Posts Tagged ‘article’

Can a Writer Grow Thicker Skin?

July 10, 2012

Not too long ago, I was working on an article for a magazine — a straightforward trend story, where I was to interview a handful of manufacturers of a certain product and then write up a summary of my conversations. Easy as pie.

That is, until the moment when one of my calls happened to reach a marketing guy who had had a bad experience with a magazine request in the past.

Before I could even finish introducing myself, the guy started berating me, accusing me of running a scam and trying to deceive him when I asked about his products. He insisted that my innocent request for information was some sort of ruse intended to dupe him out of money, and he wasn’t going to fall for it again. He hung up on me after wishing me a good afternoon in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

I had never called the guy or his company before, so he was clearly confusing me with someone else, and I probably should have just shrugged the whole call off and proceeded with my work. But the weird thing was, it really upset me. I actually had to walk away from my desk for a couple of hours.

And then when I did get back to work, I was scared. If I hadn’t had a pending deadline, I would have continued to avoid going back to the article. For some crazy reason, I was actually internalizing what this guy had said about me. I kept expecting other people to blast me and hang up, and it was only after a few more successful phone calls that I was able to put the event behind me. 

Coincidentally, it was right around this time that I also had a miserable exchange with an editor I know. I had just completed a rhyming picture-book manuscript that I had been playing around with for a year or so, and I had decided to send it to her and see what she thought.

I was completely unprepared for how much she hated it — and hate it, she did! The topic was not one she was interested in, she said to me in an email, and what’s worse, the meter didn’t hold up through the manuscript. Basically, to paraphrase her, it was a hot mess.

Again, I had to get up from my desk and walk away. And since there easy no deadline pending, I didn’t return to the manuscript, the way I did with the article.

As writers, I think, we embrace our sensitivity. We dig deep for true emotions and authentic reactions in our characters. But sometimes, I have to say, it would be nice to have skin that’s thicker.

I’m currently finishing up the article, and it’s turning out well. As for the picture book, I’ve yet to look at it and still don’t know if I ever will be able to.

What do you think? Can writers grow thick skins? Would it help us? Should we try?

Another battered day in the life of just another working writer.

 

 

 

 

Are You A Writer When You’re Not Writing?

March 8, 2012

I just had a month of pure freedom.

And I hope that doesn’t happen ever again!

You see, last fall I started working on two huge articles that involved a lot of research and a gazillion discussions with my  call-you-every-five-minutes-with-another-question editor. I knew these assignments would keep me busy nearly full-time through January. So I put my nose to the grindstone, while February  beckoned, with its promise of free time to read, have lunch with friends, play at fiction writing, troll around for some fresh, new projects, imagine maybe a book project or two…

And sure, February 1st was great, and February 2nd wasn’t so bad either. But by February 6th, I was in a panic. Why was nobody calling? Where were my next assignments? How long was this dry spell going to last?

Of course, there was a real question lurking behind all these worries — and it surfaced in mid-February when I met someone new in town and introduced myself as a freelance writer. Suddenly my mouth felt dry and my cheeks sort of started to burn. Hah! the little voice in my head said with contempt.  How can you say you’re a freelance writer when you haven’t had an assignment in weeks? You’re nothing but a fraud! 

Ah, so that was the question I was wrestling with. Was I freelance writer when I wasn’t…well, writing? And if so, then when would I stop being a freelance writer? After four weeks of no assignments? Eight? Six months? Come to think of it, have I really ever been a freelance writer? Or have I always been merely a lucky wannabe?

My insecurities led me to make a bunch of stupid decisions — like sending out queries for articles that I really didn’t want to write, just because I thought I could get the assignment. And emailing an editor I haven’t heard from in a while, just to “touch base” and “say hi.” I should know better. Article assignments comes from great ideas, not from desperate “remember me?” emails.

Happily, in early March I heard from two editors, one of whom I had basically written off because I had sent her what I thought were two wonderful ideas in January and she hadn’t gotten back to me. In my panic, I thought she hated my ideas — when actually, there had just been a problem with her email account that she only recently noticed. I now have three major assignments, and I’m busy as ever.

I only wish I had made more of freedom when I had it.

What do you think? Do you have to be actively writing to consider yourself a writer? How do you handle insecurity, which is so much a part of a freelancer’s existence?

Another self-doubting day in the life of just another working writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can a Good Writer Make a Story Out of ANYTHING?

February 27, 2012

Not too long ago, I got a great assignment from the editor of a website devoted to religion. She had identified seven key ethical values — empathy, compassion, spirituality and a few others — and she wanted me to create a kind of grid showing how each of these values develop in children, with boxes for infancy, toddlerhood, preschool-age kids, middle-grades kids, and teens.

