THIS STORY IS DEDICATED TO MY MOTHER, who told me daily when I was growing up that I could be a professional dancer or writer someday, as long as I was willing to work hard and make a great many sacrifices. She told me to “be so amazing that they’ll wanna pay you double for the magic you make.”
Whenever a movie depicts a working writer character, she’s sitting at a desk in a Pottery Barn-esque home office, and her windows face out on a cool blue winter lake.
The writer character is wearing a messily-neat ponytail, a man’s shirt with the tails out (but not a wrinkle to be seen), and a pair of no-nonsense but well-tailored chinos.
The writer-character is almost always white, of a certain generation, well-to-do, and serene. In the scene I picture in my mind, the writer character is briskly sailing toward her latest deadline on a smooth medley of Kenny G songs in a fast montage with tons of good natural light.
The writer character’s reward for all of her labors will be a chaste kiss from her new lover, the somewhat freeze-dried-looking Jack Nicholson.
I can’t watch these things anymore.
As an actual professional writer who has been meeting actual print deadlines for nigh on two decades, I find these cinematic depictions daffy. Why isn’t that writer hip-deep in crumpled up notes from two-weeks worth of phone interviews? How come she’s not gulping her third pot of coffee that day because she’s got three deadlines to hit and five of her interviews haven’t returned their calls?
Where’s the part where she’s standing on her tip-toes screaming at the photographer who has decided—again—to hire his stick-sized girlfriend as the model for a story about stylish plus-sized professional clothes? How has her makeup managed to stay in place all day given that she’s gotten fifteen hours of sleep out of the last 72 hours, and she is about to start hallucinating right about now that Ernest Hemingway himself will type up her dictation of the last thousand words on Texas Gov. Rick “Captain Hairdo” Perry if she can make “Papa” coffee? Most of my professional writer friends also happen to be women of color— how come the writer lady is always nondescript and Angloi?
And WHY, for the love of Zeus, is she ALWAYS wearing chinos? Where are the &*#@ed up jeans? The huipils? The motorcycle boots? The permanent murderous look in her eye?
Hollywood may not be able to tell you what a freelance writer looks like and does, but I sure as hell can and will.
I know that many of you are antsy to do some freelance writing of your own, but you’ve been intimidated by the many different suggestions and approaches given by people who don’t know jack-s*** about freelancing or writing.
Maybe you’re already freelancing and you don’t know if you’re doing it the right way.
Maybe you think you might want to become a full-time freelance writer and you’re not sure if it’s a good move for you financially or otherwise.
I can’t tell you everything there is to know about freelance writing because I’m not interested in becoming omnipotent about theories of freelance writing, nor do I want to become some sort of ridiculous subject expert about the constantly changing marking of freelance writing. What I can tell you is what I do in order to fetch up a living as a freelance writer. And I will also tell you what I think of writing in general and in specific to help you see what kind of people write the words that you read (and maybe even enjoy!)
You may become a great freelance writer if:
1. You’re a real writer.
If you’re a real writer, you have developed the stamina to sit down and keep writing even when writing is going terribly. Why do you have to keep writing? Because you can’t imagine not writing. Because you have three deadlines today, two tomorrow, and six on Sunday. You have four phone interviews to do this afternoon; a studio visit plus interview with a painter tomorrow; and then the governor has got that ridiculous press talk sometime on Friday. Right after that, you will be running to the —— Theatre to review a visiting dance company’s show. That story is the one you will be filing by phone at 11 p.m. and the show ends at 10 p.m. (Yes, that means you’ll be writing the review in your head as you watch the show on stage.)
Deadlines don’t give a damn whether you’re in the mood or not or if you have a muse or feel “inspired” today. And no one’s interested in a writer that cuts corners by doing the minimum to meet the deadline— if you’ve been listening to “experts” who tell you how to churn out “quick content,” you need to rethink your role models, because no one actually wants to read a writer whose not actually interested in writing. And yes, there’s work involved with creating great writingii.
2. You’re willing to hustle.
Twice a week, you sit down with your notebook and your eye on the clock and you brainstorm stories. You put down any story idea that comes to mind— no matter how outlandish, or expensive, or odd. After you’ve spent 20 minutes penning a list (plus compiling any other story ideas you set out in the notebooks you keep in every room of your house/apartment), you go through and tweak any idea that is:
Banal — Everybody’s written this exact story. How can you freshen it up and make it new for your pitch? What special something do you have that you can to bring to the table that an editor can’t get from a staff writer? And don’t ever pitch a story you wouldn’t want to read— you’re going to get offered plenty of assignments that will require you to find a point-of-entry to help you keep it interesting for yourself and your readers.
