Posts Tagged ‘Freelancer’

Writers: How Much Do You Daydream?

April 4, 2012

Last winter, we were driving along an endless stretch of highway on our way to the Poconos for a vacation, when my husband started asking me about some home repairs we were planning.

“Stop, wait,” I said, holding the palm of my hand up toward him. “I can’t talk right now. I’m working on something.”

He laughed and shook his head as he turned his eyes back toward the road. He knew exactly what I meant. I was working with some characters on a scene.

Specifically, I was watching what my main character was going to do with her cell phone to ensure that she wouldn’t answer it during lunch. You see, I had recently begun working on a novel I had put away for a few years ago, back when cell phones were still a novelty. In my original manuscript, my main characters sneaks off to New York for an afternoon to have lunch with a secret acquaintance, but comes back to serious consequences because her kids were not able to reach her. These days, however, they could just call her on her cellphone. So I needed to find a way she could still be unavailable.

In my head, I watched her forget her cell phone on the kitchen counter as she leaves the house. But no, I thought, that would be totally out of character, as she never takes it out of her purse. I watched her grab for a different purse for this special lunch–but then she’d have to transfer her wallet to the new purse, and she’d clearly transfer her cell phone as well. Could she accidentally turn her phone off? I gave that one a try — but when I watched her do that, it didn’t feel real. She’s a pretty intentional kind of person, and she doesn’t make careless, accidental mistakes.

Put it on mute? Maybe. I saw her stop in front of the restaurant, open the purse, find her cellphone, and purposefully turn off the sound. But why would she do that? She wasn’t expecting any calls, and if her kids were to call her, it would be because of any emergency, and she’d want to answer. Although… how about if she didn’t hear the phone? Say her purse was on the floor and the restaurant was one of those loft-type spaces with background noise, and she had a little buzz because she wasn’t used to drinking wine at lunch and she was really into her lunch companion? Now, that could work, I thought, as I sat back and watched her sip her Pinot Grigio.

The two-hour road trip ended in a flash, and as our car pulled up in front of our hotel, I put my character away. I wasn’t quite done with her, but that was okay. I would no doubt visit with her again before the day was over.

I daydream all the time. I’m constantly living in my head. Sometimes I do it on purpose, and sometimes it happens on its own. But either way,  it’s far from a burden; in fact, I really enjoy it. When I’m watching TV and the commercials come on, I play a scene out. When I’m on line at the grocery store, I listen to dialogue. When I’m walking at the track, I’m writing an article, envisioning the anecdote I’m telling or just watching the words on an imaginary magazine page. I read them to myself, change a word here or there, and then read it over again a few times to memorize it,  so I can write it down later (although it never sounds as good on paper as it did in my head).

At the gym last week while panting in step class, I watched a juicy scene from a new story I may write. I pictured a campfire burning on a warm spring evening when my heroine learns that the man she loves is engaged to someone else. I saw her lean against a tree and look into the night sky. I heard the guy walk up behind her and plead with her to trust him and give him a chance to straighten out his life. Is he persuasive? I watched the scene over and over, changing his words, lengthening his pauses, adding gestures that would make both my heroine and me believe that yes, he is worth waiting for.

I daydream sometimes when I’m having coffee with someone who’s launched into a blow-by-blow description of the fight she just had with her boss, mother, or Cablevision agent. I can do this, you see, because I’ve acquire the ability to snap back into the conversation when I sense that an important part is coming. Usually I’m pretty good at getting the gist of the conversation. I may miss the details, but at least my friend has gotten everything off her chest and I’m not jumping out of my skin.

I daydream sometimes when I’m supposed to be listening to my kids, nodding so they won’t catch on. But they do. They’re not fooled. They know I’m somewhere else. They get really mad.

My husband, on the other hand,  just smiles and shakes his head and lets me be until I’m ready to rejoin him. Now, that’s gotta be love.

How about you? Do you watch your characters throughout the day? Do you think writers live in their minds more than other people?

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

Writers: What Do You Do When You’re Jealous?

March 21, 2012

Okay, get this.

Two months ago I went to one of the larger writers conferences in New York. It is so big and so sophisticated that the sponsoring organization issues a set of “etiquette” rules in advance. The rules mostly warn you to be polite to editors and agents–that is, to refrain from accosting them in the hallways and elevators and shoving your manuscript in their faces. In fact, the rule sheet suggests, you should leave your manuscript at home, as no one will want to see it on site. Bring only, it says, paper for taking notes, an open mind, a good attitude, your best listening skills, and so on.