Now, it was pretty easy to find experts on and research about how children of all ages demonstrate values like empathy and compassion. Studies show, for example, that even very young babies will cry when they see another baby crying. But there was simply no evidence, no studies, no nothing –at least not back then — to show that babies can feel spiritual. I contacted child-development scientists and authors at major research universities and facilities, and got the same answer: Spirituality develops later.

So I finally called my editor, who resisted my explanations, evidently because the horror of a blank box in her grid outweighed any need for facts. “Come on now,” she said condescendingly. “You know as well as I do that a good writer can make a story about anything.”

I was speechless. My first thought was that I couldn’t believe what she was saying.

My second thought was that she was right.

More recently, I took my young daughter and her friend to a classical music concert at a local community center, and was approached by a reporter and cameraman from a local TV station. The reporter held the mike to my face and asked why I had decided to come out with young children on such a cold, dark night.

“I knew the music would be beautiful, and I wanted to enjoy it with them,” I said.

“Did you come to be part of the great community spirit here tonight?”

“No,” I said. “I just wanted to hear the music.”

“But would you agree that there’s a wonderful feeling of community, with so many people from town coming together?”

“I guess,” I said. “But we came for the music.”

Not surprisingly, when I saw this story on the local news the next night, I was not part of it. Instead, there were a bunch of people talking about — what else? — community.

As for my story, I went back to my old sources, found some new sources, stressed that I needed something, and finally was able to weave together a few vague sentences that linked babies and spirituality, albeit with the thinnest of threads. I never wrote again for that website.

Sure, I guess a good writer can make a story out of anything.

Just not sure I want to be that writer.

How about you? Have you ever had to create a story where there was none?

Another resigned day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Article Interviews: Why Do They Talk?

February 16, 2012

A few years back when I was on staff a at trade magazine, I set out to interview a key merchandising executive at Bloomingdale’s. Susan K. was glamorous, sophisticated, powerful, and notoriously press-averse.

“Everybody already knows who I am and what I stand for,” she told me. “Manufacturers and designers all want to get their products onto my floor.  The only possible thing that could happen if I do the interview is I could say something wrong and get people mad at me. Why would I consent to that?”

Why indeed? Why take the risk?

I was thinking about this situation not too long ago, while I was writing an article for a regional magazine about the pros and cons of living a rural life. I had contacted a writer friend of mine who lives in the country, and she spoke eloquently–almost lyrically–about the joy of driving home on winding roads after a long day at work.

“If you quote me, do you have to use my name and hometown?” she asked.

I did. That was the magazine’s policy. She told me that she didn’t like being so exposed in print — but then she said she would do it this time, and she looked forward to seeing my piece.

I wondered: Why did she agree to be published? Was it because I was her friend and she didn’t want to disappoint me? Had I gotten her to do something she didn’t want to do? Did that make me a bad friend?

Another time I was working on an article about developmental delays in children, and through a friend of a friend, got in touch with the mother of a severely disabled preschooler. The child had motor issues and language problems, and Mom’s entire life revolved around doctor appointments and physical therapy sessions. Worried that she would regret being so open, I offered to hold back on anything she preferred to remain unpublished — but no, she said, she was fine with my printing everything she said.

Why did she agree to be published? Did she really want to be as open as she claimed she did? Would the right thing be to hold back on some of her more personal quotes, as a way of protecting her from her own candor? Did I exploit her to write a good story?

Now, my interviews don’t always proceed this way. Some people ask to see their quotes before the article is printed. Some people even ask me to repeat their quotes two or three times, as though their whole world might collapse if they used the word “this” instead of “that.” Sometimes it’s because they’ve been misquoted by others in the past, and sometimes it’s because they have never been quoted, so they don’t know what to expect. And some people just don’t like to relinquish control.

And what of my Bloomingdale’s friend? She ultimately and unexpectedly called me back and agreed to the interview — and enjoyed the whole process so much that she thanked me whenever she saw me for months.

Why did she talk?

Truth be told, I’ll never  know exactly why anyone I’ve contacted decides either to speak to me or not to. But if my years as a writer have taught me anything, it’s that being interviewed for publication entails consequences — and when people decide to do it, I want to make sure that they’ve reached that decision without being manipulated, and that I quote them accurately, objectively and in the proper context.

How about you? Have you ever tried to interview someone who felt conflicted about whether to talk? What did you say and what did they say? What finally happened?

Another diplomatic day in the life of just another working writer.

And P.S….my fellow blogger Nicole Cloutier (http://nicolecloutier.me) nominated my blog for a sunshine award. Now it’s my turn to spread the sunshine, so stay tuned for my great blog pics!

