Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “frustration”

A Pox on Positivity

Nothing more irritating than a horoscope that keeps cheerily insisting your ship is going to come in, while you’re busy watching it get smashed into kindling on the rocks.

It’s been one of those weeks, piled on one of those years, piled on one of those lives, and my self-esteem is … well, subterranean, at the moment.

Repeat mantra:  You’re a damn good writer, a good person, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, two wrongs don’t make a right, ceci n’est pas un pipe …

Ahem.

Between deals gone south, creditors leaving surly messages on my voice mail, no cheques in the mail, the continuing indifference of various potential employers to my resume and clips, the self-destructing transmission in my truck, and two days of persistent drizzle (which apparently is now leading up to a hurricane … in Ontario) … well, it’s a wonder it’s taken me this long to post another rant.

And frankly, one of the things that’s been irritating the snot right outta me recently is the suggestion, by a former high-school acquaintance on Facebook, that he didn’t want to be subjected to my “negativity”.

First of all, no-one’s subjected to anything on Facebook.  Don’t like your FB pal’s political views or the way she floods your feed with photos of zombie kittehs?  Click and buh-bye, friend.

Secondly, I’m increasingly vexed by the notion that negativity is somehow like second-hand smoke, that it’s going to ooze into your pores and blacken your lungs and make you smell all icky and eventually give you emphysema.

Frankly, it’s Jesus-wants-you-for-a-sunbeam positivity that I find annoying.  Skittles from heaven and unicorns that shoot rainbows out of their asses?  Saints preserve me, if you’ll pardon the phrase.  It’s especially grating when this form of positivity is practiced with relentless glee, flying in the face of reality, with the intent that to wish good things to rain down from the cosmos is to somehow force the cosmos to cough up same.

I’m sorry, but “thinking positive” does not alter squat.  It isn’t going to attract the blessings of the gods, keep the shit from hitting the proverbial fan, bestow upon you that well-deserved lottery win, or prevent you from catching a cold from one of the pathogen-ridden 30,000 people at the Royal Winter Fair.  It’s just not, and it’s completely pointless and delusional to believe that it will.

It’s the same sort of mindset that has turned “faith” — the irrational belief in something despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary (or the absence of any evidence whatsoever) — into a virtue.  How is that virtuous and not just, well, stupid?

Now I completely agree that no-one likes a whinger, and I do (with varying degrees of success) try not to whinge and moan.  One mantra to which I do subscribe is, “Any morning you wake up and you’re not in Darfur, is a good day.”  I get that things could be infinitely worse, really I do.

But that isn’t going to stop me from pointing out hypocrisies, battling — mostly through humour — the evil humanity wages on behalf of their various imaginary friends in the sky, or commenting on tragedies and misfortunes where I feel I have something to say.  I’m not a troll, but I will admit to being a shit-disturber. And I’m not gonna apologize for any of it, either.

(Required reading:  Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided:  How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America”.  She shoots holes in this whole plague of positivity much better than I can. And Norman Vincent Peale can bite me.)

In fact, a study from the local University of Waterloo, published in Psychological Science and cited in Discover magazine noted, “Repeating positive things about yourself only seems to work for people who already feel good about themselves, and only to a small and trivial extent.  For people who need it the most, positive thinking certainly has a lot of power, but it can be of a detrimental kind.”

So there.

It’s possible my complete abhorrence of “positive thinking” bullshit stems from having been dragged to a couple of multi-level-marketing booster meetings by a former boyfriend who got sucked in and utterly brainwashed.  I imagine I’m not alone in having become allergic to the toxic language the asshat speakers at these things use to manipulate their audience.  What made the ex so gullible, and me, not so much?  Sometimes I think it was purely because I was raised a cynic, by a couple of academics who taught me to question everything.

If that’s the case, I am infinitely grateful and I refuse to apologize for it even more.  I may be scraping by in both career and life, but at least it’s not because I’m funneling all my worldly wealth straight into the pockets of a Machiavellian upline, all the while clinging to the absurd belief that my efforts will pay off big time, someday.

(I may have mentioned my loathing of MLMs before.)

So back to the high-school acquaintance who accused me of ruining his day, or something.  I already knew that our perspectives were vastly different.  Once upon a time, though, we were on the Reach For The Top team together, and I don’t have to tell you what THAT means.

Uh, I do?  Okay, well … remember Trivial Pursuit?  Before it was a board game, it was on local television, and high schools sent teams of hopeless nerds to compete with each other to get points answering the questions.   There was a moderator, and buzzers, and stuff.  And orange pancake makeup.  (Trivia that is probably now a Reach For The Top question:  Alex Trebek was one of the early quizmasters for the show.)

Making the Reach For The Top team generally meant that you were an especially irretrievable hopeless nerd, which I was, so that was fine.  It wasn’t going to do any further damage to my adolescent image.  And it certainly made my father proud.  In fact, I suspect that was the last time he was ever proud of me.  He sat in the audience during our matches, just beaming his head off.  And I was, if I may say so, the most photogenic of the four nerds on our team, but only by virtue of my being the only female and the others being (shudder) teenage boys.

The afore-mentioned acquaintance, however, broke the mold by also being a football jock, who, presumably, got laid a fair bit.  Good on him.  The cheerleaders were clearly willing to overlook the whole Reach team thing.   After high school, off he went into the military, and became a career gun-toting officer, whose perspective on the world is just a smidge to the right of mine.  To each his own, yadda yadda.

It’s interesting that, after he accused me of being “negative” on Facebook, I went back and scanned through the postings on my personal page and discovered that what he’d written was the most negative thing on there.  Sure, I had shared some snippets that were critical of organized religion, or in support of science and rational thought, as I often do.  I’m less and less inclined to observe traditional taboos in that regard; after all these centuries, it’s a topic which needs to be discussed openly and honestly, in my humble opinion.  So I suppose that High School Buddy’s definition of “negative” must include “doesn’t agree with me”.

But really, on the whole, I had been having a fairly upbeat month.

In any event, he became my first official flounce from Facebook.

I’m kind of looking at it as a badge of honour.  And I’m probably not going to wake up in Darfur tomorrow morning, so there’s that, too.

