Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Professional Development, Part Two

I’m still a professional guest at PWAC (Professional Writers’ Association of Canada) Toronto’s evening seminar series — I approach foxhunting the same way — but fortunately neither organization seems to mind as long as I cough up my cap fee outsider’s seminar fee.

Last Wednesday night, the topic was “Getting Started in Health and Science Writing”.  Which is something I’ve been trying to do, in fits and starts, for the past two or three years.  So colour me interested enough to drive an hour south on Hwy 400, park at an overcrowded mall, get on the subway, and haul my little rural hayseed tush downtown to Church and Bloor.

Speakers Carolyn Abraham, Mark Witten, and Stephen Strauss all have credentials up the wazoo, with dailies like the venerable Globe and Mail as well as mainstream mags such as Canadian Living, Today’s Parent, and Toronto Life.  (Full bios here.)  And all three emphasized that they fell into science and/or health writing quite by accident, having no educational background in science past high school.

In fact, they just about implied that it’s to your advantage not to have a science background if you write about it.  I guess this means I’m fucked, given that I have a B.Sc. in biology.  Bugger.

Still, I might persevere, if only because it does sound like there might be some decent mainstream markets for well-written science and health content.  There, I said it … a rare ray of sunshine in the deep, dark doldrums of freelance writing.

One insight I took away from the evening was that I really need to be marketing myself as a “health writer” rather than a “medical writer”.  Having done as much writing on veterinary topics as I have over the years, I figured it would be an easy segue into medical writing…. a mammal is a mammal, right?  But it turns out that “medical writer” is a very specific critter with its own specific industry.  It usually has either a Ph.D. or an MD, and it exists in a very structured and demanding little niche in the environment, where it is well-paid but probably bored out of its mind.

A “health writer”, on the other hand, is one of those people with no science background, who’s good at explaining the finer points of thrombosis and hip replacement surgery to the masses.  Fuckin’ A.

So.  A few key points from the seminar, for those living vicariously through me (you know who you are):

Carolyn Abraham:  A good science or health story distinguishes itself by five core elements — news (what’s the hook?), scope (how many people are affected?), impact (what does it mean?), context/history (what makes this important?), and edge (where is this gonna lead in the future?).  All of these elements need to be considered when you’re debating whether a story is worth pursuing.

But from the editor’s perspective, she said, it’s also important that the story is fresh and original, and satisfies at least one of these categories:  it’s a breakthrough (the biggest, the oldest, the weirdest), it’s a hazard (Seventeen Ways Air Can Kill You), or it titillates (not just in the obvious way, but also in the way a bizarre but compelling disease does  — think Elephant Man), or it is a how-to (How Raisins Changed My Life).  Stories concerning conflict or moral values (such as the now-mercifully-defunct debate over embryonic stem cells) also fall into the titillation category.

Abraham saw growth areas in the how-to neck of the woods, in particular, and in writing about ageing (naturally, since few of us are headed in the other direction).

“One great thing about science writing is that the topics are enormous and endlessly interesting,” she said.

Mark Witten:  “I think the most important thing about getting into health writing is that you have to love writing about things you know nothing about.  You have to find the research process more stimulating than intimidating.”

Witten also noted that for mainstream markets, one’s storytelling skills are at least as important as getting the facts straight.  Editors, he said, need to be shown how your story is going to be relevant to readers.  So don’t just talk about the heartbreak of psoriasis; get a first-hand account from someone who’s heartbroken.

“The best stories are the ones which combine strong science with a human interest angle,” said Witten.

Health and science writing are about knowledge translation, he added, and the possibilities extend beyond magazines.  “Think about corporate markets and non-profits, too.”

Stephen Strauss:  Referencing Ed Yong’s rather famous blog post about the origins of science writers, Strauss remarked that a large percentage of now-successful science writers “got into it after they had failed at something else”.  (Gosh, another checkmark for me!)

“The great thing about science is that you can write about it for more than a couple of years without getting bored.  It’s the rarest of work experiences:  one where you keep on learning.”  Try that with writing about RRSPs or insurance.

