Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

And Then It Happened

I always knew it would, someday.   Not that it makes it any less humiliating.

I have one brother.  He is very Busy and Important and has a nuclear family which elicits him no end of sympathy and babysitting from our collective parental units.

Me?  Single with cats and horses.  Only two cats, I hasten to add.  I have not yet veered off the rails into Crazy Cat Lady territory, and besides, my place is too small to accommodate any more.  There would be squabbles.  The current two are littermates and thus get on rather well.

And four horses.  All of whom, for one reason or another, have rendered themselves virtually unsellable.

There’s a damaged-goods broodmare, who is very well bred but got herself badly torn up delivering Son #1 and had to endure four surgeries at the U of Guelph, to put her back together.  (My bank balance also had to endure it.  And so did a lot of vet students whom Roxy tried to murder in cold blood prior to, and during, the aforementioned surgeries.)  My vet has now forbidden me to breed her again, and besides, she’s 16 and as a riding horse she is a hard mare to love.  Though I do.  If she were my only rideable beast, she would drive me fucking nuts because she’s a peculiar combo pack of Alpha Mare and total neurotic, which is rather like tossing random acids together to see just how noxious a green cloud you can manufacture.  Yup, I love her.

Then there’s the laminitic pony, Trouble; she’s a Hackney/Shetland cross whose main function ’round here is to be a babysitter.  She is the world’s least evil pony, which is to her credit.  Trouble foundered despite all my best efforts, a number of years ago, and my farrier tries to console me by saying, “There are only two types of ponies — the ones who are foundered and the ones who are going to founder.”  Most of the year, she does just fine, but she does experience episodes of foot pain for a few weeks at a time and requires nursing and coddling … hence, unsellable.

Spike, who is Son #1 out of Roxy, would probably be the most marketable of the bunch except that he decided, inexplicably, to become a headshaker this past spring.  Headshaking is a neurological thing which seems to involve the trigeminal nerve in the face; it makes horses toss their heads up and down uncontrollably, or rub their muzzles on any available object, and it also makes them a pain in the ass to ride.  Spike’s symptoms seem to come and go, and they’ve abated for the moment, which is great, but I couldn’t in good conscience sell him, which is my excuse for keeping him till he expires.

And finally, there’s Parker, second and last issue of Roxy, who has just turned three and is like a shiny little loonie of potential.  Except for two things.  One (I sincerely hope) is temporary:  back in February he did something to his left hind leg, and he has been gimpy ever since.  All attempts at diagnosis have thus far, failed miserably in the way that only expensive but utterly unproductive vet bills can, but I have faith that he will come sound in his own good time, whether it’s a bone bruise, or some wee weird little ligament tear that evaded the ultrasound wand, or something even more exotic.  For the moment, though, he’s benched, with the launch of his under-saddle career on hold.  The other thing appears to be more permanent, though I could be wrong:  he’s beautifully put together, as handsome a picture of athletic Thoroughbred conformation as you could want to see, but he’s … well, petite.  Barely 15 hands right now.  Butt-high, so there may still be some growing to do (horses don’t tend to shoot up evenly when they’re maturing — they get taller in their hindquarters first and then their front ends catch up, or at least you pray to Epona that they do).  But on the whole, disappointingly petite, which is not likely to make him appeal to the current market either.

So, four horses, an income which is erratic, at best, and a part-time boyfriend who lives two hours down the highway.  Maybe it’s no wonder it happened.

I’m obsfucating, you say, gentle reader?  Okay.  Um …

My parents are getting older.  No way, yours too?  The hell you say.

Also, my parents live in a place where I do not wish to live.  It’s a city that feels like a huge, irrevocable 16-tonne-weight dead end to me (and the stats bear me out — it currently holds the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment levels in the province).

Of course, it’s not like my proximity to Toronto has really paid off in terms of employment, either.  I’m going on three years now without anything resembling a full-time, non-contract, non-short-term, job, in my field or out of it.  But at least with the largest metropolis in Canada in commutable territory, one can fantasize that there might be a spine-tingling opportunity justttttt …. around the corner.