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Methinks She Doth Kvetch Too Much

For those who consider me a whiner … me with my petty and ceaseless kvetching about no longer being able to scratch out a living as a freelance writer … I bring you a link:

The Worst Writing Job Ever

A quick calculation based on the pay rate for this unparalleled opportunity reveals that a 500 word article generated with the requisite superlative research skills and demonstrating “excellent grammar and an engaging voice” will yield a handsome 4.5 cents as recompense.

I need to go have a little lie down.  

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Mistress of None

I read another one of those well-meaning blogs full of advice for writers tonight.

I know, I know … it’s one of those trainwreck things.  Can’t look away.

It asked me (all earnest-like) to re-examine why I started freelancing in the first place.  The object, I guess, being to see whether I’m cranking out magazine minutiae because I desire to make a living (apparently, a bad impulse) or whether I have a “true passion” for the creation of purple prose.  (In a word, eccccch.)

So I’ll confess, at the risk of being poked with soft cushions (“She must be made of harder stuff!”), the shameful truth here.  I started freelancing ….

…because I’d sent out 150 resumes over a three-month period and gotten no responses whatsoever. There it is.  That was the reason, some 17 years ago.  And it’s still pretty much the reason.  I’m getting rather weary of being told I’m supposed to feel a higher calling.  It’s something that plays to my strengths, and yes, I enjoy it, for the most part.  But seriously, the nobility of the craft stuff is a little disingenuous, given that the general public lumps journalists in with ambulance-chasing lawyers as some particularly odious mutant variety of slime mold.

Also, given that the pay scale is somewhere well below ditch-digger and deep-fry-station jockey.

That’s been the main problem (and chief source of my kvetching here) lo these past few years.  Where once I could make a marginal living as a freelance writer, now I seem to be working four times as hard for a quarter of the pay.  The assignments are fewer and farther between, with magazines either going tits-up in a snowbank, or bringing all their content creation in-house as a cost-cutting technique (finding out your editors can’t write?  Priceless).

The pay scales are in tatters, with editors apologetically offering fractions of what they used to pay.

And, of course, waiting for your cheque is pretty much like awaiting the Second Coming.  Any minute now.

So given that the Real Job prospects are slimmer than ever — I am STILL reeling in disbelief that I couldn’t even get an interview from the Ontario Equestrian Federation for a communications coordinator position, so really, what’s the point?? — I have recently had to explore various other income opportunities.

Since spandex and I have something of a conflicted relationship, and my ability to hold my breath underwater is average, at best, I have not availed myself of the mermaid opportunity (see above).  Though I am finding myself in oh-so-flattering breeches (the most expensive pants you can look like hell in) rather more often lately.  I figured I had better make some attempt to resurrect my comatose coaching career.

Yup, I’m an Equine Canada certified coach.  (To be fair, it was called the Canadian Equestrian Federation back when I first gained my little frame-able certificate back in the mid-1980s.  I have no idea where the certificate went.  Maybe my mother has it.  I was the first person from the Windsor, Ontario area to gain CEF coaching certification. Woot, me.)  It’s been hard to concentrate much on coaching the past few years when a) I’ve had to move around a fair bit and rebuild my clientele from scratch each time, b) I’ve gotten rather disenchanted with the all-too-frequent revisions of the national coaching program, which seem to benefit no-one except those collecting the multiplying fees, and c) I’ve also gotten rather disenchanted with standing in a meat-locker-temperature indoor arena in February, getting coated with a quarter-inch of filthy airborne footing while my fingers and toes linger dangerously close to necessitating amputation.

But it’s an additional, if erratic, income source, when I can scare up clients and when the weather cooperates and their horses aren’t lame.  And like freelance writing, it comes with a fair bit of scheduling freedom, and I can cherrypick the clients.

A recent internet ad has yielded a trio of new students, which is a good start, even if winter is hurtling towards all of us intent on putting the kibosh on much of the riding activity.  It has at least meant that I can purchase a couple of bags of feed and shavings.

Also, I used the power of the Interwebz to hang out my shingle as a critter-sitter.  I’ve resisted this one for a while precisely because a good friend of mine is quite successful at it; she’s actually making more babysitting beasties and watering plants, than she was at her former corporate drone job.  I have not wanted to step on her toes, but finally figured if I focused on environs that would be awkwardly distant for her, I could in good conscience give it a go.  One gig thus far, briefly mentioned in my previous post:  I took care of two exceedingly geriatric dogs, aged 13 and 15, for a 10-day stretch, in their owner’s home.  Apart from the difficulties of coaxing them to eat, and the ever-present peril that one or both of the little furbabies might wake up dead in the absence of their habitual humans, it was simple enough, and it came with better TV than I have at home, so … win/win.  Would like to do more of that.

I actually got quite a bit of writing done while I was there, too, though I’m not sure I was really providing all that much companionship while I was at it, since it wasn’t crystal clear that these mostly-deaf, mostly-blind canines had really registered I was not their usual caretaker.

And I’m continuing to muck stalls other than my own, though I did decide that one of my two jobs had to go; it was a combo of too early and too anal.  I’m back to weekends only, apart from right now.  I’m pinch-hitting for eight days while the regular barn manager is cavorting in Cuba, and bloody ‘ell, is it making me feel almost 50.  

Another thing making me feel freakishly close to collecting my Sears Club Senior’s discount card:  being offered riding gigs that force me to contemplate my own mortality.  Never used to do that.  Used to throw a leg over any unruly critter I was paid to ride, but … a recent offer to field-hunt a five-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gave me pause, and so did a request to school a four-year-old dressage prospect who is 17:3 hands and “has a bit of a naughty buck in him”.  That is a looooong way to the ground for someone like me who don’t bounce so good anymore.  It’s a demoralizing reality that I have to be more selective than ballsy these days.

But I do need the money, because my truck has chosen this juncture to come up with a diseased transmission.  Maybe I should reconsider the mermaid thing.

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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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Mud, Mosquitoes, and Mayhem

I promised I was going to usher you into the mysterious unseen world of the horse show press tent, right?

That’s assuming, of course, that there actually is one.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced many levels of media preparedness on the part of horse shows.  Rarely sublime, often ridiculous.  Of course, the general level of making-life-easy-for-journalists has improved vastly with the advent of wi-fi.  (Look, contact with the outside world — oh, bliss!)

