Tag Archives: writing

2016, in a nutshell

home-is-where-the-dogs-areAs promised on Nov. 1, I’m going to use #bloglikecrazy to get a bit more personal on the Internet. But there’s less than two months left in 2016, and it’s time to face the music: This year was pretty shitty. There were some high points and a good bit of travel, but a lot of the milestones were negative. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on the couch with Netflix instead of socializing because I couldn’t bring myself to leave my blanket burrito.

Though I’ve nabbed three bylines in new-to-me national publications (and have one more coming), I’ve been seriously struggling financially with writing. Most online writing pays less than $500 per article, and the hours involved in researching and writing render the hourly rate less than ideal. Include time spent pitching and emailing, and the stats are downright grim. In addition to articles, I almost write copy for one corporate client, but the gig isn’t steady.

Now, to the really tough stuff. In the first few months of the year, three family members passed away and we moved another into an assisted living facility, all in the span of ten weeks. All this happened before our first anniversary. Though none of them were completely unexpected, it was/is completely overwhelming. I worked through the first two deaths, but took almost a month off to try to keep our lives even marginally functioning. For several months, we were splitting our time between Birmingham and Guntersville. Thank goodness the Bears don’t get carsick.

On to the positive: at the beginning of the year, Adam was offered a job with a local law firm (YAY!!!). I traveled a lot, and although it threw a lot of parts of my life out of sync, it also provided me a way to temporarily distance myself from the tough stuff. And we bought a house tucked away in a cute little neighborhood in Homewood. It’s about twice as big as our shoebox apartment was, but it’s a haven. It has a decent-sized back yard, which the Bears love, and lots of sticks and chipmunks for them to chase.

In the middle of all that, I dropped off the face of the Earth. Social media, blogging, social interactions: all of it was too much to face. Several of the articles I wrote during that time haven’t made it onto social media. I simply haven’t had the energy or motivation to do anything but hide from the world. When a publisher approached me about writing a book back in August, I jumped on it to have Something Important To Do. And to see my name on a book, of course. It was overwhelming, and I lost myself in it for six weeks.

If I’m being honest with the Internet, I haven’t processed most of the changes from early 2016. To keep going, I’ve addressed the issues with a large(r than usual) dose of inappropriate humor, but that’s a mask. I want to start back with therapy soon, even though I don’t feel like I’m ready to face up to that much loss and anger and vulnerability. But that’s life, in some ways. No way forward but through.

This month, I’m attempting to blog my way forward by writing every day as part of Blog Like Crazy.

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Help! I Googled Myself

HELP!One of the best — and sometimes, most frightening — parts of being a writer is getting to Google yourself. Earlier this week, after spending a few hours researching absolutely nothing of consequence, I Googled myself. What I found was at once awesome and weird. Here are a few things I learned:

  • There’s a short love note article on The Rumpus to a piece I wrote about zombies for The L.A. Review of Books. It’s a year old. How could I miss this?
  • It’s funny you should ask. One big reason is that Google Alerts DOESN’T WORK. I’ve had active alerts on my name for the past two years. During that time, it’s sent me ONE update that actually caught my work. Things it didn’t catch: lots of published articles, mentions, any of the articles about other McLaffertys, and a few other things…
  • Like that I’m a literal footnote in whisky history, at least on Wikipedia. One of my articles is source #4 for their Tennessee whiskey page.
  • Pieces from my mental_floss column have been used as sources for a seemingly academic presentation and an unrelated paper.
  • On the shitty side of things, I found out that a lot of people don’t respect copyright. Seven (!!!) different sites that had posted word-for-word or poorly paraphrased versions of articles I’ve written. That’s not cool, guys. Or legal.
  • Apparently Refinery29 has a content sharing agreement with MSN, so I can now say that my work has appeared on MSN.com.

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Author talk: Carla Jean Whitley

muscle shoals sound studioCarla Jean Whitley is one of the main reasons I call myself a writer. In the four years I’ve known her, she’s been my mentor, friend, confidant and travel companion. While I was interning at Birmingham magazine, she taught me how to approach AP Style (hint: it’s not sneakily or from the side) and ways to make sure my articles didn’t suck.

She’s also the author of “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music,” the managing editor of Birmingham magazine and a prolific freelance writer. During the past year, she finished her yoga teacher training and has kept up a regular practice. And yet she still took the time to answer all of my questions on writing.

Clair McLafferty: Why did you start writing when you were young?
Carla Jean Whitley: I can no longer recall a time when I didn’t write. I suspect my interest was tied to school; I was always a good student, and writing came easily to me. Couple that with positive reinforcement from my teachers and parents, and it’s no wonder I kept at it.