(Re:  the above — What the hell is up with the subtitles?  What, are Sondheim’s lyrics not clear?)

Mind you, this sort of thinking immediately reminds me of the ex-boyfriend who got himself brainwashed by the Amway zombies (“We’re not selling the products, we’re selling the opportunity“).  That tantalizing, magic moment where all the money he was shoveling into a bottomless pit was suddenly going to come shooting back up to him in ejaculatory wonder was always dangling just out of reach, OMFG he could almost taste it, and his upline — formerly his Xerox-repair guy — kept promising he was doing so well, he’d be Going Diamond and walking the beaches of the world in a week, maybe two …. well, in a word, feh.

If there’s anything I loathe more than multi-level-marketing fucktards and their bags of batshit, I cannot for the life of me think what it might be.

But there I go, digressing again.

The thing is, I always knew that there would come a point where my parents would need one of their offspring to come home and pitch in on the things that had become difficult for them to do.  And that my brother, being Busy and Important and a Parent and all, would not be the one volunteered.  Nope.

I don’t think my parents are actually at that point yet, though their house — a split-split-split-level product of the 60’s — is now presenting some challenges since every damn room is connected to the next with a flight of stairs.  That’s a few too many stair chairs.

But last week, my father came out with it.

“I think you should consider moving back home.”

And he must’ve seen the colour just drain out of my face, but he forged ahead anyway because that’s what he does.  “You have no steady income, you’re having trouble meeting expenses, you could whittle the horses down to, maybe, two? ….”  and the piece de resistance, “… and your mother could use the help.”

And I know the latter is starting to be true, but at what point is the humiliation of one’s failed career so fulsome and complete that moving back into one’s parents’ house in suburbia, kissing any vestige of an adult lifestyle sayonara, preferable to, say, flinging oneself in front of a cattle truck or signing up to flog noni juice to your former friends?

“Just think about it,” he said.

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Exposing Myself

I know it’s a subject I’ve (ahem) touched on before:  The old ‘please work for free’  spiel.  But I thought I should share this latest request because it’s just so gosh-darn warm and polite.  Makes it sound like a really good gig, doesn’t it?

I can never tell whether these guys are just blithely ignorant, or actually know what a raw deal they are proposing and are just hoping I’m fresh off the turnip truck.

Though given that this particular dude found me via LinkedIn, you’d think he would have had ample opportunity to scan my background

I’ll be kind and remove the actual names here, but suffice to say the website/directory/publication in question is looking for equestrian travel content, for which they don’t want to pay.

Sure, I’ll not only contribute to your website and directory for free, but I’ll travel (on gossamer wings, presumably?) to come up with the content, and be delighted that in exchange you will:

* list me in a directory of other schmucks who work for free, so that no-one ever thinks I expect to be paid, ever again

* put links to your website all over my blog (a blog, btw, that doesn’t currently earn me a plugged nickel and, tragically, is likely not to magically monetize when it has a reciprocal link placed on yours)

* follow me on Twitter (be still, my palpitating heart!)

* give me a BYLINE!  Woot!

* allow me to enter your upcoming writing contest (see similar rant here). 

* oh, and my work will be read by equestrians.

Here it is, with names changed because I am far too impoverished to fight off a lawsuit (unless someone knows a nice Canadian lawyer who will work for exposure?):

Hi, Karen. 

You and I are connected through Linked In, and I’d like to briefly introduce myself. 

I’m the CEO of (an American company), and I’m contacting you because I’m seeking writers for short well-written articles on a variety of subjects. 

I can offer you additional national exposure in our newsletter.  You would have a by-line, a link to your website, and would be referenced in our archive’s index of writers with your professional bio. As we grow, your work would be read by an increasing number of equestrians. We are also planning writing contests and awards, and have many other ideas we hope will appeal to you in time. 

