The Whole Tooth

We find a lot of shark teeth on our beach walks. And by “we” I mean other members of my family. Not me. I’m not a shark tooth finder or even hunter (unless you count the teeth still in that shark I rescued, which I don’t). I’m slightly better but not terribly lucky with sea glass. My beach combing super power is spotting half buried sand dollars and dusting them off to reveal they are perfect and complete.

Another day, another dollar

Another day, another dollar

My husband is the shark tooth king of our family. He’s found hundreds in the last couple of years. Most of the teeth he collects are from sand tiger sharks–long and narrow and dark. He also finds teeth so tiny that they look to me like a fragment of broken shell, or maybe a bug in the sand. There’s no tooth too small for his eye, it seems. But he’s still hunting for a big one.

My daughter is the sea glass queen and shark tooth princess. She doesn’t gather many shark teeth but she found one bigger than any my husband has picked up–a likely juvenile great white tooth about 1 1/4 inches long that she now wears as a pendant. Since she found it he’s been on the hunt for a larger tooth, claiming he’ll be the first of us to find one from a Megalodon.

He might still do that. But neither he nor our daughter currently hold largest tooth found honors in our family.

Weirdly, unpredictably, and still unbelievably, that honor belongs to me.

It would never have happened if I’d been walking the dog.

Our yellow lab, Quincy, now 8 months old and more than 70 pounds, is a handful. When he’s calm and his puppy brain is switched fully on he is a perfect gentleman on a leash, but when he’s distracted by sand and water and waves and gulls and other dogs (read: anywhere near the beach), he goes puppy deaf to voice commands and requires a strong hand at the other end of the leash. Consequently my husband does most of the dog walking, which isn’t compatible with scanning the sand for triangles.

I wasn’t scanning the sand either, at least not beyond making sure that I wasn’t going to step on something sharp or jellied. But off to the side of my left foot, I saw a dark glint.

“Hold up.”

Over the winter several pieces of fossilized bone have washed ashore on our favorite beach. We’ve collected numerous bone chunks of various sizes. We aren’t sure what we want to do with them–beyond piling them on every surface next to our whelk shells and sand dollars of course–but we keep gathering them anyway. I thought the glint I caught was another piece of bone until I touched it.

It was definitely not bone, fossilized or otherwise.

Only an inch of what turned out to be the center the smooth dark object was visible. All edges and ends were covered with sand. I brushed off the root end first, and then quickly picked up what I knew had to be a tooth.

But I was having trouble believing it.

I would have had trouble believing I had found any size tooth, since it was my first in nearly three years of walking these beaches. But my disbelief was bigger because the tooth I’d found was huge.

The whole tooth

The whole tooth

“Hey look at this!”

I am now the proud and happy wearer of a 2 inch long, 1 1/4 inch wide at the root, great white shark tooth pendant. It’s gaudy big and heavy and I’m not a big necklace person but I wear it anyway. I treasure my gift from the sea.

The last time I wore it to the beach a stranger stopped me and said “You didn’t find that here, did you?”

Yes I did, about a quarter of a mile down the beach, on an ordinary day, when I wasn’t even looking. I tell people I nearly tripped over it but honestly I almost passed it by. If it wasn’t for the glint and my willingness to look closer, that tooth would have been someone else’s find. This would be someone else’s story.

I’m glad it’s mine. But more than that, I’m glad I’ve learned to look for the story beyond what is first visible.

A million years ago when I first started writing, I thought that stories and creative ideas were born fully formed like babies. Sure they needed to be nurtured and to grow into their adult form, but they basically were what they appeared to be at their birth.

Sometimes that is true. But often it’s not. And if we don’t explore beyond what we readily see, or hear, or smell, or feel, or think–if we don’t test the boundaries and look below and beneath and behind–we risk not knowing.

We miss the joy of what if.

Is what we saw what we really got? Was there more to the story? What came before? Who else was involved? What more could we learn? What does it mean? Where next?

This is true for everyone and every day life. But it’s extra true for writers and artists. It applies to creators of fiction and nonfiction alike, to both entertainment and education, and in business as well as our personal lives.

The key to not missing out on the more is slowing down. Take a longer look. Brush away the sand.

Find your tooth.

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How NOT to hire a great freelance writer

Some companies treat hiring a freelance writer like hiring an employee or a temp–drafting a list of must have traits and experience and then excluding any writer that doesn’t fit that mold. But a great freelance writer isn’t an employee or temp. They are a supplier. When you contract with a freelance writer, the content they provide is a product that you, for whatever reason, can’t or choose not to create in-house. You are outsourcing, which is a completely different and yet familiar business arrangement.

