On McSweeney’s, First Drafts and Putting Yourself Out There

A few weeks ago, I entered McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’s Column Contest. I love McSweeney’s in all its forms, but have never pitched there (maybe because of the insecure jackass who occasionally moves into my head). It was a fun exercise to try and come up with a column idea, as opposed to a one-off feature, because you think about things differently when your job would be to write 12-24 smart, witty posts on the same basic topic.

If you’ve ever read Internet Tendency, you know that pretty much anything goes, and I played around with ideas like “The Spiral of Silence” and “How to Go From White Trash to Eurotrash in a Single Generation.”

(Because it’s worth mentioning for the good of humanity, I digress for a moment here to talk about the Spiral of Silence.)

If you’ve never heard of the Spiral of Silence, Wikipedia explains it like this: “The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation. The assessment of one’s social environment may not always correlate with reality.”

In August, the Pew Research Center released a report showing how the spiral works in social media, and I thought it would be funny to write about the things I catch myself clamming up about. Really important hot-button issues, like whether or not Sofia Vergara’s Emmy skit was funny or sexist.

The column I settled on, however, was called “The Neighborhood.” Because I would be writing about life in my central Austin community, I thought long and hard about how to approach it without offending my friends and neighbors, but being honest and funny at the same time. In the end, I probably thought too long and hard about approach, because I was left to write the overview, first column draft, and three additional column pitches all on the day submissions were due. I wrote most of that day, and pushed “send” around 6:30pm, with my husband and daughter puttering around the kitchen trying to keep quiet while I finished.

Contest judges John Warner and Christopher Monks are masters of the mass cull, because they managed to plow through 820 submissions and announce winners within one week. That’s pretty darn amazing…as well as exceedingly kind to hopeful writers with McSweeney’s dreams. When I read in Warner’s Twitter feed that there were 820 submissions, however, I knew my half-baked column was doomed. There would only be a handful of winners, and my guess is the chosen ones had been tweaked and retweaked countless times. Mine, I discovered too late, had a typo and needed at least two more revisions to be considered “final.” Still, I think there are glimmers of good writing and compelling ideas in my submission, so hopefully I’ll find some way to use it…aside from running it below. 

“Can You Please Define McMansion?”

The neighborhood is a complex place, and neighbors are demanding relations.

Growing up, I feared that the muumuu-clad woman smoking in the carport down the street was a witch. As a college student in Austin, I lived next door to a sexy waiter/musician who eventually stole my bike, then I shared a duplex wall with a dreamy philosopher who taught me to love John Prine. In my early-twenties-cohabitating-in-an-Amsterdam-anti-squatter-flat days, swarthy Sjoerd would knock on the door each morning in his grubby underwear, wondering in his guttural accent if he could borrow the newspaper. In my newlywed Cambridge era, our fourth floor walk-up was providentially situated directly above Julia, a frail, scholarly and ethereal former nun who had been obsessively writing her beautiful and astonishing five-volume poem for more than 30 years. More recently, as a mother in East Dallas, the meth addict down the block inspired me to wave enthusiastically from the porch as well as deadbolt the door.

I felt connected to them all.

Last year, I began the awkward process of connecting with a whole new set of people when my family moved back to Austin. While there’s still plenty keepin’ #ATX weird, it is definitely a different town than the one I left in 2003, and the 100+ per day influx of people, “Californiacation” of home prices, escalating property taxes and citified traffic problems are making it a bumpy evolution for those who revere Austin’s slacker culture.

I first learned how those issues are playing out in my own urban pocket when I got my first edition of the neighborhood list serve and spied messages lamenting of “downtown encroachment” and “McMansions.” We’d moved here, in part, because downtown was encroaching. And our house was definitely not a 900-square foot cottage. (Rule of thumb: If you’re not sure if your home is a McMansion, it probably is.)

As it turned out, a pariah’s life wasn’t so bad. I walked my daughter to school, and my dogs around the block. I bought, cooked and ate groceries, worked solo in coffee shops, jogged to the lake and drank margaritas. Along the way, though, I met some of my neighbors…the baby-faced tech CEOs, hipsters, hippies, retirees, yoga instructors, tow truck drivers, professors and musicians that coexist in this crazy neighborhood. I posted things to the list serve, took in dogs, bought birthday presents and looked after other people’s children. I, like, made connections, man.

