My Shitty Mantra

Mr. HG had both had long, stressful workweeks, and a non-rainy Sunday was in the forecast. A couple hours under the trees with the dog would be the mind-cleansing, soul-restoring excursion we needed.

It was true — our minds were cleansed by exhaustion and our souls were restored by surviving. It was a far harder hike than the map let on.

We’d done most of the easy trail loops at the nearest state park, and they hardly justified the drive. But the last time I’d been there with our ever-game mixed-breed dingo-looking dog, I’d taken a closer look at the map. There was another loop! It was about five miles, which sounded perfect.

My mantra isn’t Instagram-worthy, but my dog definitely is.

We parked and hung our state parks pass in the window, then headed out onto the trail. It was muddy, but not horrible. It had been a really hard winter of rain, snow, more rain, and mudslides. So a muddy trail was whatever.

It went up and down for a while, and we saw mule deer and their tracks and their pellety poop. We’d gone a couple miles when we saw the sign for the loop proper, the 2.5-mile lollipop at the far end of the trail. It had been a more challenging hike than we expected, so I checked in with Mr. HG and the dog. They were game. So we went on.

It wasn’t long before we were hiking along what is usually a lovely little stream but in these conditions was a very full, fast little river. The water table was so high at the bottom of this valley that the trail was an unavoidable 4 inches of water. Over the tops of hiking shoes, up to the 65-pound dog’s knees. Or his ankles. You know where I mean. The water was deep and there was no going around.

This was the first time my shitty mantra popped into my mind that day: What are you gonna do, stop?

Like I do every time this not friendly version of my very own voice pipes up to ask this question, I imagined stopping. In this case, it meant standing, sitting, and/or eventually lying down in a shallow swamp. I would likely become like those dead people trapped in the swamp that Frodo reaches out to in Lord of the Rings. I would wait there for the mule deer to nudge my pale, bloated body. So no, I was not going to stop.

After that, we rose out of the valley. And dipped back down. And up. And up. And down. And up. It was a lot more elevation gain and loss than we anticipated. We took a lot of breaks. I was glad I’d overprepared and brought water and snacks for what was supposed to be a pleasant little Sunday hike.

On one of the long, steep uphills, my shitty mantra piped up again: What are you gonna do, stop?

Well, no, but I can pause. I can catch my breath. I can pet the dog and make sure he’s doing okay. I can stretch my calves and appreciate the trees instead of staring at the muddy trail in exhausted frustration.


I don’t only hear my shitty mantra on hikes. I hear it on long runs too, where I imagine stopping a couple miles from home. Maybe calling for a ride. Maybe crying on the curb. Maybe wishing I’d brought money so I could buy a restorative scone at the coffee shop.

I also hear it when I have the kind of overbooked, deadline-filled week of writing and editing that I’d had before we hiked what turned out to be a black-diamond-rated trail, the only one in the park. As my eyes are about to fall out of my head and my brain wants to shut off with the help of much, much whiskey, I hear my shitty mantra:

What are you gonna do, stop?

And just like on the trail, just like on a long run, but maybe even more than either of those, the answer is no. I imagine what stopping would mean: abandoning my writing studio, getting a real job with hours and expectations that aren’t my own, buying business casual clothing. Oh, hell no.

But maybe I can pause. Maybe I can pet the dog, who keeps a bed in my studio, and make sure he’s doing okay. (In truth, he checks in with me to see if I’m doing okay far more often. He’s a good dog.) Maybe I can take a day off. Ha ha ha! I’m a freelance writer and editor who’s establishing a publishing business. Day off. No fucking way. How about just taking enough time to rewatch Rogue One? Maybe we can try that?

So it’s not a positive, Instagram-ready mantra. I’m not doing it while laughing and eating salad and wearing yoga pants. It’s not even very kind. It’s a pretty shitty mantra, really. But it has kept me going through rough spots for years, so what am I gonna do, stop?

Agents! This Is What I Can Do for You

At my writing group meeting last night, Carly asked me what I’ve been asking myself for the past three months: “You’ve got a fiction book and a non-fiction book; how are you going to find an agent? Do you have to send queries out to different agents for different books?”