But given that horse shows are generally situated somewhere out in a muddy field, it’s little wonder that what most journos might consider the basic basics — stuff like phone lines, electricity, and chairs — are often in short supply, and were even more so 15 or 20 years ago, when I first started trekking to these festivities.

There’s a three-star three-day event called the Fair Hill International, which occurs every October in Elkton, Maryland.  (For the uninitiated, equestrian sports, and especially eventing, are ranked in difficulty by the number of stars, ranging from one to four.  There are only six four-star three-day events in the world and they are seriously, seriously badass.  A three-star event is one level below that, but just to put it in perspective, the three-day eventing competition at the Olympics is at the three-star level.)

Fair Hill is a gorgeous place, but given the time of year when the event is held, it’s almost invariably a mudpit.  And the first year that I arrived there to cover it for the British eventing monthly confusingly called “Eventing“, I sunk my rental car to the axles in the parking lot, schlepped through a sea of goo to the centre of activity, and failed to locate anything in the way of a structure that was designated for weary journalistic travellers such as myself.  After a good deal of feckless squishing around the trade fair, I finally located someone with a walkie-talkie, who looked me up and down with wonder and said something along the lines of, “Wow, we have PRESS!”

Okay, so safe to assume there’s no internet access, then …

The 1999 Pan Am Games, in Winnipeg, wasn’t much better.  While most of the competitions were very well-organized, the equestrian events were orphaned out in Bird’s Hill Park, some considerable distance from the rest of the venues and completely off the organizing committee’s radar.  Once we had visited the main press outlet in a huge urban convention centre, and claimed our oversized plastic press passes on lanyards, we were on our own.  We soon discovered that, in all the excitement of erecting dressage rings and building cross-country courses and battling the world’s largest and most aggressive squadrons of mosquitoes, that no-one had really factored in the presence of press out at Bird’s Hill.

Not only was there no press tent, there was no food.  The only fast-food truck was back in the stabling area, where we lowly journos were forbidden to venture.  (I nearly got my foot run over by an overly-aggressive security person in a Gator, when I suggested that it might be nice if someone brought all of us out some peameal sandwiches.  Sheesh.  Give some people a badge and a radio, and they become megalomaniacs.)

By day two, we were all doing rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock as to who got to do the Tim Horton’s runs (about 30 km from the park), and by day three, the delightful woman who had been organizing the feeding of the many, many volunteers it takes to run equestrian events at the Pan Am Games, started making all of the journalists and photographers extra sandwiches in brown bags.

Honestly, it was just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.  And she got us Pan Am shirts and hats too.  I still have the hat somewhere.

At the other end of the press tent spectrum is Spruce Meadows, the showjumping Mecca in Calgary.  I haven’t had the pleasure of covering all that many tournaments at Spruce Meadows, but they can invite me back anytime.  Not only is there a climate-controlled press centre with every desired amenity from closed-circuit tv (should you not desire to look out the picture windows at the ring) to a scrum area, printers, and (gasp) flushies … but for the journalists covering the big weekend classes with the million-dollar sponsorships, they actually wheel in steam tables laden with prime rib, shrimp, three veg, and desserts.  Plus china plates, linen napkins, and cutlery.

I’m gonna say it again.  Cutlery.  Still makes my toes curl with sheer glee.

For journalists habituated to subsisting on potato chips, purchased three days earlier at a gas station and crushed into powder in one’s backpack, this isn’t just a pleasant meal, it’s an absolute revelation.

And by now, you’re probably coming to one very important and correct conclusion:  a fed journalist is a happy journalist.

It’s true.  We are simple, simple creatures, easy to lull into a state of contentment.  Again, it’s possible that this is all standard practice in other arenas of sports journalism, but I, for one, never ever take it for granted.  Mostly because it’s far more the exception than the rule, and one can’t even really assume that because it was offered one year, it will be offered another.

Take another three-star three-day event, called the Foxhall CCI***.  It required a flight to Atlanta to get to this one, but when it was launched, with much fanfare, by a local polo guy with deep pockets who committed to a 20-year run and huge (for eventing) prize money, we footloose freelancers were all intrigued.

So I land at the Atlanta airport, walk about 30 miles from concourse to concourse, claim my little rental car and navigate my way to the showgrounds, which is out in a communications dead zone where no cel phone comes out alive, about half an hour from Atlanta.  I am weary, I am grumpy, and I drag my laptop and cameras to a tent labelled “press” …. where I am immediately handed a huge plate of fried chicken and biscuits, and asked, “Red or white?”

Well.

Unfortunately, the exceptional hospitality at Foxhall didn’t last.  By year three, someone in accounting had cancelled just about all of the perks first showered upon the journalists, and had instituted box lunches that we could purchase for $8 apiece.  (And they were egg salad.  Yecch.  If egg salad were the last food on Earth, I would starve to death rather than consume it.  It’s just revolting.)

By year five, there was no press tent at all … just a power outlet that myself and the one other remaining freelancer who turned up, located up by the stables and took turns using to keep our laptops going when the batteries started to run low. The tycoon had apparently made some unfortunate business deals and was flat outta money.  The show lost its sponsorship and was unable to secure another one.  Needless to say, that 20-year deal failed to be honoured.

I don’t miss schlepping all the way to Atlanta, but man, that fried chicken was exceptional.

Truth is, however, we don’t attend horse shows for the food.  (Well, except for Fair Hill, which features amazing crab chowder in styrofoam bowls.)  We just want to write a good story about the action, and we’re prepared to make some sacrifices to do so.   My expectation, these days, is for a wobbly table and a plastic chair set under a leaky, drafty tent. If there’s a power outlet and internet access, all else is gravy.  And let’s face it, wi-fi, phone lines, and hydro are all fairly recent expectations.   Horse show grounds, historically, have not been the easiest places with which to provide these luxuries.  I get that.

Even Bromont, another three-day event site which once hosted the equestrian events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and thus boasts a large, permanent grandstand, had zero in the way of power outlets or wi-fi available to the press last time I was there.  I had to beg a corner of the scorer’s trailer because I was filing daily reports for a website … where I was relentlessly entertained by an Equine Canada official who was drunk as a skunk, and getting increasingly belligerent, as she added up the scores.  Incorrectly.  Par-tay.

