Monday, March 2, 2015

The Art of the Story Lead

Occasionally I am honored to receive questions from people who are starting out in freelancing and ask me for mentoring advice. A lot of experienced freelancers charge money to impart their "wisdom," but I'm of the mind that writers need all of the help they can get in such a competitive job market. So when someone reaches out with a few questions, I'm more than happy to share what I know, to the best that I know it.

Recently I heard from Tanya Kinney, a new freelancer in Texas. She had some questions about story leads, and I thought this would make a great primer and blog entry. I'd like to start doing blog entries like these regularly, so if you also are trying to make a go of freelancing and don't want to spend oodles of money asking someone for guidance, just email me! This give-and-take is good for my soul, and writing these blog entries also fuels me for the bill-paying writing that I do daily. I can be reached at heidilynnrussell@hotmail.com.

Here are Tanya's questions about the story lead.

Q:
 What is a lead? 

A: 
Your lead is the most important part of your story, because it will determine whether people keep reading. Simply put, it's your first sentence or first paragraph -- your introduction. But it's much more complex than just that, because it's the manner in which you lead the reader into the reason for the article. 

Think of it this way: Something amazing happens to you, and you're about to meet your best friend for coffee. You sit down with your steaming brew, and look at him or her across the table. And what are the first words you say about this personal news? 

That's your lead.

That's the spirit you want to carry into every single article that you write.


Q: How does a story suffer without a proper lead? 

A: 
People won't read it. My only description is what happens to me in a book store. I wander in and browse for a new book, but I'm not sure what type of book I'm in the mood to buy. I pick up one book after another, and you know what I do? I read the first sentence in each book. Maybe I'll glance at the title and the jacket to decide whether to open the book in the first place. But my decision on whether to buy? It all comes down to that first sentence. If the writer doesn't hook me immediately, then I know I won't find the rest of the book interesting. It's like meeting someone for a blind date. You know almost immediately if you want to keep pursuing things, don't you? Your story lead is your chance to lull the reader into your story, so seduce the reader. Give the reader a reason to stay with you.

A great lead is great foreplay.

Which leads us into our next question ...

Q: What constitutes a good lead and what are the benefits of a good lead?

A: 
I worked for The Associated Press for five years of my life, so my philosophy about good leads is really grounded in what I learned during my time there. So keep that in mind.

A good lead, in my view, is a sentence or paragraph that will entice the reader to keep reading, told in as few words as possible. The tighter the sentences, the better the lead. The more punch you can pack into a sentence, the better the lead. What do I mean by, "punch?" Just simply that you want to give the reader an overview of the information that will be covered in the story, but you weave it into prose that will hook them. 

Punch. 

Q: How many different types of leads are there? 

A: 
In basic college journalism school classes, you'll learn that each story should include answers to the questions: Who? When? What? Why? Where? How? 

When I worked in daily newspapers and for the AP wire service, we had what we called "first-day leads" and "second-day leads." Two of the newspapers for whom I worked were afternoon newspapers. Our competitors were morning papers. What that meant was that every lead we wrote was a second-day lead. We knew the competitors would be telling the news first, and we were getting a second crack at it, because our newspapers were delivered later in the day. Our role, therefore, was to advance the story. We still had the basic news in the lead, but we took it an extra step, by giving the "how" and the "why" behind the story, rather than just the "who," "when," "what" and "how." I firmly believe that this approach helped me as a journalist to crystallize my thoughts on every story I wrote going forward. 

In the AP, I learned to write both first-day leads and second-day leads, as well as broadcast snippets for radio and television. But because I'd honed my skill at the afternoon papers for second-day leads, the first-day leads came very quickly to me.They were so easy to write that they were like breathing. 

Now we have a new era of the Internet, where news is immediate. So if you want to learn to write a great lead, take those stories you see on the Internet and practice making them second-day leads. Think about the "how" and the "why" behind each of those stories. Read the articles in their entirety. And then practice writing new leads that introduce each of those stories, with the "how" and the "why" driving the thoughts. 

The other type of lead, of course, is the magazine lead, which is my focus nowadays. You can have so much more fun with these. Often I use anecdotal leads to get into my stories, because people love hearing about the first-hand accounts of other people. But you can also get into telling a story by describing an event or a scenario that led to the issue about which you are writing. 

Q: What type of lead do you find yourself using regularly?

A: 
As I said earlier, now that I'm in magazines, anecdotal leads -- those that delve into people's lives and people's thoughts -- are my go-to leads. I just find that they speak to the heart more effectively than anything else and will guarantee that a reader will stay with me. 

Q: Can you share examples of a good lead and provide why they make for a good lead?

A: 
Rather than giving you examples of good leads, what I would like to suggest is that you find a writer who you admire. Then study that writer's leads and emulate that writer. 

In my case, when I was 23 years old, an editor advised me to start reading the work of David Simon, who wrote for The Baltimore Sun. I had just landed a job covering the courthouse in Cecil County, Maryland, for a 150-year-old newspaper called, "The Cecil Whig." We only had 15,000 readers per day at the time.