Still, there are plenty of real problems here like drought, affordable housing and those damn property taxes. There’s also a lot to disagree about, like impervious cover rules, urban coyotes and the genetically modified ingredients apparently used in Pirate Booty. But there are cool things, too, like 75-year-old piano teachers, bona fide rock stars, and the Mayberryesque en masse walk to school. It’s awesome stuff, and somebody needs to write about it. -30-

While it’s no fun to lose, I’m glad I tried. If you don’t try, my husband is fond of saying, the answer will always be “no.” You learn something from trying, and you certainly learn something from losing. And, hopefully that makes you a better writer. With about 10 months to think about and perfect another submission, maybe I’ll try again next year. In the meantime, I’ll be reading my McSweeney’s. 

Paris When It Giggles

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Well, I wrote about the Labor of Love way, WAY back in February 2013, and finally, FINALLY it’s just about done. There are many wonderful travel guides for Paris, but I don’t think there’s anything quite like this…travelogue, picture book and city guide all rolled into one pretty little package. I’m waiting on the second proof as I type, and hopefully I’ll be able to say I’m a (self-) published author by next week. It’s very exciting, and it’s been great fun working with awesome illustrator Virginia Shurgar Hassell to create something we are both proud of.  I’ll write more soon about the process of getting here, our hopes and professional goals in a post-bestseller career phase, and how soon we expect book sales will enable us to retire.

Nothing Personal

The pitching process never surprises me anymore.

My ideas have been ignored, rejected, accepted within minutes, ignored then accepted five months later, and approved by one editor then turned down by her replacement a few weeks later. I’ve been asked for more information then hired, asked for more information then ignored, accepted with modifications, and even offered something in lieu of my own idea.

When pitching an editor I have never worked with, I choose to believe very little of these interactions are personal and, in fact, most are completely impersonal. I’ve never analyzed my pitch:acceptance ratio, and doubt it would be good for my self esteem. A successful pitch is exceedingly good for my self esteem, however, and I guess I’ve had enough of them to keep me at it. 

I recently submitted an idea to a top tier women’s magazine that was accepted. Since I’d never written for them before, my initial pitch was to write a short piece, and I was thrilled when the editor assigned my idea as a 150-word sidebar to accompany a longer feature (proving that timing is almost everything). It was an interesting subject, paid well, and might be a gateway into a hard-to-tap market.

And so, I researched, wrote and submitted the article, received feedback, turned in a revision, got the okay and was paid. A few months later, I bought the issue expecting to find my published path to glory, but it was nowhere to be found. I contacted the editor, who explained that my article was snipped in design due to space issues.

Obviously, this was a disappointment, and I spent at least 24 hours whining about my bad luck. Then, I reminded myself that even this was not personal, and to try and view the entire process as a positive one. Some days, when I’m pitching, I cop an attitude based on the simple fact that I pitched, wrote and got paid for that little 150-word piece. Whatever it takes to get your mojo running, I say.

It was also a conundrum, however, because the magazine owned the content. After contacting the editor and re-reading my contract, it is still not clear to me whether I have the right to sell the story elsewhere. Therefore, I’m publishing it here, so maybe I won’t be the only one who knows how fabulously I can write a 150-word sidebar/menu about food and brain health. Isn’t it cute!

Brain Health à la Carte
A daily menu designed to keep you sharp.
By Jill Coody Smits

Breakfast
Cinnamon toast: Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant, and early research suggests it may inhibit plaque formation that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases. If you don’t like how the pungent spice tastes, try taking a whiff of your officemate’s cinnamon-spiked oatmeal. At least one study found the scent alone can boost your attention span.

Coffee break
Trail mix: Raisins, dates and granola are chock full of potassium, a vital electrolyte that sparks communication between the brain and the rest of your body. Pub quizzers take note: a deficiency can adversely affect memory.

Lunch
Hummus wrap: The sesame seed tahini lovingly stuffed into your pita pocket contains zinc, a mineral recent research suggests is the big boss when it comes to regulating brain cell communication and memory formation.

Afternoon snack
Apple slices: Forego the microwave popcorn. Apple juice concentrate has been found to boost the brain’s production of the essential neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which may, in turn, boost your memory.

