our noses out of joint about being the first ones to take the financial hit … we’re all pretty sure that printing the magazine hasn’t become negotiable, or that the post office isn’t doing deals to keep the doors open.  And let’s face it, it’s our content that makes each magazine something worth having.  People don’t buy magazines for the ads; they buy them hoping to read something that’s profound, entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, or at least relevant and useful to them.  Yet content is the first thing to get chopped.

Once upon a time I made an okay living writing for horse magazines.  Combined with the modest royalties from my books, I was able to pay the bills and keep my horses fed, which is really all I ever wanted.  But these days, I feel like the harder I tread water, the faster I sink.

(Factoid:  Beating your head against a wall burns 150 calories an hour.  I found it on the Interwebz, so it must be true.)

So my New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to re-invent myself, to network like an insane woman, and get myself out of the hole somehow.

I have GOT to get some brownie points for even REMEMBERING what my New Year’s resolution was, 11 months later, right?

First plan of attack: ditch the nag mags who were treating me the most wretchedly.  When pay is not only poor, but requires repeated invoices and phone calls and grovelling … and THEN someone in accounting quibbles over the previously-agreed-upon amount (!!!) … well, stick a fork in little me, because I’m done.  Even if I do have a 20-year history with that publication group and supply excellent content for all six of its publications.  I’ve got a couple of shreds of pride left.

Second:  explore other subjects that somehow got lost along the way.  I never really intended to zero in on horse magazines, at least not exclusively. My plan, coming out of school was to focus on science journalism, if only to ensure that my B.Sc. in microbiology didn’t turn out to be a complete waste of four years of my life.  In the midst of a grad school program in communications studies, a horse magazine editorship beckoned rather more strongly than did my thesis, and the rest, as they say, is history.  At some point I became a known entity to the editors of a number of horse magazines, the assignments kept being generated, and before I knew it, that was where all my work was coming from.  Which as I say, was fine once upon a time, but it’s just not practical anymore.

Plus if I have to write another article about fly spray in my lifetime, there’s a distinct possibility of my going postal, and we certainly don’t want to go there.

So the logical direction is back to science and agricultural journalism.  Joined the Canadian Science Writers Association and have done a little networking there; after knocking on a bunch of doors, I have also managed to get a toehold with an Ontario farming magazine and  website, which is allowing me to build up some recent agricultural clips and get back into the groove on that beat.  It’s fun because the research is fresh to me and the personalities are new, too, but very down-to-earth to interview.  So far, I’m liking.  And the pay is a smidge better than the nag mags … more importantly, it’s prompt, which is a godsend when you’re used to waiting three to 12 (more !) months for your money.  (Don’t get me started on the whole ‘pay on publication’ thing.)

Third:  get social-media savvy.  More and more of my freelance friends are finding there’s more moola to be made in blogging (or ghost-blogging) and tweeting on behalf of others, than there is in the traditional feature-article form.  So I’ve been getting up to speed on using social media in a more business-like fashion, which peculiarly enough sometimes involves being less business-like when it comes to my actual writing style.  I’m having to abandon a lot of the conventions of traditional journalism to produce posts in a much more conversational, bloggish style.  Which is okay, as long as I don’t have to abandon grammar and punctuation altogether … gawd knows there’s more than enough unreadable drivel out there already.

I’m going to be trying out the bloggish thing in the coming week as I embark on a new way (for me) to cover the Royal Winter Fair, for an on-line outlet called PhelpsSports.  Phelps would like daily news and snippets from around the fair — primarily the horse show, but with some of the other features of the RWF tossed in; lambs in spandex jackets, butter sculptures, vaguely creepy sides of beef hanging in cases, the mink and manure fashion parade at the evening shows, and so forth.  We will, I believe, be eschewing the press release-style reports of international showjumping results for somewhat more cheeky commentary.  Ohhh, Phelps, be careful what you wish for …

Not really sure if this experiment is going to lead anywhere, but given that my other RWF assignments have evaporated this year and it’s a show I do know well (even if there’s a big chunk of my brain which would like me to stay home for a change!), I might as well take it on.  If only in the name of re-invention.

A Blessing and a Curse

I’ve been accused of being contrary at the best of times. But fall is when I’m most conflicted.

Two weeks of steady rain and cloud cover have finally — and briefly, according to The Weather Network — given way to a crisp and sunny Sunday today. There’s still quite a bit of colour in the trees, though there are more bare branches than there were a week ago and I know they’ll all be naked soon. Which always depresses me (got nothing against nudity when it’s integral to the plot, but winters tend to drag on here in Ontario and nekkid trees just remind me what a long haul we’re heading into).

It has taken a couple of days for nature to catch on that I’ve filled the bird feeders and hung some suet … but I now have a swirl of cheeky chickadees, a couple of belligerent bluejays, and an occasional nuthatch braving my back porch to partake. I haven’t seen the chipmunk today, but that’s only a matter of time … he and/or she broke the code on the supposedly-squirrel-proof feeder almost immediately and has been stashing sunflower seeds somewhere nearby, judging by the frequency of his/her trips.

There’s also a pair of red squirrels who have been industriously nest-building in the alcove between my covered porch and the roof of my little house. They’ve been going back and forth all week with mouthfuls of nesting material. The sheer volume suggests this is going to be a 37-room monster home with a six-car garage and a home theatre wing. But as long as they’re not chewing through the roof tiles, I figure they’re welcome, and they might provide some entertainment on the more miserable winter days ahead. I don’t think they hibernate fully, though I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.  Squirrels are not my species of specialty.

