Up & Down
February 28, 2008
This Writing Life
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Up & Down
February 28, 2008
I'm back today to having one of those days where I think writing fiction must be insane. I'm not entirely sure why. Some of it has to do with this ridiculous back-and-forthing going on on the BookEnds blog about sending in manuscripts electronically versus hardcopy. One of the responders was taking some heat because he had a very business-like approach to it and I essentially defended him, noting that there should probably be some give-and-take on this issue, where perhaps the writer's needs and preferences need to be taken into consideration. Apparently someone didn't like that and sort of went on the attack. Not too much, but enough for me to sigh and go, "Oh brother."
Another reason might be a phone conversation I had with my agent yesterday that was simultaneously inspiring and frustrating, but which, like so much of the publishing industry, evaporated into "let's see what happens."
And Nathan Bransford's blog asked why people write and I was skimming through the 130+ responses and noted that there seemed to be an awful lot of free-floating obsessive-compulsive disorders out there with the predominant response being, "I have to write. I just have to."
I understand. I really do. I've been writing almost every day for 20+ years, long before there was any reason to suspect I could make a living at it. It's like breathing.
But now that I make a living at it, I'm not entirely sure the "I have to write, I just have to" response is entirely accurate, healthy or, gulp, sane.
I don't know how silly this sounds, but do you remember the TV show "Busom Buddies"? It starred Tom Hanks (yes, him) and Peter Scolari (I think that's the name). Hanks was an artist and Scolari was a writer and they moved to New York City to make it big as a painter and writer, ended up dressing in drag and living in a hotel for women, and got jobs at an ad agency as a copywriter and graphic artist.
Anyway, the show was only on for 2 seasons. In the second season they leave the ad agency and open up their own ad agency. By the end of the second season, there's an episode where they comment that they started this whole thing to be a novelist and a painter... but it had been months since either of them had written or painted something.
Which may be my longwinded and oddly zig-zagging way of saying, priorities change, life changes, needs change, compulsions change. Maybe for the better.
I still write fiction. I still want to get published. I'd be delighted for this to work out the way my dreams have wished they would.
At the end of the day, there's my wife, my sons, my life. There's paying the bills and walking the dog and family and music and reading and watching TV and traveling. There's lifting weights, biking, running, karate, guitar, kayaking, walking. There's my sister's condo on Higgins Lake, Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, Mackinaw Island, the beach at Luddington State Park, Disney World, the coast of Maine, Washington, D.C., the keys, Hawaii, Austin and a whole lot of the rest of the world.
There's an awful lot of life to be lived that seems to be independent of that "gotta write" thing.
If you've ever read Stephen King's "On Writing" you probably remember what he said about his big Godzilla-sized desk, and how it was in the center of the room, and how his entire life was about supporting that desk; and how eventually he started to change and the desk was about supporting the life, which was more important.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Writing The Novel Proposal, Scalzi-Style
February 28, 2008
I started to watch a talk SF author John Scalzi gave at Google Headquarters, until I realized it was almost an hour long. You can check it our yourself here:
What amused me no end was, John posted one of his first novels online, serialized, and it was picked up by Tor. Then he was asked by the editor if he wanted to contract for another book. John said "sure" although he points out that the gist of the offer might very well be "we got one book cheap, how about two?"
So they asked John what the second book would be and he said: "Man solves intergalactic crisis through action scenes and snappy dialogue."
You know? Really, that's all publishers really need to know. (It may be less than they want to know, but it's probably all they need to know).
Good Mellow Morning
February 27, 2008
My guitar teacher, Peter LeClair, performing his own piece. A good mellow start to the day.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Writing and Sex
February 26, 2008
Yesterday, in lieu of being a productive member of society, I spent some time dithering around on the internet (shocking, I know) and one of the things I came across was a video of Joe (J.A.) Konrath at a book talk.
Now, Joe's a good guy and he blurbed The Devil's Pitchfork. Which is why I found it amusing, because Joe mentioned that he had edited an anthology, which he described being "like a prostitute that doesn't get paid. You don't have the satisfaction and you don't have the money."
You can generally count on Joe to have something funny and typically bawdy (to be nice) to say. Here's what Joe had to say about The Devil's Pitchfork: "Gripping. Unrelenting. Terrifying. Terry has created a bioterrorism thriller that will make you skip food, sex, and sleep to finish reading."
My web designer said, "It's a nice blurb, but Joe always manages to fit sex into his blurbs."
I was sorry I wasn't on the panel with Joe because it would have given me the rare opportunity to be a smartass in front of a crowd. I could have said, "I don't know, I think being the editor of an anthology is like being in Mission Control at NASA. It's fun, but you'd rather ride the rocket." And then see if anyone else could come up with a simile for being the editor of an anthology. I mean, these book panels are not riotously entertaining, so anything you can do to liven them up helps, as far as I'm concerned.
Anyway, as I was slipping and sliding through the snow and ice this morning with Frodo, I thought, why don't you ask your blog readers to do something like that. Might be amusing. (So, I might add, would be a vacation on a tropical beach with a strawberry margarita in hand, but it's less likely to happen).
So, here we are.
Writing is like masturbation. It's kind of fun, but it's hard to pay the bills with it.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Bank O' Weirdness
February 25, 2008
Erica Orloff has an interesting blogpost about her Bank of Weirdness--essentially asking people 5 things about themselves that are strange or weird or unique, like, in her case, having been cast adrift in the Bermuda Triangle in a dinghy.
With some hesitation, here's what I wrote about myself:
I have to take a deep breath here because some of my oddities might be a bit problematic for some people, well...
1. Both my wife and I used to work for the Placenta Tissue Registry at Michigan State University, where human placentas were sent in for research purposes.
2. I worked in clinical cytogenetics for 18 years--that's chromosomes, in case you were wondering.
3. While there I was somewhat expert on products of conception, which is to say, dealing with the tissues that come about after a miscarriage.
4. I have taken scalpels and "scissored" human embryos/fetuses into mush in order to process them for chromosome analysis (told you people might not like this).
5. For a couple years period in my career I worked in the following areas: diabetes research, spinal meningitis research, bladder cancer research, squamous cell carcinoma research. For the spinal meningitis research I used to inoculate rabbits with bacterial meningitis so we could perform MRI on them.
That's plenty, I think.
I would probably also add that I spend a fair amount of time in the company of imaginary people, but many of you are writers yourselves and almost all are readers, so you've got that problem, too, I imagine.
How about you? How weird are you?
Sunday, February 24, 2008
We Have Liftoff--Hopefully
February 24, 2008
My agent let me know this weekend that my latest novel has been sent out to four major houses. This novel was done back in December and it's been lying fallow while we waited for some film producers to decide not to option it. This is all very complicated and for me, perhaps, unprofessionally frustrating.
I definitely let it get to me. Now, if I weren't feeling fairly mellow today, I'd argue as I have for several months, I have had very good reason to be frustrated about this.