“Leggy” — In my book, leggy means way more research than story— publications are always going to pay you by the story, but you need to bill yourself hourly. (Sometimes even quarter-hourly.) If you estimate a story you want to pitch will take 20 hours of interviews/research/writing/revising/editing, but you will be paid a flat fee of X dollars to do it— you’re not going to pitch that story because you don’t write for minimum wage. (There are exceptions to every rule— sometimes an editor might have more wiggle room in their budget for a truly spectacular story, but you need to present the time/money problem alongside your pitch.)
Time-sensitive — Is it two weeks from Halloween and you’ve got a Halloween feature? If it’s a newspaper feature pitch, shelve it for next year. Halloween story deadlines were firmed up by your features editors no later than the end of August (but you know that because you already did your October pitches in mid-August.) Magazine story? Maybe. Features and specialty editors at your favorite magazines are setting up next year’s schedule right now. (In this scenario, you already turned in the October copy for last year’s Halloween story to ——— Magazine back in June. You savvy?)
There’s a lot more to consider about ideas and pitches, but that information you can get from any recent copy of the Writer’s Market, a yearly publication that all writers buy at least every other year. (It’s okay to buy last year’s copy at a cheaper rate, just so you know.) Writer’s Market, and it’s specialized subsidiary publications Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market (and the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market are your most invaluable resources, next to a shelf loaded with dictionaries, thesauruses, your AP Stylebook and at least one battered copy of Strunk and White. (What? You don’t own a copy of the Writer’s Digest 2014, 2015, or 2016? Go ahead and buy a copy now, darlin’!)
3. You give a great pitch.
Okay, so let’s jump to the part where you call up your editor in New York or you go down to visit “editors’ row” at your local big daily, toting your notebook with this week’s list. Make sure you call and find out when the best time is to catch your editor’s attention— don’t call and launch into a pitch to her if you know she’s on deadline every Monday. Generally, don’t ever launch off like that— it’s just kinda rude. When you do have your sit down or phone call with your editor, be prepared, be well-fed and if necessary, caffeinated, and you had better have more than one pitch at the ready. In all ways, you want be warmed up enough to think on your feet and throw out fresh pitches if something comes to you on the spot.
The components of a good pitch are a simple two-sentence question, followed by a list of potential resources for the story, closed with all the finishing touches to make your editor’s job easier, such as photographs, graphs or artwork, and any sidebars or follow-up stories.
If you were pitching the story you’re reading right now, the pitch might go something like this, articulated at lightning speed to an editor who has 30 seconds to spare. Okay, go:
Something I’ve been wondering about lately are these experts who claim to know a faster system for writing. What does it actually take to become a freelance writer? Why do we mystify how writers work, especially in a day and age where content aggregators like The Huffington Postiii swindle scabs and untrained writers to work indefinitely without pay? I’d like to call the features editor of Glamour magazine and ask what they look for in features writers, maybe Atlantic Monthly, as well as the story editor for Salon to find out what they recommend professional freelancers do in order to properly pitch a paying story to Salon, and four freelance writers who seem to show up everywhere I look. I think this story might look great with a visually enticing hand-written checklist that a reader could cut out and use, as well as a drawing of different types of writers all grouped together in a bouquet, respectfully in the style of Herschel. (Wait for response from editor.)
Several things might happen after your pitch: The editor might have already gotten a great pitch for a similar story from another freelancer and she’s already committed to running that story. (It happens more than you’d think. That’s why you come with five pitches, not one.) The editor might like the story, but s/he might want you to call different people than your original dream list of interviewees, or s/he might shift the story in another direction entirely, so get ready to take a boatload of notes.
Or s/he might say, “Not today. What else have you got?”
Okay, that pitch is yesterday’s newsiv. You take a big breath, and kick off your next pitch.
Even though self-portraits are an established trope amongst artists and photographers, the rise of the “selfie” appears to have changed people’s feelings about self-portraits. Is the self-portrait dead? Has there ever been a time before iPhones that the market became deluged with artists making self-portraitsv?
4. You know how to stay hungry.
A good writer is satisfied with an ordinary writing life. Regular deadlines, familiar work, a routine. If you want to aim for writing as well as the greats, you will always have to remain unsated. Unsatisfied even. Take pleasure in your work and your accomplishments, yes, but look higher, try harder, do more. Always.
Because the question you always have to ask yourself at every turn of your writing career is how far are you willing to go? There was a famous writer who was driving down the street on his way to a well-earned vacation with his family when the entire ending of his novel came to him in a bright flash. That writer turned the car around and drove home with his terribly unhappy family because he needed to finish his novel. Right then. (How long do you think that marriage lasted?)
The harder question I have to ask you is on which side of this story do you land? What if that was your novel? What if your publisher was down your neck because you were butt-up against the deadline for your next book? What if that was your bright flash?
Would you turn around and drive back home knowing you had it in your hands— the whole schlemiel, the shot at the Great American Novel— knowing full well that the cost would be the trust of your spouse and your children?