So at one of the workshops, I happen to sit next to a very nice person. It turns out we have kids the same age and a couple of other similarities, so we chat a bit, and then she asks how I’m enjoying the conference. I mention that I’ve learned a lot, I feel somewhat motivated and inspired, I’ve collected the email addresses of agents who might be interested in my book, so it’s all good. And what about her?

As it turns out, she ended up seeking out and meeting one of the conference organizers who also happens to be a very successful and well-known author with dozens of popular books to her credit. And while I was following the rules and being polite with my open mind, my new friend was handing her manuscript to this writer (yes, she brought her manuscript, “evading” the very rules that this famous writer had probably helped write!), who promised to read it and get back to her with feedback within the next two weeks.

Oh, did I mention that I’ve been working on my book for three years, while she just wrote hers last fall?

We exchanged email addresses and we’ve been in touch a few times, and she wrote me yesterday to tell me that she heard back from the famous writer, who loved her manuscript and recommended an agent who she felt would definitely be interested. Of course, using this famous writer’s name will no doubt catch the agent’s attention, so there’s no danger that my friend’s work will sit in the agent’s digital slush pile, along with mine and the gazillion others that have been emailed since the conference.

In short, I really do think my new friend is on her way.

Now the hard part: I want to be happy for her. I really do. And I am happy for her.

But I also feel like throwing up.

Even worse, when I read her emails, it completely derails me. I find it hard to work or be at all optimistic. I feel hopeless. It’s as though she won the lottery, and the other 1200 of us at that conference should just pack it in. It’s hard to keep doing all the things the books and conference workshops tell you to do, when a newcomer can just scoot in, cut the line, and potentially win the whole kit-and-kaboodle.

What do you think? How do you feel when a friend strikes it big in the publishing world? How do you stop yourself from feeling miserable and giving up?

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

Who Owns Your Digital Rights?

March 15, 2012

Several years ago — before the Internet really took hold — I wrote a series of slice-of-life essays for a local newspaper. They weren’t very good, and I didn’t get paid. Still, I was just starting out, and they did what I needed them to do: taught me how to work with editors; gave me confidence; and served as evidence of publication when I began going after paying gigs.

The newspaper , which is now about 100 years old, is published by a small company on a shoestring budget, so they’ve never invested in a significant online presence. However, recently a local community organization made a generous grant to begin digitizing old issues, as a way of preserving the town’s history.

Now, as an active community member, I think it’s great that our heritage and history will be available to anyone who wants to enjoy them. I’ve had the chance to browse some of the issues from the 1920s, and they’re truly fascinating. I’m told that many of the older newspapers are nearly unreadable, so the grant couldn’t have come at a better time.

But as a writer, this turn of events leaves me uneasy. You see, when I agreed to publish my essays, I never signed a contract — the newspaper was too small to even offer contracts to freelancers. My agreement with the editor was simply that she would publish the essays, but I would own them — so I could market them elsewhere if I ever chose to do so, or not. It was all up to me.

I never agreed to give the paper digital rights — simply because back then, there was no such thing.

Sadly, I hear many stories of writers whose work has been digitized without their permission. As a matter of fact, I recently attended a workshop by a consultant who has built a successful business helping writers recover damages from publishers who may have illegally turned their printed books into e-books. But when I went up to her afterwards to ask about newspaper articles, she basically told me to let it go. “It’s impractical to expect newspapers to contact every single writer who has ever written anything and ask for permission to digitize,” she said.

Truth be told, the current digitization plan for my local newspaper involves only older issues that are in the public domain, which means it does not cover the more recent issues in which my stories appear. And as I understand it, digitizing newspapers is a long-term process — meaning it may be years and years and years before the question of whether to digitize recent issues comes up. I’ve also been told that should my essays ever go online, I could easily lodge a complaint, and they would quickly be taken down. And, I suppose, when you get right down to it, I might actually find it nice to see those essays online, possibly getting a second, digital life.

Still, I can’t help worrying for writers who, for one reason or another, really don’t want to see their old newspaper work suddenly appear on the Internet.

What do you think?

Another confusing 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!

Why I Went Freelance: A Cautionary Tale

February 7, 2012

So I work on a kitchen table; my stapler and print cartridges are never where I left them, thanks to my thieving children; I have no steady income and am always out trolling for my next gig; and nearly all my telephone interviews are accompanied by the sound of my dog barking or the UPS deliveryman pounding on my door.

Why do I continue to believe that a freelancer’s life is the best writing life?

Let me tell you my story.