The Art of the Quote: A Cautionary Tale for Freelance Writers

January 24, 2012

Not too long ago, I was working on a 500-word article for a local, glossy magazine about backyard decks.The focus of the piece was on sun management, and my assignment was to give some options for — and discuss my personal experience with — cooling down a deck that gets too much sun in the summer.

The most familiar and popular option, of course, is to install an awning — but because of the angle of my deck relative to the sun, I found that there was no way an awning could provide me with shade during hot afternoons. Instead, I got a builder to create an inexpensive pergola — a simple wood structure with vertical poles and latticework — and installed sun-blocking shades on the sides and the top.

To round out the article, I interviewed the owner of a major local awning retailer to talk about the types of awnings and their benefits — and then called the owner of the small company that manufactured the shades I bought, to ask her about the benefits of outdoor shades.

Now, my editor doesn’t like a lot of quotes in an article. She typically just asks for one overview-type quote, because she feels quotes slow down the flow of a piece. So I used a quote from the awning guy, because it was clever and succinct, and  awnings are a more widely used product. Then I discussed my own experience and praised the shades for being well priced, easy to clean, and effective in blocking the sun.

When the article was published, I emailed the shade manufacturer and sent her a link to the online version of the article. I expected her to be pleased with the nod that I gave to outdoor shades, so was completely unprepared for her snarky email response.

“I’m not sure why you sent this,” she wrote back. “Is something missing? I don’t see my quote, only the quote from the awning store.”

What? Couldn’t she read between the lines? Didn’t she see that while I quoted the awning retailer, the experience I described showed that shades were a better option? Didn’t she realize that I may have opened people’s eyes to a product they didn’t even know about? Wasn’t that more important that stroking her ego by including her name and her exact words?

I haven’t responded, because I don’t know what to say. Should I apologize for not quoting her? Blame it on my editor, who discourages quotes? Or try to explain to her that I actually did her a bigger favor by describing my success with her product?

What would you have done?

Another defensive day in the life of just another working writer.

Why I Love Being a Writer: A Reminder

January 19, 2012

Those of you who have been following my blog probably realize by now that I’m a bit of a complainer. I complain about boring assignments or tedious tasks that accompany the writing of a new piece. I complain about editors who hang onto a draft for a month and then demand that the revise be turned in two minutes later. And as for crazy-low payment rates…well, don’t get me started.

But every once in a while, something happens that makes me remember that what I do is actually pretty cool

Last night, my daughter told me about a discussion in her history class. Her teacher was beginning a unit on the Civil War, and asked the students if they or a member of their families had any special interest in or connection with that time period.

My daughter raised her hand to say that I was working on a project about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and I had spent time researching documents and journals from the 1860s. She said that when we go on family vacations, we occasionally end up visiting outlying historical locations to scope out new details about Lincoln and the course of the war.

“What does your mother do?” the teacher asked.

“She’s a writer,” my daughter said. “She writes articles for magazines, newspapers, and some websites.”

At this point, the teacher’s eyes widened, and she threw up her hands in a kind of surrendering motion. “Well, we may as well stop the conversation right here,” she said. “Because I don’t think any of us are going to be able to top that.”

I laughed when I heard this story. “Come on,” I said. “I write about mattresses and kitchen gadgets, and occasionally get involved with some historical thing. It’s not all that impressive.”

“Well, she was impressed,” my daughter said.

That conversation stuck with me all night and into this morning, and actually, I’m still smiling as I write this. Maybe my daughter’s history teacher secretly dreams of writing, or maybe there’s another reason why her reaction was somewhat over the top. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that what we do –interviewing people, researching documents, making sense of seemingly random events, and then creating a piece of writing that never existed before — takes skill. And a bit of magic.  It may seem simple to people like us, who do it all the time; but simple, it’s not.

Let’s promise not to forget that, ok?

Another proud day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Article Assignments: Why Do I Keep Saying Yes?

January 13, 2012

So one of my best clients emailed me toward the end of last summer to offer me two major article assignments. The pay was relatively good, and I was skilled at the type of research and interviewing that would be required.

I hesitated, however, to accept the work, as I estimated that it  would fill my working time for the next four months. I wouldn’t be able to accept other assignments, prospect for new assignments or clients, or–most important–devote time to my favorite new project.

You see, I had  spent much of the summer working on my first young adult novel, and I was having a blast. I loved the freedom of fiction writing. I loved making stuff up, which was refreshing after so many years of stressing accuracy and sticking to the facts. I found my characters fascinating, especially my spunky 11-year-old protagonist, and I loved throwing obstacles at her and figuring out how she would get through.

Still, as a working writer, I couldn’t see turning down the work. I needed the paychecks. I wanted the money. I promised myself that I would work for the four months–but then I would slow down and give myself the luxury of time to work on my novel.

So now the four months are now almost over, I’ve got just two more days’ work at the most, and the reward of time to write fiction is so close, I can taste it.