My agent and, for want of a better term, my film agent (who is actually a producer, but this gets exceedingly complicated fast, so I don't even want to attempt to explain it), have read this novel and love it. Apparently several other producers have read it and loved it. Apparently, they haven't loved it enough to option it, although, like many things in books and film these days, one person's opinion isn't enough, they all have to get together and convince each other NOT to do something, and if one of them succeeds, then, well, nothing happens.
That thought strikes me as being significant, but I don't think I'll digress on this kind of groupthink except to say, not for the first time, that I am SO thankful I'm a self-employed sole contractor.
My friend Joe Moore blogged last week about sending in their manuscript for The 731 Legacy (they being his co-writer, Lynn Sholes, and their books are fine indeed, why aren't you buying them?) and how it was like sending your child off to college. Well, my kids are 9 (almost 10) and 14, so I've got a few years to go for that, but in the blog comments I said what I felt when a manuscript goes out was "hopeful."
And when a manuscript sits around doing nothing, I get "frustrated." I'm all for movement here, I guess.
Anyway, HOT MONEY is on the road and I have some hopes the title will be apocryphal.
Friday, February 22, 2008
The $270 Million Friday Post
February 22, 2008
I hear that the Lotto here in Michigan is worth $270 million and will be drawn tonight.
This comes on top of the fact that the gas station on the corner where I fill up the tank recently sold a $100,000 ticket--that has not been claimed!
Well, here's your Friday challenge, folks. What would you do if you won tonight's lottery?
Me? I know my wife would quit her job in heartbeat. I don't think we'd move. But we'd probably get new furniture and new carpet, etc.
Oh, and we'd probably buy a vacation home on either Higgins Lake or Lake Michigan. And a boat. And a Jet Ski (or two or three or four) and a couple more kayaks.
I would push for a Disney World condo. We've also never been to Hawaii, so I'd like to spend some time there considering real estate options. It would also be time to get those passports ready and start seeing the world. And I'd kind of like to live in Texas and in Washington DC for a while.
I'd buy a couple good guitars. Maybe a new vehicle. A Suburu Outback? Or a sports car. Or both?
Ah, but Mark, would you still write?
Let me tell ya. Years and years ago I remember reading a column on writing by Lawrence Block who commented that if he suddenly discovered oil in his backyard, he might never write again. I remember being pissed about that. Here I was, wanting to be a novelist more than anything, and here was a successful novelist saying he'd give it up without much of a backward glance.
I don't know. I love my life, but I'm not driven to write business reports about the clinical lab industry or practice management articles for podiatrists. It's something I do, I enjoy it, it's a living, but if I didn't have to write those things, would I? My suspicion is that as soon as I got pissed off at a client about something--like a rewrite or a lack of focus on the initial assignment, both of which are haunting me at the moment--that I'd look at that bank account and say, "Fuck it. I'm outta here."
What about fiction?
I'd probably continue to write. Would I bother with the publishing industry? Don't know.
Maybe I would become a publisher. Although I think small presses that focus on fiction are insane (it's gotta be love, because it sure doesn't make business sense), I could envision publishing books about health or history or something like that.
Or maybe, hey, turn to screenwriting. Open a small production company, start the Terry Entertainment Empire.
Of course, I'd want to put some money away for my sons, but when would I let them access it? That would take some thought. I'd want them to go out and pursue their interests for a while before having money dumped in their laps. Not having to work when you're young, that's destructive. See Paris Hilton if you need an example.
Hmmm, so many possibilities...
How about you?
Thursday, February 21, 2008
A Fresh, Original Voice
February 21, 2008
I wasn't sure what to write about, so I googled "weird photographs" and came up with the one just to the right, which struck me as being of special interest to me where it concerns writing.
How many times over the last couple years have I heard some agent or editor say, "I'm looking for a fresh, original voice."
And here's the thing.
I. DO. NOT. KNOW. WHAT. THE. FUCK. THAT. MEANS!!!!
I mean, really, how original do they want you to be? Should my next novel be written all in sentence fragments with an unnamed narrator, possibly in a made-up phonetic language, starting at the ending and running to the beginning? Or should I just smear excrement on the pages and send it in? Which one would have a better chance of being published?
Anybody remember the novel "Vox"? Anybody remember who wrote it? Anybody know if he's still writing? For all I know he is. But for one brief flameout in literary history, publishers got all ga-ga about a guy who wrote a novel entirely in dialogue that was essentially phone sex for a couple hundred pages.
GONE LIKE A FART IN A HIGH WIND!!!
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I read an awful lot in one or two genres and I understand that agents and editors are looking for something "fresh and original." Because, frankly, they're reading a lot of the same old stuff. And some of that same old stuff is pretty damned good, but it's still the same old stuff. What often strikes me in any area of artistic endeavor when someone starts ranting about how fresh and original someone is, is that perhaps the critic needs to get out more.
Here's an example, for those of you old enough. David Byrne, former lead singer of The Talking Heads, made a movie (starring, interestingly enough, an unknown actor named John Goodman). I'm not sure I remember the title correctly, but it might have been "Real People," and I can't google it without losing my space here. This widely forgotten film even made the cover of Time Magazine, with David Byrne and the title "Rock's Renaissance Man." [For those of you too young, the '80s was NOT all about big hair, okay?]
I remember a letter to the editor a week or so later that said (I'm paraphrasing), "With all due respect to Mr. Byrne's considerable talents both as a composer, singer and film director, the original Renaissance Man was Leonard da Vinci, who made significant contributions to culture in the areas of art, architecture and science. In our history, there have been very few true 'Renaissance Men.' Theodore Roosevelt, who made a significant impact on history in several categories, including politics, is perhaps--perhaps--a Renaissance Man. Thomas Jefferson--yes; Benjamin Franklin--yes. David Byrne? I don't think so."
Which is a longwinded way of saying, beware this "fresh, original" label. There's undoubtedly as many people saying that JK Rowling was fresh and original. So fresh and original, I suppose, that her first publisher gave her a whopping $500 advance. Take your "fresh and original" voice to the bank, Ms. R. Frankly, I enjoy her books a hell of a lot, but I'm not sure I would use either "fresh" or "original" to describe Harry Potter. Enjoyable. A nicely detailed fictional universe. An Everyman main character that can appeal to everyone who has ever felt neglected, ignored or badly treated and wishes they could be heroic in some fashion. Immersive. Enjoyably immersive.
Which I suppose is another way of saying, we don't know what the hell "fresh and original" is, but we know it when we see it. Or smell it. Or whatever.
And I wonder if "fresh and original" is some sort of code phrase for: "really great marketing hook we can hang a 7-figure advance on."
What do you think?
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Why Do You Write?
February 20, 2008
I struggle with this question all the time. Of course, I write for a living, ie., for money.
