Freelancing is a constant hustle for the new gig to both pad the revenue stream and have something to fill in the blanks should an existing client decide to bail or inexplicably run out of work for you.
I spent the last couple of days not feeling so well, so trying to gin up new work was about the only thing I was good for. And in doing so, I was reminded that people really have no concept of the fact that “artists” (a category that working freelance writers unfortunately fall under) are actually trained professionals deserving of pay on par with their similarly trained and experienced – but non-artistic – peers. Continue reading → After a Week Under the Weather, an Unrelated Complaint
Hi, yes … that fateful day has arrived. Today I turn 45.
Given the new realities of the lifespan of healthy humans (and the fact that genetics are working in my favor here), unless I do something (else) monumentally stupid, I fully intend to live at least until the age of 90.
That puts me squarely at the doorstep of midlife. Half my life down, half yet to go.
For lots of folks (particularly men), this is a time of re-evaluation. To paraphrase Edna Mode in The Incredibles, men this age are often … unstable.
Well, hopefully no more unstable than on any other day. I won’t be going out shopping for a red Porsche Boxter convertible in which I’ll install a significantly younger woman. I married a significantly younger woman, and if there’s any toodling around in exotic sports cars to be done, it will most certainly be done with her.
And any instability anyone might notice was, honestly, probably there already. Folks working with a full deck rarely go into writing for a living, and they certainly don’t become newspaper reporters or novelists.
So, there’s that.
What I do have, however, is a pretty decent sense of accomplishment. I noted in this space not long ago that Stan Lee, dean of Marvel Comics and the creator of most of its characters, didn’t create cornerstone superhero Spider Man until he after he turned 40. Stan is now 90 years old, which means he’s spent the last 50 years not as Stan Lee, but as STAN-friggin’-LEE!!!, who still runs a media empire, hosts a TV show or two and maintains a busy schedule of sci-fi and comic book convention appearances.
That carries a lot of weight with me because I admire late bloomers. I never aspired to be one of those pain-in-the-ass writers who busts out of the gate at 25 with a Pulitzer Prize-winner (mainly because what those sort of writers produce is usually self-absorbed, whiny crap, but that’s another blog posting).
As someone who got carded for booze up until his 32nd birthday and took 20 years to write his first book, I realized it might take me a while to grow into this whole novelist thing. But once I managed to give birth to that 300+ page baby at the (entirely appropriate, given my genre) age of 42, there’s been no looking back. If I never write anything again, I can rest assured knowing that I have added my own little piece of original creativity to the universe.
And there are other, perhaps more significant, accomplishments, too. I have amazing friends, cultivated over decades, who remain the sort of people I can talk now exactly the way we did when we were in high school or our early jobs. They provide me with a constant source of encouragement and inspiration and I am in awe of a great many of them every day. I can only hope I send back to them just a fraction of the love, support and laughter they send my way.
And most importantly, I have an amazing family – a beautiful wife who supports me with warmth, patience and love through all the ups and downs of this writing life and frequently jumps in to help with a needed dose of reality, and two spectacularly smart, funny and kindhearted children who are always proud to tell their friends and teachers that their daddy is a writer.
But wait a minute. Let’s put the brakes on the sentimentality. Weren’t you promised presents?
Indeed you were.
Without you, the readers, my family and friends would still be with me, my work would still get done and my book – and those I still hope to write – would still be out there. But without readers, a book is only words on a page.
Once you – a stranger – pick it up and begin that first chapter, you become a willing participant in a reality that another has created. It’s like telepathy in a way. I’m putting my thoughts into your head, and in the midst of the trance-state we call “reading,” those thoughts are manifested in your own mind as an alternate reality. Other than unconditional love, I believe it’s the closest thing to magic any of us will ever really experience.
So as my gift to you, starting today I’m offering the Kindle version of Immaculate Deception free for three days through Amazon, in the hope that if you enjoyed it, you’ll be inclined to let others know that they can, as well – and with minimum risk. Other than individually shaking your hands or giving you big, wet kisses, it’s the best I can do.
Really, thank you ever so much. And here’s to another 45 years.