Contracting with a supplier doesn’t start with an interview. It starts with a meeting where you explain your content requirements and the writer describes how those needs will be met. The goal should be the development of a comfortable business relationship that is profitable to all participants.

As you conduct your search for a supplier to create the content you need, there are a few things you should NOT do if you want to hire a great freelance writer.

1. Insist that a writer is an expert in your field, industry, or product, or has previously written for your industry.

It sounds ideal doesn’t it? It seems logical that the best freelance writer to hire is someone who already knows everything about the subject. But a Subject Matter Expert (SME) isn’t the best choice for your freelance writing project.

Why? Because…

  • Being an expert in a subject, field, or industry, doesn’t make someone a great writer, a good writer, or even a passable writer.
  • You already have SMEs on staff.
  • An SME who does happen to be a decent writer may use jargon and may have trouble converting complicated processes or concepts into straightforward copy that readers can understand.

The best choice for your freelance writing project is an expert writer. An expert writer is a professional capable of conducting research, interviewing your SMEs, coordinating with your personnel to obtain feedback and approval on drafts and revisions, and delivering finalized content on time.

2. Decide in advance that you will only hire a freelance writer who is a journalist, or is not a journalist, or who has a particular degree, or specific industry experience.

You can find a lot of advice about hiring freelance writers and much of it is conflicting. One person may urge you to hire a former journalist because they have experience interviewing and researching and writing about topics they previously knew little or nothing about. But another warns against hiring a former journalist because they might be adversarial and focus on facts. This one says you can’t go wrong if you hire writers with a college degree in English, or Communications, or Marketing, while that one claims you should only hire writers with an advanced degree in a field for your industry or decades of industry work experience.

It’s possible to find a great freelance writer with any or many of those traits, but it’s bad advice to insist on a particular background and exclude in advance any writer that doesn’t have the desired title or certification. What’s more important is the ability of the freelance writer to produce good content on your timetable.

3. Expect to get all three points on the fast-cheap-good triangle.

Professional writing is like anything else your business buys.

  • If it’s fast and cheap it might be adequate but it won’t be good.
  • If it’s fast and good it won’t be cheap.
  • If it’s good and cheap, expect it to take a while.

Don’t waste time chasing the fast, cheap, good writer mirage. Budget for a professional, find a professional, and contract with a professional. Isn’t your business worth that?

To hire a great freelance writer, look for someone who is an expert in the field of writing–someone with a demonstrated ability to organize, research, interview, and write well, and with a history of meeting deadlines. Don’t make a sometimes difficult process worse by refusing to consider a writer who could be exactly what you need.

 

It’s About Writing

As you may have noticed, some changes have been made around here since the first of the year. In addition to giving the site a makeover, I’ve streamlined the categories for my blog posts and added a new page, About Writing.

Let’s tackle those blog changes first. Most blog posts are now placed into at least one of three main categories–Creative Nature, Writing Words, and Content Characteristics.

Creative Nature posts are about the cyclical nature of chronic creativity. What does a creative life look, smell, or sound like? These are the topics of posts in the creative nature section. And if it’s my beach posts you love, you’ll find them in this category.

Writing Words contains posts about tips and tricks of the trade, issues in the writing world, and general How To information about many kinds of writing. Posts in this section focus on the writing process, from idea to draft, through revision, and then to the final form.

The Content Characteristics category is for posts about the product rather than the process–developing content, reworking, reusing, and repurposing content, content marketing, writing project management, and organizing, compiling, designing, and managing documentation systems, collections, and manuals/books. I haven’t posted any blogs for this category yet but I’ve got one in the queue and more to follow.

Previous blog entries have been reclassified into the new categories. If more than one category applies to a post it will be found in each appropriate category. Posts that don’t fit into any of those, such as housekeeping and announcement posts like this one, will remain uncategorized.

The new About Writing page is designed to provide access to not just blog posts but also longer articles, white papers/case studies, and eventually courses and ebooks about writing. I’m in the process of revamping my course materials from my writing instructor days into ecourses and webinars. When completed, they’ll be added. I’ve launched the page with a variety of articles and the quick access links to blog post categories. As more content is added I’ll post brief announcements.