If you turn around right now, those two kids in the back seat are going to have the worst childhood memory ever featuring you as the most evil person in the universe. If your marriage was on the ropes, do you think your spouse is going to understand why you’re turning around?
Again, we’re talking about the Great American Novel. This is the effing dream, people. Without even batting an eyelash I can think of three living writers that would step over their grandmother for a shot at the Great American Novel. And all you would have to do… is turn the car around.
Just think about it.
5. You can take a punch and come up swinging.
The greats might have been unhappy, unhealthy and lonely people no matter what they decided to do with their lives. Writing does not make writers unhappy on the main. Writers write because writing is one of very few things that makes them happy. (And when it’s going well, it’s better than food or… well, a lot of things. Yeah, I’m serious.) A driven, hungry writer is going to be confronted with some truly untenable moments in her life that she will have to negotiate on her own terms, probably more than once.
And crazy things will still happen even if you figure out where your limits lie. Right before I went off to graduate school, I had a dead month— No stories. No work. It was disastrous. All of the editors at the big newspaper where I did most freelancing at the time, allowed me to pitch an ungodly number of stories to be written in the three weeks before I moved across the United States for the first time in my life to start an MFA at a school I had never even seen. Because The Husband was working out of town, I also had to pack up our entire apartment by myself.
How did I do it? I went out and bought a stack of frozen meals and ten pounds of coffee and asked the manager of the grocery store if I could take home any cardboard boxes they planned to throw away anyway. Then, I sat down with a bushel of legal pads and started making phone calls.
I wrote 27 stories in the 15 days before I left for Los Angeles. Every single story ran in the newspaper where I freelanced at the time, save for three. One of them was unwriteable— yes, that happens. (Yes, I know that’s not a word.) Sometimes a story turns out to have no legs at all. You call your editor right away and lay it out for her, let her decide whether to cut it or to change it. Two of the stories didn’t work out after they were written and I was given a kill fee vi for them.
As for the move, a friend came over and helped me pack the entire house in a single night. (S— if you’re reading this— I love you. Respect.)
Those incoming checks for 26 feature stories saved us grief in those first rough months in Los Angeles.
But they also serve a larger point when I feel as though I am flagging or if I question my natural existence as a writer. I will always know that I was once the 24-year-old freelance features person who wrote (and styled) some 27 stories in three weeks for the — — daily. Even as recently as last year, I was hired to do a tight turnaround production gig for a TV station— and though I’d never done TV production work before, I took the freelance gig because a) I would be working for a producer who was very kind and very talented and very willing to work with a “green” producer. And b) because I know who I am— I can do a good job under a tight deadline. No dramatics necessary. I wouldn’t have even been considered for the job if a really talented blogger and freelance writer from my area hadn’t recommended me— which she did, based on nothing but my writing on Bluebird Blvd. and my background as a dancer. (She had no idea that I actually worked for some of the same publications that she’d worked for. Isn’t that something?)
6. You know who you are.
I am a writer. I know how to hustle legitimate work. I sacrificed a lot to get here, and I worked crazy hard to learn how to write well, and I am still working hard to become a better writer every day— because I want to work hard at writing. I am not a character out of a movie. I don’t even own a pair of chinos. No one is humming a montage of Kenny G songs while I’m working towards this deadline for y’all. (If you were to sing a Kenny G medley at me right now, you’d better be wearing a big ol’ helmet and running in a serpentine pattern while you sing because I will throw a shoe at you if you distract me when I am writing.)
Besides all that, Texas lakes tend to be festooned with water moccasins, silent snakes that glide like oil over any tranquil freshwater surface, apt to sink a set of startled poisonous fangs into a local human thigh without a lot of provocation. But I’ll take that natural light while I’m working, though— if it helps me meet my deadline, by golly, I’ll take it. I’ll take most anything to soften that permanent murderous look in my eye.
A NOTE about the WRITER’S MARKET: If you’ve never owned a recent copy of the all-purpose Writer’s Market, I do highly recommend you keep a copy that is relatively new (printed within the last three years). The specialized versions of the Writer’s Market are great, but please go browse the reference copies of the Poet’s Market et. al. at the local library first before you buy. These books are not particularly economical if you’re only going to use them for one project. (If you’re in a spending mood, I’d suggest you buy more books written by the great writers in the writing field you’re pursuing, actually.)
BUT if you’re going to freelance write, you’re really going to want to make your job easier and get some kinda recent copy of the Writer’s Market. If you’re self-publishing, the Writer’s Market also puts out a yearly Guide to Self-Publishing and if you’re hunting for a literary agent— that is, an agent that handles fiction, they have a Guide to Literary Agents. I also get the Photographer’s Market every few years too.
OH RIGHT, THERE WAS ACTUALLY A FIRST PART TO THIS STORY, POSTED, LIKE, MONTHS AGO.
The Bluebird Playbook (No. 2) :: Brace for Impact in Three, Two. . .