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 “writing”

This is Why Faith is a Bad Thing …

Back in February of this year, I blogged about a PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada), Toronto chapter, seminar I’d attended, about journalistic opportunities in “new media“.

Among the speakers was Wilf Dinnick, who presented to a room full of freelancers in various stages of bewilderment, desperation, and angst about the state of their careers, a strong and irrepressibly optimistic case for embracing markets such as OpenFile, which he founded and edited.

In late September, OpenFile ceased publication.  (If you click the above link, you’ll see the most recent stories were posted September 28, at least as of the moment I posted this.)

And guess what?  A whole bunch of freelancers haven’t been paid, and Wilf has stopped communicating with them.

I wonder if it’s too late to apprentice as a ditch-digger or something.

Here are the gory details, including  the open letter written to OpenFile by six Montreal-based contributors who would really like some answers, please:

http://www.thestoryboard.ca/openfile-freelancers-post-open-letter-to-wilf-dinnick/

http://journomel.com/2012/11/12/freelancers-write-open-letter-to-openfile-for-payment-dinnick-responds/

http://reopenfile.tumblr.com/

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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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Knackered

I’ve been neglecting my faithful blog readers this month, and would like to offer heartfelt apologies to both of you.

The reason is simple enough:  I’ve been useless.

Such is the nature of the writing biz these days – for me, at least – that I have stooped (and stooped and stooped) to a relatively humiliating alternative in an effort to help pay the rent.  I’ve been mucking stalls at two different local barns. And by that I mean, in addition to my own.

I could put an officious spin on this and say I have taken on positions as a barn manager.  But let’s not obfuscate.  I’m shovelling shit.  (Okay, and throwing hay bales around, scrubbing water buckets, sweeping floors, and, in the case of one of the two barns, spending quite a lot of time playing Molly Maid with a swiffer.)

Lots of horse-crazy teenagers shovel shit in exchange for being in proximity with the producers of said product.  For pocket money, in exchange for riding lessons, to help work off the board for their own horse.  It’s something of a rite of passage, and I did my share of it in my misspent youth.  For a winter or two in my undergrad years, I groomed four horses for a fairly prominent trainer at Windsor Raceway.  Grooming Standardbreds (and I’m assuming here that this hasn’t changed much in the quarter century since I was so employed) entails mucking stalls, grooming the horses, harnessing them for jogging and then unharnessing them afterwards, giving them baths, wrapping legs and/or blanketing, and lots and lots of cleaning harness and sweeping floors.  (All of which is ever so much more fun when it’s -30 C.)

I hate sweeping floors.  But hey, it’s part of the gig.

Doing this sort of thing does instil a certain work ethic.  Which is something a lot of youth are sadly short on – so it’s a good thing.  It also cements a sense of responsibility for the living things for which you’re caring, and that’s invaluable.  But it also creates something that the rest of the world views as something of an imbalance.  The average horseperson may be an indifferent housekeeper who can happily look the other way at clumps of mud on the floor, tufts of equine, canine, and feline fur on the furniture, piles of stinky saddle pads and blankets and a general eau du cheval (consisting of equal parts equine and human sweat, a hint of ammonia, and the rather more pleasant base notes of leather and saddle soap) on, well, everything … but that same ambivalent domestic engineer is more than likely to hold her barn to a far higher standard.  I wouldn’t necessarily say you should eat off the floor of most barns … but you probably could, at least before the horses come back inside for the night.

I learned a long time ago that there’s no point in doing a half-assed job of any of this, because somehow, with horses, if you do you just end up with five times as much work the next day.  And it’s not like horses give you a day off from shovelling shit.  They are herbivorous fibre-consumers.  They pretty much dedicate themselves to producing the stuff like it was their life’s work.

Still, I had kind of hoped that I had reached a point in my life where any stall-mucking I did was by choice, not by profession.  Not exactly for pleasure, I guess, but as part of the package of owning my own horses, part of what I signed on for by having the darling critters in my backyard instead of at some posh boarding stable.

But here I am, with a couple of degrees and a little handful of journalism awards, a bit of (ahem) big-fish-small-pond street cred, not to mention my national coaching certification, and a background in public relations, marketing, editing, and equine nutrition … and I am wielding a muck fork six mornings a week to help make ends meet.

The vagaries of job-hunting have become so baffling that I’ve pretty much thrown down my weapons in utter defeat.  A couple of months ago, for example, the Ontario Equestrian Federation advertised that it was looking for a communications coordinator.  I ask you, in all seriousness, how could I be any more qualified for that??   It wasn’t a matter of my having outrageous salary expectations or blowing the interview …. I didn’t even get an interview.  Or acknowledgement of any description, come to that.  I can only assume — since I am assured by someone in the know that it was a Real Job, not one filled internally nor cancelled due to budget cuts — that I must have inadvertently pissed off someone at the OEF, perhaps in a past life since I cannot seem to recall such an incident in this one.