But why write fiction? There's more money in nonfiction at almost every level unless you're a bestseller.
I was part of a panel of mystery authors this summer at the Romeo Public Library here in Michigan and one of the authors said, "I can't imagine not writing fiction. It's how I process life."
Which I thought nailed it pretty nicely.
And I'll admit that "winning" the BookEnds contest was a nice pat-on-the-back, but what it did more than anything else was remind me that writing fiction is about more (for me) than simply money.
I'm not always sure what it is about for me, but it's more than just money. (Money's nice, don't kid yourself. It may be the ultimate affirmation of your ability, whether we want to admit it or not). It's about nourishing my soul, if you will, or processing life, or activating a part of my brain that doesn't get used quite as well except when I'm writing fiction. It's about feeding dreams (about money and fame and about "art" and all that sort of stuff) and maybe it's about being part of something larger than yourself, whether that's a writing community or "literature" or, I sometimes think, as Tobias Buckell put it so eloquently, "literature is humanity's subconscious," and by writing fiction I am actively contributing to that.
How about you? Why do you write?
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Feeling Sorry For Myself
February 19, 2008
As you might have noticed, I was in a little bit of a funk yesterday about my fiction writing.
Now, go back a little further. Late last week, the BookEnds blog is running a contest where you put the first 100 words of your novel (in a variety of categories, this one was mystery), and they will select a winner.
Just for grins I put in the first one hundred words of a novel I've worked on off and on for a couple years--I think I might finally have the right hook for it--called The Zombie Zoo. (That's the name of a nightclub in the novel, but also a Tom Petty tune).
Well, guess who won today? Mostly what I win is for them to read the first chapter. Here's what they said:
Well, it turns out that there was a very clear winner in the Mystery contest, because it was the only entry that both Jessica and I picked for our top 5! And the winner is . . .
Samantha Black was dressed to kill. She liked that expression. Dressed to kill. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, just another beautiful face in the crowd. She picked up her drink, a zombie, the club’s specialty, vodka and grapefruit juice, and made a modest toast to herself. She took a sip, intending to nurse it. She needed a clear head. She didn’t need the buzz. She already had one of her own making and it was better than alcohol. She smiled. The image in the mirror smiled back.Jessica: I personally liked Mark’s entry because it’s just a great setup. From those 100 short words you get a great sense of voice and you are beyond curious. Is she literally dressed to kill? Who is this woman and what is she up to? Mark’s 100 words have me wanting to read more. Thanks!
Kim: I agree. I loved the voice in this excerpt. It pulls you in from the very first sentence or two. Plus, it’s a great mystery opening. Is she literally “dressed to kill”? The writing is very lean. Not a single wasted word.
* * *
Kind words indeed. Now, I also took part in a similar contest on another blog a couple weeks ago and didn't finish in the top 6 (or 10%, if you want to know). If there's anything that's an indication of the subjective quality of fiction, it's this.
Anyway, since my day started like this:
Because the roads are so icy I decided to take my oldest son to the bus stop so he wouldn't fall on his ass while carrying a bassoon. Only, my driveway is pure ice, and I skidded into the snowbank and got stuck. So he had to walk anyway. Then I spent the next hour digging my sorry ass out of the snowbank--my own freakin' yard, and I've got all-wheel drive!
So yeah, this perks me up quite a bit. Go figure.
Monday, February 18, 2008
I Seem To Have A Problem
February 18, 2008
I haven't been really writing fiction lately. I'm "between contracts," you might say, and I've got one completed manuscript, Hot Money, that is gathering dust with at least one movie producer, and my agent seems to be waiting for something--more dust, perhaps--before she gets around to marketing it. She's explained her rationale to me, but I'm not entirely sure I understand it. Or buy it, which is, I suppose two different things.
Meanwhile, I've got a couple partial novels in various states of incompletion, as well as a short story I'm sorta writing.
I haven't done this in years and years. That is to say, I almost always, for years and years, have been actively working on some fiction.
Partly, over the last couple weeks, I was working on an outline for a business report and most of my energies were going into that while still trying to work on some other materials for clients. And I was trying to work on one of two novel manuscripts, although CHINA FIRE wasn't going anywhere, it was just being tinkered with. The YA novel I was working on was moving along slowly, and although my oldest son wants me to continue, his enthusiasm for the manuscript has been a bit tepid, which doesn't bode well for this particular project.
The short story is moving along bit by bit, although I have no clue how to wrap it up.
All this fiction malaise isn't a big shock. I've been hit by one bit of bad news after another concerning my fiction over the last 3 months--even got a novel rejected by an editor who asked to read the manuscript in January 2007! (Only took him 13 months, gee, why would I be frustrated by this state of the industry?). Although I don't think I'm done writing fiction, it may very well be a good time to take a break, step back, think, let the well fill up.
It's not a bad time to focus on making money on my nonfiction career.
It's not a bad time to reassess my priorities and decide what the hell is going on with my writing life or my life in general.
Or, I'll get enthused again this afternoon and start churning away.
Hard to tell.
Friday, February 15, 2008
Are You Hungry?
February 15, 2008
Not physically hungry. How badly do you want to be a writer? How badly do you want it?
This applies mostly to fiction, although I think there's some truth to it if you have plans to be a full-time freelance writer, as well.
I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend of mine and I got to thinking about this subject. I think a lot of would-be writers want to be published novelists (or make a living or make a fortune, etc) to a degree that borders on desperation (or psychopathology). I've met writers (and probably been one) where the difference between a clinical diagnosis of an obsessive-compulsive disorder and the way they approach writing is so insignificant you couldn't weigh it on the most sensitive scale.
I don't think that's healthy, but I suspect it's necessary.
I'm sure there are people who sat down, spent a year or two writing their first novels, sent them out and voila! their writing career was born. They got a big publisher to throw lots of money at them, their careers took off and 30 years later they're still doing it.
I hate them. I am seriously, grindingly, angrily envious.
But they're also in a minority. Most people who want to be novelists (and succeed, let's say), write a lot of dreck that isn't publishable, write some decent stuff that isn't publishable, then write some good stuff that is publishable but maybe doesn't get published.
I also believe firmly that there are a lot of very good writers who for one reason or another have failed in the marketplace. They didn't promote enough, their publisher/editor/agent had no faith in them, they got bad reviews, they got no reviews, distribution sucked, or, just as likely, they failed to catch on with writers for a 1001 reasons, none the fault of anybody except a marketplace saturated with good books, a limited economy and a public drowning in entertainment options.
You want the truth? Or are you happier in your delusions? (You might be. I'm starting to think that's okay. You want to keep writing novels convinced you're going to have a career like Stephen King's if you can just get a break, hey, does that make you happy? Are you like Han Solo, saying, "Never quote me the odds!"? Hey, it's your life.)
Bottom line: Writing a novel is hard. Getting is published is harder. Staying published is even harder.
