Passion and Poetry: Turning 500

WordPress has notified me that this is my 500th blog post.

The fun and frivolity all began on December 16, 2009 with the following declaration:

I have one goal in life: to publish a book before I die.

Thankfully, I accomplished that goal within two years of penning (“typing”? “keyboarding”?) those words. Please don’t think I’m ready to die just because that goal was met, though. Life is pretty good these days. A lot different than when I first began this blog.

feature-74-inc500_38

In thinking of how to celebrate 500 blog posts, I thought I would talk a little about blogging itself. Specifically, how it has changed my life. Because I can’t think of another person more influenced by blogging, other than perhaps my wife. Whom I met through blogging.

See what I mean?

I started blogging a long time ago. I don’t think it was even called “blogging” back then. It was simply an online journal. I’d tried to keep a handwritten one when I was younger, but always seemed to give up after a few entries. Back in 2001, there was a lot of talk about how the internet was suddenly inundated with digital versions of diaries, and I was intrigued. So I found a site called digitalexpressions.nu (it’s still around) and started a blog. My first post is dated April 23, 2001.

Amazingly, I am still able to pull that blog up. I just did so this morning. Had to guess at the username and password, but it took exactly one attempt. I was pretty predictable back then. And also, angsty. As embarrassing as it is, I’ll share that very first blog post in its entirety right here.

I feel so old :(
04-23-01 05:44 PM

After reading the other entries on this site, I feel like an old man. I’ll be 32 in a few days. Can I really be twice as old as many of the people that post here? Is there anybody who can relate to a married guy with two young children? I don’t act my age. I just got a Playstation 2 for my b-day – first game SSX is fantastic! And the CD in my car stereo is Shaggy.

I’ve got a serious Lester Burnham crisis happening (see “American Beauty”).

Woe is me.

Current Music: “It’s Been Awhile” – Staind.
Current Mood: Tired 

I felt old then?! Give me a break. And what was up with Shaggy? And CDs?? At least I can still say American Beauty is one of my favorite movies.

So, it’s pretty obvious to me I was feeling disenchanted with my marriage, even back then. In case there’s any doubt, the opening sentence of my next post on that blog was,

What does every red-blooded American male want? That’s right…a bandage to stop the hemorrhaging.

Ouch. It’s a wonder my marriage lasted another five years.

I abandoned that blog two days later for greener pastures. There was a new site making a splash called Open Diary. OD (as we all called it) was like a self-contained little community, and was the first platform to allow comments by strangers – a novel concept back then. I blogged on Open Diary, off and on, for the next 13 years, though I pretty much gave it up for good in 2009 when I started Mark My Words. One of the first people I got to know really well on OD was Monica. She was living in Denmark at the time and unhappily married. We struck up a friendship that continues to this day. Since we first “met” she has gotten divorced, moved to California, and remarried. She and her husband came up for a visit last year and stayed with us. There have been many people I met in person after getting to know through blogging. Heidi, Nancy, Laurie, and more – friends to this day. One blogger even became my mother-in-law. There are others I hope to meet someday. Jess, Kathy, Ron, Wendy, etc. The one thing that impresses me most about blogging is the friendships it has led to.

In 2006, I went through a divorce (guess I finally stopped the hemorrhaging) in a very public fashion, documenting the whole thing on OD. And if it weren’t for the support of my readers, I don’t know if I could have gotten through it unscathed.

In 2007, I started dating a blogger I had known for a few years. She moved up from California to pursue a relationship, one that was on-again/off-again for years. Ultimately things did not work out, probably due to the fact that she was secretly still married (oops!) and also crazy with a capital CRAY, but this showed me that even romance was possible with fellow bloggers, and paved the way for my relationship with Tara.

She and I started reading each others’ blogs in 2003. Met in person for the first time in March, 2011. Kissed for the first time that August. Moved in together in April, 2012. Got married in September, 2013. But most of you already know that story well.

Blogging has been about life, and about love. It has been passion and poetry. Birth and rebirth. Ecstasy and acrimony. And death, as that person I dated earlier passed away unexpectedly last year. I have experienced all its highs and lows, for better and worse. It’s more than just sharing words and telling stories. It’s experiencing this shared existence we call life together. Blog

If I had never decided to hit “publish” at 5:44 PM on April 23, 2001, I can’t imagine how differently things would have turned out for me. Blogging has had a deep and profound impact on my life, one that continues to this very day. It has made me the person I am.

Considering the other blogging sites and years’ worth of posts that existed prior to my WordPress blog, 500 is kind of an arbitrary milestone anyway. But one I felt I should pay homage to regardless. If nothing else, it shows persistence, commitment and dedication. Not to mention long-windedness. (My posts have gotten shorter, but this one is an exception. It’s number 500. Cut me some slack).

I’ve probably written about every topic under the sun. Love. Sex. Death. Travel. Politics. Religion. Geoduck. There is nothing left to cover…except everything.

Will I ever stop blogging? I don’t see how I could. It’s in my blood now, as ingrained a habit as breathing and sleeping. Every 3-5 days, the itch returns, no matter how much I scratch. I will be that person blogging from my deathbed.