However, I also think that interest is intertwined with my love of reading. I’ve read myself to sleep nearly every night since I was 4 years old, and I often joke that the perfect job would be getting paid to read whatever I want. (OK, OK. I’m not actually kidding.)

CM: What kept you interested?
CJW: That positive reinforcement went a long way, and probably fueled my interest up through high school. I also discovered at an early age that I’m excited by sharing ideas, whether my own or those of others. Now, more than a decade into my career, I believe even more strongly in the power of storytelling. Some journalists come to the field because they want to change the world. I ended up here because I like writing and fiction didn’t come naturally to me. However, I’ve seen people better understand their communities because of articles I wrote, and that’s humbling and exhilarating.

CM: I understand you published your first book earlier this year. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during that process?
CJW: I’ve worked in journalism for more than a decade, and so I’m accustomed to reporting and writing (and doing so quickly). I expected writing a book would be similar, albeit stretched over a longer time frame with a much higher word count.
After one or two interviews, though, I realized I needed a different approach. My book, “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music,” focuses primarily on a period from 1969 to the early ’80s. The studio’s work had already been covered by countless media outlets over the years, and it seemed silly to ask people to not only recount something that happened 45 years earlier, but also to retell stories they’ve shared over the years.
After that a-ha moment, I regrouped, shifting my focus to historical research and relying on interviews to fill in the gaps. It was a daunting task, but I found myself grateful for my history of journalism professor, who required us to use dozens of primary sources in his class.

CM: What were some of the best parts?
CJW: Easily, the most fun was reading old Rolling Stone album reviews and periodically realizing songs I love had been recorded in my home state. I already knew about a number of them, of course, but I had no idea George Michael had tracked a version of “Careless Whisper” here.

CM: How has it been received?
CJW: The reception has exceeded my expectations! Just this morning–nearly four months after the book’s release–I signed 170 copies for a single order. I’m fortunate that so many people are interested in this story, and I think that’s a testament to the incredible music recorded there.
CM: How do you balance authorship, your editorial job and freelancing?
CJW: It’s a constant struggle. My primary role is managing editor at Birmingham magazine, and I frequently check myself to ensure I’m not neglecting my duties. I’m fortunate to work with supportive people and in a flexible environment, but that could be a recipe for disaster if I weren’t vigilant about getting my work done and maintaining the magazine as my No.-1 professional priority.
I primarily write freelance stories and books at night and–when a deadline looms–on weekends. However, I try to be judicious about how I use my time. I often have to decline last-minute invitations to spend time with friends because of assignments, but I try to regularly spend quality time with the people closest to me. Most weekends, I’m hanging out with my boyfriend and putting writing to the side. That makes weeknights spent in front of the computer a bit easier. (Plus, my cats love it. They think writing time is snuggle time!)
When book deadlines draw near, I also cut back on the amount of freelancing I do. I have a couple of regular clients (most notably BookPage), and I don’t like to put those relationships on hold. However, there were a couple of months earlier this year when I didn’t accept BookPage assignments because I needed to focus on my manuscript, and my editor and friend, the fabulous Trisha Ping, understood. I frequently pitch other publications, but I try not to overschedule myself. (The key word here is try.)
CM: What’s next?
CJW: I’ve got a second book, a history of beer in Birmingham, scheduled for release in the spring. That, too, will be published by The History Press. After that, who knows? While history is immensely satisfying to research and write, my true love is narrative nonfiction. I’m always brainstorming ways to move in that direction, and perhaps blend the two.
Bonus: Carla Jean’s must-have list for writers:
Writer’s Digest (worth every cent. Please subscribe.)
Scratch magazine (I love, love, love this digital-only publication. It works to remove the mystery in the relationship between writers and money, and I’ve learned so much as a result. Their “Who Pays Writers?” database is also wonderful.)
Quill (the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists)
Longform (I am obsessed with their podcast!)
And Pocket for keeping it all organized.

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Whiskey Trail, Day One

On Monday evening, I opened up the bar at Octane and then left. From there, I went home, packed, ate, and went to pick up my rental car. You know it’s going to be an interesting night when your reservations specify a “Toyota Camry (or similar)” and the person behind the counter asks if you’d rather a SUV or minivan.

When I walked into the parking deck and spotted my white Ford Expedition, I immediately named her White Lightning. She was bigger than the foyer of my apartment building and handled like a yacht. Driving in such a contraption was both awesome and terrifying, and I blasted CHVRCHES and my trashy, trashy road trip playlist.

One uneventful drive later, I stopped by No. 308 in Nashville to see Alan and crash the local USBG party that was going on there. Five words: Lucky Charms and Jameson punch. It was rad.