Harder truth: despite your talent and hard, hard, hard work, it may never happen.
You've got to really want it. Unless you're enormously lucky (not just talented, but lucky), there are going to be some seriously shitty moments in your writing career where you've got to wonder why the hell you didn't take up the tuba or computer programming or selling real estate. Are you prepared to tell yourself (delusional or not), "I'm a writer, this is what I do. I have confidence and faith in my talent and my skills and the stories I have to tell. If I persist, all my dreams will come true."
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Gorilla Sex On St. Valentine's Day
February 14, 2008
Yes, your intrepid reporter brings you a news story just for St. Valentine's Day.
Jump to article here.
Gorillas have been caught on camera for the first time performing face-to-face intercourse.
Humans and bonobos were the only primates thought to mate in this manner. And while researchers have observed wild gorillas engaged in such an act, it had never been photographed.
Yes, yes, you can thank me later. Happy Valentine's Day.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
February 13, 2008
In case you didn't know, after the events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hagrid leaves Hogwarts and goes out on the road playing acoustic guitar. I can see it, yes, I can...
It's Don Ross, by the way.
Friday, February 08, 2008
Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 9
February 8, 2008
I've come to the end of my dissertation on Freelance Writing For A Living. I think over the last 8 posts I've given a lot of good, solid (unsolicited) advice. Take it or leave it, I really don't care. It's your life. These things have worked for me and if you go out and buy books on freelance writing, they'll tell you pretty much the same thing. They might even tell you what I'm about to tell you, but some may not.
Not everybody is cut out for this.
It's not a talent issue. I think, in order to make a living as a freelance writer, yes, you have to have some writing talent. But not tons. Good, clean, efficient writing is good enough.
In the world of freelancing, I think there are more important things than being a great writer.
You need, somewhere in your head, to believe that deadlines are life and death. Don't miss deadlines. It really screws up publication schedules and by missing them, you're hammering nails in your writing career's coffin. Editors won't work with writers who regularly miss deadlines, no matter how good your work is.
Give the editors what they want. Provide good clean copy of the appropriate length with no typos or grammatical problems, on time, covering the topic the way they wanted you to--do that, you're golden. It's tough to hit that all the time, but most of the time. If you can generate good ideas for them as well, you'll do just fine.
Be easy to work with. Deal with editing and criticism gracefully and punctually. Give value-added service, meaning, deal with problems before they crop up, give them interesting sidebars from time to time, just for the hell of it. Pitch them ideas.
Okay, Mark, but where's the this-isn't-for-everybody part?
Bunch of points here. My friend Tobias Buckell is a freelance writer and novelist and he wrote about this here. The isolation can be crippling. I don't mind it much... but I mind it more 3-1/2 years after going full-time than I did the first year. I like to go out to lunch because, well, I like to eat out, but also because I'm around human beings. Same goes for the gym. Because I work out of the house all the time, I've started craving travel. I just want to go somewhere ELSE. Honestly, some people just can't handle this.
Do you need financial security? Give up this gig, then. I was supposed to get a check for $10,000 in January, that was needed to carry me through a couple months. Haven't got it yet. Checks NEVER show up when you need them or expect them. Last year, I was contracted for a big project in January, given half the money in advance, then told they would have the survey data to me in June so we could finish the project by September 1st. Know when I got the survey data? Thanksgiving Day. Know when I got the rest of the money, $7500? January 2, 2008. (And by the way, think this through a bit. The client cut that check in 2007, so that money goes on my 2007 IRS 1099 form, suggesting that I should have paid taxes on it in the final quarter of 2007, which was due January 15th. But I didn't. So now my 2007 taxes are a bit kitty-whumpus, although at least I'll have money to pay my Q1:08 taxes with.) This shit happens ALL the time. If you just can't manage your money or desperately need a check coming in every two weeks, find something else to do.
Like to coast? I, personally, think you should get out of this gig, if you do. By this I mean, hmmm... Quite a number of years ago I heard an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. She was interviewing, I think it was, an accordion player, considered to be one of the best and most innovative in the country. But he'd spent the majority of his career teaching. She asked him why he hadn't spent it performing. He said, "You realize that being a musician is like getting laid off three or four times a week? You do a couple gigs at a bar or a restaurant or whatever, then you're done and you have to find another one. Being a professional musician is like looking for a new job every week."
So is being a freelance writer. Almost all of us try to get to the point where we have a steady clientele that sends us regular work. Some of us even try to be editors of newsletters or journals or whatever, so we have some steady income. Even then, it's not guaranteed. Also, in freelance writing, things change constantly. My first paid, published piece of writing happened in 1993. I started freelancing full-time in 2004. Of those clients I had in 2004, I'm only working with one of them now (and signed a 5-year contract with them last year, so I will be until 2012.) You just can't get complacent or too comfortable. Editors change jobs or retire and the new editors bring in their own writers. Publications decide they no longer want or are able to work with freelancers. Publications go out of business. Sometimes you just can't seem to come up with publishable ideas for certain publications. In less than 4 years I've had all of those things happen to me and I'm sure that in 10 more years, all of it will probably happen again.
I treat it (most of the time) as an adventure. I'm eager and curious to see what happens next. Where will this writing life take me? It's taken me to some unexpected places, many of them very cool (and some not so much so).
No sick days. No health insurance. No paid vacation. No retirement except what you plan for yourself.
ON THE OTHER HAND...
I love it. I was just explaining to a neighbor yesterday that I have guitar lessons on Thursdays at noon in a nearby town. I also go to the gym every day somewhere between 10:30 and 11:00. As I put it, "There aren't a lot of perks to being a freelance writer, but a flexible schedule is one of them. I don't abuse it, but I do take advantage of it."
I have some married freelance writer friends (Hi Mary & Eric) who apparently like to sleep in late and start work something after noon and work late into the evenings. My friend Toby is a night owl who works late into the night and early morning (no kids, it shows). I heard novelist and freelance writer Lev Raphael once say he couldn't stand to work a regular schedule, it's soul deadening. Alternately, my freelance writer friend Doug Stanton, when he lived out in the country, had a separate building for his office and when he wasn't traveling (he wrote a lot of celebrity profiles and adventure-type articles, like flyfishing in Argentina sorts of pieces), he worked very regular hours. (You might note that he also dubbed his office The Pain Cave, to give yourself some idea of his attitude). Doug wrote a bestselling book titled "In Harm's Way" a few years back, so I'm not even sure how much writing he's doing these days, but you get my point.
I tend to work 9 to 5-ish, although I will work evenings and weekends as needed. And I've put up my schedule enough on this blog for people to know that my 9 to 5 schedule is a little soft around the edges. I tend to get to my computer around 7:30 for a half an hour or so, then back at 9:00 for an hour or two, then to the gym, then a long stretch from 12:30 or 1:00 until 5:00 or 6:00 or later. But I'm regular about it.
