Monday, June 14, 2010

A two-word freelance mantra: Why not?

In case you haven't noticed, freelance writing is capricious.

You come up with an idea you think is perfect for Magazine A, which pays enough to hold your mortage at bay for months. A search tells you they have never published an article on that subject, but have accepted quite a few along the same lines. Chuckling to yourself with anticipation, you fire off a confident query. A few weeks later, the response comes back: "Dear Writer: Thank you for thinking of us, but this is not what we need at this particular time."

Resisting the strong impulse to reply: "Are you people morons, or what?" you settle for simply sulking.

Conversely, you send out a random query to a random market on a subject that has only a peripheral connection to what they do. A few weeks later the response comes back: They're interested.

Just as it sometimes rains on picnics and outdoor weddings, or 70-degree days appear in January in Maine, nothing in this business is certain.

As I've mentioned before, and will continue to repeat ad nauseum, it's important to keep freelancing in perspective. We sometimes weigh the decision of who and how to query as if we were preparing a death penalty appeal or a wedding proposal.

Sure, give it your best shot. Make sure the query is relevant, coherent and free from any grammatical mistakes or typos. But also remember: The worst they can do is say no -- or, in some cases, say nothing. If that happens, no one will know about it except you and them. It won't be posted on some gigantic wide-screen scoreboard for all the writing world to see. Moreover, if your contact with that editor is efficient and professional, he or she will probably remember you the next time you query.

In other words, you have nothing to lose by sending out a query.

I'd suggest keeping a small notebook in your pocket and jotting down ideas when they come to you. Then, when you get home that night, send a query to somebody on that idea. They might say yes.

Many of us obsess about queries because we're thinking about it from our perspective. Rather, imagine yourself as an editor.

If that were the case, chances are you would want the queries you read to be short and to the point. You don't really care about the entire work history of the freelancer. You don't care where they went to high school, or how many cats they have. You don't care that it's really, really important to them to get published. You care about:

1. Whether the article suggested would fit into your magazine or onto your Website.
2. If this seems like a good person to write that article.
3. If this seems like someone who would actually finish the article and send it in.

One suggestion I would make would be to briefly qualify any idea that may not obviously fit a magazine's format. It's OK to say something like: "This might seem like a stretch for you, but here's why I think it would work." Otherwise, you run the risk of being exiled to the ranks of the clueless who send the same query to every editor on the planet, regardless of relevance.

Another suggestion is to write down those two words and post them somewhere in your writing space: Why not?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Building your own pipeline

These days, "pipeline" has become a dirty word, especially if you live in one of the Gulf states. Yet pipelines of information are non-polluting -- and, for freelance writers, essential.

To switch metaphors for just a second, a lot of freelancers are dying of thirst when a river of ideas is rushing right past their door. All they need to do is tap into it.

One reason they don't, I think, is the sense of isolation that freelancing can engender. Those of us with journalism backgrounds tend to fare better, because we're used to reaching out to others for suggestions.

The thing is, the world is full of people who want to give you information and tell you stories. What I'm pushing with the Writers' Bridge is a system where you take as many of these nuggets as you can and try to recycle them for pay.

Sure, I hear you -- with your day job, your family, etc, you're too busy to spend a lot of time chasing down these nebulous story subjects. Fair enough. But here are some ways you can bring them into your own space, as simply as turning on your computer. All it takes is a few initial contacts ....

1. Colleges. Identify every college within a reasonable driving distance of where you live, write to the public relations person there, tell them you're a freelance writer and would love to be put on their mailing list.

I live in a small town of 60,000 in Central Virginia, a place where residents take a perverse pride in being one of the largest cities east of the Mississippi not served by an Interstate highway. However, Lynchburg has five colleges, and over the years that has brought me into contact with best-selling authors, pop culture icons, experts in every imaginable field, sports stars, guitar heroes, heads of foreign countries, congresspeople and every U.S. president since (and including) Jimmy Carter.

Find out the schedule of speakers for the colleges on your radar, and the entertainers who come there and the professors who are considered experts in their fields. The PR person will be delighted to keep you informed.

If one of these speakers interests you, send a query to a magazine or Website telling them that you plan to interview that person when they come and would love to do an article for them. Then contact the speaker's press person and ask for a phone interview in advance. I've learned the hard way that it's often difficult to get "face time" with an important person once they get to a college campus, but find out if they're speaking to a class prior to their public appearance and ask if you can sit in.

2. Chambers of Commerce. As with colleges, contact every oine of these in your area, and tell them you'd love for them to feed you ideas. Is there a new business in the next town with an interesting product? What are some tourist attractions that people in other places might be intrigued by? The Chamber people would love to see you get something in print about their city or town -- that's part of their job.

3. Google alerts. I talk about these all the time, but you can use them in connection with subjects in which you might be especially interested. Try to keep them as specific as possible, though, because otherwise they'll cause you to tear your hair out. Target them to your area -- "Autism + Central Florida;" "Deer hunting + Western Pennsylvania," "Music + Cleveland."

4. Blog. By all means, blog. That doesn't mean you have to be a slave to it, but if you post fairly frequently, that's another tap for the pipeline. People will begin e-mailing you with subjects they'd like to see you address.

5. Your local newspaper. As much as you can, read it. There's no law that says you can't take a story that appears there and write your own on the same event or subject.
Also, once you have your blog up and running, ask the newspaper if they would care to provide a link to it.

6. Entertainment venues. Get in touch with the ones in your area and get a schedule or what bands or comics or speakers will be out in the community.

I could think of more, but this should be enough to prime the pipeline.