Mark my words.

The Tittle Becomes an Umlaut

Maybe I’m naive, but I have no idea how to type those two little dots over the word naive. Nor do I know what they’re called or why they’re there.

naïve

Fortunately, I’m a pro at cutting and pasting.

Normally, there’s just one dot over the letter i. This is called a tittle. Adding a second dot turns the tittle into an umlaut. An umlaut is a type of diacritic mark – a glyph added to a letter – that is  used to change the sound value of that letter. Other examples include façade (the dangly glyph is warning us we are to pronounce the c like an s instead of a k) and fiancé (that glyph, called an acute accent, tells us it’s a instead of e). Is your head spinning yet? Mine is. And I’m a professional writer. Man alive, the English language is complicated enough with apostrophes and commas. Start throwing dots and curls and tildes and hooks into the mix, and you’re just asking for trouble.

Why all the grammar talk when there are far more pressing issues in the world, like how many hours a night the Royal Baby is sleeping now? Because I recently went toe to toe with the owner of the company, waging a battle over the Oxford comma…and lost. For the record: I’m pro-Oxford, he’s against it. What is an Oxford comma, you ask? I’ll let the experts at the Oxford Dictionary (appropriately enough) tell you.

The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

The Oxford comma is also known as the ‘serial comma’.

'Nuff said.
‘Nuff said.

There ya go. We writer types get very passionate over this sort of thing. Which means we writer types are nerds…umm, yeah. We writer types are nerds. There’s no two ways around that. Luckily, some women find nerds attractive. Am I right, Penny?

Anyway. I’ve been writing articles for my company for eight months now, but until recently wasn’t involved in editing. And then suddenly, I was. While looking over something management had written, I added all the Oxford commas they had omitted, and returned it to my boss. Who returned it to me, with all the Oxford commas I had added omitted. Thus began a battle in which, sadly, I never had a chance of winning. I mean, it’s their company. They sign my paycheck, not vice-versa. So if they say Oxford commas are stupid, then Oxford commas are stupid.

There's hope for nerds everywhere!
There’s hope for nerds everywhere!

Only they’re wrong. Because by their logic, This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God is correct. Ayn Rand and God are not your parents. Say instead, This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God. 

It’s crystal clear. I’m right, and they’re wrong. But whatever.

In happier news, today is a very important day for Tara and I. Not just because we filled out our application for a marriage license (we did, and we’re only working a half-day tomorrow so we can go into Portland and get it signed), but also because August 22nd was the day when Everything Changed. Two years ago this evening, Tara “stopped by” my place on her way back home from Seattle. Our initial date 11 days earlier had fallen through because she decided to go and get gallstones. The gall of her! (As revenge, I got them myself 3 months later, when she was visiting for Thanksgiving). I’ve written before of our gradually evolving friendship that had reached new levels via phone and text in the weeks preceding her visit, but I still had no expectations other than a nice dinner out, a couple of drinks, and some small talk. All of which happened, but then back at my townhouse we were suddenly kissing, and that was completely unexpected and thoroughly amazing. I still get shivers thinking about the first time our lips met. It was (and still is, every single time) electric. So there we were, making out on the couch, things were getting passionate, yada yada, she didn’t end up leaving until the next morning.

About that goodbye: I don’t think I’ve ever written about this, but when I walked her to her car, we hugged tightly. And then something happened that stopped my heart.

“I love you,” she said.

There was a hastily added addendum – “as a friend” – but I’ll always remember the rush of adrenaline that coursed through my veins when I heard those words. No, I didn’t really believe she loved me, loved me. But it gave me a little thrill to hear. When her car pulled away, I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. I certainly had no idea I’d be pulling up in front of her house 16 days later, or she’d be moving in with me in 8 months, or – best of all – we’d be headed to the courthouse to pick up our marriage license two years to the morning that we said goodbye.

It’s poetic. All of it. And the story is still being written.

Could Be a Fortune Cookie

Well said.

Do you want to hear something ironic? My freelance writing career is booming these days – a recent development, one that did not occur until after I found a “real” job that I love. And, just like when I was hired here, I wasn’t even pursuing new work. They came to me.

Universe, you amuse me.

I mean, really. I was unemployed for twenty long months, desperately trying to build a freelance writing business, with very little success. $84 a week from my “big” client, $15 a pop for ehow.com articles, a few paid Groupon samples, all money that I had to have deducted from my weekly unemployment checks anyway. The bloom faded from that rose awfully fast, even though I invested in a box of fancy business cards with my information on them. The one big project I landed was a brochure from my former employer that netted me a sizable little chunk of change, but that was a one-off deal.

Or so I thought.

Turns out I have an advocate over there, a guy I used to work with but only in a roundabout way. He was our IT guru, I was the marketing coordinator. Our paths didn’t cross all that often. But he was impressed with my writing skills, and when a big project entailing a whole bunch of web articles, press releases, and blog posts fell in his lap, he picked up the phone and called me to gauge my interest. This was a few months back. To be honest, I hadn’t given freelance writing another thought in a long time, since I was gainfully employed. I had a big, whopping $0 in self-earned income to report on my 2012 taxes so, in my mind, that ship had sailed.