I also really like the work. I think in order to make this work, you not only need to like to write, but you need to have a fairly strong sense of curiosity (at least while you're working on a piece). Over the years I have been very interested in music, publishing, writing, literature, art, culture, martial arts and biological science--throw in current events, weight lifting, biking and kayaking and those are my personal interests. If I had been asked in high school and maybe even college if I was interested in insurance, government regulation, podiatry, travel, business, economics, plumbing, electrical, computers, computer security, yoga, autism, politics, computer engineering or any number of other topics, I probably would have said no. But I've written about all of those and been very interested in them while I did.
I've learned a lot while writing for a living.
Sometimes it's wonderful. Sometimes it's less so. Not a single day has gone by when I've wished I were back working at the cytogenetics laboratory at Henry Ford Hospital. Not one. (And like many writers, I occasionally have nightmares where I'm back working there).
But some days...
My wife and I were commiserating a while back about the stresses of each of our jobs and I commented, "Do you ever have days when you just wish you could go to work, do you job and get paid for it? Something fun and interesting but that didn't require quite so much responsibility?"
Because here's maybe the biggest, hardest thing about being a freelance writer. It's all you. Whether it works or fails, it's ALL your responsibility. There's no boss to tell you to get to work or to come in on time or how to do your job. There's no accounting department to remind you to pay your bills or your taxes. There's no IT department to call when your computer goes ker-blewy. There's no billing department to nag a client whose check hasn't come on time. There's no sales department to go out for you and look for work.
It's also one of the coolest things about being a freelance writer. The sense of ownership is absolutely amazing.
I hope this series has been of use and of interest. If you have any questions or even suggestions for other topics of this sort, drop me a line.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 8
February 7, 2008
Writing for a living is a business. You need to treat it like one. Almost everything here is common sense, but you'd be surprised how many would-be writers don't pay attention to it.
Keep track of your income. I use Excel spreadsheets. I also have a nice big envelope that I keep all my expense receipts in. In fact, I've got several Excel spreadsheets.
1. One is basic expenses and income. Essentially five columns. Column #1 is the date. Column #2 is Expenses, where I will list what I actually bought. Column #3 is how much I spent on whatever I bought. Column #4 is Client, where I write who it was who sent me a check. Column #5 is where I write down how much that client paid me.
2. This is a running total that's used for taxes. Yes, boys and girls, you're now self-employed and you get to pay taxes quarterly. Before I started paying taxes quarterly I was fairly mellow about the amount of taxes I pay to the government. After all, I get services from that money--roads and bridges and the military and stuff like that. But when you have to actually cough up a large check every 3 months for a third of your income, and everything else you buy is taxed, you quickly start to realize how much money you give to the government.
Anyway, this spreadsheet came about because one year, just as we were going to Disney World, we realized we had forgotten about our quarterly taxes, and we almost had to empty our bank account before going on an expensive vacation. Never again. This spreadsheet is called Running Totals, and it has four columns. The first column is the date. The second column is Income. The third column is Federal Tax (24%). The fourth column is State Tax (4.0%). If you're really handy with Excel (I'm not), you can create equations that are automatic. I just calculate it.
So, say, on February 2 I get a check for $1000. The date goes in the first column, the $1000 goes in the second column. Under the third column, I calculate 24% of $1000, which is $240. Under the 4th column, I calculate 4% of $1000, which is $40. (For the math impaired, that's 1000 X .04). So there you have it. I'm paying 28 cents on every dollar I make in taxes.
I would point out that each state is different. I've had to adjust the state withholding every year I've freelanced and always end up owing at the end of the year. I think it's gone up again, so it should probably be 4-1/2% this year, but I'll wait to talk to my accountant before I make the adjustment. For some of you, you might not need to pay state income tax. Some states don't. I don't think Florida or Texas do. (AND THEY'VE GOT WARM WEATHER! Damn, let me call a real estate agent.)
This particular spreadsheet gets printed out every week with totals (sums are very easy to do on Excel) and given to my wife, who manages the money. If I were in charge of all family monies (which, Thank God, I'm not), I would open a separate checking account just for tax money and every time I got a check, stick 28% or so in there (or even a little more and call it a savings account).
3. I have a third spreadsheet that's more complicated, but significantly less mathematical. It's how I keep track of what's coming and going and who's paid me and when. It's got 11 columns. They are:
Date Assignment Accepted
Now, I note upon looking at this spreadsheet, that Date Assignment Accepted is almost always blank. That tends to be used for bigger projects with multiple acceptance dates and I write notes in there. Everything else is pretty self-explanatory, I hope.
As for invoices, if you're using Microsoft Word, just go to the little window box in the upper right corner in Search and type in "invoice" and it should connect you to their website where there are dozens of different templates for varying documents, including invoices.
My invoicing number system is simple: #08-0001. That indicates the year and the 1 indicates it's the first invoice of 2008. The second would be #08-0002. And yes, having 4 figures of invoices is wildly optimistic, but I thought it looked better than 3.
I save the invoice because it's typically e-mailed as an attachment to the client almost at the same time I turn in the article or project. (Typically shortly afterwards. I don't wait to invoice. I don't wait to do bookkeeping things. I do them as they come in). I also print out a copy of the invoice, use a 3-hole punch and stick it in a 3-ring binder. It's probably unnecessary, but from time to time you need to go back and look at these things and I'm a bit of a Yankee with the old belt-and-suspenders mentality when it comes to keeping track of things. Also, who isn't occasionally absent-minded and forgets to do SOMETHING, like fill out one of all these spreadsheets laying around.
[and a side note. Back up these records. Burn them regularly to disk or put them on floppies or flash drives or a backup hard drive. A year or so ago I got paranoid and invested in a backup hard drive. I regularly saved everything onto it. Then, since I bought an iMac that has the new Leopard operating system, there's a very, very cool program called Time Machine. Once you set up Time Machine, it saves EVERYTHING on the computer to the backup drive on an hourly basis. And when you click on time machine, you can go backward in time every hour to find what you want. Talk about peace of mind].
4. Keeping tabs on expenses. I mentioned this under #1. Just a couple points. You'd be surprised what you can legally and ethically deduct as a freelance writer. A novelist? Guess what? Books you buy are deductible. Your computer is deductible. Your backup hard drive. Paper. Pens. Notepads. Postage. 3-ring binders. Your office space as a proportion of your house payment. Internet access. Phone. Part of your utilities.
If you travel for an assignment or if you're a novelist doing book promotion, keep track of mileage. It's deductible.
I'm not an accountant. But I hire one from H&R Block at the end of the year. Taxes got too complicated for me. She's worth every penny. Also, with H&R Block, you can spend a little extra when you do your taxes so that if the IRS decides to audit you, an H&R Block representative will come and hold your hand.