I know I’m not the only intrepid girl reporter who remembers huddling in a leaky tent at Rolex, the feet of my plastic chair sinking into the wet grass, clutching the edges of the garbage bag protecting my laptop from the elements, mentally begging the dial-up to work, and never once thinking, “I could have been a civil servant and worked in a nice, beige, upholstered cube farm somewhere.”

Thankfully, the Kentucky Horse Park was selected to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010, so its press tent set-up received gradual upgrades in the lead-up years, culminating in the whole business being moved indoors (indoors!) to a roomy space overlooking one of the indoor arenas.  With plumbing and all.  Now, all I have to kvetch about is that the windows give a tormenting view of the trade fair below, which I have neither the time nor the cash to peruse.

Many of my colleagues have trekked around the world to cover Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games and are more familiar with the scale of the press centres attached to these events than I; again, alas, not having a surfeit of Air Miles at my disposal, I have had to sit most of those out.  But the Kentucky WEG did give me a taste of the possibilities, without the associated hassles of passport-carrying.  (Though I did get various versions of pat-downs every dim early morning as I entered the park with my gear.)  Yes, it was a tent, but it was a tent designed for 1200 people, with an attached interview tent and a designated cafeteria just fer little ‘ol us.  (Overpriced, to be sure, but handy nonetheless.)  We had flatscreen TVs so we could watch the action in multiple arenas, we had Canon set up on-site with its IT guys, and my particular circle of acquaintances seemed to have a knack for winning the Rolex door prizes of bottles of champagne, by correctly guessing the nightly leaders on the scoreboards of the eight different equestrian disciplines we were all trying to cover.

I think champagne tastes particularly festive when sipped from a paper cup.

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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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Please Don’t Ask Me to Write About …

I haven’t been raining negativity, bitterness and bile down on my gentle readers lately.  And apparently, that has to stop.

It has been suggested to me by a devotee of WFTRSOTS (okay, ‘devotee’ might be phrasing it rather strongly, but there is forensic evidence that she pops by on occasion) that I should share with you some of the topics I’d just as soon never, ever, ever write about ever, ever again.

Is that the sort of thing you’d like to read?  No?  It’s just her?

Never mind, I’m going to forge ahead anyway.  Woe betide me should I disappoint her.  You can be the next one to suggest a topic.  (No, really.  Go ahead.  Let’s see if I can riff on anything a la the late, great George Carlin.  My guess is no.)

By the way, I should probably mention that I have made some headway recently in my ongoing crusade to demonstrate that I can, in fact, write entire paragraphs of published text without mentioning hooved quadrupeds of any kind.  This seems necessary because there are a head-spinning number of editors out there who don’t seem to be able to extrapolate from one of my articles about a veterinary issue, that I can write about medical issues, and who can’t read a piece about a riding vacation and take the great leap to believing I could craft a piece about a boating or skiing vacation.

Between my snowmobiling jaunt in Quebec, back in January, and some agricultural pieces ranging from celebrating the Goat Farmer of the Year to rather more sober discussions of how fully farmers are adopting mobile technology, I have now collected …. ohhhhh, about a dozen clips, I guess …. which avoid horses like the plague.  (Okay, yes, the goats are quadrupeds and have cloven hooves, but the article really discusses the award-winning goat farmer rather than his charges.  Mostly.)

I consider this a minor triumph, but then, I have to take my triumphs where I find ’em these days.

I was also charged with writing my very first infographic a few months ago.  It wasn’t easy, let me assure you.  But the artist quite skilfully made a silk purse out of a (proverbial) sow’s ear …

I would happily write about goats some more.  Or pigs.  Or soybeans.  I’m learning quite a lot about all three.

But please don’t ask me to write another infographic.  It made my head hurt.

Of course, it’s still true that the vast majority of my portfolio — and the archive currently stands at somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000 published articles — does feature, or at least discuss, equines of one sort or another.  You’d be surprised how much variety there is within that niche:  personality profiles, hard science, event reports and recaps, PR for future events, how-to’s, training tips, health and veterinary advances, a few fluff pieces, even some controversy on occasion.  Maybe I’m not a flak-jacket journalist, but that doesn’t it’s all meaningless trivia (she said self-righteously).

There are few truly new topics under the sun, however.  And there are some old chestnuts that editors seem to trot out every year without fail … depending on we starving freelancers to invent a new spin, lest we all simultaneously slip into vegetative states from the sheer, desperate redundancy of it all.

Some of these subjects, I don’t mind, honestly.  I don’t object to writing about internal parasites, for example.  There’s usually a bit of new science to discuss every few years, which keeps it fresh and interesting for me … and also, although I am easily grossed out by, say, eye diseases (I cannot look at the photos — ick), I apparently have a high tolerance for pondering the life cycles of slimy blood-sucking phylla who inhabit eyeballs and intestinal folds.

But please shoot me, I beg of you, if I ever have to write about the following again:

1. Fencing for horses.  Coma-inducing?  Oh, gawd, yes.  New stuff to discuss?  Pretty much never.  The most exciting thing to come down the pike in recent decades has been an electric fencing product which has two-way current or something and doesn’t need to be grounded, which I guess is great because I don’t really understand the whole grounding thing and thus find it difficult to describe in articles.  But ‘great’, in this case, is very much a relative term.  If I have to put together one more bloody chart comparing oak board fencing to pipe corrals to high-tensile wire to synthetics, I may in fact garrote myself on the next electric fence I see, regardless of its grounding or lack thereof.

2. Thorny regulatory issues.  Especially when they’re American.  I write for a lot of American magazines, some of which, in their peculiarly Ameri-centric way, insist on ONLY American sources being quoted.  This, to me, is short-sighted as hell … seriously, if you had a chance to hear from a showjumping expert like Beat Mandli (Switzerland) or a dressage guru like Edward Gal (the Netherlands), wouldn’t that be every bit as interesting to a reader from the United States, as someone home-grown?  I don’t see how the US can continue to teach its citizens that nothing of any note happens beyond its borders, but I digress.  What really makes me crazy is trying to figure out which government agency I have to phone, when I am commissioned to write an article about some issue which concerns or involves American government agencies (ie. drug regulations, feed and supplement labels, or the slaughter industry).  The whole regulatory situation in the US, with so many things under state jurisdiction rather than national — and thus wildly different from state to state — makes me absolutely postal.

