Writing for Free

I recently corresponded with a friend who is an authority in the rock, gem and mineral trade. He laments that he has never been paid for his writing, even for a newspaper that he contributes to. His writing mainly sits at a nonprofit website, and his dozens of articles receive tens of thousands of hits. He doesn’t expect the website to pay, it’s an all volunteer organization, but he’s still troubled by that newspaper experience and a magazine that publishes his work without compensating him.

When I lived in the Sacramento Delta I wrote five or six free gardening articles for a weekly newspaper in the Sacramento Delta in the late 1990’s. I wanted to be a part of that paper because I liked the editor. He had graduated Cambridge, spent five years living with the Bedouins, and had even met the Beatles. Really. (Another story). No money, nothing financial came out of it. But I made a friend and got my art out.

You see, there were things I had learned as a green trade professional that I wanted to express. As a writer, you feel a compulsion to explain or describe things. Like  a painter who sees an image in his head and can’t relax until he brings it to life on canvas. When I am seized with an idea I sometimes go half-mad until I get it down in words. And then, like this article, I will come back over the coming weeks to edit and revise it and get it closer  to what I wanted it to say in the first place.

I tell people wanting to write for publication to spend their time seeking paid work, rather than writing free articles. Get paid something, no matter how little. “People pay me for my writing” is a tremendous confidence booster. It gets you to thinking of yourself as a professional writer. You don’t have to make your living from writing to be a professional. It’s more about attitude and discipline.

Writing on assignment or for publication is a different outlook and demand than writing for yourself or for free. Get an assignment, work with an editor, meet word count, beat deadline. That’s what being a professional is really about, not the amount of money. Beat deadline. Every damned time. I don’t want to hear that you are in a hospital or that the wife ran off or the kids have been taken by the police. Beat deadline. Every damned time.

Free articles, though, once a number of them have been written, can be thought of as resume building. That’s not a bad thing. My five articles for Rock&Gem, although they paid little, most assuredly helped me get my book contract. Those articles took a great deal of time and research and money to produce, all of which contributed to what I know now. They made me a better writer, as have all of my magazine articles.

Although I am a professional writer and get paid for all of my assignments and continuing work, I do not make a living from it. Not even close. I have always had to have other work, regular day jobs, to keep my desire to write alive.

The book project I just completed is a good example. I knew little money would come from it because I ran the numbers well ahead of time. At most, over a period of two to three years, perhaps $3,000 to $5,000 would come back. Well, my last magazine article for Outdoor California paid over $2,000. And that article only took two months to write and just two trips to the desert. I would have been better off those 14 months writing articles but I wanted to write a book. That seemed like the ultimate goal for a writer and I wanted to dedicate the book to my parents. That’s the one thing I miss about cancelling my contract. But my Mother wrote freelance articles from time to time and she would have understood walking away from an unprofessional publisher.

Because I was obsessed with completing the book on time and under word count I spent a tremendous amount of money to get it done. Like buying my $1,2000 microscope, my rock collection, my camera gear, and all of the travel expenses of the road. At least five grand. Maybe seven. My money is long gone. I  think of it now as a bad business deal like the kind everyone has in life. What’s more regrettable is that I had to give up some of my decent paying work from my Vancouver employer to get the book done. Fortunately, they have put me back on regular hours.

Let’s get back to Rock&Gem if you are in the mineral trade or hobby. They are a good starting point. They pay little but they do pay. They accept articles on spec (internal link) so there is no guarantee of publication. Best approach is to query them first with a one paragraph proposal. See if they have covered your topic before or if they are interested. If they are not, you could respond by asking, “What would you like written about?”  You never know what an editor needs at the time.

My articles for Rock&Gem were from a desire to write and to document trips that I was taking anyway. Nowadays, I feel empty if I don’t describe and share my rockhounding or road trips. When you write for publication you also have to do tremendous research on your subject and from that you will learn a great deal. I learn something on every trip to the desert or mountains. I’m learning so much about what I found on my last collecting trp that it will take two weeks to get the text and video together to describe it all.