I did something last week that had been unthinkable for the first 13 years of my working life – ordered my own copy of the Associated Press Stylebook.
Unthinkable because in every newsroom in which I landed from the moment I started in the newspaper business (including my university paper, The Gamecock), I was provided with one as a part of the job.
The one you see here is old – ancient in terms of stylebooks – having the distinction of being the first and (up until last week) only one I had actually paid money for. It was purchased in 1987 at the University of South Carolina Book Store at the beginning of my sophomore year when I decided to make the switch from broadcast journalism to news-editorial.
After I graduated, it sat on a number of bookshelves across the country but rarely got pulled down because in the place I really needed it – the newsroom – there was always a more recent version sitting on my desk.
So now, 26 years later, I figured that it was time to refresh things a bit. The new version arrived last Friday and just paging through it I was stunned by how much has really changed.
In 1987, having a personal computer in one’s dorm room was a luxury (I had an Apple IIC with a thermal printer). There was no Internet as we know it (that would take another decade to emerge) and all the reporting one did was in person or over the phone. Social networking didn’t exist. As such, there was no reason to focus on anything other than what we now regard as “analog” journalism.
The new version of the AP Stylebook is heavy with new (and not so new) digital-age references and style points, including how to approach sources via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. I love that today you can just cyber-stalk sources, where back in the day there were lots of editors telling lots of young reporters, “Sit in that bozo’s office until he comes out for lunch and get me that quote.”
It’s a stark reminder that between the time newspaper film classic All the President’s Mencame out (1976) and when I graduated from college in 1991, nearly all that had changed in the “modern” newsroom was the arrival of clunky, pain-in-the-ass computers with green-on-black CRT displays that still required 12-character strings of code just to format a headline.
Simply the fact that you can now subscribe to digital versions of the Stylebook is a big indicator of how much has changed. I remember thinking during the internet boom of the late 1990s that an online Stylebook would be incredible. Now you can access it on your smartphone – something that very few of us anticipated.
So, with my new edition in hand I’ll study up and try to catch up on all the “official” bits that I’ve missed by not having been in a newsroom for nearly 10 years. The old one, however, will stay, simply because it now serves as a great little artifact and time capsule of where we once were and how far we’ve come.
Back when I worked full-time in newspapers, I was occasionally called upon to do what were referred to as “brown baggers” – mini seminars that could take place over a lunch hour – as well as speak to visiting students during journalism-related events involving local high schools.
At several of these, I was asked to discuss interviewing techniques. It’s been a while since I offered any advice on this, but recently I was asked by a young colleague at one of my copy writing clients to offer some tips on getting a good interview. Here’s a slightly altered version of our exchange.
I hope this email finds you well. I am an intern working on my first story and I wanted to reach out to you to see what strategies you may be able to suggest for successful interviewing.
Are there certain questions which you find elicit quote-worthy responses? Do you utilize any applications to record interviews? If there is any other insight you have to share, it will be greatly appreciated!
I’m a big proponent of the “first date” approach to interviewing. I gather whatever background I can on the topic I’m going to be discussing or the person I’ll be interviewing (just like you’d Google stalk a potential date – not that I would EVER do that, of course). Going in knowing just enough to be dangerous allows you to ask intelligent questions but still not sound like you know everything about the subject already.
I also don’t prepare a list of questions in a formal fashion. I know what I’m going to ask based on my research or direction from the editor or project manager. I’ll often write a list of cues, but I prefer for interviews to take a very organic course and be very conversational. Rigid lists of questions don’t usually allow for that. As the “first date” label suggests, you’re trying to express some genuine curiosity in what the interview subject has to tell you, so I phrase my questions accordingly.
This works particularly well with “regular folks.” People who work in government or at executive or managerial jobs are often used to speaking in front of others or being interviewed, but “civilians” – regular people who usually don’t find themselves the subject of an interview – are often suspicious of you or unfamiliar with the process, which makes interviewing (particularly over the phone) a bit trickier. Therefore it’s easier to just get them talking about the subject at hand and redirect the conversation if necessary.
You’ll find that this is a great method to generate “quote worthy” comments, since interview subjects feel more comfortable if they’re just having a chat as opposed to undergoing an interrogation. The job of mining through your notes to find that standout quote is your job, but if I hear something special during the interview, I’ll usually highlight it somehow to remember.
