The night air was crisp with a faint crackling like someone was ripping a head of lettuce behind a closed kitchen door. I often walk these streets morning, afternoon, and night because I need a breather from screen time. Plus I’m still in winter mode since I left Boston and it feels like a necessity to savor the sun and warm days.
In Querétaro, the streets are laid out in quadrants like graph paper. Downtown is cinched in by a belt, perhaps reminiscent of the edges of Lake Texcoco. The cobbled stones of the calles through the Centro Historico are neatly arranged like the raised beds that once supported a floating city in brackish waters.
The pavers are old with uneven tops. People with precarious standing wobble as they walk them. The stones were laid sometime between the 1500s and today. I don’t know when exactly because I haven’t fact checked. But I do know that sound carries well down the narrow alleys.
Materially, the belt around the center is comprised of main avenues. These high-throughput traffic zones emanate noise which creeps inward like it was a valley and the sputtering engines, horns, and mechanical grumbling was a raging fog. Which isn’t so far off. The exhaust, after all, is thick and clogs the nostrils. Perhaps noise is viscous too, draining in to fill the reservoir.
Hmm. If sounds move in waves, is there a tide?
Tenochtitlan was built atop of Lake Texcoco on stilts. The Aztecs raised platforms to raise life, all of which was eventually left for dead. The lake later became a basin, the city dried out and was buried under what is now Mexico City. History ripples too.
It’s this march of time and the lines of life that are interesting.
The Mesoamerican Venice had canals that ran between the plots like streets between homes. Did they have sidewalks for smaller, fleeter passerbys?
Speaking of which, don’t you think the term “sidewalk” is an odd word? Maybe it was shortened from “onthesideoftheroadwalkway.” In which case, good call. Still, “walkway” makes more sense, as does “driveway” as it applies to the area cars motor on. But these are modern terms compared to “road” and “street,” and it seems common words have longevity. Yet, following that thread backwards, why don’t we drive on “horsewalks” or “treadfoots?”
In any case, we were talking about lines. Structurally, the canals of Tenochtitlan or the streets of Querétaro are like words, no?
They are created, defined and hard to change. Their form carries onwards in a continuous line. That is, until the society is toppled, or enough time passes for common usage to evolve the meaning, or the landscape to (f)alter. Then the line takes a new course.
Thus Tenochtitlan is now Mexico City.
Graves are often laid out in plots with narrow walkways as well. Is there a form for the burial grounds of dead words?
I woke up this morning and realized that I’ve been blogging on a weekly basis for over a year.
When the notion struck, and after my first Nescafe, I started to think about lessons learned (as one does). Very quickly, I distracted myself with other things because a reflection piece was not of interest to me today.
But I have a streak to keep in tact. It’s Thursday after all.
Read on for lessons learned. (Scroll down for a while if you’re eager for the takeaways).
First: A long-winded intro that circles back to the theme eventually. Per usual.
The idea of pursuing writing or of becoming “a writer” has been brewing for several years.
Last February, I began to put pen to paper while in Budapest. This was the second leg of my Eastern European Trip, Pt. 1 (Act 2): The Prelude, and I had determined that a month in Hungary’s capital city would be the perfect place for a “writing” sojourn. The vision in my head was myopically poetic.
I imagined frantic notebook scrawling in cafes during the morning and long soaks in thermal baths in the evening. There would be walks in between and plenty of goulash sampled on my traipsing through the city (or whatever it is they ate in Hungary). I also kind of hoped I’d become an alcoholic, because that seems to be a thing good writers have in common.
The script didn’t go as theoretically conceived (for one, the beer wasn’t very good there). But, I did write (poems and essays mostly), and more importantly, I began to believe it was possible.
Life progressed and the idea of giving a go at “writing” niggled it’s way irreparably into the depths of my brain. Like a parasite that couldn’t be satiated.
(Which is probably necessary because writers don’t make a whole lot–outside of the power-law-few anyways–and you likely need to be slightly delusional / intrinsically motivated to pursue such a fool’s errand. But hey, at least I’m not a poet.)
Come November (2018), I committed to posting at least one article per week on this blog.
There were several reasons for this:
The main aim was simple: To write more.
I needed to start somewhere, and you only get better at writing through the act of writing.
It was a schedule that I could stick to, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could be dedicated to a craft.
So I began, and the weekly streak is alive. Onto the lessons learned.
You never really know what’s going to catch fire.
This goes for what you like to write about, and for what gets page views. If I’m being honest, I was banging my head against a wall for a longtime trying to figure out what I wanted to write.
I actually enjoy creating poetry, but that wasn’t going to further the cause of becoming a writer. My early essays and observational travel pieces felt a bit flat to me then, and read that way to me now. Upon reflection, I know that it’s because they lacked a certain essence or deep-rooted interest for me (poet alert!: He said, “essence”).