I’m nearly as unenthused about doing pieces about Canadian regulatory issues, but at least I can usually identify a ministry or organization as a likely starting place.  Fuggeddaboutit in the US of A.

3. Fly Control.  Again, this is a topic that makes the rounds at the beginning of every summer, and it is just mind-numbingly stupifying to write about.  And to read about too.  I can tell you all about the relative toxicities of various pyrethroid compounds, and discuss the efficacy of supposedly natural alternatives like apple cider vinegar and (I kid you not) Avon Skin-So-Soft, but really, I’d rather not.

4. Trailering.  By this I mean, the methods and mechanics of moving horses from one place to another over asphalt.  I have discussed health issues.  Regulatory (ugh) issues.  How to inspect your trailer for safety.  How to select the right towing vehicle.  Just run me over with a diesel dually next time instead of making me rehash it all again.

Et vous, gentle reader?  If you are the type who peruses horse magazines, which topics do you find irretrievably old and tired and would rather not see again in your lifetime?  I promise I’ll stop writing about them immediately.

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Putting Myself Out There

Had a sobering realization today:  I am better at Internet dating than I am at job hunting.

Well there’s a yikes.

Now I guess I say I am better at the internet dating thing because at least when I was doing that, I got nibbles.  Oh, stop being smut-tastic.  In this instance I am using “nibbles” in a purely innocuous, expression-of-interest way.  Though of course there were some (mostly fairly distasteful) come-ons as well.

A Brief History of my Internet Dating Phase:  I spent a year working in Bermuda, as a riding school manager, back in 1995.  Loooove the island, don’t recommend the work experience, but maybe that was just my usual luck, working for a prize asshat as I was.  Anyway.  I was seeing someone while I was being all tan and islandy and staying up all night clubbing (whoa, was that ever me?) and zipping around Bermuda on my moped, but he was hung up on a mousy former girlfriend, and besides, he smoked and was eventually going to return to Pittsburgh, so inevitably it fizzled when my job soured (read:  I got royally screwed over) and I had to return to the Great White North in a state of great indignation.

Neil, if you’re out there, you probably still have a very sexy voice, though.  (Hey, it’s my blog, I can do gratuitous shout-outs to exes I don’t really want to hear from, if I wanna. So there.)

Self-esteem-wise, this was not one of my more sparkling chapters.  Took me a while to regroup.  Okay, eight years.  (Less from Neil than from the whole demoralizing work experience.)  But eventually I decided to get back on that figurative horse.

Takes me a lot less time to get back on a real horse, btw, provided I’m not so busted up that I have to call myself an ambulance, which has happened once.

Here’s the thing about being ready to put yourself Out There:  if you live on a farm in the middle of  … well, not on the mass transit lines, anyway … and you work from home, you’re really not going to encounter a lot of Appropriate Eligibles, now are you. The only single, straight men I tended to run into wore John Deere caps and were picking up 20 bags of turkey starter at the feed store.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but in my experience these fine specimens usually didn’t consider horses ‘real’ farming, didn’t share a whole lot of my other interests, and were mainly looking for someone to help them slaughter a few steers come fall.  Gosh, that sounds swell, but I’m pretty sure I have to be in Borneo that week for a gallery opening ….

And men who go everywhere in baseball caps are something of a pet peeve of mine anyway.  Geez, give the hat a rest and wash your damn hair.

In case you’re going to suggest horse shows as a potential hunting ground, I will confirm that yes, there are men there, but that they are generally (and by generally, I mean to say ‘overwhelmingly’) not straight.  Love ’em, but am completely cognizant that they are not volunteering to come home with me.

So of course the logical option was the slightly sordid world of internet dating.  (Does it still have that aura of ickiness, or is it completely respectable these days?)

There are a lot of profiles to wade through on internet dating sites.  It’s like job-hunting, but infinitely weirder.  You soon learn to recognize the red flags:  photos clearly taken in 1974, illiteracy (oh, instant turn-off for little grammar Nazi me), hideous cliches (where are all these people taking the long walks on beaches? I lived on an island renowned for its beaches for an entire year and there should have been fucking armies of these guys marching up and down on the pink sand if these profiles are to be believed).

Also worth avoiding:  those with profile names like “Sphincter”.  (No, tragically, I am not kidding.)

I got considerable amusement value out of dipping my virtual toes into the “Encounters” section of Lavalife.  For the uninitiated, Lavalife — at least as of six or seven years ago, I haven’t checked more recently than that, I swear — was divided into a sanitized and mind-crushingly dull “hi, I just want to be pen-friends because I have High Moral Standards” section where there were crickets chirping instead of men, a middle-of-the-road “looking for love that would probably include some eventual consensual groping” section, and a “zipless fuck” section where the men descended like lampreys should any woman, real or imagined, peek around the doorframe on the instant chat.  Needless to say, this can be a hoot if you’re in the frame of mind to see just how pathetic and cliched they can get … and oh, boy, can they.  I used to re-write my profile in the Encounters corral about once a week, each time stretching the boundaries of slutty credibility a little further, and no male ever called me on it.  Not a productive exercise as far as finding a legit squeeze, admittedly, but certainly an interesting window into humanity’s baser qualities …

Mostly, I think you have to approach internet dating the way you do porta-potties at horse shows.  Nasty and unpleasant, but better than nothing.  Just hold your breath, get in and get out as quickly as you can, and whatever you do, don’t look down.

Choosing the right dating site is half the battle, I suspect, but for me it was mostly about not having to cough up a credit card number.  Some are clearly over-hyped; I joined the legions who were rejected by eHarmony, for example (seriously, Google it — 157,000 results; I think it’s a badge of honour, honestly) because I was “not spiritual enough”.  (Oh, apparently you have to believe in a bearded white guy in the clouds in order to believe in a meaningful connection on earth.  Silly me, I’ll get right on that.)

Others just didn’t seem to have much turnover … the same flaccid (and yes, you caught me, you clever reader, I’m using the word deliberately) profiles were there, month after month after month, and I just knew the site needed to be renamed PlentyOfSpaceInMyMom’sBasement.com.