Our new service, http://www.insultingwriters.com , is the largest, most sophisticated equine travel directory in North America. This directory is free for everyone, both equine travelers and people who want to create their free travel-related business profile. 

The directory features hundreds of horse-friendly campgrounds, layover stables, guest ranches, and backcountry vacation facilities that provide equine lodging in the U.S.A. and Canada. Each profile has an executive summary of the facility, contact information, pictures, travel directions, and reviews, assisting horse owners with finding the ideal place to stay with their horse. 

So: 

1. If you are interested in writing short articles on equine-related travel (destinations, trails, trail gear, cowgirl apparel, campsite recipes…) please contact me! I’ll get you started… 

2. And, if you wish, we’d like you to place our website’s link on yours as a benefit to your clients and readers. In turn, we’d be happy to post your link on our website. 

3. In just a few weeks, we can also help you generate additional revenue with our link on your site. Please let me know if you’d be interested in knowing more about this. 

4. I’m also seeking special discounts or promotions I can offer our guests and subscribers, and if you or your organization has a product or service I can offer to a national audience, I’d love to promote your special offer. 

5. If you know anyone who has a horse-friendly campground, layover stable, guest ranch, or backcountry vacation facility, please let them know about us. They can create their free business profile on our site and increase their exposure. 

6. Our website has a Calendar of Events… You’re welcome to post your events (or any organization’s events to which you belong) on it, and there’s a blog (link removed) on which we’d enjoy your comments. 

7. Of course, if you’d visit and Like our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/XXX ), connect with us on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/company/XXX ), or Follow us on Twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/XXX ), we would greatly appreciate your kindness. We would be happy to do the same for you! 

Please contact me for anything. I’m happy to help promote you and your interests in any way I can. 

Best wishes, MR. X.

And my response:

Dear Mr. X,

I know your message wasn’t intended to be rude or insulting. More and more businesses seem to think that “exposure” in exchange for well-written content is a fair trade … but the truth is, it never has been, is not now, and is in no way a viable business model.

If you have actually looked at my LinkedIn profile, you’ll have seen that I am a professional writer, and have been for more than 20 years.  By “professional”, I mean that this is what I do to pay the bills.  With over 5000 published articles and six books to my credit, frankly, I have “exposure” out the wazoo.  Alas, all it seems to get me these days is more requests (I won’t call them offers) to give away my work for free.  And that, I’m afraid, won’t do me much good in terms of paying my rent, my cel phone bill, or dealing with the guy who’s bringing 1200 bales of hay to my place next week.  He is not likely to hold onto his invoice until my newfound “exposure” begins to pay imaginary dividends for me.

I’m particularly concerned about your business model considering that you’re requesting travel pieces.  The investment on the part of the writer is considerable; press trips are close to non-existent these days and if one manages to travel on one’s own dime, there’s little chance of actually recouping that investment.  None at all, in the case of (your company).  How does that make sense?

If I was independently wealthy or had a huge inheritance coming my way, and was still tickled by the idea of a byline, I suppose I might be more receptive to your proposal.  But writers like that are a bit scarce on the ground.  Frankly, I hope you don’t find any, because even if they don’t need the money, it hurts everyone in my industry when writing, as a skill, is so devalued that companies just expect it will be given away.

Just for the record, my minimum fee for freelance work is 40 cents a word … please feel free to get in touch if that rate is agreeable to you at some point in the future.

Sorry to come off as harsh, but it’s becoming very, very difficult to survive as a freelancer these days, and business models like yours (sigh) are exactly why.

Sincerely,

Karen.

I’m thinking I need to just develop a boilerplate response to asshat proposals like these.  Anyone got a good one they’d like to share?

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My Favourite Spam

Am I the only one amused by the fractured English in the spontaneously refilling WordPress spam folder?

And am I the only one who tucks the best ones away in my little treasure chest?

Probably.  But I’m gonna share anyway, cuz I’m perverse like that.

If I collect enough of these, I may end up with that Great Canadian Novel I’ve been bemoaning the absence of.