Also, don’t let the interview peter out at the end. So many times I’ve come to the “end” of an interview and had subjects start asking me about myself. I’m always willing to share a little, and this frequently cues them to tell a story about the topic at hand that will contain either A) the brilliant, standout quote, or B) the touching, hilarious or otherwise relevant anecdote that would make a perfect lede to the story.
As for recording, I usually don’t find it necessary for quick turnaround work. I have the advantage of having come out of newspapers, where speed is key. I type my notes as the interview subject is speaking, and make sure to use a headset (I use a Bluetooth earpiece with my smartphone) for the interviews so both hands are free and I don’t have to worry about the phone slipping off my shoulder mid-conversation. It never hurts to create an improvised shorthand for yourself so you don’t have to type out every single word.
I do have an Olympus digital recorder for in-person interviews and an app on my phone that allows me to record phone calls (Smart Voice from Google Play – I’m sure there’s a comparable iPhone app), but recording interviews has a tendency to make me lazy with note taking, then I just have to go back and waste more time listening to the recording when I’d rather just start writing straight from my typed notes. I might only use it for someone who I know is a VERY fast talker or for a story that I know will be longer form and will take more time anyway.
For those of you who are in (or have been in) the journalism biz, what did I miss? I’m all too aware that this didn’t cover more confrontational interview situations, so what suggestions would you offer in that regard? Let me know in the comments thread. Thanks!
What I might have glossed over is the fact that today, possibly more than ever, it is one of the lowest paying, most thankless jobs out there. You will be called upon to do twice the work of normal humans for about a third of what most college-educated professionals are paid. It is stressful, relentless and exhausting.
Full disclosure: I attempted on numerous occasions early in my newspaper career to get a job at the Charleston paper, to no avail. While you don’t hear much about it outside Charleston, it’s a fine paper in a spectacular old city and generally considered a plum gig.
So when I received the USC J-School alumni newsletter that referred to her blog Sticky Valentines (named after a line in the Elvis Costello song “Alison” – which only increased her cachet with me), where she wrote at length about why she, not yet out of her 20s, was leaving journalism, I was intrigued.
It turns out that a decade apart, Allyson and I shared many of the very same concerns about the newspaper world and our place in it – specifically, how we would continue to survive the business in the face of increasing work demands and ever diminishing returns. She did what I attempted to do on a number of occasions – left the business and found a non-news job that let her put her skills to work and afford something other than a four-person apartment share and Ramen noodles.
I’ve actually written before on this same topic in response to a column by Connie Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist formerly with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and now a columnist for the Parade magazine Sunday newspaper supplement. In it, she lamented the dearth of young people going into journalism, with many of them saying they would prefer to go into marketing, advertising or media relations. She expressed horror that j-school students would opt for “The Dark Side.” I, however, was not surprised at all.
I replied to her column via the Poynter Institute comment thread by noting that her outrage was silly, because for a college graduate – even one devoted to the cause of truth – to expect no more in her paycheck by her third job than a Burger King management trainee would is a travesty, and that until newspapers learned to pay people like the college-educated, highly skilled individuals they are, the trend would continue.
So as a counterpoint to my earlier blog entry, I invite you to read Allyson’s thoughts and consider them well before you jump into journalism as a long-term career. Per my earlier statements, I still heartily stand by the news biz as a great entry point for young writers. But as Allyson notes, it might not be the kind of career you want to stay with for the rest of your life.
Oh, and a little something for my fellow Gamecock, because I simply couldn’t resist.
Writers can come from any number of backgrounds – just go down the list of famous authors and you’ll see a broad spectrum of “first” careers.
But if you’re a teenager or young adult and you’re serious about wanting to get paid to write every single day, I have two suggestions for you.
The first is to write a brilliant bit of fiction or a staggeringly wonderful bit of non-fiction before you are 21, then get a multi-book deal with a big New York publisher and ride that gravy train for the rest of your life.
The second and more realistic suggestion is this: go into journalism.