Dinner
Rosemary pork tenderloin: Research shows that carnosic acid found in rosemary guards against free radical cells that contribute to normal age-related brain deterioration, as well as more malevolent conditions like Alzheimer’s.

-30-

Generally Speaking, You’re Special

There is more than one school of thought about whether journalists should be specialists or generalists. Some argue that specializing is really important–for marketability of the journalist as well as their ability to cover a particular subject. For example, a lawyer would have special insight into the Supreme Court; someone with a science background would have more aptitude for reporting on global warming.

Obviously, if you’re someone like Ezra Klein, you need to be an expert in politics. Or, if you’re Dylan Byers, you need to know the media. Those guys are beat reporters (in addition to being semi-celebrities), though, and if their brains weren’t about to explode from all the knowledge they have in one area, they wouldn’t be good at their jobs. If their heads weren’t about to explode, someone else would have their jobs.

There are also well-known freelance writers who are pretty specialized. Karen Asp’s health-centered articles can be found monthly in one or more women’s magazine, for example.

Others argue, though, that generalizing is the way to go. At least, you need to know a lot about a lot in order to be a good journalist. Think about the small-town  reporter who must cover City Hall, public schools, crime and education. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll develop a pretty solid understanding of everything their readers need to know. Think about Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. He can talk engagingly about pretty much anything.

As a person who does not have semi-celebrity status in any particular field, I have always thought of myself as a generalist (by necessity as much as anything else). Until recently, if I had to explain what kind writing I do, I might say I write about health-mental health-psychology-human rights…at least most of the time. 

About a year ago, I learned a good lesson in the importance of thinking of myself very, very generally when an editor asked me to write a business article about company culture. At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think of myself as a business writer. He pointed out that an article I’d written for Psychology Today about overachievers was very much a business story, though I hadn’t thought of it in that context.

Since then, I’ve written six “Biz Idea” articles for Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, most recently about managing time wisely and mentorship. I also contribute to a blog about collaboration in the workplace.

I guess the point is that I wasn’t thinking of myself in general enough terms. As a freelancer, it was an eye-opening reminder that you can tap into new markets if you just think about how to apply your ideas to different outlets and audiences. Now, if someone asks what I write about, I say health-mental health-psychology-human rights-business…at least most of the time. 

Parkinson’s Law

In this hilarious article published in the Economist in 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson discusses the “commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson is commenting specifically about working within a government bureaucracy, but it’s painfully true even within the freelance nation, and even when your bureaucracy is comprised of exactly one.

Give me a week to research, conduct interviews for and write a 1500-word article, and I’ll meet that deadline. Give me three weeks, and I’ll still meet the deadline, but every minute will be consumed. The kicker, though, is that the piece won’t necessarily be any better than the one that took a week. It will, however, be more stressful and less lucrative.

How does this happen? Basically, I get lazy. Rather than diving into research, I do a little here and a little there. Then I extend interview invitations with a wider window of opportunity. Once I’m ready to write, I give up easily when the words don’t flow like the Amazon River rather than paddling along until something useful emerges.

This is the stressful part: the unfounded fear that the words will never come; that I won’t meet the deadline. I think I’ve said before that I’m a believer in the “just write” approach to getting ‘er done. If you have a tight deadline, you are forced to “just write,” and, inevitably, a worthy sentence reveals itself to you. Turning off the computer, inevitably, yields nothing.

So, it’s all well and good that I know Parkinson’s Law is at work in my professional life.  The next step is figuring out how to defy it. I’ll get back to you on that one after I set a deadline.

Want to Be a Writer? Limber Up.

It’s a fact that writers and editors sometimes disagree, and not just about Oxford commas (for the record, I’m with this guy). It’s also a fact, however, that if you want to write for money that someone else pays you, you’d better be prepared to act on their feedback.

It can, admittedly, be hard to acquiesce when you perceive the feedback to be a preference rather than something that will make the piece better. Or the kind of “editing just to edit” that can be frustrating, confounding or downright asinine. In such cases, you have to determine whether you should defend your original words, if the work and working relationship is worth the effort involved with revising, and, in some cases, if you can live with selling a tiny slice of your soul for $1/word.

On the other hand, some editors will recommend changes that ultimately will make your story more clear, logical and relevant. And since that translates into you looking like a much better writer, it is important that you recognize constructive feedback, as well as act accordingly. Truly, there is no sense in letting misplaced pride or unreasonable attachment to a particular sentence get in the way of a better article.

