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 tag “horses”

THREE Things I Like About Freelancing

The Number One Tip for more blog traffic, according to 1,293 (or more) blogsperts:  Include More Numbers in your blog titles.

Number Two:  Make a lot of lists.  People like lists.

Actually this isn’t news.  It’s a tried-and-true technique for magazine articles as well.  Check out any Cosmo cover.  Or Men’s Health for that matter — the magazine which has infamously been recycling exactly the same cover teasers for years on end.  

And it’s an easy, easy way to crank out an article.   I actually feel a bit guilty doing it.  Feels like cheating.

But hey, if it keeps editors happy and generates a cheque …

The whole list thing has only become more prevalent since all of us have had to learn to write for the web.  “Humans have the attention span of a horny wombat,” we’ve been told.  “They can’t read whole sentences anymore.  Give ’em the sound bite.  Give ’em point form.”

People like point form.

I don’t really buy the idea that people are incapable of reading more than 350 words in a row anymore.  If people can slog through 2500 of my words on how to buy a compact tractor (and they assure me they have, all the way to the very end) in a magazine, then I have at least 85% confidence (see, Google?  Numbers!  You have chills, don’t you.) that they can do so on the Interwebz too.

But it really doesn’t matter whether I can convince you, gentle reader.  Got to cater to the folks handing out the meagre cheques …

So both in the spirit of practising the art of the Numerical List, giving Google naughty little tremors of pleasure … and writing something a smidge less bitter and negative, here are my Top Three Things I Like About Freelancing (with apologies to Pitching the World, one of my fave bloggers, whose concept I have blatantly stolen here under the guise of imitation being the sincerest form, yadda yadda yadda).

Number One:  I Don’t Do Office Well.

Oh, believe me, I’ve tried.  Either I’m allergic to fluorescent lights, or just claustrophobic when I’m trapped in a fabric cube, but either way, nine-to-five jobs make me feel like I’ve got fire ants crawling all over my extremities and nibbling on my bits.

There are a couple of reasons for this, I think.  First, I have screwed-up circadian rhythms (or maybe mine are the ones which are normal, and everyone else is just play-acting because they want to conform and keep their jobs and their benefits more than I do).  NOT a morning person, and often at my most productive in the wee hours of the night when all those conformist drones are tucked away in their warm, soft, cozy, ever-so-inviting (mmmm) beds.  I found out long ago that I do not thrive on nine-to-five.

Second, I have absolute contempt for office weasels, a species which seems to breed indiscriminately and proliferates in cube farm habitats.  I can’t STAND that fishbowl feeling of always having a disapproving pair of eyes on the back of my neck (or on my computer screen), trying to work out what sort of subversive activities I’m up to instead of What I’m Supposed To Be Working On.

I briefly took on a gig this past summer, doing social media for a veterinary clinic with ambitions of World Domination (hey, that’s always a benign and noble goal, right?), and whence I encountered an office weasel with a whole lotta passive-aggressive going on.   To say she enjoyed making me squirm is to understate considerably.  Clearly feeling her territory as the reigning (ahem) SM goddess was being threatened, she did her best to make my life a living hell from the moment I arrived, and it didn’t take me long to decide I wasn’t being paid nearly well enough for that crap.  I left after two months, to our evident mutual satisfaction.  Ugh.

Number Two:  I Can Go To the Dentist Without Begging for Permission

As a freelancer, I don’t need to justify my time usage to anyone but myself.  I get paid by the project, not by the hour, so whether I take  10 minutes to bloody well move cards around in a game of solitaire, while my gray matter tries to generate the particular word or phrase I’m looking for, is nobody’s business.  And I can schedule the rest of the minutiae of my life without having to count my remaining sick days, invent another funeral for my grandmother (both long dead), or grovel so I can get to the damn feed store before it closes.

Now, there’s a downside to this, which is that when you work from home, everyone thinks you’re completely free to help them move, dog-sit (I have at least made it clear that I do not human-sit), or wait for their cable guy, because really you’re just sitting around with your proverbial thumbs up your ass all day, aren’t you?

The truth is that I probably work at least twice as many hours per week as most of you lucky bastards with Real Jobs.  Probably three times as many.  Seriously, I put in some crazy-ass hours.  I work until I’ve got a product I can send out the door.  I have deadlines, so it’s not like that undergrad job I had at the university library, re-filing the card catalogue (yes, a card catalogue with actual cards — we’re talking Bayeux Tapestry era, folks) and re-shelving books, where basically anything that needed to be done today, could just as easily be done tomorrow with nary a complaint from the universe or the student body.  The whole self-motivated meet-the-deadline-or-you’re-fucked thing is not something that everyone can do.  Some people apparently need those office weasels breathing down their necks.  But I’m so much happier self-motivating, I can’t even tell you.

Number Three:  It’s Compatible with My Horsey Lifestyle, Mostly

I have horses, and they live in my backyard.  This requires that I live on a farm, which makes commuting to a Real Job something of a challenge (though by no means impossible if the right opportunity were to come along, hint hint).  They require rather more care than, say, a guinea pig or a tank of tropical fish.  (Not just blowing smoke, here — I worked in a pet shop when I was a high-school brat, and cared for everything from crickets to sulphur-crested cockatoos, which are evil, nasty creatures, and saltwater lionfish with uber-poisonous pointy spines.)  As a freelancer, I can be here to change the bandages on a gimpy beast on stall rest, and I can rescue the lot of them from rotten weather that they’re standing out in, even though they’ve got a perfectly good run-in shed that they’re too stupid to use.  I can be here to hold them for the farrier or the vet I can’t afford, too.

What I do precious little of, of course, is ride.  What with working 190 hours a week, I’m lucky to carve out enough time to muck the stalls, never mind perks like riding.  But c’est la guerre … the inclination to loathe office weasels also makes me pretty intolerant of boarding stables, where sniping and snarking often are elevated to art forms and the care is rarely up to my exacting standards.  I’ve actually had some unbelievable stuff go down at boarding stables, which will no doubt become the subject of a future rant.  With my horses at home, little control-freak me is in charge of every aspect of their day-to-day management, and everyone is a whole lot happier, especially me.

There, that’s three.  That’s all I can come up with.  The Things I Rather Dislike About Freelancing List is likely to be a little bit longer.  Fair warning.

You Say You Want an Evolution …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Blessing and a Curse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish she’d known?

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

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

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

Stupid fall.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: