Learning’s Not Enough

Fletcher Library, Arizona State University

Fletcher Library at ASU West, where I went back to school in 2007-2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You’ve probably figured out by now that I am a perpetual student. I would stay in school my whole life if it didn’t cost so damn much money. But I have been able to periodically feed the need to learn through the years. I read books, because I believe you can learn anything you need or want to know from books. I sign up for classes, including online classes, because I believe there are people “out there” who have things to teach me. I watch the History Channel, Discovery Channel – all those channels with programming that can teach me about the world past, present or future. I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t also learning something on the side.

I’m always taking classes. That’s fine to learn for learning’s sake. But it’s not enough when striving to meet a goal.

When I went back to college, I got a lot of creative writing instruction, but no magazine writing instruction. So, I kept an eye out for someone who could teach me. When I was participating in the Internet Writing Workshop (read about it here), I saw a posting on the forum from Linda Formicelli, who I later discovered was a prolific magazine writer and author. She was offering a free “teleclass” called “Querying with Confidence.” Perfect. The query letter had eluded me for years. An October night in 2009 found me sitting on the floor in my closet (it’s huge), away from TV and conversation, furiously taking notes with one hand as I held the phone to my ear with the other.

The teleclass wasn’t a magic pill, of course. I didn’t suddenly get a clue about the query. But I had found a source, someone who had something to teach me. Linda’s teleclasses are free and full of information, and they are often also introductions (including discounts) to upcoming e-courses she or her guests are offering. I listened to a few teleclasses over the next year and signed up for her “Write for Magazines” e-course in September 2010. (She still teaches it – check out her Renegade Writer website for tons of information for freelancers.)

The class wasn’t free, but it was worth it. By signing up for the premium version of the course, I received email support from Linda – personal comments on what I had written, specific answers to my specific questions, suggestions for improvement. Even after the class was over, she emailed me with the name of an editor who might be interested in my query. Now that’s support! My article query was not a good fit for the magazine, as it happens. But, writing a good query and actually sending it to an editor showed me I could do it.

There is no reason why I shouldn’t have been one of Linda’s success stories.

Work In Progress

Work In Progress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I should have done with that query is continue sending it to other magazines. I have all kinds of excuses why I didn’t. But I think the real reasons were a lack of marketing expertise and the ability to push off “rejection,” both fatal flaws for an aspiring freelance writer.

Linda Formicelli, and others I choose to learn from, can teach me till the cows come home, can hammer it into my head that I should continue sending out queries, continue writing, persevere. But it’s up to me to put what I learn into practice.

I am a work in progress, though, figuring things out as I go.

Wait until I tell you about a class I left in 1996. Would you believe they let me come back in 2011? Really!


Lessons From the Content Farm

DMS. Demand Media Studios. Content Farm Extraordinaire. Yes, I wrote for them. Yes, the pay was low (but higher than other similar outfits). Yes, I am definitely glad I’m done.Check out “My Content Confession.”

BUT…I did learn something. Really. And if you are like me, a forty-something (I can still say that) mom (parent) trying to break back into the real world, you need all the learning you can get.

It’s true I wouldn’t work with DMS again, and I’m quite soured on the whole content writing thing. But, I do want to give credit where it’s due, and DMS deserves some.

An illustration by W. W. Denslow from The Wond...

After an absence from writing that included seven years in the AF, two years as a stay-at-home mom and 16 years as a medical transcriptionist work-at-home-mom, I retrieved much of my writing wherewithal from the recesses of my brain during my year back at college. But another 18 months had passed since then. I was like the Tin Man after a rain shower — rusty and kinda creaky. Enter DMS.

The most helpful skill DMS helped me regain was recognition of passive and active voice in my writing. Using active voice is one of DMS’s most important guidelines. I know about active voice, of course, but I had forgotten how easy it is to fall into passive voice and how hard it is to recognize. But I got to be a whiz at it in the nearly 500 articles I wrote for DMS over two years.

I did have a little help from my handy-dandy F7 button, though. Amazing what instant feedback can do to help improve something. As you probably know, hitting F7 allows Word to perform grammar and spell checks on your document. What it can also do is tell you what percentage of your document is made of passive sentences! (I’m not sure if versions of Word before Word 2007 have this capability.)

If you have Word 2007 and you don’t see readability statistics, you can easily enable this function. Click on the Microsoft Office Button and click on Word Options in the bottom right corner of the drop-down menu. Then click on Proofing (third down in the left-side menu). Make sure you’ve selected “Check grammar with spelling” and then check “Show readability statistics” (last two boxes under the third heading). Voila. You now have a way to check passive voice when you write.

Meet my friend, F7.

Readability Statistics is a useful tool, especially if you have trouble recognizing passive voice (which I still do, sometimes). What it won’t do, though, is tell you which sentences specifically are passive. When that is the case, I highlight each paragraph and hit F7. When I get to the paragraph with passive voice, I try to identify where it is and fix it. Failing that, I highlight each sentence in the paragraph to find the sucker. So, I get a little help from my friend F7, but I still have to do the down and dirty work.

Another thing I learned, which I think I knew before but forgot often enough that I might never have known it at all, is to toss out the very first sentence I write. Yep, just kick that baby right to the curb, no matter how beautiful or witty or profound I think it is. More than likely it is useless window dressing that serves no purpose. This may seem an obvious technique — maybe some writers are born with this knowledge. But I am a bit of an airhead at times, and it helps to have something drummed into my brain three or four times a day (or one or two, depending on how many articles I wrote that day). I must have decided at some point that the headache wasn’t worth the forgetting, because chucking out the baby has become more a mental exercise than a physical one now, and I find there is a lot less stuff on the curb than there used to be.

To sum up: Aside from all the content farm issues, working with DMS gave me practical experience that I sorely needed. Writing every day honed my skills. I knew my articles would be online for the world to read, if so inclined, and that ensured I made them as perfect as I could (which explains why I wasn’t whipping out 10 a day). Now, if I could only translate the experience into work that pays a decent wage…

A Happy Surprise

Liebster: dearest, beloved, favorite

An email last week notified me that a comment had been left on my About page on this blog. “Mother,” aka Talk to Me…I’m your Mother, at A Letter to My Children, presented me with the Liebster Blog Award, a happy surprise. Many thanks to her, from a blogosphere novice with many less than 200 followers!

“Mother,” like her Liebster awarder, passed on a list of things that give her joy, so I will also:

My family:  ’nuff said. ♥

Books: All. Can’t imagine life without them.

Library book shelves

Learning: I wish I could have stayed in college forever.

English: Northern Arizona University's Old Mai...
Pasta: All kinds, except Alfredo. I am a tomato sauce girl.

Penne pasta served with tomato sauce

Mint, chocolate, caramel: mmmm…

A chocolate bar and melted chocolate. Chocolat...

On that yummy note, my responsibility now is to pass the award on by choosing up to five bloggers who also have fewer than 200 followers. I am stumped on how to figure out how many followers another blog has, so it could be that a couple of the following blogs do have more than 200. Nevertheless, they are blogs I enjoy reading, and I am happy to link to them here, in alphabetical order:

From the Domestic Bubble  – The good humor and musings of a fellow at-home mom from across the pond.

Mrs. D. Ranged In AZ  – I am a new follower to Mrs. D. Ranged but feel I have found a kindred liberal spirit in the ultra-conservative state of Arizona.

Postcard Fiction – Janet, who has a beautiful way with pictures and words.

Robotic Rhetoric – A young man, not much younger than my son, with great style and a big future ahead of him, imho.

Write or Revise Daily (WORD!)  – Such a great resource and so helpful. Judy, forgive me for “many less.” 🙂

So, to all of you who do read this blog, please go check out the others I have listed here. I hope you will find them as enjoyable as I do.

My Content Confession — Don’t Judge Me

OK. Here we go. I’m going to admit it, in writing, for all the world to see. Here we go.  Okay. (*breathes deep and wipes palms on lap.*)

I-was-a-content-writer-for-two-years. Whew. There. I said it. Seriously, don’t judge me. Just listen to my story. Be warned, though. This is a little longer than usual. Also, I’m going to add random pictures that have nothing to do with content writing, but will serve to break up the monotony of text.

At a bed-and-breakfast we stayed at in Prescott last summer. 100 years old. Haunted. ooooh.

One day a couple years ago, I was feeling sad and frustrated. After 16 years of medical transcription, I was tired of it and my fingers hurt, but I couldn’t see a way out — not without having to get a not-at-home job. My older son was leaving for college, but my younger son was still in middle school. I wanted to be home. Besides who would hire a (working) mom who had been out of the “real” work force for such a long time? I had gone back to school for a year, had joined an online writing workshop, was reading writing books like crazy, but I just could not figure out how to get a freelance writing career off the ground (still working on it, too).

Plus, it was August in Phoenix, and I felt like I hadn’t been outside for three months. Can you say hot and stir-crazy?

As I walked by the living room desk, I saw my Writer’s Digest (ah yes, the one decision from whence all follow). Actually, it was the back cover of the magazine. Who pays attention to those? I don’t. Usually. But, right there, staring me in the face, was a Demand Studios advertisement: “HIRING FREELANCE WRITERS — Take control of your career with Demand Studios” (I will call them DMS from here on — the name was changed to Demand Media Studios at some point).

Now, I did not have a clue what DMS was. The advertisement spoke nary a word about content (those sly dogs), but even if it had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I had no clue what content writing was either. All I saw were the words “hiring freelance writers” and “work as much as you want from wherever you want and get paid weekly.” Oh my gosh, I thought. I could do this. I was excited.

I went online and checked them out. Ohhh. Internet articles. I had always wondered who the people were who wrote those. I could write that stuff easy. So, I applied. I got my resume together, my writing samples, my cover letter and uploaded everything to DMS. It didn’t take long before I got my answer: I was in! Yay!

Oh. My. God. Fifteen dollars for a 400- to 500-word article? Really? But, I wanted to write. I chose a title from a huge bank of thousands of titles. Just as some teachers teach to the test, so DMS writers write to the title. So, I wrote an article on ADHD — I know that subject well. I sent it to an anonymous copyeditor (CE), whose responsibility was to send it back for rewrite or approve it. Writers for DMS get one chance only (one ping only, please). If the article is not satisfactory after the rewrite — rejection. I am happy to say that in two years I never had a single article rejected.

The 3 a.m. art project from hell. Check it out here: http://jeannettemonahan.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/oh-to-be-needed/

But then, I didn’t write that many. My first article took me eight hours. Eight hours! I wanted it to be perfect. But, geez. That was working my butt off for $1.87 an hour. Ugh. I chalked it up to the learning curve (the one with no shortcuts). After about a month of writing a couple articles a week — when I wasn’t transcribing — I talked to my husband about quitting transcription. I would never get anywhere, I said, if I couldn’t write full-time. I was so sure I would be able to whip out 3 or 4 articles an hour — everyone else did. I knew that from the forums. That would be $45 to $60 an hour. I could work less and earn more than I did transcribing. And the truth was I liked writing the articles and had come to hate transcribing.

I was so, so wrong. How did I ever think I could write a quality, researched article in 15 minutes or half-an-hour, or even two hours? I felt lucky if I could get three articles done in eight hours or 10 hours. But, I kept trying. After about six months, I got an email stating that DMS had approved me to write for another of its websites — this one paid $25 an article, and I would get to use my medical knowledge, such as it was. Great! Maybe my experience transcribing would make it easier to write the articles — more articles, higher pay. Okay. This might work out.

Wrong. Again. I just wasn’t fast enough. And I couldn’t bring myself to skimp on the research and the references. I think, though, that a lot of DMS writers did. Some regularly wrote 12 or 15 articles a day. Some made their whole living from writing DMS articles. I’m not saying they all skimped, but I’m sure some must have.

Ah. The elephant in the room. Well, the bathroom. How cute is that?

After about a year of trying as hard as I could to increase my output, I came to the realization that it just wouldn’t happen. I could not write like that and I would not. I kept writing my two or three well-researched articles a day, taking at least three hours per article. I was approved to write for several other websites. I had high scores on my grammar and content, and never had a rejection. In the meantime, I wracked my brain for a solution to my dilemma. I needed to earn money. I needed to write. I did not want to transcribe medical dictation again. Worse, I was spending all my time writing these articles for piddly-*&#$ pay — I did not have time to try and develop other avenues of freelancing. Wow. Trapped again.

To make a long story short, this past fall, two years after I started with DMS, the company took a dive. They say they didn’t, but they did. All the content companies (farms) did. I had also written content for Bright Hub, which paid even worse than DMS and required longer articles. Bright Hub also took a dive, but I had already stopped writing for them. Google, by changing their algorithms (or whatever) had taken a stand against content farms and won. The number of titles available at DMS continued to decline, until by September 2010, there were none at all. Well, there were some, but the writers who were still hanging around pounced on them like vultures. Who can blame them? For writers who could whip out those articles, it was a good gig. I wasn’t one though, and it did not pay for me to sit in front of the computer hitting the refresh button all day to see if more titles had dropped.

So, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. Don’t judge me. I’m innocent.

And (sigh), I am now an unemployed freelance writer. But, hey, unemployment has given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I were still writing for DMS. Suffice it to say, that I believe being forced to stop writing for DMS has been a blessing in disguise. I will write more about that later. But next time, I will write about what I learned while I waswriting for DMS. Yes, believe it or not, those two years writing for a content farm were not a complete waste of my time.

Wastin' time at White Sands. Yep - those are treetops.

A Blender in Parrothead-Land (2008)

If you’ve been around for the last thirty years or so, you may have heard of Jimmy Buffett, laid-back island troubadour of the 1970s, the man who inspired a lifestyle and parlayed his hit songs Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise into successful restaurant chains.  But have you heard of his fabled fans?  At a 1985 concert at Ohio’s Kings Island Amusement Park, according to an article by Rick Bird of the Cincinnati Post, “…Jimmy looked out at something he had never seen before at one of his concerts – a sea of thousands with everyone decked out in crazy, colorful attire – shark hats, Hawaiian shirts, parrot inflatables.  He said to bass player, Timothy B. Schmit, ‘They look like tropical Deadheads.’  Schmit replied, ‘Yeah, Parrot-heads.'”  Thus christened, these carefree concert-goers have become legend in their own right.

A generation later, in Glendale, Arizona, the scene is just as vibrant, if a little more intimate.  At the invitation-only grand opening of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafe, a pandemonium of Parrotheads is out in force, their plumage consisting of wild hats, tropical shirts, leis, beads, flip-flops, and even coconut bras and grass skirts.  While the apparel of choice is still beachwear, now more than ever, it is the hats that distinguish the Parrotheads.  This evening there are twisted-balloon hats, straw hats, pirate hats, parrot-head hats, and a hat made of colorful flip-flops standing up on its wearer’s head like a crown pork roast.  Most unusual of all, though, is the Parrothead in a straw hat topped with a working blender of margaritas.  She dances around, laughing and playing the crowd, while on stage Buffett croons his signature tune, “…wasted away again in Margaritaville…”

The girl beneath the blender is Shannon Madden, who grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, the daughter of the police chief and a high school teacher.  She is a self-described “goofball” around her friends but, surprisingly, says she is shy around others.

Of the time before she started listening to Buffett’s music Madden says, “I was sheltered, a music idiot.”  In 1992, she was one of a growing number of college students who became a new generation of Parrotheads.  Four years later, she was well and truly hooked, a Parrothead for life.  Her crowning achievement, so to speak, is her blender hat, setting her apart from the other birds in Parrothead-Land, and even earning her recognition by Buffett himself at one of his annual Las Vegas concerts.

“We were in the front row, and Mac MacAnally (a member of Buffett’s backup band, the Coral Reefers) pointed us out.  Jimmy choked on his drink and started cracking up!  On ‘Margaritaville,’ he even changed the lyrics to ‘…some people say the girl with the blender’s to blame.'”  Madden treasures the yellow wristband Buffett gave to her off his own wrist that night and the autographed set list he made sure she received later.

What looks like a simple straw hat with a blender attached to it is actually a work of art Madden remakes every year.  Beneath the flimsy straw exterior is an industrial hard hat that ratchets down in the back.  Construction-grade epoxy affixes the battery-operated blender to the top.  Then with hot glue, Madden attaches all manner of tropical-themed paraphernalia.  Currently arranged around the blender are an “annoying” singing hula girl she has named Kay Aloha, a tropical Barbie doll, a tiny plastic compass from the drink of a friend who visited Margaritaville in New Orleans, and, of course, the lost shaker of salt.  Battery-powered hula-girl lights and Christmas lights illuminate the works, and the grass skirts on the dolls hide the battery packs.  The whole creation weighs about 35 pounds and costs around $300 to make.  Too big for airplane carry-on luggage, Madden also pays around $300 each time to ship the hat to various Buffett concerts, most notably the Las Vegas concert at the MGM Grand, where she has won the Parrothead hat contest, she says, for eight years in a row now.

This imaginative headgear has won Madden fame of a sort.  After a “belligerent drunk guy” knocked the hat off her head and destroyed it one year in Las Vegas (an act of disrespect “unheard of” in Parrothead-dom), Madden ended up with her own security guard, hired by concert managers, for subsequent concerts in that city.  Also as a result of that incident, Madden recruited her sister Marnie and another friend as “wranglers” to carry all her hat accoutrements and the “booty” that Parrotheads invariably acquire at concerts.  Marnie even wears a tee-shirt that says “Blender Girl’s Sister.”  Madden has also received a standing ovation as she donned her headdress after dining in a Margaritaville Cafe before a concert, and on her birthday in August, she discovered herself on the video loop of concert footage that plays at Margaritaville restaurants all around the world.

Though being a Parrothead is an important part of her life, it is not all of it.  In real-life, Madden is a crisis counselor, paged overnight to Phoenix’s east valley emergency rooms to counsel suicidal or even homicidal patients, among others.  It is a calling she speaks of as animatedly as she does being a Parrothead – work she was drawn to in the wake of her own bout with depression after the deaths of seven family members in a six-month period.  She is as dedicated to her counseling work as she is to her Parrothead persona, and like the serious, social-worker side of Madden, being a Parrothead has a more contemplative aspect to it.

“It’s a way to connect with my dad and his generation,” she says, adding that “Parrothead is my alter ego, and my blender hat is like a secret superhero costume.”  When she has her hat on, she is not shy or serious; she laughs and sings as she dances through Parrothead-Land, camaraderie and high spirits all around.

“My life as a crisis counselor doesn’t mix with Parrothead life,” she states, yet she admits it is catharsis for what she deals with on the job.

And maybe, after more than 35 years, that release is what continues to draw crowds to Buffett concerts, Parrotheads or not.   His music conjures up sunny days and ocean waves, soft sandy beaches and tropical drink tranquility – an escape from the day-to-day.  In the words from Buffett’s 1977 hit Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, “…if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”

Progress: It’s a Process, Part 2

Country Road

One decision, significance unknown, sets you on your way.

Isn’t it funny how one action leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, and you end up somewhere you know you wouldn’t be without that one thing you did? Maybe it was a deliberate action you took, in which case — good job!  Or maybe it was a whim, in which case — whew, what luck! Of course, I am assuming the somewhere you end up is a place you want to be.

After I finished school, I didn’t jump right into writing. First of all, I didn’t quite know how to go about it. My writing classes had covered a lot of things, but getting started on a freelance career was not one of them. Also, I needed time to absorb the information in the books I was reading. Then I made one small decision: I subscribed to Writer’s Digest magazine. I didn’t think about it much, but it seemed like a smart thing to add a writing magazine to my reading regimen. Reading the magazine allowed me to “lurk” in the writing world, without being a part of it quite yet. It also led me to the Internet Writing Workshop (check out my previous post) and to my first writing success (a confidence-builder if not a money-maker).

Writer’s Digest sponsors an annual writing competition, and somewhere in the fall of 2008, I wondered if I should submit something, just for the experience. One of the categories was “Features,” and I recalled that in one of my creative nonfiction classes (yes, those), one of the assignments had been to write a feature. My first attempt had been a miserable failure, but my second was not bad. I had nothing to lose, so I took a deep breath, psyched myself up, and submitted my article to the Internet Writing Workshop nonfiction critique group. I had been critiquing others’ work, but this was my first request for a critique of my own work.