The Magnificent Publish:  “That is really exciting, You’re an exceedingly specialized writer. We’ve joined the feed and stay up with regard to seeking added of the magnificent publish.”  — March 6, 2012

Oh, Zayn, Wherefore Art Thou?:  “Boyfriend Will Be Perfect if his name is Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, Liam Payne or Zayn Malik.”  –March 12, 2012

Try It, I Dare You:  “Usually I don’t post on blogs, but I desire to say that this post quite forced me to try and do so!”  — from “Mushroom Substrate Ratio”,March 15, 2012

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Thanks for the All the Fish … and the Entropy:  “Dead pent articles , thanks for entropy.” –March 27, 2012

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To Obtain, Perchance to Accomplish:  “Aw, this was a seriously good post. In idea I’d prefer to put in writing like this furthermore – taking time and actual effort to make a very very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no signifies appear to obtain a thing accomplished.” –May 7, 2012

Is “Ook” a Euphemism for Something?:  “Last van erectiestoornissen? Dan is Viagra echt iets voor jou! Wil je direct informatie? Dankan dat natuurlijk ook!” – May 11, 2012

Baby Got Back:  “Soon after research numerous with the content material in your web website now, and i also truly such as your way of blogging. I book-marked it to be able to my book mark internet site list and are checking out back before long.”  – June 6, 2012

Got better ones?  Be generous.  Share.  Minus the links to erectile dysfunction drugs, please.

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My Brain Hurts

Like I needed more reality checks in my life.

In my continuing career-re-invention quest (horse writer, bad; health writer, good), I signed up yesterday for a one-day workshop on epigenetics for journalists, hosted in downtown Toronto by the CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research).   I didn’t really have a clear plan as to where I was going to use the material from this seminar — but hey, they had assembled a crack team of speakers, the location was accessible enough, and it was free.  With lunch.

(See my previous post about feeding journalists, a can’t-miss strategy.  Seriously, you could live-trap and relocate the lot of us with a tray of sandwiches and some oversized cookies.)

Once upon a time, I was an undergrad biology major.  I spent eight to 10 hours a day in classes, scribbling reams of notes — I remember one botany class, in particular, which generated 15 to 20 pages of single-spaced foolscap per lecture — and it didn’t faze me in the least.  But admittedly, it has been a while.  (Shuddup.)

While I’m admitting things, I’ll also admit that genetics was never my strong suit.  Loved the microbiology, thought the invertebrate zoology was dandy, grooved on the afore-mentioned botany, liked doing the field studies in the ecology courses (there was some project which involved mapping out a square metre in an endangered grassland area and then counting the number of beetles, or seeds, or voles or something within that square), but found genetics a bit of a struggle, even though it was at a very, very basic, Mendelian level.  My usual luck prevailed:  My Drosophila tended to keel over before they could produce their F1 and F2 generations, and even when they didn’t, they didn’t really breed according to plan or produce the characteristics they were supposed to (big wings, vestigial wings, curly wings, red eyes, white eyes, googly eyes, and so forth).

Since those (ahem) hallowed university days, I have had to tackle the topic of genetics on a number of occasions in articles for horse magazines.  Lesson #1:  Very little in Real Life is Mendelian.  In other words, simple dominant, simple recessive, predictable percentages of traits in each generation:  hardly ever happens outside a lab full of fruitflies (and sometimes not even then).  Genetics is way complicated, with combos of genes all tag-teaming to cloud the picture and muck up your diagrams.  Which I guess explains why you can’t breed a palomino to a palomino and get little palominos, but doesn’t explain why anyone still maintains a breed registry for a colour which is not directly heritable.  Don’t get me started.

Still, the topic (genetics, in case I lost you somewhere there) has always been sort of heavy wading for me.  Okay, not as bad as organic chem, which I failed twice before I finally managed to squeak through  …  just never could wrap my head around the carbon-chain stuff (though, in looking back, I also have to credit a prof who would clearly have rather been disemboweling wombats than have been teaching this dreary second-year course in a windowless basement).  But something of a slog.