I certainly did encounter some players in the Lavalife years.  One of whom I outed to several of his other ‘connections’ when I discovered he’d been lying about all sorts o’ important stuff including his marital status and whether he’d been HIV tested.  Do NOT mess with me, fellas.  (Lest you think me impertinent, every single woman I contacted thanked me for the heads-up on this knob.)

Another who couldn’t even sustain the most banal kind of small-talk during a ‘meet for drinks’ at a sports bar clearly chosen more for its big-screen display of the Leafs losing, than for my enjoyment, but was genuinely gobsmacked when I didn’t leap at his invitation to come home with him.

And one who thought an appropriate first date would be for me to get in a van with him and drive around the deserted roads of a nearby provincial park, well after dark, until he found a suitable place to dump the body.

But you know what?  I did find a good guy there eventually.  Okay, flawed, but hey, I’m a smidge quirky myself in addition to being over 20 and not a size zero, so, you know, I make allowances.  He’s good enough that we’re still together nearly six years later, and I deleted my profile and Lavalife finally stopped badgering me to come back a couple years later.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that because I didn’t really tell him I was going to be writing about this and I don’t know if his mother knows we met online.

Given that, I have to say I’m more successful at internet dating than I am at job-hunting, because in the past three years I have sent out thousands of resumes and managed only a handful of interviews, and no lasting matches.  Even though I probably come across as a lot more sane and capable on a resume than I did on a dating profile, and it really shouldn’t bloody matter that I’m not a size zero and it should be a plus that I’m over 20.  Right?  (Hmm.  The crickets are back.)

I even got rejected the other day by a resume-compilation/headhunter service to which I’d been given (supposedly) a 30-day free trial thanks to membership in a LinkedIn group.  Spent all that time inputting my resume only to have it spat back out at me.

So what was it about internet dating that I did better?  This is something to ponder.  Questions, comments, thoughts, concerns?

 

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Dear Editor: Seven Things Freelancers Want to Get Off Their Chests

Sometimes I feel like a three dollar hooker.

By which I mean the lowly freelancer still doesn’t get a whole lotta respect in this mean ol’ world.  And it’s not just a matter of having no dental plan.  (Mercifully, I am Canadian, so at least I have basic health coverage … I really feel for my American counterparts who are forking over 3/4 of their income every month for health insurance!)

There’s this vast, yawning gulf in perspective on the publishing industry, depending on which side of the editor’s desk you’re observing it from.  Funnily enough, most freelancers, including myself, have spent some time as editors, so I like to think we’ve got a fairly balanced viewpoint of the priorities of each job.  The converse, however, is not always true —  not all editors have spent time as freelancers.

Many years ago, I started a little e-mail chatlist for freelance writers and photographers who work in my little niche, the ‘nag mags’.  I was just trying to develop a community of similarly occupied people who could compare notes on the markets for whom they were writing, share story ideas and sources, maybe kvetch a little.  Freelancing of any sort can be a very isolating thing, toiling away in obscurity as all are in our various versions of home office.  The chatlist, as Mesozoic as it was, took off, and it’s still alive and just as Mesozoic (technologically speaking) today.  I like to think it serves a purpose, beyond giving me egoboo as its ‘listgoddess’.

But oh my, you should have seen the knickers twisting and the hands wringing, when some of the horse mag editors got wind of the fact that the freelancers were talking amongst themselves!

The horror.  The horror.

Somehow, I was instantly cast as Norma Rae, rabble-rousing in a factory.  Good lord (thought the terrified editors), if we let them compare notes, we can’t divide and conquer anymore!  It’ll get out when we take months to pay someone.  When we steal a story idea and assign it to someone in-house.  When we forget to assign something and then expect one of our little factory minions to churn out a brilliant 2000 word feature on a 48-hour turnaround with no additional compensation.    When we send out a completely draconian contract that requires writers to sign away rights they hadn’t even conceived of yet.

Well, yes, that was sort of the point.

Needless to say, assignments for me were rather thin there for a while.

But eventually the editors got used to the idea.  And got over themselves.  Everyone had to come to grips with the fact that this whole Interwebz thing was making it much easier for people to converse.  I don’t really get frozen out anymore over it … most of these same editors probably assume the chatlist is long dead by now.  (It isn’t, but it’s invitation only, so if you’re a freelancer who’s genuinely interested, leave me a comment and I’ll e-mail you details.)

Oh, and btw, the idea of freelancers unionizing does come up regularly, and there are organizations out there, but unfortunately none of them really has the clout they would like to have, so they haven’t really made much headway on behalf of the really struggling demographic like myself, which can’t afford the annual dues.

Yup, pay them pathetically enough and you can keep ’em under your boot-heels indefinitely.

Now, to be fair, it’s often not the editors who are really to blame when freelancers get a raw deal.  The edict usually comes from further up the food chain, and the editor just gets to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Still, when it comes to freelancing in the 21st century, there are a bunch of things we freelancers would like editors and/or publishers to know.

(Here comes the crowdsourcing part. I asked for contributions from my fellow freelancers for this, so editors, please don’t take these as personal attacks on my part, but as constructive and deferential commentary from freelancers at large!)

1. If you can’t pay well, then at least pay quickly.  Believe it or not, I’ve got biiiiig vet bills, just like you.  POA, or payment on acceptance — meaning that once the writer submits the article, and a cursory glance has determined that it isn’t irretrievable rubbish and has the potential to be published, the writer is sent a cheque for a previously-agreed-upon amount — used to be the industry norm.  But increasingly — and especially, for some unfathomable reason, within the horse magazine niche — it’s now POP, or payment on publication.  Which can be months and months and bloody months after you’ve done the research, interviewed the sources, transcribed the tapes, written and edited the piece, chopped 650 words off it because it was too long (um, maybe that’s just me), and sent it out.

Which essentially means that the magazine has your work in its hot little hands, interest-free, for yonks.  Which, frankly, Ontario Hydro doesn’t understand, even when I try to explain it to them in words of one syllable or less.

When the pay rates keep plunging, POP is really adding insult to injury, folks.  I understand that budgets get slashed and that sometimes your hands are tied and you’re only hanging onto your own job by the slimmest of threads.  But listen, if you’re only able to offer some paltry amount for my blood, sweat, and tears, you’ll soften the blow considerably if you can hustle that cheque into the mail (or my PayPal account) just as quickly as the accounting department’s little legs can manage it.  My cel phone and internet providers and all my other utilities, thank you.