Strauss pointed out that one of the major changes in science journalism, since the advent of the Interwebz, is that all of the cool stories which were once hidden away in academic journals on the desolate top shelves of the third floor of the west wing of some university library (and which made you look like a total genius when you unearthed them as if from some archaeological dig), are now out there in plain sight and easily accessible.  That forces science writers to be that much more original (or at least fast off the mark).  In order to sell a story, you have to come up with an angle no-one else has thought of.

One painless place to experiment with that, and with the style and voice that will eventually have editors falling on their knees and begging you to consider taking $3 a word to grace their pages, is by launching a science blog.  Consider blogging a “loss leader”, sayeth Strauss.  (What?  It’s difficult to monetize a blog, you say?)  His theory:  if you can establish yourself as an authority in a niche area, you can demonstrate to editors that you can master a technical subject or two … and you also tend to produce some of your best writing when you’re scribbling about something you actually care about.

All sage advice, but can you good people stomach another blog from me?  Or might the universe’s intestines just leap up through its neck and prophylactically throttle its brain to keep it all from happening?  (With apologies to Douglas Adams, who phrased it ever so much better.)

Incidentally, if anyone has become frothingly keen on the science blog notion after reading this, the Canadian Science Writers Association (of which Strauss is, coincidentally, president) is launching a mentorship program which hooks up veteran bloggers with newbies looking for guidance and the afore-mentioned voice.  (No details on the website yet, but I’m sure it’s Coming Soon.)

Strauss and Witten both called science and health writing the business of “knowledge translation”.  And one of the best ways to get scientists and researchers — who, on the whole, are uncommonly cooperative interview sources — to express their findings and ideas in a way that a lay audience (not to mention a journalist) can grasp, is to ask for metaphors.  “Some researchers are really flummoxed by having to couch their work in plain language, but you can coax it out of them by paraphrasing the concept back to them and asking if you have it correct,” said Strauss.  (My own frame of reference:  listen to Bob McDonald interview researchers on the CBC radio show, Quirks and Quarks.  He’s the master of paraphrase.)

Take-home message from the evening:  a good fit for me, and a direction worth further exploration because there’s the actual prospect of paying markets out there.  Now I just have to find 30 seconds of down-time in which to ponder the perfect query.  Which might just be the most unrealistic thing I’ve said in this whole post.

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Amy Tryon

Here’s one of my shots of Amy Tryon, circa 2003, at the Foxhall CCI*** in Atlanta.

From her website:  “Her family asks that remembrances be made to your local humane society, and that each of us remembers anything is possible if we try.”

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Foto Friday: A Short Tribute to Amy Tryon

Foto Friday: A Short Tribute to Amy Tryon.

Katherine did it better than I would have.

I also interviewed Amy on several occasions for articles, and she was always thoughtful and gracious.  Between the firefighting and galloping around four-star cross-country courses (and riding for the US eventing team on several occasions, at the Pan Ams, World Equestrian Games, and Olympics), she lived on the edge, and yet she slipped the surly bonds of earth yesterday while taking a nap.  She was 42.

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Loathsome Writing Advice

More and more, I’m finding that the mission of this blog has become to be the antithesis to all of those desperately earnest blogs out there spreading Pollyanna advice on How To Be A Writer.

Gawd, they make my teeth hurt.

You know the ones I mean.  The ones compiling lists of handy tips on how to spring, fully formed, into the writing world (see Botticelli’s Venus, above) and Make A Great Living.  (Bubble burst #1:  I have been doing this nearly 25 years and have yet to make a great living.  And I’m probably better at this than some people.)

I feel it’s high time that someone shat upon these pointless platitudes from a great height … or at least lobbed a nice 30 kg IBM Selectric up the sides of the heads of those perpetrating this drivel.  And I’m just the snark to do it.

Herewith my personal parade of the banal, cliched, painfully obvious, staggeringly stupid, and just plain lame writing tips I keep seeing, ad nauseum.