Now about that makeover. I’m going for cleaner, more direct, and easier to navigate and find what you want to read. The Beach Writer site is for all kinds of writers and creatives, as well as people looking for someone who can do their writing for them. That’s a lot to ask of one website so please let me know where you think I’m succeeding and where I should try again.

Finally, a large, sun-drenched, sand-covered THANK YOU to all of you who read, follow, and encourage me! And for those who are still experiencing winter, a glimpse of something warm…

The Poles at Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

The Poles at Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

 

 

 

 

The coming of winter means black skimmers

I’ve never been very good at the whole New Year’s reflection and resolution-making routine. I’m more of a cycles person. I prefer marking time by watching the seasons come and go, and enjoying the uniqueness, and the familiarity, of each.

This is the start of my third winter in Jax, and I’m getting the hang of what to expect.

Winter in Jax is cool enough to empty the beaches of swimmers and sun worshipers most days, leaving plenty of room for walkers, runners, cyclists, fishermen, kite-fliers, treasure hunters swinging metal detectors hoping to find something wonderful hidden in the sand, and sea birds. Large flocks gather on the beach during the winter months, most of them a mix of two or three types of gulls and terns, sandpipers and willets.

Black Skimmers and sea birds pic

Black Skimmers and friends on Jax Beach, 2012

Winter also means groups of Black Skimmers will gather along the shore. Their dark feathers and bright orange beaks jump out in contrast to the whites, greys, and browns of most of the shore birds, sand, sea foam, and cold weather surf. This is the only time of year when the black skimmers are local and they don’t stay more than a couple of months before moving on. But while they’re here, they add a bit of interest to my shoreline walks.

More skittish of humans than our year round birds, the black skimmers tend to stay bunched together and when disturbed they usually fly off and land again as a group. During one of my walks last year a flock repeatedly flew beautiful black and orange arcs out over the water each time I got close. I’m looking forward to their return later this month, just as I anticipate the flowers dotting the dunes in spring, the summer heat that restricts my walks to early or late and prompts beach goers to set up rainbow and gem colored umbrellas, and the fall nor’easters that rough up the surf and send ashore all kinds of things previously claimed by the sea.

These patterns and routines free my mind so that I can create and build worlds with words. The occasional splash of color, wheel and swoop, beds of shells and sea glass, or stray beached baby shark, remind me to notice the different and unique among the known and familiar. I need both, in the right balance, to inspire my best writing.

My business writing happens year round, of course, on the client’s timetable. But my personal writing tends to be a bit seasonal. In the winter I mostly revise, refresh, and plan new projects that I’ll tackle in the spring and hopefully complete by late fall.

By the time the skimmers arrive I’ll have already settled into my winter beach routine and the windy, chilly days when I walk more briskly and with my hood up will be commonplace. Wonderfully familiar but customary, until I see that first black skimmer. Then my imagination will fly.

Black Skimmers pic

Black Skimmers fly by on Jax Beach, 2012

Your beach is not the one they are looking for

I haven’t lived up to my name much lately. I haven’t written many words in the last few weeks and I’ve set foot in the sand just a couple of times.

The latter is likely a significant cause of the former. I do my best work creatively when I regularly seek out and soak in the inspiration of the natural world around me. Sleep is important too. But none of those were abundant for me in November.

Why? Quincy.

Quincy and his stick

Quincy playing with sticks at Hanna Beach.
Photo by Jeff Janda

Quincy is a yellow Labrador puppy we added to our family November 9th.

Bringing Quincy into our lives destroyed our pre-puppy schedule. Our days were immediately different and sleep was scarce for the first week. That’s all to be expected, of course, when a baby joins a family.

We’re all adjusting to new routines now, and slowly adding back in those activities pushed aside by the urgency of housebreaking and socializing a puppy. Quincy is adjusting to living with a writer, taking naps under my desk while he’s still small enough to fit there.

Quincy at a tidal pool on Hanna Beach

Quincy resisting wading into a tidal pool on Hanna Beach.
Photo by Jeff Janda

When we did manage to grab some beach time amidst the recent craziness, we introduced Quincy to the sun, sand, and water that will be a big part of his life now that he’s a part of ours. It didn’t take long for him to discover the joy of running through the sand and splashing with us in the surf. He was a bit suspicious about tidal pools but finally followed our daughter into one.