But when I thought over his offer, I was intrigued. He had a generous budget to work with, and was offering it all to me. This would be supplemental income, on top of my regular salary, and the work is essentially the exact same thing I’m doing every day already. SEO-focused articles on a series of industry-related topics. It’s pressure washers instead of ear, nose and throat conditions, but I did work there for six years and know a thing or two about that stuff. Plus, search engine optimization is my bread and butter. Suddenly, I was envisioning all this extra cash going to really fun places. Sure, there are bills to pay, but there are also bar tabs to rack up and concerts to attend and Mini Coopers to be driven. This money would really give me some extra wiggle room, plus the experience would boost my profile. So of course, I said yes. How could I not?

And then, my advocate began spreading the word to other departments within the company, and suddenly I had a meeting with the marketing manager of another brand. This led to me quoting on a separate project and landing that job, too. The pay is not insignificant.

I wanted to clear all this with my present employer on the off chance that there was some conflict of interest, and to have everything out in the open. I wasn’t sure how they’d react knowing I was doing side work writing for somebody else, particularly an ex-employer. Their response? As long as I wasn’t dealing with the competition, I could feel free to go for it. Oh, and by the way, my supervisor has a friend who could use some copywriting…

So, let me get this straight. Work that I didn’t ask for or seek out is falling into my lap almost literally. It’s right up my alley, something that I excel at, and the money is like an ongoing bonus check. I already feel like I lead a charmed life thanks to this great relationship with Tara, and now amazing work-related things are happening, too. It boggles my mind. And this, after struggling for years to find a decent foothold in life. To merely not be miserable. Seriously, that was my goal at one point. To wake up and not hate life. I feel like I’ve won the lottery in so many ways.

This all just further solidifies my belief that karma is real and it works (it just sometimes takes awhile) and that life harmonizes.

I submitted my first batch of articles, they got rave reviews, I turned in an invoice, and now I’m just sitting back waiting for a paycheck and the next batch of articles, which will be coming soon. Life is good.

On top of all that, I’m trying to write another book. I’ve had several ideas over the past few years, all of which were either discarded or shelved for the time being. And then about a month ago I had a dream, and that was inspiration for a novel about dreamers (literally) that I’m calling A Strange And Beautiful Flower. I’ve made headway on an introduction and the first chapter, so at least that’s a start. My mom is worried I’ll burn out on writing, but I just shrug my shoulders and say if you’re doing work you’re passionate about, then it’s not really work, is it?

That’s so good it could be a fortune cookie.

Peace out and have a groovy weekend. We’re headed to Seattle to celebrate Tara’s nephew’s first birthday. Catch you on the flip side!

Well said.
Well said.

Meet Your Next Reality TV Star…

Reality TV

…me!

Or at least I could be, based on the email I received this morning.

Hey Mark!

Bray Entertainment, the Co-Creators of Pawn Stars, is casting and developing a new documentary TV series about the real life Clark Griswold from National Lampoon’s Vacation Movies. We are looking for an entertaining and charismatic dad, like you, who is always trying to go over the top on cool projects for his kids. If you or anyone you know would be interested in this opportunity, please give me a call at blah, blah, blah…

How cool is that?! Obviously they found me through my blog. I’m forever going on about how I’m like a real-life version of Clark Griswold. I titled my series of road-trip posts Gettin’ My Griswold On (and stopped at offbeat places along the way, like the Spam Museum in Minnesota). Hell, I even nicknamed my kids Rusty and Audrey here. So, it’s not entirely surprising that I have been plucked from obscurity and given the opportunity to become a bona-fide reality television star.

This is a really exciting development that is sure to change my life! I’m going to have so many new experiences. Things like:

  1. Talking to the camera to summarize everything that has just happened or is about to happen while wearing the same damn outfit in every single episode, all season long. 
  2. Speaking in cliches. “I’m not here to make friends,” “I’m going to bring my A game,” and “I have worked so hard to get here” will all become part of my vocabulary.
  3. A teary phone call home on a brand new state-of-the-art HTC/Samsung/LG video-equipped cell phone.
  4. Lingering product placement shots. I’ll probably drink a lot more Coca-Cola® and eat a ton of Doritos® now.
  5. Black-and-white slow-motion recaps of things that have happened to me on previous episodes.
  6. A surprise visit from a family member or loved one.
  7. A. HUGE. TWIST!!
  8. An “I overcame adversity!” video montage of my past, set to a sappy pop song.
  9. Shenanigans in a hot tub.
  10. An opportunity to win a brand new 2014 Toyota Avalon that I will then have to drive all over the damn place (a minimum of two trips will be required each episode).

There’s only one downside to all this: I have no desire to live my life in front of a camera. I value my privacy too much! Besides, I’m not seeking fame. Fortune, on the other hand, would be nice. I figure if I’m ever going to get rich (or famous), I’ll do so the old-fashioned way.

By robbing a bank.

Reality TV
Time to prep my “You haven’t seen the last of me!” speech. (Courtesy of technorati.com).

