Friday, December 13, 2013

My Favorite PR People

Whether you're a journalist or a PR professional, you already know about the unspoken tension between the two camps. I've been doing my job now for 24 1/2 years, and I can tell you that there are times when I shake my fist and curse the existence of PR people and others when I thank God in Heaven for putting them on planet Earth.

And how do I show thanks to those who make my life easier?

Well take this morning as an example: I had a new story assignment. Rather than put it up on to the masses of PR professionals, I contacted one who keeps in touch with me regularly. This person follows me on Twitter, takes time to ask how I'm doing and this week had lined up a stellar source for two of my stories. I gave him first dibs on this new assignment for one of his clients. If they pass and don't have anyone who fits the bill, then I put the story up on Profnet for everybody else's consideration.

I do this regularly with about a half-dozen favorite PR people.

How does a PR professional gain become a journalist's "favorite?"

It's really very simple: Stay in touch. Be human. OK, here's another example: The week before Thanksgiving, I had a highly unusual story for one of my military publications. I had to write about jobs in a specific technology career and how military service people find opportunities in the civilian market place for that niche. I have to admit, I was daunted. So I went on LinkedIn and typed in a search for that specific job ... and voila! A list of opportunities showed up! With that, I could see which companies had the most prominent needs. I contacted those companies to find interviewees.

One of the responders called after Thanksgiving, and by then, I'd actually completed all of my interviews. I explained to the PR person that because of the holiday and the tight deadline, I'd already finished the story, but I told him other opportunities might come up for other stories. Most PR people at that point would say thank you and hang up, but this person pressed me: What types of stories?

Well, as a matter of fact, I had a new assignment that day. This one covered initiatives to recruit and retain wounded warriors. Would his company like to comment on anything they were doing in that arena? He said he'd get back to me.

Yesterday, he called again ... and it turned out that he was shocked to discover that his company didn't have anything organized. He was chagrined and very apologetic.

I tell ya what: This guy immediately goes to the top of my "favorites" list, because even though he couldn't help me with two stories, he tried so hard to be accommodating! From now on, every time I get an assignment that is related to job hunting, guess who I'm going to hit first to see if they want to participate?

There's a third example: I've interviewed one particular expert for three different magazines in the past month. The reason is that he called one day just to discuss ways he could help me come up with story pitches. He wanted to find out about all of the magazines that use me regularly, and he wanted to be available to help develop ideas that would interest them. He had great suggestions, and if any of those pitches turn into assignments .... guess who gets the first call?

Most people want a quick-and-easy way to form relationships with reporters. As you can see from these examples, they happen organically. In the age of social media, we don't necessarily cavort over cocktails at 5 or coffee klatches at the Chamber. We connect via Web portals, phone texts, emails, Facebook and LinkedIn posts and Twitter. That said, the importance of the quality of the connection can never be over-stated.

Once the barrier is broken with me, I have no qualms about sharing personal stories with PR professionals about my child, my yoga practice, even my dog. Some people may say to me that it's inappropriate to be so open and friendly. But I'd assert that being this way leads to an enriching give-and-take and leads me to wonderful people who have amazing stories to share.

And in this age of connectivity, isn't this type of connection what our work is all about?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Eggnog and Yoga to the Writer's Rescue

Tumbling through the front door, we cast a school backpack on a piano bench, kick shoes in wide-flung directions, shed bulky coats and drop car keys with a clatter on the kitchen counter.

I grab stemware from a cupboard, open the refrigerator and spy what I desire -- a carton of eggnog -- and fill the glass with the sweet and cold liquid, topping it with a shake of nutmeg.

"Ahhhhhhhhhh," I sigh, staring out of the window at a winter blue sky, breathing deeply and savoring the seasonal drink.

Lately I have been steeping myself in these moments -- stolen snatches of peace and calm in the midst of chaos.

If you're a writer who works at home -- and if you also happen to be a single mom -- you already know that December brings with it too many distractions and interruptions. Time cannot be a wasted commodity, and each workday must be meticulously planned so that deadlines can be met while at the same time a child is provided for and Christmas gifts are sought.

However, this December is even more frenetic for me, because although I normally am signing with creativity and brimming with holiday enthusiasm .... I am zapped of all energy.

Two months ago I hit a very unexpected health crisis event. Although I have fully recovered and am back to my normal workload, my Muse has not caught up with the rest of me. While I charge ahead with bill-paying writing assignments and juggle "mommy duties," my desire for imaginative composition has been non-existent.

I feel flat, one-dimensional, boring, robotic.

If I were to follow my own advice, to pull out of this funk I would tell myself to suck it up and write what I love to write. In the past, this strategy has worked well and has fueled me enough to not only complete my magazine assignments, but also infuse my creativity.

But even now, I can't kick myself to the curb in that manner. I've been resigned and, quite frankly, have felt nothing short of pillaged.

That is until today.

Today, in a last-minute decision, I grabbed the latest edition of Yoga Journal magazine from my bedside as I raced to pick up my child from school. I figured I'd read it in the parking lot while I waited.