If I wasn’t such a goshdarn cockeyed optimist, I might just find it deflating.

The worst of the mucking thing is that I am sooooooo not a morning person.  Never have been.  Totally screwed up circadian rhythms.  Which my own horses understand completely.

The horses at my two other barns, apparently, not so much.  They all expect me to show up at a truly ungodly hour of the morning.  It’s bloody killing me.

I have never really understood why horsepeople seem to think horses need to be fed breakfast in the pitch-black of pre-dawn.  It’s just one of those idiotic, hideous, fucktarded traditions.  (Or is that just me?)  Admittedly, at this time of year, when the humidity makes both humans and horses feel like they’re dog-paddling breathlessly through the atmosphere, there’s an argument to be made both for turning the beasties out in their paddocks early, while the temps are still relatively humane, and for getting the most backbreaking of the barn chores out of the way then, too … but my body and my brain still protest about getting up at an hour more appropriate for a morning-show radio host.  I am not adjusting well.

It might have something to do with my being 49, I ‘spose….

I do know that being 49 has everything to do with the fact that, by the time I am finished with the morning barn chores at either barn (I do one place on weekdays, the other on weekends), I am pretty much finished, period.

As in knackered.  Fried.  Trashed.  Destroyed.  Like tits on a bull for the rest of the day.  Unable either to shit or wind my watch.  About as helpful as a screen door on a submarine.  Akin to a hedgehog in a balloon factory.

As evidenced by my exceedingly feeble and pathetic collection of euphemisms here.

It’s a problem, since mucking stalls (surprise!) doesn’t actually pay all that brilliantly.  It’s only morning work, and the theory is that I then have the rest of the day to meet all my writing obligations, generate new assignments, and keep up with all the other freelance stuff that, combined with the grunt work, will pay my rent.  Great theory.  But I’m finding the execution is … well, something of a struggle.

When I get home, I need to have a nap.  Then I try to rally enough to have a shower or otherwise scrape off the filth, do yet another load of reeking laundry, and answer some e-mail. Most days, that’s about as far as I get.

I am not doing terribly well in terms of completing any of the paid writing.  Much less the blog.  Which of course is weighing rather heavily on the brain.  I’m hoping I will adapt.  (Of course, I am also hoping that all of these extra trips to the manure pile will lead to some excess poundage effortlessly melting off my frame, and tragically, that doesn’t seem to be materializing either.)

Recently, the Canadian government announced some revisions to the employment insurance (EI) program (formerly the unemployment insurance, or UI, program, but hey, that was such a downer).  It decreed that you now could not just wait to accept a job which was in your field and for which you were qualified (at least not while you were collecting pogy). You had to take just about anything that came along, even if you were over-qualified (or completely unqualified), massively underpaid, and totally disrespected.  Critics argued that this would just create a downward spiral in employment, with each succeeding position being a little meaner, a little more demoralizing, a lot less well-paid, until all of us were working in pointless, dead-end positions with zero benefits and miserable hours, and all 30 million of us opted to fling ourselves off bridges en masse.

Somehow I’ve managed to put myself in a similar death spiral.  It’s not like I don’t appreciate the value of honest, necessary work.  It’s not that I don’t like being in barns … clearly I do.  It’s not that I’m afraid of callused hands, an aching back, filthy hair matted to my head like steel wool, a farmer tan, or arms all scratched up to ratshit by slinging hay bales.  Nope.

I guess I just figured at this point in my life that I’d already paid my dues with pitchfork, shovel, and broom.  That I’d moved past having to do that stuff for other people’s horses.  And I’m having a bit of a hard time getting over myself.

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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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Book Review: Backyard Horse Tales: Sox, by Jackie Anton

Backyard Horse Tales: Sox (2nd edition) invites young readers into the high-profile world of competitive reining, and it is there that author and illustrator Jackie Anton finds her comfort zone, describing in vivid detail the challenges that face horse and rider in the show pen.

The hero of the tale is Sox, a Quarter Horse foal who is born with a disfigured leg, and overcomes his disability to excel as a reining horse.  Sox and his mother, Sandy, communicate to each other and to the reader, Black Beauty style, speaking in the first person.  Anton uses this conceit to describe Sox’s equine view of the world, but it’s a little self-conscious, particularly when she uses Sox’s voice to introduce the story’s human characters.

More authentic is the addition of 11-year-old Emma, the proverbial girl next door who is struggling with her own challenges.   When Emma’s mother joins the military and is deployed to Iraq, Emma must relocate to small-town America to live with her grandmother.  Emma’s diary entries give us some poignant insight into her feelings of isolation and her worry about her mother – but here, too, there is some awkwardness when we learn that Emma has been diagnosed with dyslexia.  I’m not dyslexic myself, but I would imagine that a dyslexic character might not find it easy to generate the articulate diary entries we read; she would likely choose to express herself in another fashion.