Money. When I ran as an educational website, no ads, I think I got two donations in five years. It had over 400 pages and two million hits one year in the early 2000’s. The Library of Congress sent people to me. The History Channel sought me out and put me on TV for an episode. No money, though. My self-published telephone magazine attracted much more attention, a few hundred subscribers paying about $27 a year. People were far more willing to pay for something in hardcopy than they were to pick up that information online. Go figure.

To wrap up, I’d suggest that anytime spent penning articles for free should instead be put into getting paying work. It may not be for publication but find something paying. For the last five years I’ve been editing and producing content for law firms through my Vancouver  employer. I love the outdoors and rocks and minerals but editing a lengthy article on elder home abuse is actually what provides some income. Most of us are just like aspiring actors working in a Hollywood coffee shop, waiting for that big break.

I hope that break comes your way but if you _have_ to write then you’ll find a path that satisfies. It is the art first and then the money. A bird has to sing. You may have a website with few hits, no donations, but you can present your work the way you want. You’re a writer. Write!

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Book Contract Cancelled

Yesterday was the worst day of my writing career. I was trying to get my book contract cancelled since I no longer trusted the people who lied to me over 14 months. It took eight hours of angry, bitter, inflamed back and forth correspondence for them to let me go.

This morning I received the cancellation letter and I am free of them, their double talk, their hidden marketing agenda, their situational ethics, their crippled idea of a team. While I would like to write about what happened, I won’t spend another moment on people who never gave a damn about me in the first place.

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Book Submitted!

I submitted my MS and related images to my publisher this morning. This marks 14 months of work but there is much to be done to turn a raw document into a book.

Over the next several months the editor and I will discuss revisions and additions and all manner of changes. The publisher’s design team will go to work and I may have to reshoot many images that I took. Their marketing people will also be getting involved as we all push toward an early 2020 release.

Posts here will now be more frequent. Thank you to everyone who has helped me so far and to all of those who will help me in the future.

New post at my book site! See shelves full of rocks. Tremendous excitement!


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Word Count Out of Control!

I’ve reached 64,000 words with many more road trips and subjects to explain before my August deadline. I can easily see the word count going to 80,000. But my contract calls for 50,000 to 60,000. There is no way my publisher can accommodate 80K.

Rather than have my editor slash and burn my copy, I am going back into chapters and doing the cutting myself. I’ve always said that any writer can chop a third of their first draft writing with diligent revising and editing and now I am putting those words into action.

Revising is far more complex than just cutting out words and sentences. Every chapter must retain coherency and not become choppy, the first thing that revising produces. I don’t have to rewrite everything, this task is not as demanding as a first draft, what with its required research and thought, but it is tough work none-the-less. Wish me luck.


Another New Post At

Here’s a link to the latest blog at my rockhounding site:

I know I am concentrating lately on all things rock related, rather than writing itself, but it’s all part of working on my book. I’ll try to come up with some writing content soon. Thanks for your patience.

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Turning the Organizational Corner: Inside Baseball

With nine months to deadline I have turned the corner on writing my book and I can clearly see how it will finish. And that it will finish. There’s an American saying: inside baseball. It means discussing obscure details that only a true baseball fan would appreciate. Similarly, this post will outline things that possibly only another writer would care for. With that admonition, I proceed.

After I got through my week long visit of Arizona and New Mexico, it was clear I needed a way to organize all that I had seen and experienced. How to do that? Make separate entries in my Places to Visit Chapter for museums, natural wonders, rock shops, fee-dig sites, free collecting sites, and so on? The answer was a method I had already started when I first began writing the book: a county by county approach.

Most people want to travel efficiently, seeing all they can in one area before moving to the next. A separate museum chapter might contain resources hundreds of miles apart, with little connection to territory they were in. A county by county approach, however, listing everything rock-related in those politically organized divisions, would tie all that information together and make for easy editing. Let me show how this scheme would work.

For places I hadn’t visited, a brief, matter-of-fact synopsis would suffice. For those places I had toured, more lengthy entries would exist. The beauty of this approach is that it can be easily edited for length. A few hundred words can be excised by simplty eliminating an entry. This contrasts with editing narratives, where one has to do substantial rewriting to keep a story coherent. Here’s are two examples for Greenlee County, Arizona, whose county seat is Clifton. Note in the first entry that I haven’t visited it, so its listing is curt and limited but still informative.