I’m begging you, for the love of all that is sacred, please stop telling me to:

1. Write every day, even if it’s not for publication.  Oh Christ, like I need to practise just for the sheer sake of practising.  While I’m at it, why don’t I get some of those multi-lined sheets and revisit my cursive technique?  I always liked doing j’s and q’s …

2. Write for free, in order to get “exposure” (see previous rant here).  

3. Enter writing contests.  Totally counter productive in a head-spinning number of ways.  Not only are you now writing for the privilege of submitting an entry fee, you’re never going to get paid, your material (whether it’s any good or not) will instantly become someone else’s property, and you’re just going to become totally demoralized when it disappears into a black hole and is never heard from again.  Trust me, hardly anyone in the history of time and space has ever launched a writing career based on a contest.  (And please don’t bother sending me the story of the sister-in-law of your second cousin who won a writing contest and is now J.K. Rowling. I don’t want to know.)

4. Create a business plan and calculate how much you’re worth per hour.  Sure, a great idea on paper.  Think you’re consistently going to get anything remotely near what you’re worth in this business?  If so, you have a way better publicist than I do.

5. Try using ‘bid sites’ or writing for content mills.  A great way to break in, if your plan is to establish that you will work for crumbs and never expect to be treated any better.  Seriously, 1500 words for $5?  Thank you, sir, may I have another?  Plus, honestly, the content on the content mills is such shite that you’re not exactly enhancing your resume in such company.  The bid sites are even more humiliating:  just how much more can you debase yourself than the next guy?

6. Write what you know.  Ugh.  Just shoot me.  Okay, I did begin by focusing on a niche in which I already had good contacts.  But a journo’s job is not to dispense her own wisdom… it’s to dispense the wisdom of others.  I didn’t know anything about shopping for a mid-sized tractor, but I was able to a) locate a few experts and b) ask questions, like, say, “So what’s the deal with mid-sized tractors, then?”, then c) write down their answers.  Voila.  Article.  Write what you DON”T know, and chances are you’ll ask much better questions.

7. Everyone wants to read your autobiography or journal of Deep Thoughts.  Hey, it’s even more fun if you write it in the third person, as if you were interviewing yourself.  It will simply fly off the shelves because you are just so gosh-darn interesting.

8.  Use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  Oh. My. Fucking.  Gawd.  You need to be told this?

Then there are these constructive lifestyle suggestions:

9. Get lots of sleep.  Sure, as long as deadlines aren’t an issue for you … I’m sure your editor will understand the vital importance of being well-rested.

10. Designate a space for your writing where you can work undisturbed.  I can’t even manage this, living alone with two cats.  They are all over me like hairy white on rice, and that’s to say nothing of my keyboard.  Good luck achieving it if you have a spouse and/or ankle-biters.  Unless you build your very own dungeon, and don’t mind emerging to heaven knows what kind of chaos which has occurred in your bleary-eyed absence.  The thing about working from home is, you’re not really doing anything important, are you, so you are the first victim people call when they need a couch moved or a horse subdued for the vet …

11. Eat healthy snacks.  By all means, make sure your beta-carotene, your psyllium fibre, your spirulina, and your omega-3 intakes are appropriate for the writing life.  Pretend you have unlimited leisure time and no bills to pay.

12. Go for long walks, commune with nature, find your bliss etc.  Because that’s how articles get written.  Certainly not by doing research, interviewing sources, or, um, sitting down and writing.

Let’s not forget these oh-so-helpful tips on the creative process….

13.  Read lots of stuff.  I am absolutely convinced that the bilingual text on my morning box of Cap’n Crunch has made me a better writer.  Seriously, there are people with writing ambitions who never read anything?  Plus, plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.

14.  You are a “real writer” if you believe you are.  I believe I’m the heiress to the Thomson media empire, too, but my bank balance, tragically, disagrees.  I’m sorry, but if you’ve never had anything published, you are a hobbyist scribbler.  Maybe an ambitious one, maybe just a delusional one, but your writing needs to be able to stand up to professional scrutiny before you can use the appellation.  Just sayin’.