To the backdrop of British trumpeter Alison Balsom on my car CD player, I thumbed through each page .... and slowly started breathing again.

And I suddenly realized an important practice I had been overlooking since that harrowing hospitalization event -- that of self-care. Within 36 hours of my hospital release, I was writing and completing magazine assignments. I only stopped working long enough for the after effects of the surgical anesthesia to wear off, and I was right back to it.

What I have found is that in my yoga practice, I have had to force myself to slow down, even if it's just for an hour-and-a-half at my gym three times a week. I recently picked up a subscription to Yoga Journal, not because I wanted to write for this publication, but because I needed it. The articles are a balm for me. They don't only touch on yoga asanas (poses), but also cover everything from human compassion, to healthy eating, to finding your bliss.

As writers, and especially as American writers with our Puritanical mindsets, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that if we're reading it, we'd better be writing it, too.

But I've decided lately that sometimes it's really just fine to soak in the art of others and allow the words of others to strengthen us, solidify our thinking, firm up our sensibilities.

If you've hit a wall like I have recently, consider gravitating to something you love. It doesn't have to be something you read. But I have found that in my pursuit of yoga as an exercise and now as a mindset, focusing on this particular subject gives me a great deal of joy and satisfaction. Clouding that with the obligation to write about it would conversely take away from the purpose of appreciating it.

After my child exited the school and we rolled through the countryside of Kentucky's horse farms, I suddenly started noticing my surroundings, things I'd hypnotically ignored on the way in: the beauty of the animals in the fields, the sweeping arc of birds in flight, the purity of the sky's hue.

And as I stepped back into my home and cast off the trappings of a busy life -- school backpack and all -- I gingerly laid the magazine on the kitchen counter and thoroughly enjoyed that cold glass of eggnog. I sank in to the beauty of the afternoon and whispered a prayer of thanks for health, for my child, for my blessings.

"Writer's Block" is a phrase we kick around -- usually with a curse under our breath -- but I'd encourage you that next time you hit the wall like I have, dig deep to think about what you love. Then enjoy what you love. Really enjoy it.

Because it's only when we shun the obligation in favor of the joy that the real writing begins again.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Comedy of Preventable PR Errors

PR professionals ask me all the time, "How do I get my client featured in one of your magazines?"

The answer isn't rocket science and just takes a little bit of common sense.

However, not everyone is using their noggin.

Case in point:

About 10 days ago, I sent out a query on (the site that connects journalists with story sources). The story was for one of my military publications, and the angle was pretty straight-forward: I needed sources to discuss how people in the National Guard can find military-friendly employers. I deliberately sent the query early, because I was going to be out for a week's vacation and wanted to hit the ground running when I got back.

A young PR professional got in touch the same day and said he had two sources. Both of them were veterans, and both were owners of franchise companies that largely employed veterans. After looking over their qualifications, I determined that they would be good fits. And I turned down other responders to my Profnet query in favor of them.

The PR person told me that the sources would call me. The first was to get in touch at 9 a.m. Eastern time -- today. But about an hour later, I received an email calendar alert that the interview was to take place at 6 a.m. So I checked with the PR professional again to make sure I hadn't crossed my wires. He informed me that the 6 a.m. time was for the source, who was on the Western clock. I also double-verified that the source would be calling me, not the other way around.

Fast forward to today.

9 a.m. came and went. I gave it about 20 minutes and then emailed the PR person, explaining that no one had contacted me. Twenty-five minutes after that, he emailed back and said he had not communicated to the source that he was supposed to call me. "But here is his phone number, and you can reach him now," he said.

With an email message like that, I assumed that the source had been briefed of PR person's mixup.

I called, and this was the first thing the source huffed:

"Hi -- you were supposed to call me 45 minutes ago! I guess I can still do the interview."

I explained that the PR person had communicated otherwise and apologized that he'd been kept waiting. I then gave the source the Cliffs Notes version of the story angle -- how National Guard members can find employers that are sympathetic to their challenges.

And then the source said:

"I was under the impression that you were doing a story about how to get into franchising. I had prepared responses about my company and how to find franchise companies that are good fits for military service members. And I don't have anyone working for me who is in the National Guard."


The biggest mistake I see among PR professionals who use Profnet -- especially those who are in their 20s -- is that they think they can change the reporter's story angle by getting THEIR source in the story to talk about THEIR angle.

See .... it doesn't work that way.

I have a story angle. I have an editor who has assigned the story angle. I am not paid unless I deliver a story ... with that precise angle.

You, as a PR professional, are not going to change my story angle. And your sources will not convince me to change my story angle.

Can I make this any plainer?

Additionally, if you are coordinating interviews between a journalist and your source, for God's sake, please make sure that 1)  You have given everyone the correct time zone for the interview, 2) You have communicated clearly who is to place the call and 3) Your source has been fully briefed on the angle of the story -- WHICH WILL NOT CHANGE.

These things are all basic common sense, but I have seen this happen more frequently in my 24 years of reporting than you would imagine. And I hate to over-generalize, but it mostly occurs with PR professionals who have been in the business for fewer than 10 years.