Just a word on deductions and expenses. I'm pretty conservative about this. I take the attitude that if I can't document it, I don't try to deduct it. Sorry guys or gals, if you're on a business trip and you go to a strip joint (it's research for your next novel, I know, I know) and start tucking $20 bills in G-strings, unless you're getting receipts, I wouldn't try to deduct it.
The bottom line for all this is that you're now a business person. Act accordingly. Keep track of the money. Keep track of the expenses. Work out some system that is easy and works for you. If you're not comfortable with Microsoft Excel, there are pretty inexpensive invoicing and accounting programs that can keep track of everything and even cut checks.
Oh, one more point. I mentioned a specific checking account for taxes, if that's your inclination. We haven't gone that route, but I do have a separate credit card and a checking account specifically for my business. Mostly I write checks to the credit card company on it, but I think, as much as possible, it's good to keep your business monies separate from your household monies. That can solve a lot of headaches, particularly where the IRS is concerned.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 7
February 6, 2008
Today we're talking money.
If you're writing for magazines, you're typically paid per word. Rates are all over the board. When you get started, 10 cents a word would not be unusual, but making a living at that rate might be impossible. My highest rate per word to-date has been $1 a word, which was wonderful.
These rates tend to be semi-locked-in by the magazine publisher. They might have a range and you can always ask for more (when you agree to the assignment, not at the end), but unless you get into higher-end markets, there's not a lot of flexibility there. From time-to-time I will write something these days for 25 cents a word, but really, I'm to a point in my career where the minimum needs to be around 40 cents or 50 cents and 80 or 85 cents is even better. There are some writers on the Freelance Success website that apparently write for publications that pay $3 or $4 per word. I don't know what they are, but I'm impressed.
If you find yourself writing for the higher-end consumer mags--Esquire, New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, etc--well, congratulations. I'm envious. Here's where things get a little tricky and where my experience is basically zero. They generally offer contracts and they are offering to buy certain rights from you. You want to limit these rights... or... get a lot of money for them. For instance, you agree to $X per word to them for first American rights. That basically means the magazine can publish your magazine article once. At the end of a specific period of time, you can then turn around and sell the same magazine article to someone else, like Reader's Digest, or whoever. I haven't done this at all because the majority of the types of articles I write don't lend themselves to reprints, and the publications I typically work with don't offer contracts of that type. THEY OWN ALL RIGHTS. This is, essentially, a work-for-hire situation, which I will get to in a moment. Just so you know, if you ARE writing these types of materials, I know of at least one writer who makes about $4000 a year just from selling reprints of her articles. And the only thing she has to do for that money is shop around material she's already written.
If you're writing for newspapers, they typically work on a specific dollar amount per column inch or sometimes per word, or, to save yourself from going crazy, tell them you'll do a certain article for $150 or whatever they'll let out of their greedy little hands.
Work For Hire, as I mentioned above, is where you're hired to do a job, you do it, you get paid, you're done. Most corporate work falls into this category. I do a lot of this (work for hire, not corporate work). I have contracts, but they typically own all the rights. Sometimes I get a byline, sometimes I don't.
(And a note on bylines. I wrote about 20 articles for one of my clients last year for a newsletter, made a lot of money, but my name wasn't on anything. I don't like it, but the money was good. It's something you have to decide whether or not it's right for you. I like to make sure at least some of my work has my byline because, 1. Hey, it's my work, and 2. It makes it that much easier to build your portfolio when your damned name's on the work. You can use them as clips even if they don't have your name on them, but doesn't it make sense that the ones with your names on them make a bigger impression?)
So, how much do you make? How do you decide how much money to charge for a work-for-hire piece.
When you're new to this gig, it's hard. Let's do a little math.
Pick the amount of money you'd like to make annually. For example: $50,000.
If you were working 52 40-hour weeks a year, that's 2080 hours.
Divide $50,000/2080 = $24 per hour.
Now, because you are self-employed, have to take care of your own overhead, don't have sick days, health insurance, paid vacation and to top that off, the federal government rapes you with Social Security (usually called the Self-Employed tax, or S.E. tax, and it works like this: If you work for somebody else, you pay 7.5% SS and your employer pays 7.5% SS, but if you're self-employed, you pay 15%. Welcome to freelancing. More on this tomorrow), the rule of thumb is, triple that number. So, to make our life simpler, if you want to make $50,000 a year, charge $75 an hour.
That might seem like a lot, but you're a "contractor" now and you can get away with things that may or may not seem astronomical before. (Besides, you won't have 2080 billable hours annually. It just doesn't work that way, usually).
Except, I don't charge that much. I typically charge (when I charge per hour, more on that shortly), I typically charge $40 or $50. If I'm charging per hour. This is partly because of where I live and the type of clients I've had for hourly wages. You charge what the market will bear, and in this part of Michigan for freelance writers with my type of clientele, that's what I can charge. Now, that's because my hourly clients have been hospitals, generally; if you're dealing with technical writing for computer companies or manufacturers, or advertising copy, or, if you've got the credentials, pharmaceutical companies, you can charge a lot more. I have a friend who has a PhD in toxicology and does some freelance writing and when she charges hourly, she charges $100 an hour. And in her field, that's pretty much the starting rate.
More often, though, I'm paid per project. My client says, "We want you to do this research report. How much do you charge?"
I'm going to hem and haw a bit, usually. I want to turn this back on them, with, "What's your budget for the writer?" or "What range were you thinking about?" Then they hem and haw and eventually we settle for something. When you're first starting out, unless you're a natural haggler, this is a bitch. I've worked just enough to know how much I want to make off a certain project, based on how much work and time I think it's going to be, to have a pretty good idea how much I want to make.
So, let's say somebody asks you how much you want to do some project, whether it's an ad campaign, a company's annual report, a white paper or whatever. Here's where experience helps you. You have your hoped-for hourly rate in mind. You think through the project and say to yourself, "I think this project will take 100 hours. At $50 an hour, that's $5000." So to your client you say, "Mmmm, I'm thinking a range of $5000 to $7000." With any luck you'll get in the middle or the high end, but if you get the low end, you go away happy. I also suggest, because this has been my experience, that you can safely do your basic math, i.e., come up with $5000, then add 10% to it because, frankly, it's almost impossible to estimate the time involved and almost all projects, especially large projects, go to hell at some point and require more time and effort than you wanted them to.
As you gain experience and grow your client list and get busy, you might consider a PITA fee. PITA, in this case, stands for Pain In The Ass. Because, boys and girls, some clients are Pains In The Ass. But they might pay really well. So if you're going to do work that annoys you, make sure you at least get paid decently for it, otherwise you might as well go and get a day-job. (When you're starting out, building a portfolio, this is a luxury you can't afford. Take the work, shut up, and know that someday you'll be able to pick and choose).
If you're doing a really big job, like some of these business reports I do, or ghost writing or whatever, ask for an advance. Sometimes I get 50% upfront and 50% at completion. Sometimes it's broken into thirds. I'm working on one now where I got about a third upfront, will get another third after I produce a workable outline (or whatever it is I decide to get to them, which may be a partial rough draft plus outline) and the remainder when I complete the project.