Greenlee County (Clifton)

Greenlee Historical Museum
299 Chase Creek
Clifton, AZ 85533

33°03.368′ N 109°18.257′ W

Greenlee Historical Museum

Early mining history. Museum located in the Chase Creek Historical District.

Rock-A-Buy: Rocks and Gifts

809 SE Old West Highway
Duncan, AZ 85534

32°42.791′ N 109°05.921′ W

Doug Barlow is the affable owner of this east-central Arizona rock shop. Fire agate is the big draw in this area and Doug will show you samples of what to look for. He’ll even provide a map of promising locations for anyone who comes into his shop and signs his guest book. The Round Mountain Rockhound Area, listed below, is close and Doug . . . .

I can make entries as short or long as I please. I also envision a county-based state wide map with different colored stars for museums, natural wonders, rock shops and so on. Plus an appendix that lists attractions by type. By all these means, I can clearly see to the book’s finish. As for the rest of the material, such as reading maps, understanding GPS and how to use a metal detector, well, all of that is also coming along nicely. Nine months to go. My nine innings. Play ball!


Where Alph, the Sacred River, Ran Through Caverns Measureless to Man

Legend says that opium helped Coleridge write this poem. If true, I’d like to place an order. Actually, I don’t understand much of it. Like this sentence, “As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing . . . ” Maybe that’s the opium talking. But the poem has more than enough richness and craft to make me happy.

Classic poems represent short, finished pieces of outstanding workmanship. They are complete and polished, compared to what I am writing. As I write my book, I look at how everything I pen is is unfinished. And how everything I write must be clear as crystal. No morphine induced musings.

Everything I write now will be revised. My deadline is August 1, 2019. I should have the time, I should be happy with it then. But right now, a dozen different topics need addressing, another forty thousand words needs writing. It is wonderful to read and reread people like Coleridge who long ago completed their struggles.

Kubla Khan

Samuel Taylor Colerridge

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Illustration from here

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Is Writer’s Block Limited to Fiction? And What Can be Done About it?

“Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years.”

Is writer’s block solely limited to fiction? As a non-fiction writer I’ve never had the problem. With non-fiction there is always material to research. If you are writing about Beowulf, for example, there is always something to look up, no matter how scanty. If you don’t feel like writing you can read for a while.

With fiction, however, you are developing characters and situations from scratch, from whole cloth. I can understand why that would bog somebody down, and it is perhaps the reason I am not drawn to fiction. I’ve done a few short poems and that’s been it. I cannot imagine the effort needed to bring forth an army of people and problems to populate a work. Perhaps that’s the real reason for writer’s block: writing from scratch is hard.

Another condition I read about is an inability or lack of desire to write. This I truly do not understand. You should want to write as much as a bird wants to sing, you should effortlessly fall down into a thousand subjects, as eager to compose as any piano player wants to get to the keyboard. Or, is that desire only after years of practice? I understand not rushing to play at the beginning, after trying to learn the violin for a time. Perhaps, just perhaps, if I got past practice lessons and toward mastery, I would have felt different. I haven’t mastered writing, but the boring lessons are over.

No, with nonfiction I’ve always had something to write about, the world presents itself as a giant tableau of possibilities. Traffic signals, the way cork is harvested for bulletin boards, the design of a backpack, all of life is something to write about. It’s just finding someone to pay you for your interest that is the difficulty. Unless, of course, you are writing for yourself in which case you are truly free. (Along with your poverty.)

With a really large subject I have been stymied. The whole of a giant project is enough to be overwhelming, if something is so complex that it becomes overbearing. A project too large or overarching. Fifty thousand words on World War II. For that, I would recommend outlining, an odious chore that indeed works, breaking down the large into the small. Once completed, your outline provides a step-by-step approach to your subject, allowing you to take gentle walks toward discovery, instead of an uphill thousand mile march.