So back to the original question: "How do I get my client featured in one of your magazines?"


Use common sense. Don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole. Take your time and coordinate schedules.

Because if you don't, you can be assured that I will not come back to you when I have another assignment.

What did I do after this mix up? I'll tell you. I emailed the PR professional and said that not only was I not using the first source, but I also would not use the second one. I know that sounds harsh, but I have a lineup of others that were at the ready to participate. If the first source was not fully prepared, it was fairly predictable that the second wouldn't be, either.

Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice ... shame on me.

I don't give opportunities to be burned twice.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Meg Tilly's Book Has to Do With Journalistic Integrity

When I was 12, I came home from school one day to discover that my parents had brought home a girl from church. “She’ll be living with us for the next week, and so make sure you show her all of your dolls and things,” my mother whispered as I put down my stack of school books.

My parents were Salvation Army officers – which is another way of saying that they were pastors. I was accustomed to life revolving around the ins and outs of their mission. We would get phone calls in the middle of a Thanksgiving dinner, for example, and my father would rush out to deliver a food basket to someone who had a last-minute need. And my brother and I spent hours on end at the local Salvation Army, especially during December, when my mother ran a “toy shop” for people who couldn’t afford to buy gifts for their children.

But this was the very first time that they’d actually brought home a child to stay with us.

I remember taking the girl’s hand and leading her upstairs to my pink and white room. “Would you like to play Barbies?” I asked. She shrugged, eyeing my tall Barbie townhouse. “I got this for Christmas,” I explained. “See? It even has an elevator.” I pulled on a string to make the plastic box go up and down. She sat down and silently held my dolls, stroking their hair and not uttering a word.

The week was difficult. The girl never wanted to play in my room. She preferred to stay in the basement, where my parents had created a guest room. I didn’t feel like she liked me very much, despite my attempts to engage her. When she left, I was relieved to have life back as it was.

Years later, as I studied in college for my chosen profession of journalism, I had a class in which my professor asked the ethical question: “Is it right for journalists to cover all crime stories? Should journalists stay away from stories about child abuse and child sexual molestation?”

It got me thinking, and suddenly, the girl’s visit to our house of long ago made sense. I remember asking my mother, and she confirmed my suspicions – the child had been abused by her father, and my parents had agreed to take her in as soon as an emergency until foster care could be lined up. I never saw the girl again, and her name and face still haunt me to this day. What happened to her?

As a reporter, the memory of this child ate at me whenever I was asked to do a police write-up on a child abuse case. And because I come from a conservative religious background, many of my friends were highly critical of my chosen profession and the types of stories I was assigned to write.

“Don’t you think that’s exploitation?” they would ask whenever I would bring up a story about a victim of child abuse.

It bothered me. Was it? Was I taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune so that I could advance my career? I had to dig deep and look at my motives, and I realized: The stories had to be told. How else would these victims have a voice? How else would justice prevail? How else would the public be made aware of criminal activity against society’s innocent members? How else could it be stopped? It had to be printed. It had to be told. And I felt a deep connection to the girl of long ago, realizing that her story was a story being repeated over and over again – and people needed to be made aware.

Fast forward to this month, when, out of curiosity, I picked up a book written by the actress Meg Tilly.

The title: “Gemma.”

The premise: A 12-year-old girl is abducted by a sexual predator and has to survive a harrowing journey from his car trunk, to hotel rooms, to finally being rescued, to confronting him in a courtroom.

I have to be honest with you.

The initial chapters made me so physically ill that I had to put the book away. I didn’t think I would pick it up again. I asked myself: “What’s the point of reading this? What’s the point of filling my mind with this?”

But then I realized that I was being quite hypocritical. If I really believed what I told myself those years ago – that these stories had to be told – then I could at least see if this book/author had the same purpose.

It did, and she does.

I am now mom to a 10-year-old boy. The much publicized stories of the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University have hit me hard as a single mom, because Sandusky’s victims were children of single moms. I have closely followed that case because I want to be made aware of how someone like Sandusky managed to get away with his atrocities undetected for as long as he did. What could those moms have done differently to protect their boys?

As I read through “Gemma,” I was struck by Tilly’s gift to put me squarely in the mind of a monster like Sandusky. And I was equally struck by her gift to illustrate the mind-set of a child who is thus victimized. Seeing the world through Gemma’s eyes, one realizes the deficiencies of our educational system, our court system, our system as a society to keep watch over our young and innocent children, and our steadfast denial as parents of lurking dangers that could snatch our children from our chests.

The result is a heart-pounding, non-stop ride through Gemma’s soul – an opaque window that allows us to glimpse the sufferings of tiny human beings who don’t have a chance … unless we are willing to help.

If you shy from reading a book like “Gemma,” it’s understandable. None of us really wants to look at the underbelly of the worst of humanity. But I’d strongly encourage you to give it a chance, especially if you are a teacher, pastor, social worker, court official, lawyer, police officer – and especially, a journalist. Tilly gives us insights into a plight of a reality that most of us can only guess.