15.  Do creative cross-training to stimulate the ‘writing  juices’.  Oh, yes.  Make greeting cards out of coloured construction paper and compose a delightful handwritten verse for the innards.  Create bombs from pipecleaners, an old deadbolt, and some glitter glue.  And while you’re at it, sell your crafty creations on Etsy — you might at least make some money that way.

And a few miscellaneous gems:

16. If you’re writing for children, use simple words.  Distressingly conspicuous, wouldn’t you say?

17. Don’t fear what you write.  Huh?  Well, I guess if what you write exposes your secret, festering desire to become a pedophilic serial killer, you might want to be a little afraid.  Or at least surrender yourself to the authorities before things get messy. Trust me, it’s better this way.

18. Come up with catchy titles.  a.k.a., You Can Never Have Too Much Alliteration.

19. I confess, I love, love, love this one:  “If you’re writing fiction, it’s a great idea to have a plot. It will coordinate your thoughts and add consistency to the text.”  (This was actually taken from one of those writing-tips blogs.)  Good Christ on a donkey, why didn’t I think of that?

20.  A writer is someone who needs to write, has to write, is consumed by the passion to write.  Two words:  sheer bollocks.

And I’m spent.

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I Am (Briefly) the One Per Cent

I’ve dabbled in a number of different forms of journalism over the years.  I’ve covered advances in veterinary medicine, described how to shop for a manure spreader, written how-to’s and op-eds, provided blow-by-blow event coverage, and even poked a few hornet’s nests.  But unless you count Big Name Trainers (BNT in horsey chatboard vernacular), I can’t say celebrity profiles have ever been much on my radar.

I do, however, now know where to go should I ever hanker to veer in that direction.

A few months ago, I won a little contest.  It was the sort of web-based form you fill out when you’re procrastinating about finishing an article that bores you to desperation.  You know — name, address, age, e-mail address so that We May Spam You Unmercifully in the Future.  That I have won a small handful of these contests over the last few years is probably an indication that I am devoting way too much time and energy to this particular variety of procrastination.

My prizes, in this case, seemed to have been tossed together in an effort to clear out some 18th floor closet at the Toronto Star (not that I’m complaining, they just didn’t appear to have much coherence).  I received two $50 Visa gift cards, which I used to buy feed for the beasties.  There were also two tickets to a play called The Blue Dragon (love me a night at the theatre, so that was much appreciated).  And there was a huge and unwieldy “wine package” which, when I finally got it all unwrapped, contained decanters, glasses, several corkscrews each more elaborate than the last, a massive coffee-table book about grapey beverages … but no actual wine, which struck me as a bit peculiar…

The piece de resistance, however, was a one-night stay at one of Toronto’s ’boutique’ hotels, the Windsor Arms, in an uber-swanky corner suite equipped with (no foolin’) a grand piano.  I may have mentioned before that I am not generally in the habit of booking boutique hotels, being generally destitute and all.  I like a bit of luxury as much as the next person … okay, given that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I probably like a bit of luxury more than some people do.  But throughout most of my adult life, my budget has been rather more Motel 6 than Relais & Chateaux.

So this sounded potentially amusing.

I’m only an hour north of Toronto, so it’s not that the destination was exotic for me, but since perks, relaxation, and pampering have all been in shockingly short supply thus far this year, I decided I’d book the hotel stay for the weekend immediately following my birthday, and pretty much wallow in it as fully, completely, and decadently as I could.

This was after I determined I couldn’t exchange the prize for its cash value — which, let’s be honest, could have paid my rent for the month, covered at least two of my overdue vet bills, or flown me to Europe.