For whatever the hell reason, climbing has been the muse that’s really launched things in a new direction: It’s personally intriguing to me, I see plenty of potential to tell different kinds of stories, and I actually get paid to write about it.
The takeaway here is: You need to start writing, try a bunch of shit, and hope to God you come across something that tickles your pickle.
As for page views…
Give the people what they want. (Sort of).
No one really cares about my broken heart.
So I’ve been told on a few occasions. But they love climbing related shit. Like The Coolest Climbing Festivals in Europe that has been far and away the most popular post, and continues to brings in consistent organic traffic each month.
Additionally, distribution matters a lot more than the content.
Every post that’s brought in high volumes of traffic (note: It’s all small-small numbers) has been shared by others through social media.
This is because the readership on the blog is somewhat contained (mostly friends and family–thanks for reading!–and people who subscribe). The only way for articles to spread to the wider world is when I beta spray and post them around, or other people do.
For people to share, it has to be of value to them. Things like informational pieces, destination guides, how to’s, etc. lend themselves more to spraying.
Growing the readership and “creating a brand” haven’t been the priority so far as I just wanted to focus on “writing” and “finding my voice.” I’m not sure if I’ll try to do more with this blog, I kind of like the liberty to talk about whatever.
It’s fun. It’s creative. It makes people more likely to talk to you.
By far the coolest part of this is that people are open to chatting with you.
It’s like getting a license to reach out to whomever and ask all sorts of questions you would normally be too modest to ask of your friends.
As a result, you get to help share stories about people who aren’t typically covered. Oftentimes these folk are inspiring, relatable, kind… and doing really cool shit!
Through this process I’ve flexed my journalism muscles (which I’ve found I quite like), experimented with markety-type content, bared my heart (take that, haters!), and played with a variety of other forms of writing.
It’s changed my life.
Not to be dramatic about it…
If you had asked me last year if I thought I would be able to make a living through writing in 2019, my answer would be emphatically, “No way, dude!” Quickly followed by, “But like, that’d be really cool!”
And now here I am in Queretaro, Mexico getting paid to put words into 1’s and 0’s across the interwebs.
A lot can happen in a year, apparently. Such as it is.
To be clear, it wasn’t the blog all on its own. Rather, it’s been the process of writing, learning that this is something I can do, and then going out and doing it (plus some luck). Still, the blog has played an important role.
There you have it, some begrudging lessons learned from this past year.
“Onwards and upwards!,” as one of my former bosses liked to say.
In early October I traveled to Nova Scotia, Canada to write an article for Climbing Magazine and to participate in a Familiarization Tour (aka Fam Tour, aka press trip) to explore the Northumberland historical counties. This story is about participating in my first Fam Tour, and lessons learned about how to have a successful one.
I’m surprised the bald eagle is the national bird of the U.S. In my life I’ve seen one, perhaps two, of the species here in the States. Yet Canada is flooded with them, or at least the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are teeming with these taloned tyrants.
Upon crossing the border into N.B., what did I see? Sarcasm. Or rather, tearing of the flesh. Or rather rather, I saw a bald eagle sarcasming a seagull along the side of the road. All blood and tossed feathers as if the eagle was using the ‘gull in a pillow fight against a barn door made of down.
“The land seems more savage up here,” I thought to myself.
On I drove to Saint John along an empty road, then down to Boston’s sister city on the Atlantic, Halifax.
I was here to participate in my first ever Fam Tour organized by DEANS, Destination Eastern and Northumberland Shores. (Thank you for having me!). Climbing Magazine also thought enough of my association with my cousin, Andy, to let me write a front of the magazine story about bouldering on Dover Island. So I combined the two and made a go of it for a 12 day trip through the land of Moose and hockey.
First off, what is a familiarization tour? Namely it’s in the name, and hence self-explanatory. A tourism board (or authoritarian leader) invites members of the media, bloggers, content producers, and other vocal types, to visit a place in order to become familiarized with it and to help tell the story. #BetaSpray in climbing terms. The aim is to highlight destinations that may be lesser known in order to encourage tourism.
On this trip, we traveled from Pictou, across from Prince Edward Island, along the northern shore through New Glasgow, the jagged edges of Cape George, Antigonish, Guysborough and to the end of the world, Canso, close to Cape Breton. There were no cute quokkas on this tour, though we heard tales of bald eagles ripping the heads off of seagulls. Such as it is.
The visit was fun, factually stimulating, and full of very generous people. I won’t give a full run-down of the tour, but here are some neat little nuggets I picked up:
If you grow up in these communities, everyone knows who you are by who your father is.
