Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A few nuggets from the idea mine

Since I’m going to be speaking at a writers’ conference in Roanoke, VA this weekend on “Finding Stories in Your Backyard,” I thought I’d double-dip and do a blog entry on the same subject.

Actually, the title is a bit erroneous – there really aren’t any stories in my backyard, except maybe how my lawn mower broke last fall before I was able to get in a final mowing, and tufts of brown grass are now poking up through the snow like a bad haircut on a X-Games skier. Or the fact that three dogs and a cat are buried there.

That may be interesting to me (ever try to bury a Doberman?) but probably not to anyone else. So let me broaden it a bit: “Finding Ideas.”

“But … I don’t know what to write about.”

We’ve all heard that. Most of us have said it. It’s never true.

A good place to start is to take inventory of yourself. What are you an expert in? What are you interested in? What experiences have you had? What’s your background?

The term “expert” doesn’t mean you have to hold a PhD. If you just took your first canoe trip, you’re an expert in taking a first canoe trip. If you grew up in Des Moines, you’re an expert in what it’s like to grow up in Des Moines. If you have a relatively rare medical condition, you’re an expert in that condition.

I think I’ve said this before in another post, but it can’t be repeated too often – nobody else sees the world exactly the way you do. Your voice, like everyone else's, is unique.

And so are your surroundings. One mistake we often make – especially journalists – is taking our home turf for granted. If you’ve been hearing about a certain place, or person, or quaint local custom all your life, you’ve probably become numb to it or them. But that Buddhist temple that looms over Reading, PA (and fades into the background if you live there), might be fascinating for someone in South Dakota.

Here are a few other suggestions:

1. “Nationalize” a local story. A woman in your area has quadruplets. Someone dies of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty space heater. A farmer tries a new crop. A retiree wins the state lottery. Take those incidents, interview the people concerned, maybe take some photos. Then go on-line and find people in other places who have had quadruplets, or rescue squads that have worked carbon monoxide cases, or innovative farmers or retiree lottery winners. Contact them by phone or on line, stir their stories into the mix, and use your local story as the “broth.” Presto: A “national” story you could pitch to any national magazine.

2. Pay attention to your local media. An idea cannot be copywrited, only the presentation of it. So just because something was written about in your city’s daily newspaper or discussed on the 6 o’clock news doesn’t mean you can’t write about it, too.

3. Try Google Alerts, or the equivalent on another search engine. Set them for a particular town, or subject, or person, and be amazed at what pops up. I found a story about a new use for corn in Kansas on a Sri Lankan site reprinting an article from Indonesia. Honest.

4. Anniversaries are great story starters, and there are a number of "Today in History" Websites that you can use to find out what events happened 10, 20, 25 or 50 years ago. Then play off on that in any number of ways. Jan. 21, for instance, was the 35th anniversary of the Battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam (find some vets who remember it); the 50th anniversary of Charles Starkweather's murder spree in Nebraska, the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen's dark album of the same name (re-examine the album) and the fifth anniversary of the news that Hispanics had overtaken African Americans as the most populous minority.

Hint: Magazines generally have a three-to-five month lead time, while Websites are often immediate. Consider that when thinking about anniversary-spawned stories.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tara Thompson: When failure tastes like chicken

Posted by Writers' Bridge member Tara Thompson

It's not you, it's me

I've had a few "just friends" conversations. Both from the giving and receiving end. There is no good way to say it. No good way to get it.

This is a big, red stop sign, punctuated by a red, hot poker. You aren't going anywhere. Stop trying to rev the motor.

Freelancing doesn't feel much different. Every time I send out my resume, my writing, my cover letter that's equal parts wisdom, equal parts wit, I'm courting that prospective client.
Basically, I'm saying, "I think I like you. Do you like me too?"

They look me up and down, consider it, and either introduce themselves or pivot on their heel and saunter off - flipping their hair (if they're female) or flipping you off (if they're male).
You just want a chance, a first date. Nothing overly elaborate. You aren't asking for a commitment, at least not yet.

This is a simple dinner of 500 words or so, maybe a sidebar for dessert. And at the end of the night, maybe a warm handshake and a phone number.

Too often, however, it's silence. It's complete oblivion. They don't know you. They don't want to. If you keep loitering, they'll block your emails and tell all their friends in gym class that you're lame.

Rejection sucks. And if you're working it right, sending out 20-plus inquiries a week, that's a lot of rejection fat to swallow. Soon, it starts tasting like defeat, which happens to taste a lot like chicken.

Before long, you'd rather skip the whole process, take a vow of writing celibacy, and forget about this freelancing gig. Maybe you aren't cut out for it.

Maybe so.