I still think about the girl in my house in 1977. I still see her sitting on my bedroom floor and holding the Barbies as if they were alien creatures. I still see the look on her face as she made it clear to me that I was in a completely different league – I was still a child. She was not. Adulthood had been foisted on her, and she had missed out on the beauty and innocence of a simple activity like playing with Barbie dolls.

I see “Gemma” when I think of her now.

And I am extremely grateful to Meg Tilly for having the courage and insight to write a book on a subject that society continues to largely ignore. 

"Gemma" is easily available on Amazon. Here's a photo of the book cover and link to where you can get it:

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Avoiding Pitching Pitfalls

Pitching ideas to editors is the lifeblood for every freelancer. And for me, if an editor says, "Send me your ideas," it's my opportunity to prove that I have the researching ability to handle any topic. It also gets my foot in the door, because once an idea is accepted, it opens opportunities for more stories to be eventually assigned.

But sometimes I actually choose not to send ideas to an editor, based on the initial email response from them.

The only comparison I can make to this is dating: I sift through a lot of people, and I have eliminated men based on what they may or may not say to me ... not in person, but in an email.

In person, everybody is putting their best foot forward and uses non-verbal communication to their advantage. But in an email, people have a tendency to say what they really think. I'm not sure why or how this happens, but a computer screen automatically tears down a psychological barrier to people saying things they otherwise may not say in person. For example, I lean strongly to one political argument. On a date, if a man tells a political joke, he'd pick up my non verbal cues on whether I agreed with the joke. But in an email, he can send a joke freely and not fully anticipate my response. Why on earth would anyone send out a political joke in an email when they can't predict how the other person will react, I can't tell you, but it happens to me a lot. And if I know that a person is on the opposite polar spectrum of a political issue, chances are we're not going to agree on other meaningful areas in life. I don't have to waste anyone's time or money on a date.

So. How does this relate to shopping for editors?

Let's look at what happened to me yesterday.

I'm on vacation, which may or may not have set up my frame of mind to reject this editor, but suffice it to say, I'm glad I had the presence to walk away.

I sent an introductory email to an editor at a trade magazine for theaters -- not the kind where you see movies, but where you'd go for live, dramatic productions. I'd written for this magazine from 2001-2003, but the pay was low, and I'd move on. But I took a renewed look at its Web site and thought I'd test the waters to see if pay had risen in 10 years. I enjoyed writing for the former editor, so I sent the new editor an offer to come up with a list of ideas.

Yesterday morning in my hotel room, he got back to me ... and it was clear from his email that he thought he was doing me a favor. You know how this works if you're on a date, especially if you're a woman. Think of it as a guy taking you out for dinner and overtly checking out every other woman in the restaurant.

So this editor says, "Go ahead and send me a list of your ideas. And I only work with writers who have experience in the theater, so tell me why you're qualified to write these stories."

Well, I picked up a hint of snobbery. Let's look at our dating analogy. It's like a guy saying, "I'll take you out to dinner, but be aware that I'll be looking at other women the entire time we're out. And I only date blonds, so if you're a brunette, no chance, but let me know why you think we'd be a good match, anyway."

But I wanted to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. So I responded that I had 24 years of reporting experience on many subjects and easily adapt to writing about any area. I've written about everything from rocket scientists at NASA to window treatments in pizza restaurants ... and, point in fact, I'd also written for his magazine about theaters. I explained to him that I didn't want to waste time for both of us -- mine to research story ideas, or his if he was going to dismiss me for not currently working in theater.

Here's the way I saw this situation: An editor who understands how experienced reporters work understands that they are chameleons and have no problem at all researching and presenting stories for the targeted professional audience. But an editor who is a little too puffed up with self-importance would make things difficult for even a producer at "60 Minutes." It's just not worth the time and effort to try to please someone like that. The hint is that these types of editors will insist on people who only work in their industry. And, of course I see that as short-sighted, because they are missing out on an opportunity to work with someone who can give stories a fresh and objective eye, while digging thoroughly to uncover an insightful storyline.

I sent this editor my email and then left on the second part of my trip -- a six-hour drive to Charleston, SC.

This morning, as I got ready for a day at the Isle of Palms, I pulled up my email and saw that the editor had responded, unfortunately in the way I had predicted he would.

He agreed that it would be a waste of time for me to send him ideas, because he would not work with me if I didn't have theatrical experience. BUT, he said, "If you come across a burning story that needs to be told, let me know!"

And that's all I needed to know that if I'd submitted my ideas, not only would he have rejected me as a contributor, but he more than likely would have taken those ideas and given them to one of his "theatrically experienced" writers.

I could draw another dating comparison here for you, but let's keep this blog at "Rated PG."

Bottom line here is ... don't waste time coming up with ideas for a potential editor if you haven't screened them for whether they really are interested in using you. If I'd jumped at putting ideas together for this guy, I would have used precious time during my vacation, only to be told that I lacked his desired "experience."