I recently received some good feedback from John McAlley, a terrific writer and the executive editor at Spirit Magazine. He had read my first draft of an article that’s in Southwest Airlines seatbacks this November and was concerned that the cultural reference I’d chosen for my lede might “strain the memories of even the ’80s hair-metal enthusiasts among our travelers.” 

While I was completely in love with myself for finding a way to legitimately reference Billy Squier in a business article about managing your personal brand, John was right. And so, Miley Cyrus became the symbol of someone who learned the heard way that image really can be everything. At the same time, I was saved from losing readers in the first sentence.

That said, I am still in love with myself for finding a way to legitimately reference Billy Squier in a business article about managing your personal brand. Therefore, I am plunking it down below on the off chance some 80s hair-metal enthusiast will read and enjoy it.

If you don’t think image is everything, just ask 80s rocker Billy Squier. With a string of sexy, masculine, guitar hero hits like “The Stroke” and “Everybody Wants You,” Squier was on a Def Leppard-esque rise to arena rock god-dom. And then “Rock Me Tonite” hit MTV. In just under five ill-conceived minutes, Squier went from a rock demigod to Flashprancing laughing stock.

Squier himself has credited the video for ruining his career. But why? Everyone from U2 to Lady Gaga has released a cringe-worthy video into the wild. Why did Squier’s have such a devastating effect? Basically, his projected image (something akin to Jane Fonda aerobicizing) didn’t mesh with what fans expected of a rock star (something akin to Robert Plant strutting seductively). In modern lingo, you might say his personal brand took a very public hit.

And while the sheer reach of Squier’s unfortunate performance is probably what interfered with his future Hall of Fame status, we’re all just a few missteps away from being knocked off our own professional pedestal. For better or worse, we all have a rep to protect.

I’m also including a link to the Squier video referenced. It’s truly mesmerizing in its awfulness. Enjoy!

Shilling for Putin: On Op-eds and Ethics

A few weeks ago, an op-ed about Syria by Vladmir Putin ran in the New York Times. Actually, a number of pro-Russia op-eds have run in publications like the Huffington Post and CNBC.com over the past several years. All of this publicity is no coincidence, of course, and Pro Publica ran an article the same day as Putin’s op-ed about the PR machine behind Russia.

While reporter Justin Elliot said the NY Times piece was pretty transparent, he said some of the other op-eds were more problematic in that they were signed by third parties (academics, businesspeople, etc.), and it was less clear to readers that the pieces were placed by PR firm Ketchum on behalf of the Russian government.

I find the whole subject fascinating for a number of reasons. First is the obvious…Can you imagine being on the PR team behind the Russian government? I’ve written about the battle between the need to pay the bills and the need to be principled before, and I’m pretty sure I’d say “thanks, but no thanks” to a government that can boast a Tier 3 rating on the Trafficking in Persons report as just one sign of its disdain for human rights.

The hubbub is also interesting to me because I do a lot of op-ed writing on behalf of nonprofits, and my name is never attached to them. Sometimes, the signatory is a nonprofit leader; other times it is an individual with a direct personal connection to a cause. 

The odds that Putin wrote that NY Times piece himself are slim to none. My guess is most op-eds–at least the ones with a strong agenda–are not written by the person whose name is at the bottom. Why? Most people aren’t writers. While they may have amazing experiences and thought-provoking insights, they do not have the skills or time to share them persuasively in 700 words or less. 

And then there’s the effort involved with getting an op-ed placement. It is not easy to get an op-ed or even a letter to the editor picked up by a small local newspaper, much less the New York Times.

It does help to write something beautiful and have a name like Giffords or Sacks. But if your name is unfamiliar or your cause more chronic than explosive, you’d better have a pretty moving story, and you’d better tell it well. I’ve spoken with so many knowledgable people–Sudanese refugees, victims of human trafficking, gay rights advocates, breast cancer survivors and others–who, because of language barriers, time constraints, or challenging situations can’t write their own story. Is it unethical for me to help them tell it when they are heavily involved in the process from the interview through to approval? I do my utmost to capture their voices and perspectives, and in all cases I’ve been involved with, the agenda of the organization and of the signatory are one and the same–that’s why they agree to participate. When we do get a placement, more people learn about important issues, and I can only believe that’s a good thing.