Sox and Emma come together as they grow and mature, though on the whole, I would have liked to have read more about how they overcame their challenges.  Sox’s contracted-tendon issue appears to resolve more or less on its own, and Emma’s dyslexia doesn’t seem to be much of an issue either.  (Nor does her loneliness last forever, as her mother returns safe and sound from Iraq mid-way through the book.)  Still, it’s clear that each needs the other and learns from the other as they grow from children to adults – and as Emma’s equestrian education at the farm next door progresses, she moves from riding Sox’s experienced and wise mother, to the young and cheeky Sox himself.  (Thumbs up for this valuable message to young readers that green horse + green rider is not a healthy equation.) 

Anton’s background as a rider and horsewoman shines through in the text of “Sox” — her hero is based on her own reining horse, Two Scooten Sox, who was lost to colic in 2009 — and both teens and adults will enjoy being immersed in the precision world of reining competition.  Horse-crazy young readers will love the descriptions of county fairs and horse shows, and kids of all persuasions will find the episode in which a tornado strikes at a horse show, particularly gripping.

At times, the tale of Sox feels like a story in search of an ending … but when the conclusion does come, it’s eminently satisfying.

About the author:
Jackie Anton writes the family friendly series “Backyard Horse Tales” (readers 8 to adult).  Sox 2nd Edition expands Sox and Emma’s story, and has a brand new ending. This version is enjoying excellent early reviews.  #2, “Frosty and the Nightstalker” will be out by fall of 2012. “Prelude: Backyard Horse Tales 3: Don’t Call Me Love” is an e-book available on smashwords.com and amazon.com.
Anton also pens romance books, under the pseudonym J.M. Anton. “Fateful Waters” will be an e-book in April, and in print by late summer 2012.

Backyard Horse Tales:  Sox is self-published and is available in both print and e-book editions.  Purchase Sox 2nd Edition at www.backyardhorsetales.com, or at Back to the Books online store, and enjoy free shipping.  

The first five readers to purchase Sox, second edition before the end of this Blog Tour will receive a free copy of Backyard Horse Tales 2: Frosty and the Nightstalker. Purchases will be verified with resellers Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and a host of online retailers. Purchase an e-book and you will receive an e-book!  Print editions of Frosty’s Tale will be autographed before they are shipped.

More about Jackie Anton here:

Sliding Stop

Sliding Stop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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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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Welcome to the Press Tent

Normally, on this particular week of the year, I would be feeling a little like I’d been run over by a herd of rampaging wildebeest.  That’s because this is normally the day after I would have gotten home from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, at the Horse Park in Lexington.  It’s an annual pilgrimage, except that due to other commitments (and a serious shortage of funds) I didn’t make it this year.

Not that I’m not still running on a sleep deficit and generally feeling like death warmed over … it’s just that I don’t have any unpacking to do.

I do the 10- or 11-hour trek  to Kentucky every year for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s usually because I have scraped up some assignments to write about it and/or submit photographs.  Being of a generally destitute demeanour, I’m not sure I’d go if I had to pay $30 (or whatever it is, these days) to get in the gate, but if I have a press pass, as I have had for the past 20 years or so, that makes it a smidge more affordable.

Secondly, despite the fact that going south on I75 through Ohio is one of the most stultifying stretches of driving in the world (and that includes the notoriously soporific Hwy 401 between London and Windsor, a drive I have done many, many, many, many thousands of times), it all begins to improve as you approach Cincinnatti.  The endless stretches of flat, nothing farmland give way to rolling hills and blooming redbud trees along the highway …and your snow-numbed Canadian brain goes, “Yes!  Spring!  Foliage!  Signs of life!”

It can be very refreshing to see a bit of green, a couple of weeks early.

Tragically, though, I no longer get to enjoy one of the legendary landmarks of I75 near Cincinnati:  The Big Butter Jesus (just typed “Big Bugger”, oops — my bad), aka Touchdown Jesus, who used to emerge like a 60 foot Lady of the Lake, from an artificial pond in front of the Solid Rock Church right by the interstate.  Jesus used to tell me I was just an hour and a half away from Lexington.  But that was before he was struck by lightning and went up in flames a few years ago, leaving behind only a macabre metal skeleton.

Heywood Banks explains in song:

(Ooh, had to edit to add:  Big Butter Jesus has his own blog!  Dayam!)

The third reason for going to what is always called just “Rolex” by its aficionados: I like eventing.  To me there is absolutely no piece of horseflesh more thrilling than an upper-level event horse, usually a big strapping, ridiculously fit Thoroughbred with veins busting out of his coat, eating up the ground  in a nice easy gallop and jumping humongously massive, diabolically evil things that don’t come down when you hit them, like it was child’s play.