The Northumberland Strait is said to have the warmest water north of the Carolinas, 1,400 miles to the south.
Alas, this story is about making your first Fam Tour a good one. Below you’ll find my takeaways, as well as input from my fellow travelers on the trip.
Onto the meat.
How to Have a Successful First Fam Tour:
1) Know your angles
What kind of stories do you like to tell? Being clear with what you would like to write about helps you identify the appropriate people and threads to follow. There is so much activity each day it can be easy to miss an opportunity if you’re not on the lookout.
My preference is to write profiles about people. Based on the itinerary, I thought there might be some interesting local entrepreneurs to chat with and maybe there would be something about the growth of outdoor adventure sports.
Knowing what I wanted to write about made it easier to find leads, by asking questions like, “who would you recommend talking to about…?” or “do you know anyone doing something interesting in…?”
2) There’s only so much you can research ahead of time
Because the point of the tour is to expose you to a lot of things, places, and people you would not normally encounter, you have to remain open to stories when they present themselves.
“Do some advance research based on the itinerary,” suggests Denise Davies of Out and About Nova Scotia. “Think of possible stories [but also realize] this will change as you go on the trip.”
Denise helped turn me on to the the rich history with cooperative businesses in Canada, originating around the fishing industry of Antigonish county. That leads into today, where the country has a high concentration of cooperative climbing gyms. Why have cooperatives maintained? Other ideas that arose: Why does the inn keeper want to be in a punk rock band? How is commercial weed growing impacting rural communities?
On the other hand, I had a bulk of the Climbing Magazine article written before I went to Dover Island. There were gaps that I needed to fill in, that could only be gleaned by being on the ground: Understanding the personalities of the characters in the story, gaining a feel of a place, humanizing the idea through personal experience.
While a lot of facts can be researched online, the color and substance of a piece only comes from being there.
3) Be prepared for long days
It’s quite a bit of work to be toted around in a chariot all day to visit museums and shops, walk the beach or the woods, have catered lunches and restaurant dinners, and speak with locals from cheesemakers to historians to town Mayors…
In all seriousness, there’s a lot of information, sensory details, and social activity to take in, which can get draining after awhile. How to stay engaged while finding time to recharge was important for me as an introvert.
4) Take lots of notes and photos
“In my experience, the one consistent regret I’ve had after getting home from a press trip is that I assumed some experience or another, some subject or another, some encounter or another would never be of any use to me as a writer,” shares Darcy Rhyno, an award-winning travel writer from Shelburne.
“I’ve learned to document as much as possible from any trip with audio recordings of interviews and presentations, photos of everything from menus to interpretive signs and contact information for everyone I meet. It’s paid off many times when suddenly an opportunity arises, sometimes long after I’ve taken a trip,” he continues.
For me, it was the sheer volume of exposure that necessitated taking notes and photos in order to remember it all afterwards. Sometimes I would take photos for media usage, and for others it was simply notational.
Denise seems to agree: “I take lots of photos, not that they are all for publishing, but to help me remember. We cover a lot on a FAM trip so you need reminders.”
5) Be curious!
“Head out on a press trip with a heightened sense of curiosity,” encourages Darcy. “Everyone has a story. Dig until you find the nugget of gold.”
For me it’s about recognizing when something piques my interest, because if it catches my attention, it’s possible it will be intriguing to someone else.
6) Don’t forget to ask for contact information so you can follow up!
“Often, time is short on press trips,” warns Darcy. “If I do find a story that needs follow up, I’ll ask that person if we can be in touch in the coming weeks.”
AKA, get those business cards!
Have you been on a Fam Tour? What are your tips for having a successful trip? Comment below!
Thank you again to DEANS for inviting me to participate on the Northumberland and Eastern Shore tour!
The sweat was mounting on Ryan Wichelns’ brow. His breath was labored, his hands tiring, his vision narrowed. Like his summit push to Mt. Brooks in Denali National Park in whiteout conditions, what lay ahead was unknown.
He talks calmly about it now, but he probably gulped a few times before sending. It being an email to the editors of Backpacker Magazine containing his first ever story pitch. He says he dashed the submission off for fun, an inconsequential story idea that he didn’t expect much of.
As happens with unexpected pursuits, that throwaway email changed the direction of his life.
I don’t buy his telling though. Ryan seems like the kind of meticulous person that would carefully analyze each word to make it sound just right; that plans week-long excursions to Alaska to undertake a “technical first that links five peaks in a remote part of Denali National Park.” He strikes me as a planner with an affinity for spreadsheets.
Either way, as with many of his climbs, he’d end up scaling this new trajectory with quick progression: He’s the editor of Eastern Mountain Sport’s goEast blog, has written for Outside Magazine, Backpacker, and Alpinist, and he’s fully supported himself through writing for over a year.