My first journalism job was as a reporter on a trade magazine that covered the furniture industry–a job I thought was the greatest that a person could ever have. I traveled all over the country, attending trade shows and press conferences, sniffing out mergers,executive shakeouts and other juicy bits of intrigue. I was wined and dined by marketing and PR folks (on nearly limitless expense accounts) trying to prove that their brands deserved coverage. I was the toast of the publishing team, my editor’s best reporter…

And that’s when they stabbed me in the back: They promoted me.

Now it was my reporters who traveled all over the country, while I stayed back in the office, correcting grammar, checking facts, and making nice  to hysterical sources who claimed my writers had misquoted them. My good friend at work suddenly hated me, because she wanted the promotion I got, and the rest of my staff hated me too, because they thought I was too young and inexperienced to be their boss (and truth be told, they were probably right).

And just when I thought things couldn’t get worse…they promoted me again.

This time, I was editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine–which meant that much of my time was spent accompanying my publisher on sales calls, a sign to prospective clients that if they bought a lot of advertising from him, they’d own a good piece of me. On the personnel side, one of the higher-ups stepped in to hire an acquaintance of his as a reporter — but when we realized that she couldn’t string together a sentence, I was the one who had to show her the door. Another day, another enemy. And finally, on the eve of a trade show, I got word that the company was considering closing my magazine unless I beefed up our reporting so more ads would come in. I pushed all of my reporters — even M., who had just come down with a nasty case of bronchitis — to work nearly round the clock to shore up our reputation.

The magazine was closed down the next week anyway. Then I had to call M. at home, where she lay feverish and miserable, to tell her that I had been saved but she was out of a job.

So I say to my family–give me your worst. Hide my stapler and steal my print cartridges. Let the dog carry on, and let the UPS guy pound from today until doomsday.

A staff job? I’ve been there. And I’m never going back!

What do you think? Would you rather join a staff or be freelance?

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

Freelance Writing and the Long Goodbye

February 1, 2012

I’m afraid the time has come for me to talk about goodbyes.

Not too long ago, I scored a steady gig with a regional, glossy magazine. I had spent months painstakingly querying the managing editor, pitching ideas, and following up on emails, trying to be polite and firm but not annoying or pestering. Finally, she got the green light from her boss to give me an assignment — and that led to a regular quarterly column.

I loved writing for that magazine. I loved its luxurious photography. I loved its thick, glossy paper and the charming graphics that accompanied my articles. Mostly, I loved the relationship I formed with the managing editor–the greetings we’d send as my manuscripts went through various revises, the banter about clueless or too-talkative interviewees. I learned that she had a big house in the country, as well as a big, sloppy dog and a couple of kids, and she was planning to take a cruise on the new QE2. She was kind of a friend, although I never saw her except on the photo on the magazine’s masthead.

And then, last summer, after more than two years of steady writing, the email came, informing me that my beloved column had been canceled. “It’s nothing against you,” my editor-friend said. “It’s just that the editor-in-chief wants to scale down on the amount of copy we’re running and add more photo spreads.”

Sirens went off in my ears and red alarms started flashing in my brain, spurring me to act fast and salvage the relationship. Reminding myself that her company had two other publications in addition to the one I had been writing for, I fired back a response. “I completely understand,” I wrote, “and actually, I have a few ideas for your other magazines that I’d like to share with you. Do you have some time later this month? I’d love to stop by your office, or even buy you a cup of coffee.”

“Hmm, coffee sounds good,” she wrote back. “But we’re putting out the next issue, and things are a bit hectic. Let me call you in a month or so.”

No, she never did.

The bookshelves in my office are lined with magazine holders storing publications I used to write for but no longer do. Back when my kids were infants and toddlers, I wrote all the time for Parents and American Baby, using my own experiences as a source of ideas. But my kids started growing up at the same time that one of my favorite editors left American Baby to become a nurse, and those gigs sort of drifted away. I also used to be a book reviewer for bn.com — but my editor there left as well, and her successor decided to write the reviews in-house. I really miss those assignments.

Of course, there have been plenty of new gigs to take the place of those that went away. One of my long-term clients has kept me so busy lately that he’s changed my bio in the magazine from “freelance writer” to “regular contributor.” I’ve found great opportunities at online publications, and a few editors I thought I lost touch with have found me through the Internet and given me assignments from their new berths. Scouting out new opportunities is part of being a freelancer. It’s what makes freelancing fun.

Still, I can’t help wondering how my editor-friend’s big, sloppy dog is…and whether she enjoyed her cruise.

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


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