The next morning, I bade White Lightning farewell and hopped on the Discus (Distilled Spirits Council) bus to the George Dickel distillery. It was (shamefully) my first ever distillery tour, and the combination of whiskey, food, nerdery and scenery was so cool.

From there, we rode to Lynchburg, TN to the Jack Daniels distillery. During our time on the property we toured, ate, and spoke with both their master distiller and assistant master distiller. After dinner, the group hopped back on the bus and headed to Bowling Green, KY to spend the night.

Thanks to the excessive amounts of espresso and tea I consumed to make it through the drive, I didn’t sleep much that night, which meant the rest of the day was kind of surreal. But if the week keeps up at this pace, I can’t wait to see what else is in store.

I’m lumping my late night drive into this entry because I want to. So there.

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How Not To Live Your Dreams

I’m on the American Whiskey Trail* and I’m writing. Some of the pubs of my bucket list have accepted my writing on the topic. It’s intoxicating. Literally.

But I’ve spent a lot of time not doing a damn thing to further my writing. Sometimes I spend the day as the middle of a blanket burrito wondering what I did to someone in a past life to suck so much. The experiences leading up to the crappy days have taught me how I can avoid living my dreams, and I thought I’d share:

1. Distrust your intuition. In business, it’s good to make well-reasoned decisions, but if you have a squicky feeling about a setup, follow your gut. It’s easier to walk away amicably before crap gets real than afterwards.
2. Don’t write anything down. I’m probably not going to remember what I have to get done today if it’s not logged in a to-do list. Last month, I had an idea for a novel…and didn’t bother to write it down. It was something about a woman and a dog or a unicorn, but it was bestseller-quality.
3. Let rejection dictate your day. Just stahp. What can you learn from this and do better next time? Can you reshape it to mesh with another publication’s needs? If yes, do it, then eat ice cream and binge watch Arrow. Not the other way around.
4. Procrastinate. Believe me, I’m a BOSS at putting off assignments I dread. But it also makes me a hostage to my whims rather than indulging them off the clock. Just do it, man.
5. Go at it alone. If it wasn’t for my friends, I’d be in an asylum. They’re my support group and cheering squad and wine — I mean book — club wrapped into one, and I’d be a mess without them. They’re also quite literally the only reason I started writing journalistically and have the resources to keep doing badass work.

*More on that later.

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How To Pitch An Idea: Honest edition

Creating article ideas is easy. Getting them to print is much more challenging. In my four years of freelancing, I’ve gotten better at framing ideas for specific publications and figuring out what would fit at what publication. What follows is my process for sharing my ideas with others.

1. Record a flash of brilliance. It doesn’t have to be perfectly formed, but if it doesn’t make it into one of my many notebooks, I’ll start playing with Tessie and it’ll be gone.

2. Google it. Before you even consider finding a market, search the topic. If my idea has been covered, I’ll try to find a more creative angle to us as an approach. If my exact topic has been covered, that item stays in my notebook, but gets put on the back burner until I can figure out how to tackle it.

3. List publications. If this article could fit at one of my bucket list publications, I’ll pitch it there first. If/when it gets rejected, I can restructure the idea and present it to one of my mainstays.

4. Draft the pitch e-mail. Obsess over every comma, word choice, and sentence structure. After the content is out of my brain, I reshape it (and reshape it and reshape it) until it blends the publication’s voice and style with my own.

5. Hit send. My usual ritual is to close one eye, stare warily at the screen, pray for minor errors, and click. Then I jump back and watch it leave my computer and freak out.

6. Wait. Now that it’s sent, what tiny and idiotic errors did I make in the e-mail? OH GOD, I MISPLACED A COMMA.

7. Keep waiting. Don’t give in to self-doubt. Editors are busy people, and if I don’t hear back within a week, I’ll send a follow up message.

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Content and context: “Time Crunch”

I'm obsessed with my #tinyTARDIS

I’m obsessed with my #tinyTARDIS

Hey, it’s a new section on my blog! As I mentioned at the beginning of Write Like Crazy, I’ll be posting little blurby entries about articles that are published this month. Since I write for publications that span weddings, Birmingham, farming, UAB, cocktails, nerdiness and general interest, the content within this section should add a lot of variety to the general blog.

Even with all that experience, it’s still difficult for me to write about things that are going on in my own life. This Love, Inc. article was especially difficult. Not only did it deal with a very personal decision (moving up the wedding date), but it also forced me to decide how much detail-obsessiveness I could own. In all honesty, I’ve pretty much planned the bulk of the wedding or have set things in motion to finish it out.

So, for all you soonlyweds and curious kids out there, here’s Time Crunch: 3 Things To Do When You Move Up The Date.

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