The thing about Motel 6 and its ilk is that it’s pretty anonymous.  Some bored employee takes your credit card imprint, hands you a key, and then pretty much ceases to care whether you exist unless you call the front desk 15 minutes later to complain that the wi-fi secret code isn’t working.  You can come and go at any hour of the day or night without anyone even looking up from his/her video game.  But the Windsor Arms is a different sort of critter, as the squeeze and I realized when we pulled up for the valet parking (the only option offered, at $35 a night, not included with the package).   Hello, welcome, how wonderful that you’ve come, may I help you with your bags, is this your first time staying with us?  (Um, yes, and almost certainly the last, given my station in life.)

The squeeze and I immediately realized that we had neglected to factor in the sheer number of people here who would have their hands out expecting gratuities.  Eeek.  And me with $6 in my wallet.

We got a very gracious tour of the place anyway, courtesy of Sal.  Herewith some not-very-fabulous pix which are the product of my little point-and-shoot rather than the decent camera (I was trying fruitlessly to travel light).

Strangely enough, they did not grab me by the scruff of the neck and turf me out onto the street, which is what I always expect to happen when I step into this sort of foreign environment.  The squeeze and I kind of poked around all the vastness and tastefulness for an hour, feeling staggeringly silly about it all.  We were careful not to lay hands on the not-at-all-complimentary contents of the mini-bar, or the snack basket in the ‘family room’.  The latter included, rather mysteriously, along with the Pringles and M&Ms, an “intimacy kit” for $12… this was a discreetly plastic-sealed black box with neat lettering and absolutely no indication of what it contained, which of course led to about 20 minutes of fatuous speculation, cuz that’s what we do. (Breath mint?  Edible undies?  KY?  Pamphlet from Birthright?)

We admired the opulent bathroom (oh, for an expansive jacuzzi tub in my day-to-day life) and the fact that every room in the place was equipped with a TV.  We noted with some befuddlement the phones hanging by each toilet (really, that call just couldn’t wait?), and I was mildly affronted by the quality of the paper products (standard-issue scratchy hotel loo roll — I have to say I expected better) but impressed with the big fluffy towels and the terry robes and slippers.

Took a dip in the (deserted) salt-water pool, but decided to forego the exercise room in the end because, as the squeeze observed, “When you come to a place like this, you don’t come to sweat.”  Watched some TV, had a soak in the big tub, goofed around with programmable bossa-nova beats on the fake piano, and had a very pleasant sleep followed by a complimentary buffet breakfast downstairs (the breakfast was actually fairly meh, as well — what, no waffles? — but free is free and they did toast my bagel to perfection).

And that was pretty much that.  The equivalent of $1750, blown in one rather over-the-top evening.  It provided a lot of amusement value, and a bit of decompression, but didn’t really make either of us angst for what we’d been missing … at least, not on the hotel side.

As we checked out, the reporter in me kicked in, as it inevitably does.  I felt compelled to ask the front desk staff who their regular clientele were — since, clearly, it was not me.  “Some international business travellers, but mostly A-list celebrities,” admitted the woman printing up our bill for the valet parking.  I had rather figured as much, knowing that the hotel is very close to the centre of activities during the Toronto International Film Festival, colloquially known as TIFF ’round these parts.  But the stream of actors, directors, producers, and other entertainment types isn’t limited to September, apparently.  “I’ve been here two months,” one of them confessed, “and I’m amazed at the celebrities I’ve seen here already” — though of course she was far too well-trained to name names, and I really wasn’t paparazzi-ish enough to prod her.  (Good to know that Toronto’s film industry isn’t dead, though.)

Given that the suite had two rooms equipped with sliding, frosted-glass doors, I had an immediate vision of Hugh Grant.  Remember that scene in Notting Hill where he walks into the middle of a media scrum in Julia Roberts’s hotel suite, and has to fake being a reporter in order to talk to her?

Remember how he claims to be a correspondent for Horse and Hound?

Well, I’m the genuine article.

And the front desk staff strongly implied that, should I ever desire to ambush and interview a celebrity, that hanging around the lobby of the Windsor Arms just might be a way to do that.

If they try to kick me out, I’ll just tell them Sal said it was okay.

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