What then, should be done about writer’s block in fiction? Is it possible to do period research or something similar to at least start writing? If your writing is placed in a specific city, can you do fact-finding about that town? Can you investigate characters similar to the ones you are working on? I don’t know. But if you have battled writer’s block, I’d love to hear about your experience with it.

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Book Contract Signed — Now, to The Writing

I’ve just signed a contract with ——–CONTRACT CANCELLED——-  The working title is “A Beginner’s Guide to Rockhounding and Prospecting in the Southwest.”

Just what makes up the  Southwestern United States is difficult to say. There are no agreed boundaries for the region. For my book, the Southwestern United States comprises southern Utah, Southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, the Mojave Desert in Nevada, and the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in California. If one wants a larger area, the greater Southwest may extend to all of Nevada and Utah, this collective often known as The Desert States.

This contract came about after submitting two proposals. The first proposal contained a sample chapter written in an essay style. The working title was “Stories Behind The Stones,” a look at the people of the rock, gem, and mineral trade in the American West. My editor at ——– liked my writing but told me immediately that their marketing people wouldn’t be able to sell it. There wouldn’t be any reason to bring it to Adventure’s acquisition committee.

The editor and I then talked about what might sell. After many e-mails, we hit on the idea of a beginner’s guide to rockhounding in the Southwest. I then wrote an entirely new proposal. My new sample chapter was written in guidebook style, a complete departure from the essay style I had used before. No more “I’s”, “You’s” or “We’s”. No personal story telling. A rather detached way of writing. Instead of writing, “You should remember this,” guidebook style might read, “The prospector should remember this.” Or simply, “Remember this.”

I also developed a very long table of contents, almost an outline. This was excellent practice for me as it crystallized my thoughts about the book; it gave all my floating ideas a place to land on paper. It now serves as a blueprint for the book.

I’ll write more about my book writing experience as the months go on. My deadline to furnish a complete MS isn’t until mid- 2019 so I should have plenty of time. To further my education, I’ve enrolled in an online geology course offered by BYU. (external link) It’s a university level course spanning 24 lessons. It should advance my understanding and enhance my writing.

More details to follow!

Hacked map from Wikipedia. Book illustrations will be coherent and original.

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Writing Another Book Proposal

I just submitted a magazine article two weeks ahead of deadline. Yay me! Now, I can turn to writing a book proposal that an editor asked me to develop. I short queried first, taking no more than twenty minutes to write up the query. The editor replied, asking for a complete proposal, one that includes two sample chapters. Here’s what this publisher asks for:

  • A cover letter, including: a brief summary of the book, the approximate length (word count) of your manuscript, and why you think your book is a good fit for Imbrifex Books.
  • A table of contents or outline of the book’s contents
  • Two sample chapters
  • Any photographs or illustrations you believe might assist us in evaluating your proposal (do not send originals!)
  • A brief list of similar or competitive books, including title, author, publisher, ISBN number, and date of publication. (These are all available on and other online booksellers.) Tell us what makes your book unique. How does it differ from your competition? (This is vitally important information — please take the time to research thoroughly and think about it carefully.)
  • Marketing and publicity plans or ideas
  • A description of your book’s target audience (Please be as specific as possible.)
  • A brief autobiographical summary or résumé. What do you, as the author, bring to the project?
  • Your mailing address, daytime phone number, and e-mail address

A big project, eh? Certainly. And I’ll develop a website to support the proposal, just like I did with (external link). One editor, who passed on that project, called Nevada Ag’s website the best book proposal idea he had ever seen. Why all this work?

It’s all about commitment. Any press is taking a big risk on your book, both in time and money. They want to see that you are also fully involved, not just in writing the book but also in marketing the title. Are you a true partner or not?

A good comparison is the business plan. You can’t ask for financing based on an interesting idea, you have to develop a lengthy, well analyzed plan that shows how your idea makes economic sense. Business plans can take months to write but they are the first test a lending company will ask you to pass.

I am aiming to complete my proposal by January 1st, 2018. A warning word to all my foreign readers — little gets done in America during December. It is a very difficult time to get hold of people. Lots of holidays in December with families often the central focus. Get your correspondence done now or be prepared to wait longer for replies next month.