I kid, I kid. By working hard, is what I meant to say. Selling a bunch of books. Something along those lines. Granted, this Clark Griswold-themed reality show seems a tad better than most of the crap out there. A little less backstabby than the others. Centered more around kids than angry black women or gay men with chips on their shoulders. It doesn’t even sound like a contest, but more of a let’s-follow-this-guy-around ala The Osbournes type of deal, which means no “You’re fired!” or “The tribe has spoken” or “Please pack your knives and go.” In other words, a kinder, gentler reality show. But still, not for me.

Speaking of my book, No Time For Kings has been out a year and a half now, and I’m still playing around with promotional ideas and trying to get sales when and where I can. Every once in awhile I’ll get a check for $11 from Amazon, which is nice. A few months ago I dropped the price to $2.99 for the Kindle version, and I just recently added a whole slew of Book Extras to the Kindle version. This is a great feature that gives you the opportunity to add bonus content to your e-book. Honestly, I don’t know why more self-published authors aren’t doing this, or why more readers aren’t clamoring for it. If you’re reading my book, for instance, and want more information on the IWC (International Whaling Commission) mentioned briefly in passing in Chapter 1, you just have to click on a link and you’ll learn all about the organization – what it does, when it was founded, etc. Same holds true if you’re wondering what, exactly, “molybdenum” is or if you’d like the background on characters like Trey or Rachel or Drake. There’s even a section that talks about the themes and symbolism in the book. I’m working on an idea that would give readers a link to what happens to some of the characters after the book ends, as a way to bridge the gap between NTFK and the next book in the series, which will be released…someday. It’s tough when you write all day long for your job, and then you do freelance writing in your spare time. But eventually, I’ll get to it. In the meantime, if you’ve got the Kindle version of No Time For Kings and would like to access the Book Extras, click here for a great primer from Amazon on how to do so. It’s really cool, trust me.

And if you haven’t bought my book yet – what are you waiting for? Seriously. Go. Right now. Right here. Please? (It’s good, I promise).

But enough groveling. I’ve got a reality show to plan for! First order of business? A trip to Walley World! Just gotta gas up the Family Truckster…

I’m Dying from 2 Rare Diseases

Let's see which disease I have today...

A while back, I mentioned how writing medical articles on a daily basis was making me pretty knowledgeable in terms of illnesses and diseases. I joked that I felt like I was just a stethoscope away from being a bona fide doctor. It’s true. In the past week several friends on Facebook posted about sick children and not feeling well, and I couldn’t help but dispense treatment advice (“use a warm compress and over-the-counter medications for pain relief”). What can I say? I may not have taken the Hippocratic Oath, but I still like to help people.

There is another, more serious consequence of writing about medical conditions all the time: I’m turning into a hypochondriac.

I’ve always been a generally healthy person overall. Pancreatitis/gall bladder surgery aside, I rarely get sick. It’s been a few years since I’ve had a cold, despite being surrounded by a house full of sick people on more than one occasion. Good genes apparently run in the family. And yet, ever since I began penning these articles, I’ve become paranoid that I am suffering from whatever condition I’m writing about at the time.

Let's see which disease I have today...
Let’s see which disease I have today…

Take this morning, for instance. Hyperthyroidism. It’s a disease in which an overactive thyroid produces an overabundance of thyroid hormone, speeding up the body’s metabolism. One of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism is an increased sensitivity to heat. A-ha!! I thought when I read that. I am hot all the time. I must have hyperthyroidism. Never mind the fact that there are at least a dozen other symptoms, including hand tremors, fatigue, clammy skin, itching, protruding eyes, and goiter, none of which I have. Fortunately I talked myself off that ledge after a few minutes, but there is always some new disease lurking around the corner that I’m able to identify with, even if it’s only a single shared symptom. Or, worse still, there will be no symptoms, and yet I’m still convinced I’ve got it. I was writing about cancer earlier, and learned that people who have pancreatic cancer – one of the deadliest, with a very high mortality rate – often experience no symptoms until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage that is untreatable. Oh, shit! I thought, my heart skipping a beat or two as I read those words. I have NO symptoms of pancreatic cancer. WHICH MEANS I MUST HAVE PANCREATIC CANCER! 

Logic and reasoning have never been my strong suits.

It’s a lot more fun playing doctor with other people than it is playing with yourself. Err…you know what I mean. So I’ll just soldier on and try not to think too much while writing these articles. My sanity depends upon it.

Smaller And Better Things

smallfish

Last night, when the kids came back from their mother’s house for the week, I was telling them about my new job. “I start tomorrow!” I declared excitedly. To which Audrey replied, “Does that mean you’re unemployed right now?”

Hmm. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but realized that – technically, at least – she was right: I was unemployed, albeit ever so briefly. From 4:30 PM Friday until 8:30 AM Monday. A whopping 64 hours. Which beats the hell out of the 618 days I was out of work last time.