The most important thing as you move along is to have confidence and to value your own work and skill. Particularly in writing, a lot of people have the attitude, "Well, I would do it myself, but I just don't have the time." But the truth is, YOU'RE THE PROFESSIONAL. You can do it better than they can. So charge accordingly.
Also, when you're evaluating your rates, you really need to consider whether you're a fast writer or a slow writer, how many interviews or type of research is required. Do you have to spend time at the company you're working for? Things that I consider are: do I have to travel to do the article? When I was writing for a newspaper, I hated to go out and get the interviews, because they were only paying $150 or less for the article. So, for instance, if I had to drive 45 to 60 minutes to the site of Camp Bow-Wow (yes, I did this), and spend an hour interviewing the people there, then drive back, and then spend 1 or 2 hours writing the article, I've just spent 4 hours on the piece. If it's a $100 article, that's only $25 an hour. (Which it was, but it was kind of fun). But I was also doing short articles for a publication called BioPerform.com (no longer in business), and they were typically 400 words long, based on a single interview, and they paid a flat fee of $100. I did a 15-20 minute phone interview, transcribed the interview, wrote the piece in an hour, and was making $50 an hour.
This is something of an unending topic and I'd love to hear what other freelancer's opinions are.
I'm wrapping this series up on Friday. Tomorrow I will write about miscellaneous business concerns and on Friday I'll write about the kind of mindset I think you need to make this work.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 6
February 5, 2008
As promised in my last entry, I will briefly discuss (I'll try to keep it brief after the last epic) how you go about getting writing gigs in the corporate world. My caveat on this is that I haven't done this often and really not that successfully. So, here goes.
First, who to write for? If you live out in the middle of nowhere, this might be a challenge. If you're somewhere in the vicinity of an urban center, use the Yellow Pages and start making a list of companies. That can be any large corporation, medium-sized company, graphic designer or advertising agency. A lot of cities also have business listings you can purchase. Also, keep an eye out for local business organizations. In the Detroit area there's Automation Alley, which is a consortium of a couple hundred companies.
Okay. You could write a nice introductory query letter and a resume and send it to somebody at the company. If you go this route, make sure you follow up with a phone call a week later. Chances are, either way, your letter will either get thrown away or stuck in a filing cabinet never to see the light of day again.
For this type of writing opps, I recommend Ye Olde Cold Call. And if the very idea gives you chills and a case of the heebie-jeebies, well, I don't blame you. Strap on your big-girl shoes and go to work, though. Cold calls suck. But you do get used to them. And they're good practice for when you need to call people and ask them for interviews for the article you're writing. Suck it up and do it.
Give yourself a script. Something like: "Hi, my name is Mark Terry. I'm a freelance writer and I'm calling to see how I might meet your freelance writing needs."
About 95% of the time you'll get a receptionist or secretary who will be, to say the least, confused. She or he will say something like, "We don't hire freelance writers." Or, "I'll transfer you to human resources."
My take on HR, by the way, is that they're a black hole for this type of work. You need to talk to the people who hire freelancers. You need to talk to someone in corporate communications, Public Relations, or, depending on the type of company and type of work, head of the company (if it's a small shop). If you're looking to do advertising type work, someone in the marketing department. If it's technical, then someone in the IT department or other department. Corporate Communications departments are often willing to talk to you.
If they DO talk to you and ARE interested in you, they'll probably ask for you to e-mail or fax a resume and clips. Go ahead. Then follow-up in a few days with a phone call and/or e-mail. Then wait. And wait.
As I said, this isn't really my area. I've done it some and it can definitely be lucrative, but I haven't had tons of luck breaking in. Some of that may just be my particularly urban area. Or my type of writing. Or my voice, or... Maybe because aside from one intense spurt of marketing in this area that didn't work out well, I went onto areas that worked better for me. If you want better resources on it, I recommend Peter Bowerman's book "The Well-Fed Writer" and the Freelance Success website, which has a whole database and listserv concerning corporate writing.
Anyway, I think it's important to bring this up now because it is true for both traditional publishing such as magazines and for corporate writing (and fiction and literary agents, by and large). And that truth is this:
It's a numbers game.
You need to get YOU into the awareness of the right person at the right time with the right skill set and/or right idea.
Maybe you'll send out one query and you'll get an assignment. It happens.
The number I've heard and I can't verify its accuracy except to say that for me it SEEMS about right, is that only about 1 out of every 12 queries gets picked up. So if you want to break into the freelance writing business, you've got to really get the queries out there or the cold calls. Once you get a stable of clients, your odds get a lot better. Once you have a great portfolio to lean on, your odds get a little better.
At the end of last year I wanted to bring on a new big client of some sort. I had some ideas, but I wanted something either regular or big and I went looking for it, using all the resources that I mentioned in my second day on this series. And over the course of a month I probably did send out a good solid twenty queries and/or applications (Remember, I wasn't looking for just any kind of work; I was looking for a specific type of work that would do a specific type of thing for me. Your needs may be different). And immediately, nothing came of it.
Then about January 2nd or 3rd I got an e-mail from one of them asking to talk to me. So I called him back and now he's a new client and my first job with him is paying $7000, and if I don't screw it up, I can expect to do several of these similar projects a year. Hopefully for a long time.
What I'm trying to say here is this: don't say, "I want to write for Esquire, so I'm going to write them a query for this great idea I've got and go back to my day job until they accept my pitch."
If they do, good for you. What you need to do is pick about a dozen magazines or a hundred companies and start pitching them. With the magazines, once one gets rejected, hit them with another idea. (One at a time, though). Keep cranking through the cold calls. Go to the various freelance job banks and apply for jobs that interest you or that you're qualified for. Keep doing it.
Think of it this way: you need to keep up constant pressure. Not always. Once you get busy you may not spend a lot of time hunting for more work (although, as I've noticed, you'll get slow periods or your client situation will change or you want better paying clients, and you'll be back out there hunting and pitching again, often on a semi-regular basis), but while you're trying to build your business, you really need to take this attitude: I will query or call until I get work. I won't stop until I do. And once I do get work, I'll keep doing it until I'm so busy I don't have time to hunt for work.
Tomorrow I'll talk about how much to charge.
Monday, February 04, 2008
A Little Video Break
February 4, 2008
I love Rick Riordan's books, both for adults and kids, and his blog mentions an ad on YouTube. It was great, but there was also a video of one of his book talks. And I couldn't help but laugh and grin through it. Man, this guy knows how to work a crowd.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 5
February 3, 2008
Today, Part 5, concerns the query letter.
We're talking about magazines here, not corporate work. That's a different tennis court entirely and I can't speak to it a lot, but I'll deal with my thoughts and experiences there on Tuesday.