During our most recent beach walk, Quincy was trotting up ahead of us, looking back and bouncing around in circles urging us to hurry up. Every shell he came across went first into his mouth and then into our hands, and back to the sand. Every stick was scooped up by Quincy and displayed proudly until he reached the next one, always dropping the old in favor of the new.

It was all new to Quincy. And that made it all new again for us.

I’ve written before about how viewing (or reviewing) something from a different perspective helps with the editing process. And seeing things differently than most of our peers is the essence of creativity. It’s also an important part of knowing your audience.

You have to be able to look at what you’re writing from the perspective of your reader to inform, persuade, or entertain.

Quincy watching

Quincy watching gulls at Hanna Beach.

When I take people to my favorite beach, I point out where we watch dolphins play, where and how we find shells, sea glass, and shark teeth, and how the sun setting behind us reflects back on the ocean and eastern horizon. When I take Quincy to my beach, I show him where he can find sticks, watch (and hope to chase) sea gulls, and run for long stretches in the sand and sunshine. Different visitors want to experience the same beach in their own way.

Knowing your audience can be as simple as focusing on their interests and guiding them toward their goals. You don’t have to share those goals, or agree with their perspectives, but you do have to understand their views if you want to create something with impact. Find out what they’re looking for, what they want to know, what they didn’t realize they were lacking, and give it to them.

Imagine looking at your beach through their eyes, and then show them what they want to see.

Hanna Beach Sparkly

Sun-sparkled sand and surf at Hanna Beach.

 

 

Photos attributed to Jeff Janda are used here with his permission. See more of Jeff’s beach photography by following beachpoet on Instagram.

Luck has nothing to do with it

Hanna Beach at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

Hanna Beach at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park

It happened again last week. Someone said I was lucky to live near the beach. It’s a maddeningly common phrase. You’re so lucky to…have thick, curly hair…be tall…be athletic…be talented/artistic/creative…win the lottery.

Some of those do involve luck. Games of chance. Genetics. But most of what we achieve or have in life owes nothing to happenstance.

We worked for it. We sacrificed. We failed. We tried, tried again. We (wo)manned up. We planned. Practiced. Persevered.

We didn’t leave anything to chance.

Our language is filled with platitudes and clichés about luck vs. achievement through struggle, courage, and will because it is a central question of being human. But don’t worry, I have no plans to answer it here.  Probably couldn’t even if I wanted to. I’ll stick to something I know, which is that luck wasn’t involved with my proximity to sand and surf.

I live near the beach by choice, courage, determination, and sacrifice.

I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t offered a dream job with paid relocation. I didn’t win the lottery.

Jax Beach

Jax Beach

I set a goal.

What I did to achieve that goal is too long of a tale to tell here. It’s book-length, actually, and the subject of my current WIP (for my readers who aren’t writers, WIP = work-in-progress). Eventually it will be finished and published but I didn’t want to wait that long to deliver one of the morals of the story…

Don’t wait for your beach to find you.

Recently I visited a close friend who found her beach in the middle of the country, along Lake Michigan. We have proclaimed ourselves sand sisters and our personal Facebook pages often feature dueling photos of sand, sunsets, and seagulls. Another thing we have in common is that luck didn’t have anything to do with her relocation either.

Indiana Dunes Beach at Indiana Dunes State Park

Indiana Dunes Beach at Indiana Dunes State Park

And it doesn’t have anything to do with creativity.

Writers, poets, sculptors, painters, photographers, dancers, singers, musicians, designers, architects, engineers, and anyone else who uses inspiration and imagination to make something from the same raw ingredients that others pass by aren’t creative because they are lucky. They work. They practice. They fail. They try again.

They choose to create.

You can too. All it takes is realizing that luck has nothing to do with it.

North Jax Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, from the Jax Beach Fishing Pier

North Jax Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, from the Jax Beach Fishing Pier

 

All in a day’s walk, or, that time I saved a shark

At first I thought it was dead. Maybe it was something discarded by a fisherman. Maybe it was half eaten by gulls with just the good side tuned my way. I couldn’t tell. I was still too far away to see detail beyond a vague fish shape carried in by a larger wave and deposited on the sand as the water receded.

A few steps closer and it was clearly a full fish. Then it was clearly a little more than a foot long, smooth, and gray, with eyes on the outer edges of a flat, curved head. I was staring down at a baby shovelhead shark.

photo (1)

As soon as I saw what it was, I did what I always do when I see something new (or newly dead) on the beach. I took a photo. I don’t know if it was the shutter sound or my presence but something caused the shark to move. No longer a limp carcass on the sand, the shark lifted his head and twisted toward me, just as I took a second pic.

What happened next was a series of hilariously uncharacteristic actions on my part that slurred together into a surrealistic event that I would sum up in five short words when my husband walked up to me several minutes later.

“I just saved a shark!”

“What?”

First, I should explain that it’s not unusual for members of our family to rescue creatures of all sizes and habitats that find themselves lost, in need, or otherwise distressed. Our first family pet was a malnourished shelter rescue kitten. There was that summer when my husband and son managed to keep our front yard mowed while simultaneously protecting a nest of baby rabbits. And our daughter has repatriated many a stray praying mantis, butterfly, lady bug or beetle that found its way into houses or pools over the years. Since we relocated to the Sunshine state, frogs, toads, and lizards have been added to the list of hoppers and crawlers that we’ve scooped up and released back into the wild. At the beach we’ve returned more than a few stranded starfish to the sea, and this spring my daughter plucked a crab from a boxed in corner and helped him find the sand again.

This is what we do. Usually, however, it’s my husband, daughter, or son that does the actual scooping, plucking, grabbing, and releasing, not because I am squeamish but because I am slow. I’m either late to the party altogether, or wasting time assessing the situation while someone else swoops in and takes action.

But when the baby shark lifted its head, alerting me to the fact that it was alive, I was the only one around. Hanna Beach was empty for at least half a mile south–the direction I’d just walked from–and a glance north revealed my husband was still well out of shouting range. I was on my own.

photo (2)

Balancing my iPhone in one hand with a sand dollar I’d liberated from the shore earlier in my walk, I reached down, gently rolled the shark onto its belly, and grabbed him right behind the first dorsal fin. As I picked him up he swung his head side to side, trying to wiggle free of my grasp. Apparently he didn’t think being up in the air was an improvement on writhing in the sand. By this point, however, I was determined to put him back where he belonged, so I tightened my grip and followed that with the most logical next step. I spoke full sentences out loud to a baby shovelhead shark.

“Hold still! I’m taking you back to your home.”

It worked. Or he’d been out of the ocean way too long. Or both. Whatever the truth of it was he remained still for the rest of our journey. I waded knee-deep so that he wouldn’t immediately be washed back ashore, placed him in the sea, and let go.

At first nothing happened. Then he listed to his left side and I thought I was too late. But suddenly his tail flipped sideways, he righted himself, and he swam back and forth in front of me a couple of times. Instinctively, I stuck my hand back in the water behind his tail and made that shooing motion all Moms make to encourage slow children, dogs, cats, goats, toads, or anything else that needs to pick up their pace.

“Go!”

Baby shovelhead shark took off, his fin breaking the surface briefly past the next wave before he disappeared into the Atlantic. After wading back out of the surf I watched the coastline until my husband caught up to me and we both felt sure the shark was safely out to sea.

The remarkable thing about that experience was how unremarkable it was. Sure, that was the first and only time I’ve carried a shark (of any kind or size) back out to sea, but it wasn’t the only interesting thing about that day’s walk, or any of the other hundreds of walks I’ve taken on these northeastern Florida beaches.

Also on that walk, I found the sand dollar I mentioned earlier, and had a delightful conversation with a young woman and her preschool daughter about the creature that lived in a whelk shell that they’d found and her mother had to eventually bury back in the sand so her daughter would leave it alone. Routinely we watch dolphins play out past the sand bars and osprey and pelicans hunting along the shore. We hear gulls squabble, at each other and sometimes at us. We’ve seen manta rays almost close enough to touch. We’ve had interesting and sometimes outright bizarre conversations with fishermen, walkers, and shark tooth hunters from all over the country and just down the road, including a man who’d cycled to Jax Beach from LA.

It’s not unusual for something unusual to happen on our walks. It’s weird if a walk is routine.

I don’t know if interesting and offbeat encounters happen to our family because we are creative people, or if we, as writers, poets, dancers, and artists, bring our altered perspective to otherwise mundane situations and make them more than they might be on their own. But I like to think that these experiences are there for all to have, if they make time to fully interact with the world around us.

What I’m sure of, though, is that these experiences are critical for creative people to have if they want to continue building worlds from words, paint, motion, pixels, or clay. Before you can write what you know, you have to know. And more often than not, knowing comes from doing. Living. Experiencing.

Make it an everyday thing.

photo (4)Edited to add link to First Friday Link Party for Writers.