So the view from my kitchen table (and current laptop station) is okay today, even if the house is a bit chilly because I refuse to turn on the furnace and start racking up heating bills. Suspect I will not hold out much longer on that one.

For me, fall also represents work. Early November brings the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, a show I have covered for one publication or another (sometimes several) for the past 20 years or so. The Royal is 10 days of noise, exhaustion, blistered feet, frustration, freezing, frying, dodging the Stroller People pushing those damn things around like they’re eighteen-wheelers taking up three lanes of traffic, chasing riders through the cavernous (and o-so-historic) barns of the Horse Palace in search of quotes, struggling to establish internet access and find media seating (which is far too often unpoliced and purloined by wannabes), and hiking to the far ends of the earth to stand in endless lineups for greasy, overpriced food you really can’t afford, all the while fretting that you’re missing the class you have to cover and submit a story on in about an hour and a half.

Can you tell I have something of a love/hate relationship with the Royal, with an increasing emphasis on the hate?

I will take partial responsibility for the blistered feet. Historically, the Royal’s media personages were expected to turn up in something approaching black tie, and that, of course, means heels for those of us of an estrogen persuasion. The coliseum floors are concrete (and the warm-up ring where you often end up interviewing riders post-class is, well, arena footing, which does delightful things to a pair of suede peep-toe pumps, let me tell you). In recent years, the RWF dress code seems to have slipped quite a bit, and I COULD likely show up in a pilled sweater, cords, and running shoes (like some of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless!) and not get turfed out on my ear … but maybe because I like to honour that tradition, maybe because I like to look professional, and maybe because, let’s face it, I rarely have any OTHER opportunity to wear my extensive collection of fanciful and utterly impractical footwear (most shows I cover requiring something more along the lines of Blunnies and an oilskin coat), I voluntarily cripple myself every year at this show.

I can certainly lay blame elsewhere for some of my other Royal pet peeves, however. Like the parking. 20 years I’ve been in unarmed combat with downtown Toronto traffic to get to this show, which is right down in the heart of the city at Exhibition Place (by the shore of Lake Ontario). Rush-hour traffic, I might add, since the important classes are almost invariably in the evening.

Factoid for non-Torontonians: Toronto is the second-most congested city in North America. Only LA is reputed to have worse traffic snarls.

About 10 years ago they built an underground parking garage under the new coliseum building, which at least means you don’t have to brave a possibly icy, slick, wet parking lot in the dark (in your heels) to get to the show. But seriously, would it kill the management to provide half a dozen parking spaces for the media who so diligently promote their show locally, nationally, and internationally every year? $13 per night times 10 is a big chunk out of the paltry pay I’m getting from the Nag Mags to cover the show … and meanwhile, there’s a nearly-empty VIP section of the garage which rots my SOCKS. And let’s not even talk about the number of nights when I might spend half an hour or more going up and down and up and down (and UP and DOWN) the rows, getting carbon monoxide poisoning and looking for a place to leave my truck … and then hiking in to the show (still in heels!) from, essentially, Scarborough.

Yes, the Royal does have some perks. Occasionally, a class is actually entertaining. I have watched SO much showjumping in my lifetime that I will confess it often bores me silly. Oh, look, it’s the usual suspects, jumping the usual jumps in different configurations, with the same announcer doing his same schtick every night. (I may be alone in this, but I don’t miss the Nations’ Cup which was eliminated from the Royal roster a few years ago. If you think regular showjumping is a snooze, try watching everyone jump exactly the same course TWICE.) But the Royal does make an effort to bring in new stuff every year, at least on the exhibition side, and I still get a kick out of the dressage freestyle night and the indoor eventing. The trade fair would also have considerable appeal if I weren’t perpetually cash-strapped. Sigh. And unlike some of the other shows I cover, the Royal features indoor plumbing. All of these are good.

So, conflict. Which is only heightened this year by discovering that I have only minimal assignments for the Royal. After an appallingly sour experience last year, covering the show for a magazine for which I’ve worked diligently for 20 years or more, I swore I would never put pen to paper for them again. Then the American magazine for whom I’ve been sending Royal coverage for at least the last four or five years, handed the assignment to a pushy out-of-towner who, to my knowledge, has never before expressed any interest in coming to Toronto. I had e-mailed their assignment editor, as per usual, weeks ahead and gotten no response … when I followed up with the features editor, she said, “Oh, I wish I’d known you were interested. We would have been happy to have had you cover it, but we handed it off to (Colleague X).”

Wish she’d known?

That just leaves me with dribs and drabs in terms of assignments … enough to get me a press pass but not enough to require me to show up there more than a night or two out of the 10. In some ways, this is what I’ve been praying for, for years. Please Assignment Fairy, let me NOT have to do the Royal this year. I hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it.

Well, TWINK went the Assignment Fairy with her magic wand, and now I don’t know what to feel. The loss of income is significant (though offset by the considerable expense of getting down there to cover the show — and in case you’re unfamiliar with the Wonderful World of Freelancing, let me assure you I am on NO-ONE’s expense account and have never in my wildest fantasies been compensated for gas, mileage, parking, food, accommodations, or critter-sitting). But the relief is palpable.

Then again, where the hell else am I going to wear all my formal wear and my gorgeous, but brutally punishing bronze Anne Klein slingbacks with the little rhinestone buckles?

Stupid fall.

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