And then, out of the blue, So another client called yesterday to offer me a basic product story. What do you think I did?

You’re right — I said yes.

Why.

Of course, a big part of it is the paycheck. I can’t deny that. But I think there’s more.

I think I said yes partly because I always overestimate the time it will take me to do stuff. I’m often convinced that I can make time to both do my paying work and have my writing fun. The truth is, I rarely do. The paying work always takes over.

I also think I said yes partly because even though I complain a lot about tedious assignments, the truth is I get a kick out of article writing — interviewing business executives, motivating them to reveal some tidbit of news or surprising comment, boiling down research into the assigned wordcount, hearing “good job!” from an editor.

But I think I also said yes because writing fiction is so…unpredictable. It takes a lot out of you. Maybe it’s because I’m new at it and I’m not very good, but it sometimes feels like an uphill battle to get started on a page. Once I get going, it becomes great fun, but before I sit down at the computer, I feel so doubtful. Will I write something great today? Am I getting anywhere? Would anyone else love this the way I do? Is this just a big time waster?

I don’t have those fears with my paid work.

Still, if I keep pushing off my fiction, I’ll never find out if it could amount to anything at all.

I see the days and weeks and months passing, and I wonder if I’m spending my time in the best way, or just the safest way.

How do you choose the way to spend your writing time?

Another conflicted day in the life of just another working writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far From a Silent Writer

January 9, 2012

A friend of mine started working at home recently, and she said that she finds the weirdest thing about it is not leaving the house until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when she has to carpool her daughter from school.

I said that didn’t bother me so much — to me, the weirdest thing about working at home is that I can’t do it when others are in the house. So weekend working is out for me — I just cannot be productive as a writer unless the house is totally empty.

What’s that all about?

Well, I finally figured it out yesterday. It’s because I talk out loud when I write.

And it’ s not that I mouth the words that I’m writing (which I do). The problem is that I…well, I sort of cheer.

For example, for the last few weeks I’ve been working on some…don’t get me wrong, I love my clients and my assignments, but I would have to say the recent work has been tedious. It’s a product story, and part of my research has involved digging into websites, press releases and interview notes to compile lists with pricing, warranty, features, and other dry information for almost a dozen brands. I wanted to get it done in one sitting, so I wouldn’t have to return to it ever again.

So because I was thinking about the whole experience of working at home, I ended up listening to myself.

When I finished a paragraph, I said in a loud whisper, “Good.”

When I finished two more, I said full out, “Almost done!”

And when it was almost dinnertime and I was hungry and tired and this close to giving up, I started furiously typing as I basically sang to myself, “You can do it, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it…”

A few time my kids have come home and walked in on my when I was in the middle of one of my “cheers” — what an embarassment. Sometimes they’ll say, “What?” because they thought I was talking to them. So I have to explain that I was just talking to myself, which of course makes them laugh out loud or roll their eyes like I’m nuts.

I have a writer friend who works at her local library every day. I tell her that I can’t work that way, because I do a lot of phone interviews, which is true. But I’ve never told her the real reason — which is that I’m scared I’ll blurt out “There you go!” or some other embarrassing word of encouragement intended entirely for myself (although she’ll learn the truth if she reads this).

Ooops…just screamed out “Finished the blog, YES!” Did you hear it?

So come clean: Do you talk out loud when you write? What do you say?

Another chatty day in the life of just another working writer!

 

 

 

Cute Girl Again

December 8, 2011

I’m working on an article on mattresses, a business I have been covering for (gulp) more than 20 years, and I  need to reach out to some of my old contacts to find out what the latest product trends are. So I study the linked-in site and reach out to a few names I remember who are still marketing and selling beds. Will they remember me? Will they make time to be interviewed? Will they be really old? Will they think I am?

So one responds immediately to my linked-in invite with a message: “So glad to know cute girl I remember is still writing!”

He was just a few years older than I was back when I first met him, and he owned a small chain of mattress stores in the Northeast. I was doing a story on retailing, and I traveled down to his headquarters to spend the day exploring his business. He was very handsome, married with young kids, and totally charming. He drove me around that day to all of his stores, and he had such a delightful way with people, you could tell his employees all just loved him. He was flirty, but never crossed the line, which was one of the reasons I was crazy about him. His was the first car I ever sat in that had a seat warmer. I thought that was the height of luxury!

So in the midst of my interviewing, knowing that I had deadlines and tons of revisions and lots of editor comments ahead, I sat back at my desk and smiled, feeling like that cute girl  who was beginning her first real journalism job, thinking she had the best career anyone could have.

Ah, the pleasure of some nostalgic daydreaming. Sometimes its great being just another working writer!


%d bloggers like this: