Thursday, February 08, 2007

Learning to Let Go

Super practical advice sought: I am curious how you stay organized as a freelancer. My problem right now is I have a ton of ideas and often find myself overwhelmed as to how to prioritize researching, reporting, finding a market and pitching... I have notebooks and a word documents - I've tried spreadsheets and sticky notes... and I want to pursue more stories than I really have time to do well (I'm not a full-time freelancer yet).

Organizational systems are very personal but I am curious what method works for you - not just how you stay on top of deadlines, follow ups, clippings/research, etc. but also how you "triage" - determine which ideas to nurture and which to shelve for the time being.

As you noted, organizational systems are very personal - what works for one gal won't fly for another - but, as I've said here in the past, the only thing that keeps me organized is heavy-duty list-making. I write down every last thing, from errands to phone calls to story deadlines, and cross them off as I go. There's little more fulfilling than slashing through a to-do, and I seriously get a rush from it. In fact, I've been really delinquent this week with my list-making - I'm moving into a new office and literally just haven't taken out my pad of paper - and I feel really scattered as a result. And really unproductive.

As far as story triage, this is something that I really had to learn on the job. Sort of like a med student who gets better with practice. When I started out, I can't even tell you how many story ideas I probably beat to death - researching endlessly, pitching endlessly, convinced that they'd make a fab feature in BIG NAME magazine. As the years went on, I simply got a better sense of what editors were looking for, and I'm really not sure that you can figure this out via anything other than experience.

I guess one key is to go beyond the obvious. Editors have seen EVERY idea under the sun. They really don't want another "10 great ways to lose weight" idea. Yes, the want to publish an article on losing weight, but they want to hear about surprising angles and tips. And if you send them the same-old, same-old, you'll be wasting both your time and hers.

Another key is to poke around and see how much research there is to back up your idea, and how many tangents you can tie into it. What I mean by this is that often times, writers might envision their story idea as a feature but there just isn't enough interesting info or anything new to say on the subject. So if you're going to push for a big story, make sure that it is, indeed, a big story.

Of course, if there's a subject that really is near and dear to your heart, then keep at it. I've heard of writers landing stories or essays after 100 pitches. Would I pitch something 100 times? Probably not. I'd probably hit all of the magazines for which I think the story is a good idea, and if none of them bite, I'd put it on the backburner until a new market pops up or the timing is better for the story. (For example, if I'm pitching a breast cancer story, I might revisit it to hit magazine's breast cancer month issues.) This brings up my final point: make sure that you're pitching the right outlets! You'd be amazed at how many writers pitch beauty stories to a magazine that really doesn't cover beauty or a story on STDs to a magazine aimed at married moms. (Not to say that married moms aren't interested in STDs, but the editors aren't likely to bite because it's not just a subject that is universally interesting to their audience.) do you deal with story triage? When do you move on from an idea?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Can This Damn Thing Earn Me Some Dough?

I'm curious if you make any income from your blog? If so, can you tell me a little bit about how that all works? Seems like a "hot topic" in the freelance writing world these days.

Er, no. I don't make diddly from this monstrosity. If only. :)

I don't think that blogs have become a hot topic because of the possibility of income. Rather, they're all the rage because they allow writers a bit of self-expression without any editorial constraints, and they're also an excellent promotional and marketing tool.

That said, I do think that HUGE blogs, like (um, not that I read it, like, four times a day), generate income from ad sales. But unless you're bringing in hundreds of thousands of hits, I'd say this is unlikely.

But then again, I'm not sure. Anyone else out there have any other thoughts?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Breaking into Mags - A New Question

How do you begin writing for magazines? Do they ask you, or do you submit material? Do you need to be an expert at a particular topic? How does that work?

There are some good posts in the archives of the blog on smart strategies for getting started, but generally, unless you're an established book author or something similar, you're going to have to submit. And by submit, I mean you're going to have to come up with some unique ideas - editors are always looking for "fresh" angles on the same-old, same-old subjects - and email them to the correct editor. You'll probably have to do this at least several dozen times before you crack anything. Sorry! That's just the truth. How do you craft an idea? Again, there's more detail in the archives, but basically, think of something that would make an interesting story, then come up with an angle that hasn't been covered to death, then toss in some interesting research. Or maybe go at it the reverse way: find a cool new study, then fashion a pitch around it.

You don't have to be an expert in the field, but it's certainly easier if you have some level of familiarity with your subject. For example, of late, I've been doing A TON of parenting stories. Why? I have two kids. But I didn't start writing for parenting magazines until I got pregnant because I simply had no knowledge about what would or wouldn't be interesting to editors/readers, and furthermore, I had no knowledge about any of those potentially interesting subjects. In other words, even if I knew that a story on vaccinations might be interesting, I didn't know anything about the vaccinations themselves, so the learning curve and level of research required would have been huge and too time-consuming to be worth my while. To that end, I do a lot of health and fitness writing because, well, I'm a pretty fit and health-focused gal, so it doesn't take a lot for me to develop story ideas OR to research said articles. Make sense? It's not that I have to have a Ph.D or M.D to write these stories, but I should have a good working base of knowledge. Besides, I'll interview those Ph.Ds and M.D.s for my story.

Does that help? What about you guys? How "expert" are you when it comes to the stories you write?

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Magic Ticket

In your opinion, what's the key to getting an agent and then a book deal?

Okay, not to sound like Miss Snark here because as we know, I don't always agree with her, but honestly, there's no special key, secret handshake or magic ticket. The key is to write a good book. Period.

Actually, I'll amend that. There are SO many agents out there, I'd say that the key to getting an agent is to write a pretty good book. These days, some agents are willing to take on diamonds in the rough and work with writers until the ms is ready to send out. But there's just no way that you're going to get a book deal if you write a crap book. Too many people have to approve the purchase of said book (see a previous blog entry on how difficult it is for a book to get bought - usually upwards of 5-7 people have to agree on the purchase) for it to be drivel.

Now. All of that said, an enormous amount of shitty books are published, and honestly, I have no idea how or why. But I'm guessing it's because these books appeal to a market and the publisher knows that even if the novel isn't going to win any awards, people are going to read it because, let's be honest here, book preferences are totally subjective and while I'm not likely to buy, for example, a romance novel, hundreds of thousands of others are. So what I might consider crap, others - and this includes agents and editors - might consider good writing. Or at least marketable writing. do so many bad books get published anyway? And how do they find agents and editors?