Or maybe you love writing too much to quit, maybe writing is everything you never knew you always wanted. Maybe failure - like success - is just part of the process, a real, necessary, refining, defining, illuminating, transforming, reforming, educational part of the process.

I'm not much for peppy sayings and motivational ranting. However, this quote from Thomas Edison, just seems to say it all, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

He knew failure, almost always, almost without hesitation, arrives early to the party without a hostess gift. It will come. But that doesn't mean it must stay.

Just so we don't feel alone, here are a few people who knew failure and rejection, but didn't stop until they also knew success:

- The Beatles - recording company turned them down, didn't like their sound, said guitar music was on its way out.

- Lucille Ball - dismissed from drama school, saying she was wasting her time and too shy to show her best.

- Michael Jordan - cut from his high school basketball due to a lack of skill.

- Walt Disney - first cartoon production company went bankrupt.

- Bill Gates - dropped out of Harvard University.

- Abraham Lincoln - suffered 12 major failures before elected President.

- Ludwig van Beethoven - his music teacher said as a composer he was hopeless.

- Steven Spielberg - dropped out of college, finally earning his bachelor's degree 33 years later (after an Oscar and a few successes like, oh, a little movie trilogy called "Indiana Jones")

- Albert Einstein - thought to have mental handicaps as a child.

- Marilyn Monroe - dropped by 20th Century Fox because producer thought she was unattractive and couldn't act.

- Barbra Streisand - debuted in a stage show that opened and closed in one night.

- John Grisham - first novel rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishing houses.

- Henry Ford - first two automobile companies failed.

We, my writing friends, are among the greats. So go on. Fail.

Just don't let it have the last word.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Freelancers and the Dark Side

What do freelance writers and baseball players have in common?

We both have to factor in the inevitability of failure as part of our job.

If a batter hits .300, he’s considered a star – yet that means he succeeds only once out of every three attempts. If a freelancer sells one article for every three queries, he or she will probably be driving a Mercedes.

And freelancing is arguably more difficult than baseball. If you’re in a baseball game, you always get the chance to show what you can do. Freelancers, all too often, never even make it to the plate.

This harsh reality has given rise to a culture of negativity that surrounds and smothers many freelancers. Still, based on the ancient principle of yin and yang, there's an antidote for every glum statement.

1. Statement: I can’t stand rejection.

Antidote: Realize that it’s not personal. Every editor has a very specific sense of what he or she wants their publication or Website to be. These likes and dislikes are generally very subjective.

One way to minimize rejection in the case of non-fiction writing is to approach the editor with a query rather than a completed manuscript. Editors like to be able to determine the length, tone and focus of articles that they print, and chances are what you send won’t fit those criteria. Also, the rejection of an idea always seems less personal than that of a piece of your heart – er, work.

2. Statement: I’m not a very good writer.

Antidote: Maybe not, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t be. Writing is not some magical gift handed down from above. Like anything else, you start out rather shakily and grow more accomplished as you go along. The more you write, the better you get.

The biggest mistake a lot of freelancers make is trying to operate in a vacuum. I’d suggest finding another writer with whom you’re compatible and agree to read each other’s work before it goes out – not as a critic, but simply as a reader. This relationship would, however, have to be based on honesty. Perhaps we could generate some of these “pairings” via this blog.

3. Statement: There’s nobody out there to write for.

Antidote: The fact is, there has never been a better time to be a freelancer. Websites began to proliferate about 15 years ago and have been multiplying ever since, and all of them need content. Magazines have been shedding staff members, which means more freelance opportunities. Newspapers are in financial trouble (which doesn’t make me happy, since I work for one), and they, too, are beginning to look to the freelance market. Readers, meanwhile, are more plentiful than ever.

4. Statement: I don’t have time.

Antidote: Sure, you do. Again, the trick is to query ideas instead of laboriously cranking out finished pieces that stand a better chance of being rejected. Most editors aren’t going to ask for your article tomorrow – line up your “ducks” in advance, and be ready to round them up when you need them. It’s amazing how much time you’ll find to write something when you know there’s a check waiting at the end of the rainbow.

5. Statement: You can’t make any money freelancing.

Antidote: Yes you can – but you have to be flexible in your thinking. Sending queries to Smithsonian, Atlantic Monthly and Vogue and waiting impatiently for a response is not the way to go (although there’s nothing wrong with aiming high). The world is full of smaller markets, not to mention editing, proofreading and other writing-related jobs. Think volume, and keep lots of lines in the water.

Making money as a full-time freelancer isn’t easy – you have to put in as much time, and probably more, than you did at the job you discarded. But it can also provide a wonderful supplement to a “day job,” or the regular income of your spouse or partner.

