"Stay curious." - Joe Williams
Where to go?
That was the question that faced me at 2:00 pm on Friday of the conference. It had faced me several times that day already, of course, but I'd planned most of the day out well enough that I only heard it for a second or two. For the final concurrent session, though, I was plagued.
Session Choice One was a discussion by two well-known lawyers about what can and cannot legally be put in print; quite an interesting topic, but I write fiction. That's fic-shun, as in "I make stuff up." Can't imagine a fiction writer being all that concerned about slander, since that's a fancy legal term for "you made stuff up but pretended it was true." Our whole schtick revolves around making stuff up and not pretending it's true. A bit about Copyright was promised as well, but useful as that topic always is, I can count on one hand the topics I'd less like to discuss than Intellectual Property Law. None of them are name-able in a family-friendly forum. Session Choice One: half Interesting But Useless, half Useful But Uninteresting.
Session Choice Two was a talk about how to write YA and children's books. One word: Eww. No offense is intended to those great authors who write for the great young adults and children of the world, but I'm not in either category. Session Choice Two: Not. My. Genre.
Session Choice Three was a discussion of using imagery and language. This is something I need to do better in my writing, but I really didn't see it going where I needed it to go with just an hour in a group setting. This is, to me, one of those master-craft skills to be honed at the tip of an overworked red pen. Had there been absolutely nothing else going on, and had nearly everybody else at the conference not been piling in that door, I'd've considered it still, but I didn't, and in retrospect I'm happy to have made the choice I did. Session Choice Three: Too Crowded. That leaves....
Session Choice Four was a discussion on how to launch a freelance career. The description includes "or push through to the next level," but I had no idea what that meant. I don't have a freelance career, nor do I want one; my day job is awesome. But I'd seen Mike Albo perform and looked forward to hearing his insights, and I'd read Joe Williams's credentials and was impressed, and in the end I decided it's always best to have some idea for a possible fallback plan in case everything else goes awry.
The moderator and three panel members all had exquisitely applicable backgrounds to the topic, having worked as freelancers now or in the past, and in Williams's case having worked as a guy who hired freelancers.
To say the panel's discussion was dark would be an understatement. There were lots of great ideas and suggestions tossed around, but the underlying theme was how freelance money is drying up. Kristen Green, one of the panelists, used to work for a single publication on freelance status making a decent regular wage, but the chances of getting there now are slim. The panel agreed that articles that used to pay $250 or $500 are now paying $100. The print media is shrinking, as evidenced in oh, so many ways, so the potential sales for articles is narrower for the more traditional media.
The online media, meanwhile, is expanding. Williams mentioned the all-important word "content." For every conceivable interest out there, he explained, there's a publication, and every one of those needs content. Everyone needs content for their blog, for their site, for their e-zine. The demand is increased, but as Albo was able to attest, the pay is shrinking. Online publishers aren't beholden to the traditional models and so most tend to pay significantly less per word or per article than do print publishers. That said, Albo said he was confident that the pendulum would swing back the other direction, and content would regain its value even in the online market.
To succeed: first, read, read, read, and then read some more. Read whatever it is you wish to write about. If you want to write travel articles, read them. Same for food articles, or any other topic. You have to get to know what's already out there, how it's working, and where it's being published. Williams said one of his greatest pet peeves as editor in Boston was receiving submissions for articles his paper would never run a story on. One of the panelists said to make reading the publications for which you wish to write part of your daily job.
Williams also suggested that we read large publications often. On the topic of idea generation (summed up by Kristen Green's quote "An idea person is who you must become,") this was put forth as an excellent source. Often the great ideas for stories are in the larger pubs on a national level and can easily be localized through interviews with local participants.
Timeliness was a mantra of Mike Albo's. He pointed out that even the most important story in the world won't sell if it isn't timely.
The opening quote from Joe Williams was a cornerstone in the idea generation topic: Stay Curious. He described how he got to a story that did very well by asking about toothbrushes. We've all seen the aisle in the store, where a bazillion toothbrushes battle for our purchase. There are soft ones, medium ones, hard ones, and extra-extra soft or hard-as-a-rock ones. There are purple ones and green ones. There are toothbrushes with side spikes, chair rails, rotating gizmos, and all sorts of things. Why are there so many? He asked, and a story emerged.
Hell, I'm curious now. Got to go find that article.
On the matter of pitches, Green's recommendation was to build relationships with the editors. Be easy to work with. Make deadlines, and at least act happy when a change is recommended. Be the person that editor wants to call.
Technically, be as specific as possible. Williams said he'd get a ton of pitches that started like, "Summer's here!" Yes, of course it is. What, he'd ask, does that have to do with my readers? Get to the point, make your pitch as readable as possible, and make it explicitly relevant to the pub you're pitching to.
Cold pitches are rarely useful; Williams ignored most of the ones he received. That said, if you are making cold pitches (as most beginners are), work to get around the gatekeeper. Williams described looking up the person in the middle of a chain of managers listed in a faceplate and called, asking for that person specifically. Once he got somebody who wasn't interested mainly in saying no, he pitched the idea.
The accounting end of the business can be frustrating, because a freelancer must write a great many articles for a great many pubs to make a living at it. Make sure to write everything down. Checks come in a big mass, which admittedly doesn't sound like much of a problem unless you're not watching closely enough to catch not receiving one. When you make the deal is the time, Williams explained, to make note of the pay you expect and to ask for the contact information (especially e-mail) for the accounts payable office (the folks who cut your check). If you are having a problem getting paid, don't call the editor to complain, as the editor is rarely the person responsible for paying you.
Past publication does make a difference in getting future work, Williams confirmed. They're called "Bona fides" and having successful articles mentioned in your pitch is a good thing.
"Time peg" is an important term used in the industry; usually people refer to "pegging" to something. Anniversaries are an example. If an anniversary of something (like, in Richmond, we recently had the 400th Anniversary of the Cittie of Henricus) is coming up, then it's a fair bet that somebody will want content on it. Look for key events and anniversaries to catch salable ideas.
Now is a great time to start honing the freelance skills. The end of the year and beginning of the year, Williams explained, are when staff writers are on vacation for the most part, so editors are looking for content to round out editions.
All in all, it was a great discussion despite the somber mood, and I'm awfully glad I went.