The celebrating began Friday evening, immediately after work. For some reason I actually worked a full eight hours that day and, in fact, didn’t leave early once all week. Which is kind of a bummer, because when you’re a short timer you can get away with stuff you normally couldn’t when you have to worry about actually holding onto your job. I had moments where I was tempted to stroll in around noon wearing a smoking jacket and fuzzy slippers, or dump my dirty laundry on the boss’s desk and ask him to “have it back to me, pressed and folded, no later than Thursday, please – and go light on the starch” or something equally absurd, but common sense won out and I remained professional all week. Damn me and my overbearing sense of responsibility! Plus, I was busy training my replacement. Did I mention they hired this guy the very same day I gave my two weeks’ notice? They don’t waste time around there, apparently.

Anyway.

I met Tara at our favorite local watering hole downtown, where we noshed on healthy delicacies like fried pickles and steak bites and had a few drinks. It felt surreal, saying goodbye to a job that it seemed like I had just started, but onto bigger and better things, right?

Or, more accurately, smaller and better things.

smallfishBecause the company I am working for now is the smallest I’ve ever worked for. I’m used to large international corporations with hundreds of employees scattered across various continents. The music job was a little smaller, but we still had 100+ people (and it was also international so long as you consider Canada a foreign country). At this new place, I am employee #21. Instead of working in a multistory office building with a warehouse in an industrial park, I’m in a tiny office adjoining a mattress store where the “break room” is about the size of my bathroom at home. We don’t even have cubicles – the work spaces are a tight squeeze, separated by a prefabricated mini partition, and the “desks” are flat slabs of granite without drawers. If you turn around, you bump into somebody. It’s a completely different atmosphere than anything I’m used to.

And I absolutely love it.

There are benefits to working for a small company vs. a larger corporation. It really is like a family. The office has a ping pong table and a couple of flat screen TVs hanging on the walls. Lunches are “go whenever you want, come back as you please.” Time cards are nonexistent. There’s a profit sharing plan. And, we are having an amazing Christmas party in two weeks. Not only is the company shuttling us off to Mount Hood Meadows for a few hours of tubing in the snow, they are hosting a dinner and full bar for employees and their spouses or significant others at a swanky hotel in Troutdale – and springing for rooms so we can spend the night, too. And then giving us 5 days off afterwards. All of this on top of the fact that I am their official Content Specialist and earning a paycheck for writing. As the Barenaked Ladies once said, “pinch me.” (I may no longer work in the music industry, but I can still make references, dammit).

I would much rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. It’s much easier to get noticed that way. Of course, the drawback is, it’s much easier to get noticed that way. I’d better not screw this one up! There will be no dumping of laundry on the boss’s desk here.

And the minor inconveniences, like the cramped work areas, are temporary. They’re going to be making changes to the office layout next month, and we will probably be moving to a bigger office in a year. It’s all good, kids. One day in – just one day – and I’m already diggin’ it.

I’m also really diggin’ the snow. Glad it’s back on the blog. Nothing screams Christmas like fake snow on your WordPress blog!

7 Steps to Writing for a Living

writing$

One of my readers asked me a question last week after hearing the good news about my new writing job, and it’s something I’d love to address. I was actually going to mention it in the post anyway, but I was already getting pretty long-winded. A writer needs to know when to edit, too.

The Edmonton Tourist wrote,

Mark, what kind of writing education do you have? Obviously you are an author and blogger but do you have formalized training – such as a degree in communications or English? I’m trying to break into the field and have had moderate success, but I’m always interested in knowing how someone else did it. Congratulations! I know you have been wanting this for a long time.

Thank you, E.T. I have been wanting this forever. And it took some work to get to this point, because the short answer to your question is, I have no formal training. I graduated from college with a B.A. in Advertising because, once upon a time, I dreamed of being a Copywriter. I fantasized about writing one of those funny everbody’s-talking-about-it-around-the-water-cooler-the-next-day Super Bowl commercials, and even had a great idea for a Coca-Cola spot. Alas, the bloom faded from that rose by the time I reached my junior year and realized what a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog business advertising really is.  Besides, advertising courses don’t really teach you writing – it’s all about selling.

Which is why, when I graduated from college, I landed a job in customer service. Fifteen years later I was still in customer service, my dream of writing for a living dwindling further and further with each passing year. The problem was, even though I knew I could write, I had no practical experience whatsoever – just a steady string of jobs that entailed data entry and talking on the phone with people. Prospective employers rarely just take your word for it, and no amount of “trust me – I can write!” was going to cut it.

So, I came up with a plan.

And, damn if it hasn’t worked out beautifully. The truth is, I’m still a little surprised I was able to pull it off. Hard work and determination played important roles, but so too did luck. And, I was brave (or foolish) enough to gamble a little.

Here’s what worked for me – and the advice I would give to other aspiring writers.