I also like the horsemanship and the mindset of eventers. Even at the international level, they’re all pretty self-deprecating, down-to-earth folks.  They like to party and they know every square centimetre of their horse’s bodies better than they know their own. You can’t ride cross-country with a stick up your ass, which is probably why I would much rather interview eventers than dressage riders or showjumpers, any day of the week.

If there’s a downside to covering eventing, it’s that the sport is dangerous. As much as the high muckety-mucks of the game have toiled (and they have toiled, tirelessly) to improve course design, equipment, and the rules over the last few decades, shit still happens. Not often. But it happens. Horses get injured. Rarely, they get killed, usually by catastrophic injuries such as when Laine Ashker’s horse, Frodo Baggins, flipped over a fence a few years ago and broke his neck. And because, at the three- and four-star level it’s just about the most strenuous thing you can ask a horse to do, there’s the odd aortic rupture, too, resulting in a horse’s sudden death. It’s devastating, just devastating.

And yes, riders get hurt and killed too, though I confess it’s the horse injuries that trash me … perhaps because, although (contrary to the perspective of the great unwashed who have no background in eventing) you cannot force a horse to jump cross-country fences, and the ones that rise to this level do it for the sheer joy of doing it, at the same time you can never really sit a horse down and explain the risks to him. Riders go out on course knowing full well what obstacles lie before them, but the horses just go out trusting their riders. But damn, that’s also what makes it heroic.

Every time I do witness a crash, and get that horrible sick feeling in my stomach over it, I swear I’m never going to cover this sport again. I just can’t deal with the downside.

But I always end up coming back.

(As an aside, when a wreck does happen on course, and I’m not ridiculous miles away from it, I always try to make my way over there as quickly as I can.  Some of my fellow photographers on course have accused me of being ghoulish for doing so.  But honestly, I’m not ambulance-chasing.  When an accident happens and it’s something relatively serious, the announcers usually go all quiet.  The competition stops while the emergency personnel get to work, and there’s no blow-by-blow update over the loudspeaker.  The longer the silence drags on, the more ominous it all becomes.  And because I am generally writing about the event as well as taking photos, I know I will eventually have to report on what happened.  There will be an official FEI press release about it at the end of the day, but generally these are so vague as to be useless.  So I would rather see firsthand what the situation is, as much as it makes me feel ill, than have to report based on rumour and hearsay.  And I do take pictures, but I NEVER publish those.  They are for my own information only.  Just in case you were wondering.)

Now it occurred to me that some (both?) of my gentle readers might not have experienced what, to me, has become normalcy:  the slightly surreal world of the horse show press tent.  And who am I not to share my delight with the universe?

I’m sure that, depending on the sport(s) you cover, you have different levels of expectation for the facilities set up for journalists.  Those who cover Formula One racing or pro football or yachting, for example, likely get wined and dined on a regular basis, courted with swag from Nikon and Canon, and take home little sponsor’s bags full of goodies. At least that’s what we idiots who cover eventing, jealously suspect.

Equestrian sports may have a hoity-toity reputation, but the reality for horsey journalists is more about leaky wellies and muddy  jeans, plastic bags duct-taped around your camera because you forgot the fitted little raincoat at home, surviving on granola bars, coffee, and overpriced bratwurst that repeats on you all afternoon, and waddling around the back forty of a cross-country course lugging three camera bodies and six 40 kg lenses wearing every single item of clothing you brought with you because it’s suddenly -5 Celsius.

And then there’s the sunburn, the shin splints, and weighing whether you can sprint to the extremely nasty porta-loo and back with all your equipment in the three minutes between horses on course … because of course the one single horse you don’t shoot in seven hours of competition, will inevitably be the one who wins and the only one anyone wants to purchase a photo of.

Oh, the glamour!

I can see this is going to be another one of my novel-length rants, so I’m going to save the particulars of the press tent for another post in the very near future.  Meanwhile, here’s another gratuitous eventing shot.

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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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Mind Candy’s Top Blogs You Should Be Reading

I don’t normally re-blog, but I got some utterly unsolicited egoboo today courtesy of Amanda Fox, and had to share.

To whit:  “If you visit Karen’s blog and all you take from it is that there is a bunch of stuff about horses on it, you’re missing out. There is so much more to explore – and the horse stuff is good too! Karen does great book reviews, has some on the spot posts about journalism and her selections on freelancing are must read for anyone in the trade. She is witty and sharp, bites from time to time, but you’ll like it! I do, and that is why she is must read material!”

Thanks, Mandy!  (The other blogs she recommends are pretty good, too!)

(Oh, and for my gentle followers … I’m reposting this because the formatting somehow got screwed up on the original post and I lost my Wayne’s World video.  I just couldn’t cope with being without it!)

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