6. Statement: I can’t think of anything to write about.

Antidote: Keep your eyes open as you drive around your community. Be alert to story ideas that spring from conversations with other people. Read your local newspaper and watch your local TV newscasts. If you go on vacation to some interesting place, you don’t have to spoil it by “working” – just take a few notes to follow up on when you get back. Find something that interests you and become an expert in it.

7. Why should anyone care what I have to say?

Antidote: Because no one else can say it quite the way you can. No one else has your precise combination of genes, ethnicity, philosophy, childhood, education, life experience and geographic location, and no one else ever will. No one else has lived your life. You are one of a kind.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Bill of Rights for editors and freelancers

Posted by Darrell Laurant
The Writers' Bridge

This blog is put out by The Writers' Bridge (, an international community of freelance writers. Our reason for existence is not just to market and sell the work of our members (although that's certainly a priority), but also to do our part to change the very culture of freelance writing. We think it needs changing.

In many ways, the relationship between editors and writers has always bordered on the adversarial. True, both groups have very specific concerns, rights and needs, but many of those are shared. A published article is really a collaboration, and needs to be seen that way throughout the process. That's the way TWB wants to operate.

At the moment, we have over 100 members representing more than 30 American states and a dozen other countries. Any of them are welcome to post their opinions, personal stories and writing in this space.

For openers, I'd like to offer these suggestions for making life easier for both editors and freelancers. Call it a "Bill of Rights."


1. Editors have the right to article pitches that reflect at least some knowledge of their magazine or Website.It is unrealistic to expect writers -- who are, in most cases, equally busy people -- to plow through years of back issues. It is, however, reasonable to presume that they have some sense of the subject, scope and tone of a publication, as well as what has been printed in recent issues. They should also have thoroughly read whatever writers' guidelines might be available.

2. Editors have the right to enough information in queries for them to make a decision.How is this a story that will fit this particular market? Who is this writer, and what are his or her credentials?

3. Editors have the right to establish their own rules for queries.If a market requires that queries be snail mailed, then that's how you should do it. The only exception might be a story with an extremely short shelf life -- if, for instance, a writer wants to know if an editor would like him or her to cover a breaking event.

4. Editors have the right to ask for stories on speculation. If they've never worked with you before, they have no idea what you're going to send them. Even published clips don't always help, because they may have been heavily edited. Spec status should be made clear at the time the article is requested, however.

5. Editors have the right to receive the article for which they contracted.Any significant changes in subject or tone should be worked out during the writing process.

6. Editors have the right to receive material that is reasonably free of grammatical or spelling errors. If you can't spell, find someone who can to go over your manuscript.

7. Editors have to right to set deadlines, and to have those deadlines met. (But see No. 3 below). In the case of magazine editors, they also have the right to have their requests for story lengths met, since they are often trying to fill a specific hole in their layout.

8. Editors have the right to communication from their writers. If you're having trouble meeting a deadline or finding a source, by all means contact the editor with whom you're working and let them know in advance. On the other hand, they also have the right not to be pestered as to whether a particular idea has been accepted or is being considered. If possible, respect their stated window of response time.

9. Editors have the right to check your facts. They'll be the ones left holding the bag if you get something wrong.


1. Freelancers have the right to shop their ideas around, just as they would to sell a car or a house. Markets that say "No simultaneous submissions" are simply being unrealistic -- in the time it takes a writer to hear from one editor, a story may have grown stale and unsellable. For their part, writers should be honest about this -- trying to sell the same story to two similar markets who each think they're getting an "exclusive" is highly unethical.

2. Freelancers have the right to a reasonably quick response to queries. Magazines and Websites are often understaffed these days, it's true. But if a query is obviously off the mark, it shouldn't take long to hit the return button on an e-mail and say: "Thanks. Not for us." Or to write the same comment on a snail mail query and drop it back into the SASE. If an editor is considering a pitch, it would also be nice to let the writer know, and how long that decision might take.

3. Freelancers have the right to reasonable deadlines. Editors should be organized enough to plan ahead and not have to ask that stories be done on rush order. That benefits neither party.

4. Just like editors, freelancers have the right to communication. The editor should be clear about what he or she wants in a story before the fact.

5. Freelancers have the right to be paid as advertised. It's a lot to ask to begin with to expect a writer to wait until publication, rather than upon acceptance, to receive a check. But if that's what's been agreed on, renumeration should be prompt. A house or car payment might depend upon it.

6. Freelancers have the right to be informed in advance if their work is going to be used in any other manner than what has been agreed upon.

7. Freelancers have the right to request a signed contract -- even a contingency contract for stories on spec.