  1. Write –  for yourself. This is the most basic piece of advice in the world, but also, the most important. The writing life may seem glamorous, but how do you know it’s something you’ll enjoy until you actually try your hand at it? Maybe you’ll drive yourself crazy undangling participles or subjugating verbs. Who knows, you might find coal mining or bomb defusing to be less stressful pastimes. What I did: I wrote my first novel in 1999; it was a turning-30 goal. I enjoyed it so much I penned three more over the next six years. Just like that, I was hooked.
  2. Write – for others. The goal here is twofold: you’ll pick up some much-needed experience to add to your resume, and you’ll find out pretty quickly if you’re actually any good. Plenty of people think they can write, but in truth, are horrible. You may think you are your own worst critic, but you really need an impartial second (and third, and fourth) set of eyes looking at your work. What I did: I had a friend who started up a book review publication, and signed on to write freelance reviews. There was no pay involved, but you have to start somewhere.  Later, I added a monthly column and editing duties to the mix.
  3. Start a blog. Not only will blogging keep your skills sharp, it’ll teach you discipline if you’re committed to it. I cannot go more than four days without updating; that’s a personal deadline I set for myself early on. In the writing world, deadlines are everything! Blogging will also give you a chance to show off your writing to others, and if you get a lot of “hits,” people notice. Plus, you’re part of a community full of people who can dispense helpful advice. What I did: I started a blog.
  4. Add writing to your list of job duties. Contribute articles to your company newsletter, volunteer to add content to the corporate website, help to update the policy manual. You want to show your coworkers and your boss that you’ve got skills, even if they’re not a part of your regular job description! What I did: All of the above. Before long, I developed a reputation and became the go-to person for writing-related projects. This helped land me a promotion to Marketing Coordinator, opening doors for me elsewhere and – most importantly – finally getting me out of the dreaded vicious circle of customer service.
  5. Build a portfolio. A writing portfolio – both an online and a physical version – is crucial; it’s often the first thing an employer will ask to see. You’ll want to include a variety of materials that demonstrate your diversity as well as your strengths. What I did: I gathered everything I had written – book reviews, newsletters, web articles, corporate documents, even a few blog posts – and put them together in an attractive binder. I simultaneously started a website (paying for my own domain name) with links to my online writing.
  6. Commit to it. I’m a big believer in following your dreams at all costs, and if you want to be a writer, don’t let anything stop you! Fortunately, if you’ve followed the first five steps, you’ve already demonstrated that you’re pretty committed. What I did: When my marketing position was eliminated in 2010, I was faced with a tough decision. My employer gave me the option of staying on with the company – in a customer service role. That would have been the smart choice, but it also would have been the safe choice…and would have set my career way back, erasing all the strides I had made in breaking free of customer service. I decided to roll the dice instead and join the ranks of the unemployed. This afforded me the opportunity to take a stab at freelance writing. I landed a few clients, got some important (paid) gigs, and gained a ton of experience in the process. It also allowed me to add “freelance writer” to my resume, showing prospective employers that I was working even when I didn’t have a job.
  7. Focus on a specialty. Being a jack of all trades but a master of none is sort of like having a liberal arts degree – you know a little bit about a lot of things, but a lot about none. Knowledge may be power, but to truly be successful, you’ve got to have an area of expertise. It might be technical writing, or a focus on medical articles. For me, it was SEO writing. What I did: I first heard the term “search engine optimization” in my marketing position. SEO writing is almost an art – you use key words and phrases in order to achieve high page rankings on search engines. If you’re too heavy-handed, Google (and others) will consider you spam (and not the good kind that comes from a can, either). I decided to focus my efforts on this area, and studied up on the topic until I felt comfortable enough to give it a shot. My first freelance client was a “web solutions” company that required seven SEO articles per week on a variety of topics. Even though the pay was crap, I stuck it out for a couple of months, and the experience I gained proved to be crucial. That skill is what led directly to this awesome new job!

There you have it – seven tried-and-true steps to earning a paycheck for your writing. Admittedly, they are not foolproof. Toward the end of my unemployment stint, I could no longer afford to be choosy and ended up broadening my job search to include those dreaded customer service positions. In fact, I’d made it to the final round of interviews for a call center job with the local utility company, one that would have been a soul-sucking, miserable experience – but I had bills to pay, and my choices were limited. Fortunately, everything worked out in the end. Now, I can actually add “writer” to my resume, and that should make future opportunities easier to come by.

All part of my plan.

Cashing in on Karma

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I quit my job today.

No, you are not reading that incorrectly. And it’s not a bad thing, either. In fact, it’s a very good thing. I’ll let the dust settle on that little announcement before continuing.

But here’s what I am beginning to believe: I lead a charmed life. Either that, or I am finally cashing in those hard-earned Karma points. Because lately, everything that could possibly go my way, is doing exactly that. I am in an amazing relationship with the love of my life. My football team is the talk of the league thanks to their star quarterback, who not only came back from a serious neck injury but is playing better than at any time in his already-illustrious career. My president won reelection. I recently beat my uncle in back-to-back games of Words With Friends. (Scoff if you will, but this was a huge accomplishment. He’s my toughest opponent by a country mile). There is so much stinkin’ good in my life it’s unbelievable.

I know what you’re thinking. Hold on a second! What about this awesome job in the music industry that you love so much?

It’s gone. History. Toast. Or will be in two weeks, anyway. And I couldn’t be happier.