That’s not a normal course for a young freelancer.
It started with a trip to Arcadia… Rhode Island.
“Arcadia is probably the only place you can backpack in the state,” he chuckles. Rhode Island being all of 37 miles wide by 48 miles long.
Backpacker bit. Ryan was now a writer.
“It taught me a valuable lesson, that you should focus on a niche. Certainly, not a lot of people were writing about obscure trips in RI.” His idea stood out and they took a chance on him.
One small trip, one small act, one big life-altering outcome.
Ryan is at the dawn of his writing career but is already one of the rare species to make a full-time living off it.
As my editor at goEast, I was curious to learn more about his own path, and to see what advice I may be able to glean from someone a few years ahead of me on this journey. In our call he shared some tips for breaking into freelance writing.
Advice on How to Become a Freelance Writer
Find a niche:
“This might be the most important thing,” Ryan declares. “There’s a lot of competition and it’s not easy to dive in if you’re pitching yourself as just another writer,” he says.
Anyone can be just another writer. What makes you stand out? What can you write about better than most others? What special angle can you provide? Find your expertise and make yourself valuable with it.
A niche can often be identified by thinking creatively. Start by considering what you already possess, such as local knowledge (which tends to be overlooked), a combination of distinct perspectives (maybe via your upbringing or education), or a particular interest you have.
“For me, it was somewhat accidental and somewhat forced. My niche was in the Northeast. Backpacker didn’t have a ton of people writing about that, but they needed the content,” Ryan offers.
Know the publication you’re pitching to: You need to understand the publication in order to appeal to the editor.
How does the story you want to pitch fit into what they publish? What is the format or structure of their stories? Are there any gaps in their content? Familiarize yourself with their articles, try to understand the reader, and think like an editor.
Write about what interests you: Ryan studied journalism in college and was the editor of the school paper, yet it wasn’t until he started writing for Backpacker that he saw a future in the pursuit: “The thing is, I never enjoyed writing all through high school… and while it was rewarding to work on an investigative piece [at university], I had more fun writing about the outdoors,” he shares.
Now when he considers potential articles, he evaluates whether it is interesting to him personally. If he’s excited by an idea, it will likely come through in the pitch and the piece.
Relationships matter: “My first editor at Backpacker took a chance on me. I give her credit for a lot of my success,” Ryan says from the onset.
“After awhile she was giving me assignments, put me up for a job with the [Outdoor Retailer (OR)] Daily. She recommended me for all sorts of press trips.”
The relationship they developed, the trust, and Ryan’s ability to deliver led to an abundance of future opportunities.
Network. Or, go where the people are: In a digital world, face time (not the app) matters.
“Going to OR and working for the Daily was the best thing I did for my outdoor industry freelance career,” Ryan notes.
Outdoor Retailer is a beacon for the industry in the U.S., attracting gear companies, athletes, media, and others involved in the space. As a reporter for the daily paper that runs during the duration of the show, Ryan was able to meet editors and writers at other publications, gain leads for stories or pick up products to test, and receive invitations for press trips.
Pitching: The bread and butter of getting in the door of a publication is the pitch, an “elevator style” presentation of a story idea with the hopes that it intrigues an editor.
The aim for a first story is just that, get a story. Any story. Ryan suggests pitching something more formulaic, such as a a round up or a short interview—in a magazine, look to the beginning sections (often known as the “Departments”) and shy away from pitching a feature.
From an editor’s perspective, it’s easier to take a chance on a new writer with something simple. It’s uncommon for editors to accept a big feature idea from a new writer without a demonstrated history.
“Once I see someone can do [a simpler piece], it becomes far easier to take the reigns off and let them do something more from their own judgement,” Ryan shares. After you have established a relationship with the editor, try pitching a slightly larger idea, then build from there.
I’ve found Tim Neville’s, The Art of Travel Writing ebook from World Nomads, to be a wonderfully helpful beginner guide that features a detailed “how to pitch” section.
A long and bumpy road: Of course, a word of caution: This path takes time.
From most accounts I’ve read, years of dedication are required before freelance writers are able to fully support themselves from writing alone. Often this path begins as a part-time thing, they have savings, or there is a very supportive spouse.
But if you can make it work, you can achieve creative flexibility, get paid to go on trips, and work from wherever you have internet access (at least intermittently).
Ryan has earned his career, step by step, much like his increasingly technical climbs after years of training.
And where one person goes, another is likely to follow; seeing an example acts like a green light for others. If you are pursuing a freelance writing career, or thinking about it, good luck–and consider doing what Ryan did, just keep moving forward.
You can learn more about Ryan Wichelns and read his work at ryanclimbs.com.
Feature photo of Ryan on Mount Rainier, from his website.