A few weeks ago, we marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There was a lot of coverage about Clarence B. Jones, MLK’s speech writer. Apparently, the speech and many others were a collaborative effort–does that make the words any less MLK’s, or any less worth saying?

Now, I’m certainly not comparing what I do with MLK and Clarence B. Jones, but it is worth noting that even MLK needed the help of a speechwriter.

Anyway, this is an ongoing conversation in my head. While I can get on my high horse about shilling for Putin, the line I’m willing to cross may be well beyond someone else’s “gone too far,” and it’s always worthwhile to consider professional ethics.

Nice Work, If You Can Get It

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I think I’ve mentioned before that “freelance writer” is really a fancy term for “cold caller.” At times, it can be a rough gig for a person who feels like an intruder ordering take-out.

(“I’m sorry to bother you, but I’d like to order some royal thai hot garden if possible. No problem; I’ll be glad to hold indefinitely, and don’t worry if the order arrives without the curry sauce–I’m just grateful you picked up the phone!”)

Still, I’ve gotten better at pitching my ideas, developed a thicker skin, and learned to buck up. After all, if you don’t ask, the answer will always be “no,” right? If you do ask, every now and then an editor will make your day with a “yes.”

Even better than a yes, in my sometimes pathologically introverted book, is an assignment. Getting an assignment not only means an editor has faith in your ability to write an engaging and accurate article, it means you didn’t have to ask anyone for it, and you are almost certain to get paid!

Recently, an editor I’d worked with previously asked me to come up with an idea about a seed accelerator called Tech Wildcatters. The result, a fun look at the personality of entrepreneurs, ran in the August issue of Spirit Magazine.

This type of assignment may not come along very often, but when it does, the work is so very nice that you’ll feel like Peggy Lee singing a Gershwin tune with Frank Sinatra.

How Did I Get Here?

This summer, the New York Times is running a series of essays from their critics about “cultural first crushes,” that highlight the experiences and pivotal moments that inspired them to do what they do.

Alongside those pieces, the Times is also including some short essays from individuals who work in the creative world, whether it’s as an artist, screenwriter, arts critic, morning show host or TV marketing manager. It’s a fun series, and contributors have cited everything from elementary school art classes to Tiger Lily and a rabbit joke on The Simpsons as the inspiration for a career in the arts.

It’s an interesting exercise to ponder how and why you decided to become the professional you are–or if it’s just something you fell into out of necessity and circumstance.

I always loved words and reading, was utterly moved by grammar class and Hemingway’s perfectly concise sentences, and earnestly believed the facts should always be as straight as possible. So, this is a logical and lovely place for me, though I wouldn’t describe the road that got me here as the most direct route. There were plenty of pitstops along the way that were relevant, but not exactly right. In the end, it was desire, luck and courage that inspired me to give writing a shot. I’m really glad to be here.

How did you get there?

On Writer’s Block: A Blank Page is Not the Same Thing as a Clean Slate

Don’t judge me because it’s been three months since my last post–I’ve been busy.  The good kind of busy that’s had me writing almost every day about a lot of different things for a wide variety of outlets. For example, I’ve written a business feature for the August issue of Spirit magazine about entrepreneurs, a very short sidebar for Women’s Health about diet and brain health, several blog posts for Central Desktop about collaboration, and numerous op-eds about issues ranging from global LGBTI rights and human trafficking to cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

I’ve been so busy, in fact, that I’ve had a few run-ins with writer’s block. There are days when I sit down at my computer to write about whatever is on the day’s agenda, and that cursor blinking on a blank page is a taunt rather than an invitation. “You think you have something worthwhile to say? HA!”

But freelance writing is a funny profession. You can’t really fake being productive when someone is expecting an article in their in-box the next day. You either have a product to turn in or you don’t. Having an assignment with a clear goal and set deadline helps immensely. I’m also a believer in the “just write” method of getting through a dry spell. If you start typing something that is somehow related to the task at hand, at least you’ll have words to work with and edit. If you avoid, procrastinate, or simply stare at that blinking cursor, well, you’ll have nothing, and so will your editor or client (or blog).

Perhaps all that is to say that while I mustered the creativity to get through my paid assignments, I failed miserably in nurturing Blue Seed. Even though this post may be best filed as an attempt to “just write,” it’s a relief to be back at it.