And now ... I'm off to sand and palm trees ... I may not have an assignment in hand, but I'm glad I'll be spending today in the surf rather than at my laptop, churning work for a person that never would have validated my efforts in the first place.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Finding Stories Behind the Stories

When I was a college senior and a broadcast communications major, I did an internship at a CBS affiliate in Lexington, Kentucky (WKYT, Channel 27). The year was 1987, and I was frequently paired up with a 25-year-old hot shot reporter on whom I had the world's largest crush.

So this reporter (let's just call him Clark Kent) and his side-kick camera guy often invited me to tag along with them on breaking news stories. And as I rode along in their news van, they would impart their wisdom, while I took copious notes.

It was on one of these sojourns that the news hottie gave me the golden advice which has actually served me for two full decades.

The police scanner in the newsroom crackled that there was an oil spill and that a Haz-Mat team was on site on winding, well-traveled Kentucky road. My eyes lit up when Clark cocked his head at me, and with a wink said, "Let's go get a news story." It was about 10 p.m., and we were going to broadcast live from the van for the 11 p.m. newscast once we got there.

When we got to the road in question, the intersection was ablaze with flashing police lights in pouring rain. Cars were lined up for a couple of miles, while a police officer in a rain slicker directed traffic, as the traffic signal wasn't working. But there were no Haz-Mat workers, and the only thing in front of us was a traffic snarl.

The reporter and I jumped out of the van, and he approached the traffic cop.

"I got nothin' for ya!" the officer shouted at us.

"Nothing? We heard there was a spill!" Clark shouted back.

"False alarm -- we had a Haz-Mat crew out here, but they found nothing, and in the meantime, this traffic light went out with the thunderstorm, so now I'm directing traffic," the officer replied.

Clark shrugged, and we hopped back into the van.

"OK," he said, "Tell me how you'd do this story."

I stared at him open-mouthed. Was he serious?

"You are kidding," I said.

"I am not," replied the Boy Wonder.

"There is no story," I said.

"Oh yes there is," he said, eyebrows raised into his forehead. "Think. What do you see?"

I looked outside the rain-spattered windows. "I see a line of cars."

"How far?"

"At least two miles."

"Good. What else?"

"I see rain, and I see a cop directing traffic. And I DON'T see a Haz-Mat crew, like we thought there would be."

"No, but who is in the cars?"

I studied the drivers and passengers.

"Moms and kids!"

He grinned.

"There's your story. There's always a story. How many people, on your estimation looking at this traffic pattern, had their evenings upset tonight?"

I paused to do some calculations. "If the traffic is moving at this rate, and there are on average two people per car, and this has been going on for the past hour ...."

"Right," he interrupted. "We can't really put a number on it for the viewers, but we can definitely say that traffic was backed up significantly because of a false call on an oil spill. People will get home from being on this road and will turn on the TV, wanting to know why they were sitting for 45 minutes at this intersection. And we're about to tell them why."

It was my first -- and probably my most important -- news coverage lesson in my entire career.

Why, you may ask?

Because, like I learned from Clark Kent, there is always a story behind a story. Maybe the story you envisioned isn't the actual story. But there's always one there, and it usually has to do with the disruption of people's lives -- an event that affected their normal routine. And of course we know that anything that interferes with the normal routine -- is news.

Now you may ask, what does this have to do with writing magazine articles?

Simple: Let's take as an example something that happened to me as recently as last night.

My child called out to me from his bed at about 11:15 p.m.  When I checked on him, he was talking in his sleep, although the yell for help was very loud and very real.

A disruption to the normal. Not a news event, you say? OK. Let's fast-forward to 20 minutes ago. We took a break from my work to drive to a comic book store. Every Wednesday, we pick up the latest installment on a Sonic the Hedgehog series. On the way home, as my child was thumbing through his new comic book, he said, "This looks like my bad dream last night."

Now he had my attention. When I pressed him, he described his late-night fears and how his latest obsession with a comic villain was invading his sleep. He'd seen this character on the Internet, and the scene in the comic book looked like what he'd seen in his dream.

My wheels started turning: How many parents might be dealing with their children's fears at night? It's a common issue dating back to the dawn of mankind, obviously, but what do you do about it? Then there was another spinoff story: My child has Asperger's Syndrome and gets abnormally obsessed with certain things. This leads to more stories .... dealing with the fears of children on the autistic spectrum. And what about video gaming? Who comes up with these characters, and if your child plays a certain number of hours per day, is he or she more prone to nightmares? Now I have story ideas for parenting magazines, psychologist trade magazines, teaching magazines, special needs child magazines .... and my audience is other parents, who may just need to hear from psychologists about dealing with night frights.

Do you get the picture?

Always step outside of yourself in any and every situation where your routine has been shattered. In my case, it was a cry for help from my child late at night.

Ask yourself, "Can I make this into a story? More than one story? What are my markets? Who is my audience? What is my angle? Who would I interview? What questions would readers want to know?"

Do this as a regular exercise during your days.

Soon, you will have so many story ideas that you literally will not have enough hours in the day to research and sell them all.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

When Real Life Crowds Into Creativity

We have a sloppy, dripping Fourth of July today, and I feel like I'm sitting in Jane Austen's deluged  England rather than the hot and sticky Bluegrass of Kentucky.