The story begins way back in June…

I applied for a marketing position with a medical company in Vancouver, WA. The truth is, I barely remember this, but at the time I was shelling out 10-12 resumes a week because my unemployment benefits had just expired. I’d been out of work for twenty months and things were looking bleak. Then I got a call about the music job, aced the interview, and was hired at the end of the month. I was ecstatic! Or so I claimed. The reality is, there were a couple of big negatives that put a damper on my enthusiasm, but I didn’t talk about them at the time because the most important thing was the fact that I was working again. The mean streets would not have Mark T. Petruska to kick around anytime soon.

More on those negatives in a little bit. I’ve got a tale to finish, and it’s a whopper. The type of thing that never happens to me. Only, this time it did.

About a month ago, I got a call at work. I ignored it because I didn’t recognize the number, and the caller left a voicemail. When I listened to it on my break, I was dumbfounded. The caller’s name was S…well, let’s just call him Tiger. Future boss and all. Tiger was calling from the medical company in Vancouver where I’d applied four months earlier. Said they’d hired somebody else for the marketing position but he’d held onto my resume because he liked my skill set and thought I might be an appropriate fit down the line. Well, the marketing person turned out to be a decent enough marketing person, but couldn’t write worth a damn, so the company was looking to create a new position dedicated solely to writing. And would I be interested?

I immediately called Tiger back. This is what I told him.

“I’m actually working now, and I want to be brutally honest. I love the position, and it’s in an industry that I’m passionate about. But, there are a couple of downsides, and they’re pretty big. First of all is the salary. When I was unemployed I came up with a minimum acceptable hourly wage that I’d need to survive on, but once my benefits ran out I became desperate and accepted a job that paid several dollars an hour less than that figure. Adding insult to injury, working in Oregon I am paying state taxes, even though I live in Washington (where there is no state tax, a fact that automatically adds around 9% to your take-home pay). Second, there’s the commute. Usually it’s not too bad (I average 20-25 minutes each way), but have been stuck in traffic for upwards of an hour, an hour and a half, sometimes. And while the work is satisfying, it doesn’t allow me to tap into my creativity as often as I’d like.”

Tiger asked me what my target salary was and replied, “I’m confident we can meet that. As for the commute, you’d be working less than fifteen minutes from home. Taxes would not be an issue. And the job is strictly a writing position, so as long as you enjoy that, I think you’d be happy.”

So I told him I’d love to come in for an interview. It went well, and led to a second, with the owners of the company, two weeks later. They liked me, but needed convincing, so they offered me a project as a chance to prove myself. I had to write two separate articles on sinusitis, utilizing a list of key words and phrases they supplied, maximizing for search engine optimization to achieve a high Google ranking. This is a skill I picked up while freelancing last year, and was one thing I highlighted in my portfolio during both interviews. In retrospect, it was a smart move to teach myself SEO writing and get some practical experience, even though I was being paid peanuts at the time and eventually broke up with my client. Turns out it was good enough experience. I knocked out those articles in an hour, turned them in, they were all impressed, asked for references and permission to run a background check, and on Tuesday of this week I was offered the position of Content Creator. It’s the first time in my life that I will actually be receiving a full-time salary to write, and believe me, is about as close to a dream job as I could hope for. And the irony? I couldn’t find a job to save my life for nearly two years. Now they’re practically falling right out of the sky.

Keeping this a secret for three long days has been torture. I wanted to wait until Friday to tender my letter of resignation and talk to my boss because that would give him exactly two weeks to prepare. Actually, the real reason is, I’m a chickenshit.  I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but pictured the worst. I thought he might curse, yell, throw a stapler at me, and escort me out of the building. Instead? He congratulated me, shook my hand, and wished me well. And within twenty minutes had two candidates coming in for interviews today. I was relieved and impressed, and intend to make the most of my final two weeks here.

By the way, the Buffalo Wild Wings magic continues to work its spell. We went there the evening of my second interview, and for the third consecutive time, a job offer followed. It’s uncanny, folks.

In a few hours we depart for Seattle. Coincidentally, the day I was offered this job, we went up there. And now the day I quit, we’re going there, too.

In a way, everything comes full circle, I suppose. Which is really what Karma is all about.

Interview With a Ghost: Cole Carter Speaks

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Last month, Lisa Nowak – fellow author and Portlander – graciously allowed me to promote my book on her blog. Her idea was for a character interview with the protagonist, so Rachel Sullivan – heroine of No Time For Kings - dished about what’s been happening in her life after the events in my story. I thought this was an excellent idea, and served as a clever bridge to my follow-up novel (in progress). If you’re interested, you can read Rachel’s interview here.

Lisa Nowak, author and fellow Portlander.

I’m returning the favor now and letting Lisa plug her new novel, Dead Heat. This is a fascinating read: a ghost story at heart, but more complex, dealing with social issues like child abuse. I urge you to support Lisa and pick up a copy (there are several links below). And now, without further ado, here is Lisa’s interview with her protagonist, Cole Carter.

Character interview with Cole Carter

Cole, a man in his early thirties, befriended Alex, a fifteen-year-old machine whisperer, at the speedway. Cole was the first person ever to offer Alex hope for his future. Two years late, Cole died in a racing accident and risked his chance at a peaceful afterlife by staying on earth in spirit form to protect Alex from the abuse of his meth-addict father. That’s where Dead Heat begins.