I was afraid my submission would be ignored, but to my surprise, people actually critiqued me. Of course, the article needed heavy, heavy editing. It had a lot of gooey “creative non-fictionness” that I needed to slash and burn. I got so many good suggestions, so many tips. I worked furiously on the article and finally submitted it to Writer’s Digest in April 2009. Then I waited. Then I forgot about it.

In the meantime, emboldened by the support I received in the nonfiction group, I submitted other pieces I had written. More often than not, I received gentle, supportive critiques, but sometimes they were harsh and left me feeling like an incompetent pretender. Evidently, a thick skin is a good shield to have when participating in a critique group. Mine was not thick, and I had a hard time believing I could write anything worthwhile after I read a few of my critiques.

But, in the fall, I received a letter and an honorable mention certificate from Writer’s Digest. My feature article had finished in the top 100 of thousands of submissions! I remember standing in the kitchen with the certificate in hand, my mouth open, my heart pounding. I didn’t jump up and down, but I was quietly ecstatic.

Best. Feeling. Ever.  I think it will be surpassed only on the day I finally get something published.

Smiley Face

(TV show voice) Next week on A Mid-Life Writer’s Journey:  Another step in the chain of events that stemmed from a single magazine subscription…don’t forget to tune in. And see the new category at the side of this page to read my submission to Writer’s Digest, “A Blender in Parrothead Land.”


Progress: It’s a Process

English: Winding path, Bavelaw A lovely path r...

Who knows where the side path will take us?

It’s hard to tell if you’ve made progress until you’re a little way down the road and happen to look over your shoulder. Life as a whole is like that, and the side paths we take also. Sometimes, you want the side path to bend back toward the main road so you can travel both. But it can take a while, and sometimes you just don’t know when the merge will come, if at all. Maybe I will get into this idea more when I write for my other blog, but for now I will apply it to my writing journey.

I finished my two semesters plus a summer session in 2008, about 10 months after I started back to school. But, now that I was the proud holder of a “Writing Certificate,” I was at a loss for what to do next. Of course, I had to continue my medical transcribing, which I had been doing all through school anyway. Burned out on it after 16 years, I plodded along, and every day wished I could find a way to write and make money at it. I wanted to do something I love and contribute to our household, to paying for the kids’ college, to those unexpected expenses we all face at one time or another, because it’s always something, isn’t it?

Along with other publications, an important tool of the trade.

I began to try to understand the business of writing (still working on it). I read a zillion books, which I’ve mentioned before, and I did learn so much that writing classes didn’t cover. Now, this is important:  I took out a subscription to Writers Digest magazine. Every year, the magazine publishes 101 Top Websites for Writers. Here I found The Internet Writing Workshop, an online critique website, which hosts different groups such as Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Novels, etc. I joined the Nonfiction group and the Practice group, which provides a prompt every week for practice and critique.

I had never been in a real critique group before, and I was not prepared. These were real writers, it seemed, not just aspiring writers like me. The Practice group was okay, because it was…practice. I critiqued pieces and had pieces critiqued in return. Oy! Let me tell you, if you don’t already know — there is an art to critiquing. There are rules, both written and unwritten. If you do join an online critique group at some point, my advice is to lurk a while, until you get a sense of things. I wish I would have taken a longer time for assessment before diving in.

All in all, the Practice group was good for me. I admit I unknowingly broke some of those unwritten critiquing rules, but (…sigh) hard as it is, there are no shortcuts on the learning curve. After a while though, I had the hang of it. I got good feedback on my work and enjoyed reading and critiquing the work of others — so many creative writers. Amazing, really. And I learned to be short and sweet. Pieces had to be 400 words or less, if I remember correctly. It was a job to write and then edit down to 400 words. When I’m not writing facts, it’s too easy for me to go on and on and get wrapped up. So, short and sweet was good for me.

As for the Nonfiction group, I knew immediately that I was way out of my league. Here were not just “writers” but authors, established magazine freelancers, experienced bloggers. Blogs were not even on my radar then, never mind writing a book. I wanted to freelance for magazines, but it seemed an unattainable goal. Oh my gosh. What I had gotten myself into?

Here, I will pause on this path and save the rest for next time. Maybe tomorrow, since it is already half-written. I hope you will come back to find out what happened next. It was wonderful and unexpected…