I wanted to do some creative writing today. There are unfinished stories on two of my blogs that I would like to revisit. And frankly, as someone who writes for trade magazines to pay the bills, sometimes a little creativity is just the juice I need to refuel my tired brain.

But today, it wasn't happening.

Real life was encroaching.

You know how this works: You start to write, and all you can think about are the things that are creating worries. In my case, I shelve the writing and immediately start thinking about solutions to those worries. And then of course, all creativity is dissolved.

In this case, I've had several spinning plates during the past week, all related to onerous health care insurance policies and having to wait until October so that I can shop for an affordable plan under Obamacare. This may not sound like much to most people, but as a single mom who sees 60% of my freelance income absorbed by health insurers, it is a significant issue and regularly drains my energy and creativity.

And face it -- holiday weekends are no picnic for those of us who are divorced. If you have your child under roof, you worry about whether they are missing out on the benefits of a "traditional family." And if your child is with your ex-spouse, you are relegated to finding ways to caring for yourself while alone.

In my case, it was the latter today.

Now I'm not telling you all of this to trigger pity. Life is what it is. My point is that all of us have our own storm clouds. They take different forms. But just like the rain on the 4th of July parades and fireworks, they can dampen the most steadfast among us.

What I decided to do next was flip the tables on this rainy day. I did an Internet search for book stores that were open on the 4th of July. If I couldn't read a book in a hammock, eat a hot dog from a street vendor while watching a parade or lounge under the stars to watch fireworks -- and if my Muse was not cooperating due to the worries -- I'd create my own version of a "new" way to celebrate. I found a place where I could meander through bookshelves, inhale the wafting fragrance of brewed coffee and escape into the tales written by others.

And that's when it happened.

On a table reserved for books about artists was one with a simple title: "642 Things to Write About." The cover was designed to look like blue-lined yellow notebook paper. And within the pages were statements, questions, descriptions -- and open spaces.

They were things like this:

"You are a pirate. Describe your perfect day."

"Fix the plot of the worst movie you've ever seen."

"Write a love letter to a person you dislike."

"Pen an ode to an onion."

It was a journal of sorts, except it was a book for writers to kick start their writing juices. The writing "prompts" were compiled by members of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto.

How cool is that?

I bought the book, along with some greeting cards and small gifts for friends and some Kentucky Bourbon balls for myself, and here's what I'm going to do:

For the next 642 days, I'm going to tackle each one of these prompts. I don't know where this will lead, if anywhere. But my point is that when we are saddled with too much worry and care, sometimes we need the insistence of others -- in this case, the dear writers of San Francisco -- to get us going again.

Maybe one of these entries will lead to a short story for a magazine.

Maybe one will lead to the beginnings of a great book.

And maybe one will just give me what I need for that particular day so that I can accomplish that which is most difficult for me.

Does real life crowd into your creativity?

Take a deep breath. Take care of yourself first ... and along the way, you may be surprised to trip over the next thing to inspire you to move those mountains of worries aside.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Biggest Mistake Among Would-Be Freelance Writers

So you want to write for a living.

You have dreams of crafting prose in a funky little coffee shop while everybody else is slaving in a sterile cubicle. The vagabond writer's lifestyle ... taking your laptop to hammocks, the beach, a lakeside cabin .... hey! That's something to which to aspire, right?

This is the biggest mistake of the mindset of would-be freelance writers.

They focus too much on what they want and completely forget about the needs of their clients.

Now don't get me wrong. Freelancing does provide a lot of freedom. Notice that "free" is in both of those words? As a single mom of a boy with Asperger's, I often need the flexibility of freelancing to meet my child's unique needs. However, if I focus solely on my needs, suddenly my business becomes single-mom-centric, and clients pick up on that vibe.

Not good.

So what can you do?

Stop thinking about your freelancing in terms of a writer and start thinking about your freelancing in terms of a business person.

Recently on Twitter, I found Richard Petrillo (, who provided great insight to this very question:

I could rehash the whole thing here, but if you're serious about getting your writing off of the ground as a business, then check out Richard's advice. Everything you need to know is right there. When he uses the word, "product," substitute it for the word, "article," or "fiction book," or "poem," whatever type of writing you're selling. And really put yourself in the shoes of your potential clients.

Because at the end of the day, you won't find yourself in that funky coffee shop unless you have people who are excited about paying for what you're generating.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mastering the Focus

As a teenager, I was heavily involved with A cappella groups and often sang solos. One vocal instructor gave me a tip that, ironically, has affected the way that I write.

When sustaining a note for several measures, to avoid losing your breath or faltering on pitch, imagine a bouncing red ball in front of you. It travels from left to right, on a straight line. In your mind's eye, follow the ball as it bounces and focus -- not on the note you are singing -- but on the ball.