So Cole, tell me a little about yourself. What are your talents and skills?

Cole: I used to grill up a mean burger. :) I could drive the wheels off a race car. I was a finish carpenter, and I did good work—paid attention to detail. I was good with rock, too. I built a killer waterfall in the back yard.

What is your biggest fear?

Cole: Seeing someone I love hurt. Seeing Alex mess up his life. That kid’s got such a good heart and so much potential, but he doesn’t believe in himself and I can’t make him.

They say scent is the most powerful sense. What’s your favorite smell?

Cole: I have several. Fresh-cut cedar, a burger on the grill, and racing fuel.

What is your goal or motivation in life?

Cole: Don’t you mean was?

Oh right. Sorry. So, did you have a vice?

Cole: Probably those damn hamburgers.

Well, as bad as they’re supposed to be for you, at least they didn’t kill you.

Cole: Yeah, I guess I played that right.

This interviewing-a-ghost thing isn’t so easy. I have to revise all my stock questions. Here’s one that should work: describe your most embarrassing moment.

Cole: That would be the night I met Torey. My buddy Doug had been fooling around at work, as usual (I’m surprised that guy’s managed to keep his job so long) and he accidentally whacked me in the back of the head with a two-by-four. If the boss hadn’t seen it, it wouldn’t have been any big deal. But then I wouldn’t have met Torey, either. He told Doug to take me to the emergency room. It seemed like an overreaction, but I guess he was covering his ass. So I got to the ER, and this hot little nurse, barely out of school, took my vitals. The doctor checked me out and left the nurse to tell me what I needed to do when I got home. She said that since I had a mild concussion, someone should stay with me that night. Doug, smartass Casanova that he is, said, “So, are you volunteering?” I wanted to strangle him. He knew how bashful I was with girls, and I’m sure he was well aware of how attracted I was to this one. Fortunately, she had a sense of humor about it.

Nice. So on a less jovial note, tell me about the last time you cried.

Cole: It was after I died, when I first saw how Alex was living. I guess I wanted to believe things weren’t that bad for him because otherwise I would’ve had to do something about it. And I knew if I had, he’d have never forgiven me for betraying his trust. But it was incredibly selfish of me. When I saw the conditions he was living in and witnessed firsthand how violent his father was, I knew I’d really screwed up. I should’ve got him out of there, even if it would’ve meant never seeing him again. It broke my heart to realize he’d suffered two years longer than he needed to because of my selfishness.

How has your experience with the abuse Alex has suffered affected how you feel about discipline?

Cole: Discipline should be about helping a kid become a good person, not about punishing him. I’m all for rules—I think you’re not doing your job as a parent if you don’t enforce them. But if you’re using discipline as a way of getting even, you shouldn’t have kids. And abuse is in no way discipline.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Cole: This is going to sound sappy, but I’d have to say Alex. That kid has lived a hellish life. I’ll bet he hasn’t had a single day when some part of him wasn’t hurting, and yet he doesn’t walk away, because he loves his mother and wants to take care of her. And then there’s the thing with me. He saw who I was, how I get stupid and fly off the handle when I see things like child abuse. He figured I’d get myself killed, going after his dad, so he refused to tell me where he lived, or even his last name. That’s one tough, brave, honorable kid. It breaks my heart that he can’t see himself the way I see him 

If you knew you had exactly one month to live, what would you do?

Cole: It’s a little late for that one, don’t you think?

Oh, right, sorry. It’s those damn stock questions. Okay, so now that you’re dead, if you were allowed to come back as any person or thing, what do you think it would be?

Cole: I’d want to come back as myself. I wasn’t done yet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A man who longs for a son, and a boy who can’t escape his father’s violence. Even death can’t break the bond they share.

Alex is a machine whisperer. He can tell what’s wrong with a broken-down car with a touch. But his gift can’t save him from the brutality of his meth-addict father. For two years, Alex experienced kindness through Cole, his mentor. Now Cole’s dead, and the violence in Alex’s life is escalating.

When Cole reappears as a ghost, Alex clings to the tenuous link. Then he learns Cole might’ve sacrificed his chance to cross over. Jade, the first girl to look beyond Alex’s past, assures him Cole can reach the Other Side—if Alex escapes from his dad. But a previous terrifying attempt has convinced Alex it’s impossible. Unless he can find the courage to try, his friend may be earthbound forever.

Dead Heat blew me away. It’s a gritty ghost story interwoven with all-too-real subject matter that will make you cry for Alex, ache for Cole, and thank God for Jade. I was invested in these characters’ lives and you will be too.”

~ Stacey Wallace Benefiel, author of the Zellie Wells trilogy

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About the author:

In addition to being a YA author, Lisa is a retired amateur stock car racer, an accomplished cat whisperer, and a professional smartass. She writes coming-of-age books about kids in hard luck situations who learn to appreciate their own value after finding mentors who love them for who they are.

Website: http://www.lisanowak.net/

Blog: http://lisanowak.wordpress.com/

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