Nonetheless, the topic of epigenetics intrigues.  And that’s typical for me; lots of stuff I have no natural talent for, intrigues me anyway, contrary wench that I am.

For the uninitiated:  epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors influence the way genes do, or do not express themselves.  It’s fairly new stuff, though the term has been hanging around since the 1940s.  Maybe I should say its acceptance is fairly new stuff.

Epigenetics is a separate deal from mutation, which is an actual alteration/addition/deletion of base pairs on the DNA strand.  In epigenetics, the DNA sequence remains the same, but the environment influences whether the genes produce proteins which influence changes in the organism, or fail to produce them.  See?  I was paying attention.

But the workshop did prove to me one thing:  as far as paying attention goes, evidently I am not as good at it as I was when I was 20.  Okay, not exactly a fucking revelation.  But still, sobering.  Despite diligently caffeinating (something I am actually not in the habit of doing when I work at home), and despite finding the topic engaging, I really had to force my brain to focus on digesting this material.  It did not do it of its own accord.

And while my brain was wandering off down unexplored corridors for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that attention spans, in general, may not be what they used to was.  It’s Facebook‘s fault, of course.

I started thinking about my work habits, when I’m working from home, and realized that I seem to function best when multi-tasking.  Which might just be putting a polite spin on saying I allow myself to be easily distracted.

I generally have a couple dozen tabs open on my web browser.  Some of them directly related to whatever article I am currently writing. Some not so much.   So I’ll write a couple of paragraphs, then go check my Twitter feed.  Look up a definition or flip through my notes to see how I’m going to cobble in a quote from the Authority Du Jour … then open up Photoshop and edit a couple of photos I’ve had in the queue.  Go back to the article.  Get stuck on a phrase for a minute, and go see how many hits the damn blog has gotten today (ugh, biggest time-suck of all).  Go back to the article, but then think of something I have to add to the grocery list. Go back to the article.  Write six or seven paragraphs in a row and then play a game of solitaire as a reward.  And wash, rinse, repeat.

All of this has evolved fairly organically along with the options available on my computer (as in, I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that many distractions on my Atari or my 486).  And the thing is, it works for me.  It’s entirely possible I’m severely deluded, of course, but I believe with a certain amount of religious fervour that I’m actually more productive working in this manner, than I am when I force myself to be single-minded and concentrate on one thing at once.

It is not lost on me that this style of working doesn’t go over particularly well in the corporate world, where there’s a firewall on Facebook and to spend 30 seconds mindlessly moving Scrabble tiles around while your brain tries to pick the tangles out of some work-related problem, is tantamount to treason.  Despite all the lip-service acknowledging learning styles and celebrating individuality, there always seems to be someone who’s deeply offended if you’re not exhibiting exemplary drone behaviour.

And it didn’t serve me all that well when I was thrust back into a concentrated, lecture-style learning environment, as I was at this workshop.  As I say, I really had to work to stay focused and wrap my head around the concepts … and I was pretty much knackered by the end of it.

Still, I had enough neural activity at the end of the day to ponder the wisdom of the cohort of behaviourists who maintain that women are hard-wired to multi-task.  One fairly famous experiment (this is not something that came up in the workshop — it’s just something that I read, years ago, which has always stuck with me) had test groups of women and men listen to an audio recording of voices reading two (or was it three?) different stories, with the voices all overlapping.  Afterwards they were asked to reiterate the content.  The men, almost invariably, had ended up zooming in on only one of the stories.  They could recount that storyline, but had registered nothing of the others.  The women, OTOH, had gotten the gist of all of the stories.  The explanation, I guess, is that we’re designed to be able to forage for berries and beat the laundry on a rock, while simultaneously keeping one ear open so that our F1 generation doesn’t get eaten by a sabre-toothed whateverthefuck.

Sounds kinda epigenetic, don’t it.  I wonder what the methylation profile is.

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