2. It is not easier to “write short”.  Several times in the past few years, I’ve received breezy e-mails from editors, announcing that their publication is reducing the wordcount for their feature articles to approximately half what it used to be … and yet they’re still willing to pay me 2/3 of what I used to get.  Like this is doing me some big fat favour or something.  Like it’s going to save me so much time and work.

Writing short is not easier, especially when (as is almost invariably the case) my gentle editor still expects me to include just as many quotes from just as many experts, and thoroughly cover just as many thorny aspects of whatever the topic du jour might be.  Writing short just means I have to do that much more machete-ing of copy once I have the framework down.  And when I do that, I risk having to eliminate something that’s crucial to the subject and also really interesting, and then, sometimes, being told to shoehorn it back in there somehow (without increasing the wordcount!).

I once had an editor ask me to cover a week-long international showjumping tournament at Spruce Meadows in 600 words.  Not one class — the entire tournament, which if I recall correctly included at least 14 big-news classes.  And then he complained that my copy didn’t “sing”.  Sing?  With that wordcount I could barely manage to list the names of the winners in point form.

Writing short, writing ‘tight’, is a skill that not all writers have.  It’s something I continuously strive towards, and I’m a lot better at it than I used to be (this blog notwithstanding).  But c’mon, peeps, don’t be trying to spin it like it’s some great big Sisyphean boulder off my back to have less space in which to express myself.

3.  When I bail you out of a tight spot by generating fabulous copy on a ridiculously short deadline, at least have the class to acknowledge that I saved your ass.

Or as one of my compatriots put it, “Your publishing / editorial mismanagement is not my problem!  WHY would you call me on Friday with an offer of a project, only to tell me it’s needed on Monday? Your editorial calendars are set months in advance. What happened? Someone let you down? You know I’m reliable and will get it done so you call me? What’s the incentive?  None.  Your rates are draconian and your attitude simultaneously arrogant and demeaning. I’m doing YOU a favour! At least offer me a slight ’emergency’ bonus.”

4. Hellllooooo?  “Editors who don’t have the decent common courtesy to at least respond to the read request when you send in an article or photo — that’s a pet peeve.  They expect us to have stuff in on or before deadline, then can’t even have the decency to let us know they received it.  I only have two editors who faithfully respond back, and it is so nice not to have to wonder if the thing made it or not.  It’s just bad manners and makes the person sending the article feel unappreciated.  I meet their requirements; can’t they at least have the decency to acknowledge me?  All they have to do is push a button.” — a fellow freelancer (Oh, we are legion, people … and apparently, we’re pissed!)

5. Identity theft is a crime … or at the very least, bad form.   “When you copy-edit my work, I would appreciate it if you would not change my style of writing quite so radically.  You asked me to write it, but now it reads like you were the author.  I also don’t appreciate it when you make changes that make the copy grammatically incorrect.  I’m not complaining about issues that might be right on the line or could be interpreted in different ways … I’m talking about making changes I learned not to do in Journalism 101.”  — a victim of butchered copy (see machete, above).

It’s true that one has to have a thick skin when one is a writer.  Some editing is inevitable, and you can’t be joined at the hip with every precious bon mot you generate in a Word doc.  But there’s editing, and then there’s the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.  When you don’t recognize a single sentence in the published copy as your own, you know you’re not dealing with an editor, but a control freak.

 6. Please stop trying to rob me blind with rights-grabbing contracts.  I know, I know, these don’t get generated at the editor’s desk.  They’re handed down from some weasely little lawyer at the behest of a bean counter in a corner office.  But it’s the editor who mails it out, accompanied by another breezy message which thanks me (I kid you not, I actually received this) for helping their company to “thrive”.

Funny how I end up feeling like you’re thriving at my expense when you send out a contract which requires me to sign away not only my right to get paid if you decide to use my material in six different magazines instead of the one we discussed, but also my right to make a little extra income from my work in alternate formats existing or not even imagined yet, forever and ever amen.  Oh, and then there’s that liability clause which asks me to assume all responsibility for your edited copy, and the little “moral rights” thing.

From the Writer’s Union of Canada: “Stay away from or amend contracts that ask you to waive (i.e., give up) your moral rights. Waiving moral rights permits a publisher to make substantial changes to your work, even to your viewpoint, or to alter the authorship credit by publishing it anonymously or under someone else’s name.”

“The biggest thing is to stop grabbing rights that a) they’ll never use, and b) prevent us from re-selling or making additional income from our work. It is a total piss off.” — another compatriot of mine.

Gawd, we’re a bunch of ungrateful wretches, aren’t we?

7.  Make up your mind.  “Be clear about what you want when you make the assignment, and ensure that you and the freelancer are on the same page. It is wildly frustrating to have an editor ask for rewrites not because the story is lacking per se, but because his/her vision of the story is “evolving” as you go along.” — yet another comrade, who when acting as an editor, strives for clarity.

Thanks to Simon Chadwick, whose cartoons can be found at http://www.ceratopia.co.uk

And at this point, I’m going to save further constructive criticism for a future post.  I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself blackballed by at least a dozen of my regular markets for this one.  Editors, after all, don’t have the thick skins freelancers do …

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Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget

Reconnecting with travel writing has brought home to me just what a nasty, mean, cheap little life I’ve been leading.

Not that I have high expectations.  I’m a barn rat, after all — wind, rain, exceptionally unglamourous (and oft-times unflattering) clothing, all manners of filth, and wheelbarrows full of shit and shavings have all been a life choice for me.

I had a solid middle-class upbringing.  Wasn’t deprived of very much (although my parents didn’t exactly encourage my riding career and forbade me to get a horse of my own until I was 16 and could drive myself to the barn — I thought it was severe deprivation at the time but you’ll be ecstatic to know, Mom and Dad, that I Get It now).  I was encouraged to work to pay for my passions, if only by digging dandelions or flinging the Globe and Mail onto people’s lawns at some ungodly hour of the morning … and we had vacations, generally of the Holiday Inn rather than Hilton variety.