I received that advice at age 16, and it's funny how often I return to it. Lately, I've been practicing a lot of yoga, and I've also applied it there. While bracing myself for a tree pose -- sole of the foot against the other knee -- I focus on one point in the distance, and I envision that bouncing red ball. I never falter on the pose, as long as I keep that bouncing ball in sight.

Now when it comes to writing, this sense of focus is sharpened when applying this approach.

This week, I had some personal circumstances that really threw me emotionally. And as someone who scores as "Feeler" on the Myers Briggs personality test, a week like this hampers my ability to concentrate in a profoundly negative way. I had two stories to finish. Tuesday, my entire day was shot. I didn't write one word.

Then yesterday, as I waited in a pediatrician's office with my child, it occurred to me to recall the bouncing ball. And I realized that if I used my favorite go-to music as backdrop, it would achieve the same result as when I had to sustain those soprano notes.

I plugged in my earbuds on the laptop and pulled up the copy, focusing completely on the rhythm of the music and taking everything else that was bothering me out of my mind. I finished the story within 45 minutes -- one that had me churning for eight hours the previous day.

If you need to focus, try to figure out what will put you in that "hypnotic" state and then employ it as a tool. Even if you just sit quietly for a few minutes and imagine that bouncing red ball with your eyes closed, it has a remarkable effect on clearing your mind so that you can create.

Have any ideas for ways that you break through writer's block? I'd love to hear them! Post a comment.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Writing to the Cadence

One interesting thing I learned during my one and only pregnancy was that children in utero can be stimulated intellectually by music -- specifically Mozart. I used to spend a minimum of an hour a day with headphones plastered on my abdomen while my little boy kicked and moved to the cadence of Mozart's compositions. The theory was that IQ would be raised if a child listened to Mozart before he or she took a breath of oxygen. Even to this day, my child sits up and listens if I pipe Mozart through the car or the home.

The same can be said for your writing. A lot of people say to me, "How can you possibly write to music?" Frankly, I can't imagine writing without it. It's more than creating a mood for my muse -- it's a matter of connecting soul to heart to mind and channeling the energy from flowing scores into the keyboard of my laptop.

If you get stuck writing, at a minimum call up some classical music on Youtube and just soak it in with earbuds. I don't always stay with classical .... sometimes I stray to my favorite jazz artist, the sultry and soulful Diana Krall .... or I allow myself the guilty pleasure of my adolescent fascination with Michael Jackson or Prince. At other times, I need the fueling of a soundtrack from a film like "Prince of Persia," "Gladiator," or "Chronicles of Narnia."

So experiment with it. Try a variety of music via Youtube and see what inspires you to write. My guess is that we retain that innate connection with music that can be traced before birth, and as a result, we can channel it into composing our own lyrical prose.

Below are some of my favorite go-to selections to give you a few ideas:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Magic Words to Make $$$ in Freelancing

I just received an email from Writers Digest, promising the secret to making money in freelancing if I pay them $99 for their super information!

Guess what?

You don't need to pay a soul for this secret, because it's just two words.

But before I share ... be aware that I have been contacted by many people in my 12 years of freelancing for information about how I make a living. And you know how many people have taken my advice?

One person.

That's because no one really wants to do this.


Here are your two magical words:

Cold calls.

If you're not willing to call editors -- heck, even send them an email introducing yourself if you're too scared to pick up the phone -- then this life is not for you.

Will you be rejected?


99 percent of the time, you will be rejected.

Expect a 1 percent return on your cold calls -- that's 1 "yes" for every 100 contacts you make.


Well, that's what it takes, because in this economy, with thousands of news reporters facing layoffs, understand that this competition is not for the faint of heart.

I've had people listen to me and then respond with, "That's too hard. Isn't there any other way to do it?"


There isn't.

And when I tell them that, sometimes they unfollow me on Twitter, or they sever the connection on LinkedIn.

You know what I say to that? Good. Less competition. Because the ONE PERSON who took my advice is now my competitor -- and that's okay. If I really thought that all of you would do what I suggested, I wouldn't even tell you this, because I'd be out of a job.

Cold calls. You don't have to pay Writers Digest $99 for the answer.

Done. The end.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Mining for Sources on Twitter

My soon-to-be-10-year-old son is part of the worldwide craze for the game, "Minecraft." The objective is to survive the "night" against zombies and horrific creatures called, "creepers." But because it requires the players to build their own homes and fortresses, it has a side benefit: My kid now has an interest in gems and mining. In fact, he leap-frogged from his Minecraft adventures into research for a school science report on the world's minerals.

As I watched his block-headed character navigate the imaginary Minecraft landscape, I got to thinking about my own guilty pleasure -- Twitter. And just like Minecraft led my child from zombies to a science project, Twitter has led me from inane chatter to mining for the best sources for my magazine articles.

If you're not on Twitter or don't understand how it works, here's a quick tutorial: You "follow" people with similar interests to yours. In my case, my following list is pretty diverse. I talk to parents about Asperger's Syndrome. I talk to lovers of books and films. I talk to people who are interested in outerspace and NASA. I talk to people who live in the United Kingdom, because I'm fascinated with that particular country and culture. I find fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and tweet while I watch football games. I talk to fitness experts about my gym workouts. I even practice my French by tweeting Bible verses in French to a Spanish-speaking person who is also practicing his French.