That is indeed what I’ve been doing so far. I finished the non-fiction book, an empowering feminist diatribe cloaked in a humorous how-to book, last spring, and I just finished the novel, a historical adventure novel featuring gutsy girl anthropologists in 1926, not long ago. Agents are pretty clear about what they like, and many do not like both of these things. So I query as I can and hope for a good match.

This all made me wonder what my ideal agent might be like. Of course he or she would be funny and forceful and find every word I wrote brilliant; that’s what every writer wants. What I really want is an agent who can help me sell all that I write — and I write a lot. And I want to write more.

I’ve been freelance writing for magazines, newspapers, and web sites since 2006, which means I’ve written hundreds of articles. Most of these were on automotive topics for the New York Times, Details, Sports Car Market, and other publications. I’ve written nearly a hundred articles for (and related Discovery websites) alone, covering everything from Nascar sponsorships to Atkinson engines to oil drilling and driving techniques. I’ve got a solid platform in automotive writing, one that I’d like to expand into tech and science writing.

The non-fiction book I’ve written, A Car of One’s Own, builds on that automotive platform. I’ve been one of few women in the room at many car events, and I’ve been nearly ignored by salesmen in showrooms. After a decade of automotive journalism (that’s where I got my start in publishing), I realized that the intimidation women felt — no matter how much money they made or how many years of education they’d earned — was pointless. There’s no reason a woman can’t use the same shopping savvy she uses when buying a purse or refrigerator in the automotive arena. I used my connections to get interviews that back up my assertions and lend a little levity to a pain the ass process. I can make it empowering, but it is nearly impossible to get around the fact that buying a car is time consuming and annoying.

The fiction book stars Gunn Flagely, cultural anthropologist, and her reluctant sidekick Nell Kelly, archaeologist. In 1926, what may be the oldest skull in the New World is found in Oregon by Gunn’s father, also an archaeologist. Nell is shipped out West from Columbia University to verify its age — only to find the skull has been stolen. The scientific Nell Kelly is plopped into the side car on flapper Gunn Flagely’s Harley-Davidson, and the chase is on across Oregon, from Portland to Eugene to Joseph. Along the way, Nell has sex with a cowboy, Gunn gets shot by the bad guy, and Clark Gable makes a cameo.

I have two more completed novels that require revisions to be saleable, and a stack of essays and short stories that also need revisions — some more, some less. I’m not working around a day job; writing is my day job. All damn day. And I love it. This also means I’ve got a flexible schedule and mobile work life, the better to fit in a blog tour, or a physical tour of book stores, or maintaining a focused Twitter feed or Facebook page or whatever other marketing ideas will help sell books and keep my platform floating.

What I need is someone to help me get all of this writing off my desk and into the world. Print, online, tablet, and ebook formats are all cool with me. More than cool. The more media I can cover, the fewer eggs I have to balance in one precariously woven freelance basket. I am quite happy to make money writing, since that’s how I’ve kept the dog in kibble for years now. In my dream world, someone helps me to make more money from the work I produce, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or journalism, and I share a piece of the pile with that someone. Could that someone be you, Dear Agent?

An nine-hundred -word open letter posted on my blog is an unconventional way to find an agent, and possibly a ridiculous one. It’s far more likely that I will query an agent the traditional way and that agent will visit this site while their second cup of coffee cools. That agent will either find the query and pages in her inbox plus this blog post evidence of a charming, hard-working writer worth representing (I did mention sharing my little pile of money, don’t forget) or as a sad little cry for recognition in a vast ocean of writers. It’s both, really. But my ideal agent will be the former, and we’ll have long and productive careers together, no matter what weird thing or things publishing becomes in the next decades. I’ll still be writing, and it would be great to have someone on my side while I do.

The Nouveau Commonplace

I learned a few months ago that the word “commonplace” has an older meaning than the current definition of something being so common it’s no longer interesting. It’s the kind of word you’d think hipsters would use more often than they do.

But “commonplace” used to be a notebook where you wrote down all those quotes and ideas that you thought were cool and thought-provoking and inspiring, and maybe why you found them to be so. I wanted to do this, but I already had too many ways to capture the crap that floated around in my mind — Evernote, electronic to-do lists, reporter’s notebook, Google calendar, paper planner — all somehow too connected and yet not connected enough. Did I really need to add another dedicated notebook or app for quotes I came across in blogs and books?

The answer was yes, and I did it by using a tool I’ve already got: my paper planner. I use a hardcover weekly planner with the days of the week on the verso and a lined page on the recto. I’ve been using the lined side for project-related to-do lists, which only ever take up half the page. I now use the bottom half as a commonplace. I always have it with me, whether I’m reading The Portable MFA on my Kindle, or Desolation Angels in paperback, or the New York Times using an app on my phone.

Here are a few gems I’ve read and miraculously kept track of, thanks to this old commonplace idea:

Devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous.  – Alice Munro, “Haven,” from the March 5, 2012, New Yorker (I am prepared to be fully ridiculous!)

In lab studies, mice, rats, and monkeys drink more after periods of isolation. – New York Times 3/15, with a note about what that might explain about writers

Funny how Cody [Cassady] never comes to poetry readings or any of these formalities, he only came once, to honor Irwin’s [Ginsberg’s] first reading, and when Irwin had finished howling the last poem and there was a dead silence in the hall it was Cody, dressed in his Sunday suit, who stepped up and offered his hand to the poet (his buddy Irwin with whom he’d hitch hiked thru the Texases and Apocalypses of 1947) – I always remember that as a typical humble beautiful act of friendship and good taste. – Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels

When you suffer a thing you think is writer’s block, as with any demon or ghost, deny its existence. “The power of the word count compels you!” you scream, flecking it with the holy water of writers (aka, whiskey). – Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds blog, 3/26/12

Reminder! My published work is now conveniently and prettily located at!

Fire Up the Blog! It’s Time to Get Serious, Y’All!

Actually, I’ve been serious for quite some time now. Nose the grindstone and word counts accumulated and deadlines all met with room to spare. But alas, with all the work I’ve been doing, my poor lonely blog has not been updated for months. Babies have been conceived and born in the time that has lapsed since my last post. (Not my babies.)

What, I’m sure you’re asking, has been going on to keep me so busy?

  • I finished a book tentatively titled “A Car of One’s Own.” It’s half straight-up how-to guide for buying a car and half feminist diatribe. It’s funnier than it sounds.
  • I reviewed a dozen or so cars for the new web site, which is aimed straight at women looking to buy cars.
  • I participated in Mudfest, the annual SUV/CUV competition held by the Northwest Automotive Press Association. Plenty of mud for all, except the Jeep and Land Rover guys. There’s never enough mud for them.
  • I picked up a new occasional gig writing about exotic cars for Consumers Digest.

If you want to keep track of my work, I suggest heading over to, where I’ve got a page that neatly collects everything in a “Best Of” kind of format. Actually, if you want to keep track of your own work, I suggest heading to whether you want to see what I’m doing or not.

I’ve also been working on novel in my spare time and running with my dog nearly every day to offset the whiskey I drink. To do all this, I take my daily planning strategy from Dr. Temperance Brennan on an early episode of “Bones”:

Interviewer: How do you juggle twin careers as a best-selling author and crime-fighting scientist?
Well I do one, then the other.

What I’ve Learned from Research and Documentation

I do lots of work for lots of different outlets, but there are a few publications (online and print) that I work with regularly, including, which is part of the Discovery network. I’ve been writing for their Autos channel since 2008 — nearly three years — and the most important thing I’ve learned from my regular, twice-monthly assignments is how to organize research and documentation.

How Stuff Works does not tolerate shoddy work. My editor requires that all my sources be listed at the end of every piece I turn in, whether it’s a one-page Question of the Day article or a multi-page, in-depth exploration of a topic. Every web site, book, interview, press release, etc., has to be included. Now, because there are few things I like better than going down the research rabbit hole, leaving myself a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of documentation notes is a habit I’m grateful to have developed.

When I first started working with How Stuff Works, my editor (hi, Scott!) required that I turn in an outline for approval, then begin on the article itself. After a few months, he trusted me to structure the articles on my own, but I still use the outline even now. I use it for everything that requires research, since it helps me take that mass of information that I’ve accumulated in the rabbit hole and make it comprehensible.