The truth has been whacking us all upside the head for decades now, and still neither my generation nor my parents’ can quite wrap our gray matter around the fact that I (and my generational compatriots, for the most part) are never going to achieve the financial or social status our parents found relatively easily, by getting degrees, landing jobs, doing those jobs for three to four decades and then retiring to a modest, but adequate pension and a great, wallowing RV that gets 50 yards to the gallon.  That dog no longer hunts.

And yeah, I didn’t exactly help myself by continually bucking trends.  Everyone else got an MBA.  I had to pursue microbiology, of all things (and that was a second choice when it turned out that astrophysics and I weren’t as compatible as I’d hoped).

Hey, at least I had the foresight not to go after that BFA Music Theatre degree.  Couldn’t see that feeding the horses for any length of time …

But I did end up in journalism, and seriously, that’s just about as practical.  Way to go, girl.

I can’t say it’s inevitable that you develop a bit of a disconnect between your income and your appreciation for the finer things, when you’re raised by academics, because my brother had essentially the same upbringing and (unless this has recently changed and he has failed to disclose it) he has absolutely no interest in going to museums or the theatre, much less the ballet.  Culture just didn’t stick with him, or if it did, it was totally outranked and ground into the dirt by football and hockey.

Maybe that’s not so much upbringing as testosterone, come to think of it.

Me?  Love me a good museum.  Practically grew up in an art gallery.  Would spend my last dime on a ticket to a musical.  (Have, on occasion.)  Yearn hopelessly after a nice ballet, tickets for which have ascended into an unreachable (for me) stratosphere.  And I don’t really see the point of having a totally mediocre and uninspiring restaurant meal at, say, Swiss Chalet, when for a dollar or two more (if you’re clever) you can find a little hole-in-the-wall bistro which serves up the most astonishing phyllo pastry fennel arugula seabream confit confection, with foam (or is foam declasse now?), that you’ve ever had dancing on your tongue.

Life, as they say, is too short to drink cheap wine.

The gulf between my hankerings and my budget, these days, is ever-widening, I fear.  A global warming thing, perhaps?  (I have this vision of being one of those hapless polar bears, floating on a little patch of ice in an endless, melting arctic sea.)  More likely, an economic downturn thing, with me circling the drain perhaps just a wee bit closer to the hole than most people.

Gradually, I have been forced to pare away all the little joys of life.  Eating out.  Movies.  Vacations.  Satellite TV (I get by with an antenna these days).  The National Ballet keeps calling, the merciless bastards, asking in the sweetest British dulcet tones whether I would like orchestra seats for Giselle.  Or better yet, a season subscription, which is such a great deal and allows you to exchange your tickets for a different evening should your schedule change, all to accommodate the modern ballet patron.  Arrrrgghh.

Yes, I would like orchestra seats for Giselle please.  My birthday’s coming up … just tuck a couple into an envelope for me, won’t you darling?

No?  Then at least do me a solid and stop tormenting me by calling?

Though a host of horoscopes keep promising me that things are going to get Ever So Much Better Really Really Soon (I’m sure the astrological forecast on the day of my death will be particularly rosy, and I am tempted to leave instructions to etch it on my tombstone), the financial angst that comes with freelancing seems to have taken up permanent residency in my squishy bits.  It knots my intestines all my waking hours and keeps me up at night.  (Don’t ask what time of the morning I am writing this damn thing.)

This past week, I was briefly able to leave it behind, or at least loosen the knots just a smidge, thanks to the exceptionally kind folks at Charlevoix Tourism, who invited me on one of their midwinter press junkets to experience that region of Quebec.  I’m not going to get into the specifics of the trip because that’s for the paying customers, i.e. the magazines and websites who I hope will be fascinated by my adventures, and gobsmacked by the sheer street cred I earned by peeling off a staggering number of layers to squat and pee bare-assed in a blizzard (behind a spruce, my feeble attempt at privacy).  This was an act of desperation, I assure you, and has nothing to do with this whole Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget theme … but I mean, what editor could resist a story like that?  Seriously.

I promise I’ll post links (um, not to the peeing specifically, because I rather hope that was not caught on film).  Update:  you have a link! — ed.

As I’ve mentioned previously (and I know you read all of my blog posts religiously), I am not one of the big players in travel writing, so to get this invite was a very pleasant surprise.  Do NOT get me wrong, because these FAM trips are so, so, so not a vacation when you’re taking notes and shooting JPG+RAW and hoping the damn light will cooperate and that your camera sensor won’t freeze in the blizzard, and setting up shots and asking questions of the proprietors and collecting press kits and such … but they still are such a wonderful change from regular life at the home office.

There were very nice hotels.  With turn-down service and little treats on the pillows, and actual big fluffy towels that actually dry you.  Given that my standard hotel these days, when I am forced to use one, is more of the Super Eight variety or worse, a king-sized bed with a goose-down duvet almost borders on the ridiculous, but by gawd, I’m gonna sleep in it anyway.  And given that I usually tote my own towel to these Super Eights because the ones they provide are several lightyears beyond parsimonious and useless, it was the height of luxury not to have to put a nasty, damp towel back in my suitcase.

And there was food.  OMG there was food.  Again, without blowing my wad on the story here, Charlevoix, Quebec is an undiscovered foodie paradise.  Venison carpaccio.  Quite possibly the best onion soup gratinee I have ever picked out of my teeth.  Amuse-bouches of wild mushrooms on phyllo pastry (you might have noticed a certain obsession with phyllo pastry … truth is, I’ll eat just about anything if it comes on, or in, phyllo).  Tender, tender escargot swimming in garlic butter and cream.  And wapiti (that’s elk) Wellington (ooh, more pastry). Maple sugar breakfast crepes.  Duck foie gras.  Artisanal cheeses, and of course proper croissants with proper butter.

I vowed to myself to revel in the experience as fully as I could and eat everything that was put in front of me, even stuff I normally don’t like — and I did, and all of it was wonderful.

And I put on four pounds in six days, but WTF.

So now it’s back to the afore-pictured Kraft Dinner, angsting about all my unpaid bills, and doing incantations at the mailbox every day, hoping a cheque will arrive which will forestall my landlord evicting me.

But I did bring home a little slab of incredible sheeps’ milk blue cheese, and a tiny pot of the most exquisite strawberry jam with cinnamon in it.  Which might just get me through.

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