It runs the gamut.

But, I also tweet about magazine stories that are on my plate.

Recently, because I also have an interest in etiquette, I started talking to an etiquette coach. She saw me chatting about my magazine articles and offered her expertise as a story source. This morning, I pitched an editor based on one of our chats ... and now I have an assignment lined up for a November issue, with permission to interview this lady.

I also chat with a boxing coach out of Australia. This week, I'm researching fitness magazine markets and also thinking outside of the box -- finding other niche audiences and trade magazines that would benefit from this boxing coach's advice. I plan on sending about three dozen ideas out by Monday.

When you market your freelance business, realize the potential that social media holds. If you are a journalist, then your nature is to be curious and to be observant. I get ideas when I'm in the grocery store, when I'm at the gym, when I'm taking my dog to the groomer, when I'm picking my kid up from school.

But a lot of GREAT ideas ... are also on Twitter. And so are a lot of great people. Yes, you have to be careful about who you choose as an "expert" source, but nowadays with the Internet, it's easy to check someone's credentials and vet them before you pitch an idea.

If you need help navigating Twitter and have questions, feel free to post them here -- or find me on Twitter at and talk to me there in real time. Yes, the user name has nothing to do with my profession -- "Mr. Thornton" is a character in a 19th century British novel. And you'll see on my profile page that I'm not talking a great deal about my work or my stories. But I'm constantly talking to people about ideas.

And with those ideas come a long list of potential sources ... and future income.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Writing in the Sauna and Editing During Downward Facing Dog


You read that title correctly.

Would it surprise you that my best writing is not done at a traditional desk on a keyboard?

Case in point, Saturday.

Every Saturday at 11 a.m., I have a Yoga class at my gym, and I move Heaven and Earth to always be there. I work out during other times of the week, but this Yoga instructor has this amazing class at a specific time that kicks my heart into overdrive while leaving me so relaxed that I feel like I've been sitting on a beach for five hours.

The problem was that this Saturday, I was in the middle of a writing marathon. I'd just finished two stories the night before and needed to polish off two others by a Monday morning deadline. I was brain-dead, but I didn't see how I could justify going to Yoga.

And then I decided that my body was more important than sitting at a computer for nine hours straight, machinating over minutia. So I hopped in my car to hit the gym sauna before the class and then spend the following hour stretching my limbs into rubber bands.

As I opened the sauna door, the aroma of cedar wafted over me, and heat bathed me. I sat on the wooden planks and closed my eyes.

And then I started writing.

No, I didn't bring my laptop in with me. But I'd spent enough time with my interview notes that I could envision the words on the screen, and then I pinpointed in my mind which anecdote would be best for the story lead.

Now I need to tell you ... this was no easy story to write. This happened to be on the same weekend that lots of movie-worthy action was taking place north of me in Boston. Other journalists on national news desks were churning copy as fast as SWAT teams could exchange bullets with the bomber of the Boston marathon. What I found during my work for AP was that those types of stories just write themselves. Your adrenaline is SO HIGH, that you just naturally pound out prose.

But these other types of stories .... well, this is where you are tested as a writer.

My two assignments were for a trade magazine, targeting owners of pizza restaurants in the United States and Canada. And the topics?

Dealing with food allergies.

And maintaining a comfortable restaurant climate during the summer months.

In essence, I had the story subject equivalents of watching paint dry. Just thinking about these stories was putting me to sleep in that sauna. But I pressed on.

I had my lead anecdote on the food allergy story from about 15 minutes in the sauna, and as I exited into cooler air and grabbed my Yoga mat, my mind started working on the best ways to frame it.

 So during my first 20 minutes of Yoga, I edited.

I worked the sentences around in my mind, each word a piece of a tapestry or elaborate stained glass window.

And it was during my third Downward Facing Dog pose of the morning that I came up with my approach.

Now this will surprise you -- I didn't race back to my house after Yoga and grab the laptop and start writing. I had one more magazine interview to complete for the second story on climate control. I found my subject, interviewed her .... and then I was sleepy.

So I took a two-hour nap.

Around 4 p.m., with most of the day gone, you'd think I would never be able to pull off the writing of two stories. But by this time, my mind was so rested, clear and focused, that I wrote the climate control story in two hours.

And THEN I pulled up a fresh screen. The words I had crafted during my Downward Facing Dog seven hours earlier came back to me as if I'd just left them on a shelf for a couple of minutes.

Here's the story lead:

"Tucked in the technology enclave of San Jose, CA, Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza draws a hip, sophisticated and highly-educated clientele. And with all of that education comes a high demand for not only healthy food – but customer knowledge about food allergies and sensitivities." 

I'm no Hemingway, obviously, but it did the trick ... and that story was completed in an hour-and-a-half.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by deadlines and don't feel that you have enough time to make time for yourself .... make time for yourself. Take care of your mind and your body first. The words will wait, and when you finally have given yourself the gift of self-love, the words will come.