I’ve even tried the research and outline approach in my fiction writing, but it’s less helpful there. Where my non-fiction work is kind of like building an engine according to carefully drawn-up plans, thanks to years of How Stuff Works assignments, my fiction writing tends to be more like driving a muscle car with wide tires, no brakes, and a gleeful death wish.

Remind Me Why I Love My Job

Ah, yes. I love my job because sometimes I get to write articles with fascinating story lines, long-ish word counts, and fantastic pictures. Like this one for the New York Times Autos section, on the Allure of the Automobile at Portland Art Museum this summer.

The cars themselves were great, beautiful, worthy of art museum treatment. But the really interesting part came in talking to Don Urquhart, who was in charge of the logistics of bringing in some of the largest, heaviest passenger cars ever built. Also some of the most rare and expensive vehicles on the planet. No pressure.

I got to report this story in the way I like best. I did preliminary research and interviews to make sure I knew what I was talking about, then hung out at the museum for something like seven hours the day the first eight or nine cars were moved in. I watched Steve McQueen’s racing Jag drip oil onto the cardboard placed on the museum floor and heard the Le Mans-winning Ferrari get fired up. I watched a guy’s hand get pinched between an expensive outdoor statue and a more expensive 70-year-old tank of a car. I heard his friend make fun of him.

I had written a draft with 400 words too many the week before; when I got home that night, I had to add the precise details I had witnessed that day and cut lots of extraneous bits. I turned it in that night (only 200 words over my assigned count), it was on my editor’s desk in New York the next morning, and it was online — along with a gorgeous slide show by Leah Nash — by Friday.

To Holiday, or Not to Holiday …

I am writing this at my desk, in my office, on Memorial Day, which is officially a holiday in the United States, yet here I am at my desk. Most people are camping this weekend — or as a friend of a friend on Facebook called camping, “drinking near trees.” I did not leave town for the three-day weekend for two reasons: soccer and work.

The first is an understandable and delightful way to spend a holiday weekend. I have season tickets to all home Portland Timbers games (Rose City ’til I Die), plus the reserves team, a series of games that keeps the second stringers in fighting trim. There was a regular season game on Sunday and there is a reserves match this afternoon against our rivals from Seattle. Must not miss.

But the second reason, work, is one I struggle with every holiday, and most regular weekends, too. I’m very busy right now, with two deadlines looming this week and a huge deadline that must be completed at the last minute for logistical reasons next Monday. It’s like three axes hanging over my head — and not the green-and-white Timbers logo axe, either.

My struggle is, do I work a bit even on weekends and holidays in an attempt to ease the load in the coming week? Or do I take a full weekend off for R&R knowing the shit storm will begin Tuesday morning? I’m probably going to work this morning, at least until it’s time to head to the stadium for kick-off, and I did work a bit Saturday and Sunday, too. But I wonder if I shouldn’t have slacked off more to store my own reserves for the work this week.

If anyone out there, especially freelancers, has advice, hit me in the comments. And if you’re reading this the day I post it, Monday, May 30, you can see the link to my professional profile on

Keeping Up Online Appearances

This is not a rant about the intertubes or my lack of self-control when it comes to IMing my writer friends.

It is a weak excuse for taking four months to update my personal web site.

I have an active online presence; really, I’m everywhere. I’m on Twitter (the feed is down there in the right-hand corner of your screen), I’m on Facebook, I’m on LinkedIn, and I’m on Flickr. I also have a blog I’ve devoted to my dog that, oddly, gets a couple dozen visitors a day. (You can read about my obsession with my shelter dog here.) I have four email accounts I use and one I don’t, but it came with my last ISP. Yes, it is a Hotmail/MSN account.

For my professional life, I am the Guide to Exotic Cars for, which requires another handful of blog posts and other new content each week. I also write cool articles for’s science and autos channels, and keep up the auto events calendar for the New York Times. This doesn’t even count my offline work, which amounts to about half of my business each month.

Now for the weak excuse: I’m all over the damn Internet; why do you need me to write anything here? You don’t. I know. But this is the place you land when you Google my name, or you follow a link in my email signature. If you’re, say, an editor I’ve never worked with, a post from last November is not going to impress you, nor are links to articles dated four months ago.

So I hereby promise halfheartedly to keep my own personal web site more up to date. But know this, editors: if this site gets behind again, it’s because I’m chasing down a story for you.