As for magazines, newspapers, etc., as we talked about earlier, you've analyzed the market, their writing style, and if you've gone through Writers Market and/or the masthead of the publication, you even know who to contact and how (ie., e-mail versus snail mail).
Just a comment on this e-mail versus snail mail queries. Once upon a time I did snail mail queries (once upon a time, what choice did I have?). Now, I do NO snail mail queries. The only thing that I do that uses the U.S. Postal System are contracts and checks. And I've got at least one client who wishes I'd get with the 21st century regarding contracts and do it via the Web, and I've considered the idea of direct deposits and/or Pay Pal accounts for paychecks as well. I figure it's only a matter of time for both, although I like actually having the money in my greedy little hands for a moment, sometimes checks are large enough that the credit union I use puts a freakin' 10-business-day hold on the money. Anyway, my philosophy is that in the year 2008, any magazine publisher who still relies on the USPO for queries (I personally feel this applies to agents, but there are someLuddites out there) are hopelessly behind the times.
Here's the good news and the bad news when it comes to queries. I sort of suck at them and I don't really do them the way the writing books always tell you to.
Books on this typically tell you to write something that resembles the lede (or lead if you're not a journalist and otherwise speak English) of your story. So, a recent piece of mine, if I had actually queried it this way, would have read something like this:
Dear Stephanie (the editor):
Irving, Texas-based Caris Diagnostics is moving into high gear, opening a new facility in Phoenix, Arizona and merging with Cohen Dermatopathology in Newton, Massachusetts. It’s all part of a strategy for strong growth based on what President and Chief Executive Officer Gail B. Marcus says is a three-pronged strategy: quality, technology, and service.
Then I would say I would like to write a piece on Caris Diagnostics and probably explain why we should bother.
Then I would have a paragraph explaining who I am if they don't know. Then I'll close with something along the lines of:
I look forward to working with you.
Now, there's nothing really wrong with that approach. In fact, there's a lot right about it. I just don't choose to (usually) take that approach.
Here's what I would do, depending on if I had worked with this editor/publication before.
If I Had:
Are you interested in a piece on Caris Diagnostics? They're opening a new facility in Arizona and running a joint-venture/merger with Cohen Dermatopathology. I'd interview Caris CEO Gail Marcus and talk to Fred Coohen at Cohen.
I would also like to point out, that if it's a publication I work with often, and they're not assigning pieces (often they do), I might pitch 3 or 4 story ideas at a time.
If They're New:
Dear Stephanie Munster:
My name is Mark Terry. I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor specializing in health, clinical diagnostics (business, technical and regulatory) and biotechnology. My work regularly appears in Laboratory Industry Report, Biotechnology Healthcare, ADVANCE for Medical Laboratory Professionals, Podiatry Management, and numerous others. I am the long-time editor of the international trade/technical journal, The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists, and a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. I am also the author of several book-length business market reports for Washington G2 Reports including Laboratory Market Leaders Report 2007 and Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2007.
Would you be interested in an article about Caris Diagnostics? A leader in clinical diagnostics and pathology in the southwest, they have recently expanded their operations into the national market by opening a second laboratory in Arizona and by merging with Massachusetts pathology lab Cohen Dermatopathology. I would interview Caris CEO Gail Marcus and talk to Fred Coohen at Cohen Dermatopathogy, as well as one or two of their clients to discuss the impact of this merger on the pathology market.
I have attached PDFs of my resume and three relevant clips.
I look forward to working with you.
Here's the difference in a nutshell:
With a new publication, I'm trying to sell myself as much or more than I am the idea. With my credentials and portfolio, I feel that the idea is almost secondary to the fact that as a pro, I can deliver whatever the hell they need.
There is, however, something else I think you should take away from this, especially if you don't already have clips and are trying to break into the business.
One of the most important things I try to do in a query letter with a new client besides show them I'm a pro, is to indicate to them HOW I will write the piece. In other words, you need to do a little bit of research before you query a publication and dig up the names of a couple people you'll interview for the article. (Rule of thumb: 3 sources per article, depending on the length of the article. A one-source article depends on the article, like if it's a simple profile; or 5 or 6 sources if it's a long article or the subject is very complicated, but more than 3 can get unwieldy unless some of those sources are examples, like you're writing an article about insurance, so you interview 3 insurance agents, but then you interview 2 people whose houses were destroyed by a hurricane as examples). I'm convinced that doing a little bit of research by showing the editor what sources you're going to hang the article on, goes a long ways toward selling the piece. (And if those people don't want to talk to you for the article, that's okay, find somebody else. The editors won't mind as long as you deliver the article they want; unless you're promising to interview, say, a politician, celebrity or something like that and you can 't deliver on it, in which case you're screwed).
Having said all that, I also want to add that every editor and publication is different. I'm working with a new editor at a publication I worked with for a year or so, and my casual approach worked well with the old editor, but this new editor wants me to fully round out my story ideas and really provide details of what types of questions I will ask and who I will interview. He's being patient with me, but he clearly wants me to flesh out my queries/pitches more than I do. Other clients, I send them a query with 4 story ideas in 4 to 8 sentences total and they assign all of them to me with a, "These sounds good, when can you get them to me?"
I'm guessing some of you will ask: "But what if I don't have any writing clips?"
First, try to get some by volunteering for something. Local newspaper, newsletter of an organization you belong to, church newsletter, whatever.
Two, you might write an article on spec, which means for free. We all do it from time to time and sometimes it's the only way to break into a new market. Just make sure it's good. Make sure you interview people for it. Also, keep in mind that in many cases, they won't buy that actual article, but you might be able to use it as a foot in the door. Say you write your spec article and they read it and say, "It's pretty good, but not quite for us." Then e-mail the editor back and say, "May I pitch you other story ideas?" Or just go ahead and pitch some.
Just a few points.
I've got a standard writing resume, which I suppose I should post here sometime. It's essentially a list of all the clients I've worked with and the type of writing I did for them and when.
But you may notice in my bio up above, that it's tailored to the type of publication I'm trying to break into. I'm fairly lucky, I've written a lot of different things. Most writers do over time. But if I was pitching a story idea to a publication focused on say, travel, I would have to bring up publications that are less medical and/or technical oriented--things like The Oakland Press, Traverse Magazine, Mystery Scene Magazine, International Thriller Writers Report, Lowe's for Pros, etc.
That's why, although I think it's good to specialize, I also try to occasionally write things different. Because my specialty might dry up or I might get fed up with it and it would be nice to have the option of branching into some area. Hey, after my kids grow up I might want to take up travel writing. "Islands" Magazine, anyone?
Oh, and one more point: Find out the name of the appropriate editor to send a query to. It's in Writers Market or on the publication's website or on their masthead. And if worse comes to worse, call up the publication and ask. I've done it and it's well worth the 30 seconds.
One last, very important thing: proofread. No typos or errors in your queries, doofuses!