Why? Well, first, the world needs more journalists. It needs people committed to rooting out truth and telling great stories and doing something other than gushing over celebrity gossip and ranting, twitchy-eyed, about their given partisan political perspective. It needs folks willing to toil in relative anonymity to hold the powerful accountable and tell the stories of the ignored and disaffected.
Second, you will gain the skills that every good writer of fiction or non-fiction books must develop, and you will acquire them early. You will learn to write with speed and clarity, get to the point quickly, interview strangers, go into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations, observe the world around you and do sneaky things like read upside down and eavesdrop on the folks in the restaurant booth behind you while simultaneously holding a meaningful conversation with the person across from you.
You’ll also learn to take criticism without taking it personally. Of all the lessons you could learn early, this is probably the best, as it enables you to accept a comment like, “This need a lot of work,” without collapsing into a heap of self-doubt and whiny pleas about the writing coming from your soul.
Trust me. The value of each of these skills, for any writer, can not be overestimated.
Third, you will join a line of great writers who made the transition from journalism to writing fiction, depending on many of the skills they learned as reporters to make their writing special. Mark Twain started in newspapers and pulled the things he experienced and wrote about into his fiction. Ernest Hemingway started his working life at the Kansas City Star and used the lessons he learned there to inform his writing from then on.
J-school is the writerly equivalent of joining the U.S. Marines. You might arrive thinking you are one badass mofo of a writer. Your high school English teacher gushed over your work. Your parents fawned over your awards and teacher’s-pet status. In high school, you might have thought your writing was the absolute shit.
A good journalism school does exactly what Parris Island does for young recruits – it strips you down of all your self-delusions and preconceptions to the very kernel of what you know and who you are, then builds you back up the way you’re supposed to be to do the job at hand.
The Marines specialize in turning tuner-driving, subwoofer-blasting high school douchebags into honorable, unstoppable fighters by breaking them through mental, physical and moral trials, then putting them back together the way the Marines want them – fearless, razor sharp and hard as nails.
A great J-school takes your flowery and overwrought high school prose and says, “You might think you’re awesome. You are not, but we’ll make you that way.” It will strip you so bare of your writing preconceptions that you’ll wonder if you could ever really write at all. Your professors will then start adding basic skills – simple interviewing, the inverted pyramid style, headline writing and copy editing. Only when you have mastered those skills will you be allowed to go down the flowery path again to become the writer that you were truly meant to be.
Sure, I’m biased. I graduated from the excellent journalism school at the University of South Carolina at a time when the faculty was populated with delightful, curmudgeonly newspaper veterans – people who remembered copy boys and typewriters and the clackity-clack of the Associated Press wire machine chugging out reams of stories from around the nation and world. They themselves make great stories.
But here’s the best part of going to a real J-school. Unlike your fellow aimless undergrads, with their relatively useless English and history degrees, you will not only get an excellent liberal arts education, but you will be actually learning a trade. Depending on the market, you can graduate and immediately get a job in your field. And what do you know – that field is writing.
Granted, that first job will likely be at a small newspaper in a backwater town. That sounds like a drag – wouldn’t it be much better to work at the New York Times or ABC News, after all? Sure it would, but unless your parents own a paper or sit on the board at Disney, neither is likely to be your first job.
But the benefits of parachuting into East Outer Nowhere are myriad. Depending on the size of the paper, you’ll get to do almost everything. At my second newspaper job, as city reporter at the Camden (S.C.)Chronicle-Independent, it was possible to cover everything from snooze-inducing city council meetings to violent crime, business ribbon cuttings to interviews with visiting celebrities and political bigwigs, .
I got invited to pilot a glider plane, fly with the Army Golden Knights skydiving team, rappel from a fire department bucket truck and qualify on .38, .45 and Glock 9mm handguns with the police department. On a weekly basis I hung out with cops without being a suspect, visited the jail without being a prisoner and got to see the inner workings of local and state politics without the mess of running for election.
Will you get rich? Unlikely. But you will learn to live within your meager means – a must for any writer, no matter how successful you might become. And until you write that breakout novel that’s bubbling up inside you, you’ll get the daily satisfaction of knowing that you are being paid every day to hone the craft you aspired to.