Simon was the police reporter at The Sun. So every day before work, I'd hit a convenience store and pick up The Sun and look for his stories. I studied his story leads and ingested them like fine French cuisine. I was starving for an example of a great writer, and Simon was it. I'd clip his leads and put them on my refrigerator and study them at home every time I opened the fridge door.

Personally, I don't think I will ever attain the writing greatness of David Simon. I see him as the Michelangelo of journalism -- a rarity for his gift in storytelling and prose. 

If you want some good examples, visit his Web site and check out his story leads at this link: 
http://davidsimon.com/category/prose/journalism-prose/.

If he's not your style, that's fine. Everybody is different, and writers are like wine -- everyone has a unique taste palette. The point is to pick up publications that you admire (two magazines I admire greatly are The New Yorker and Vanity Fair). Then study their leads. You'll be able to pick up the rhythm and pace, the staccato of the words, the beat that matches your own heart's beat.

I hope these little tips help! 

Happy writing, and if more questions are out there, be sure to email me with them.

Sincerely,


Heidi Lynn Russell

Friday, January 23, 2015

On Being Paid Fairly as a Freelancer

Now we come to the pink elephant in the room for many writers and freelancers:

Money.

People ask me frequently, "How much do you charge? How do you know how much to charge? Would you take work from someone who only provides a byline and no pay? Would you take work from someone whose 'payment' is copies of the magazine where my article appears?"

Before we dive in, if you want to skip past all of my rhetoric to the bottom line, the bottom line is this:

Join the National Writers' Union, and you'll get great guidance on the fair amount of money to charge, as well as the heads-up on any unscrupulous publisher, editor, publication or Web site of which to steer clear. The NWU's dues are on a sliding scale, depending on your tax returns as a writer from the previous year. So if you're new to this game, you're looking at a nominal fee for their help, and if you're not new to this game, let me assure you that they're worth every red cent.

Now if you want my personal take (why I charge what I charge, and why I think it's important to charge for your work) ... keep reading.

Let's start with the obvious ... the question of publications that are "doing you a favor" by "giving you a byline" in their publication "with thousands of readers" and "the recognition you need for your resume" and "the public spotlight on your name."

Payment of a "byline," or payment by sending you copies of the magazine in which your article is printed is not payment. It's slave labor. And if you work for one of these whorehouses, you are selling the rest of us down the river (those of us who are professional writers and depend on our craft to pay the bills). If you'd like a list of these places to avoid, just join NWU.

The same goes for publications that offer you any less than 30 cents per word for your work.

Here's why:

Do you realize that not everyone can put two words together on paper? Do you realize that most people make so many grammatical errors, that even my 6th grader can eyeball them on the Internet? I had one client who sent me her "notes" for ghost writing under her name, and they were nothing but scattered thoughts ... usually incomplete sentences .... and always riddled with grammatical errors .... FROM HER CELL PHONE, sometimes in a short text. This person could not even find time to sit down at a computer and write an email. I had to assemble her thoughts by talking to her on the phone, because there were no "notes" to be had with which to construct her book.

Do you also realize that most people diminish your value as a writer by thinking they can do what you can do? They assume that they can pay you a pittance, because you really aren't worth that much. You will be satisfied with your "name in lights," as it were. And they think they can pull off what you can pull off. But because they "don't have the time," they ask you to do their work for them. The truth is that they have no idea how to put together meaningful prose that will interest a wide readership.

OK, still not convinced? Let's take a couple of examples from other professions. I'm not claiming that my work is as important as these people's work, but you'll see where I'm going. Just stick with me.

SCENARIO #1:

You wake up with a high fever, shortness of breath and a gouging pain in your right side that's so bad that you start praying for death. You pass out and wake up again, and now you're on the floor next to your bed, and your dog is standing over you licking your face.

So now. Choose one. You:

1. Call your best friend on the phone and ask them what they think it is.

2. Try to solve the problem by swigging down some Mylanta and Tylenol.

3. Call 911 and get yourself to the nearest hospital.

I'm wagering it's number 3. You're going to go to the place that has the people who have been trained to solve the problem. You want a surgeon, not a physician's assistant, and not even a registered nurse. You're not going to gamble your life with someone who says they've been reading up on WebMD.com and think that you might have the latest flu bug, are you?

Let's take another situation.

SCENARIO #2

You're falsely accused of a serious crime and are looking at prison time, maybe more than a couple of decades. Choose one. You:

1. Call your cousin who is a paralegal and ask him if he thinks this is something you can beat with a public defender.

2. Represent yourself.

3. Cash out your retirement accounts to hire the best lawyer you can afford.

My guess is .... #3.

Now let's look at the lowly writer. Heck, let's just use me for an example. And this situation happens to me all of the time ... An editor will call and say, "Can you do a last-minute assignment? I just had somebody drop out." (Translation: "I hired somebody who had less experience than you do so that I wouldn't have to pay more than 50 cents a word, and they flaked out, and now I have space to fill in my magazine. Oh. And my deadline was yesterday.")

Why do they call me? At the risk of sounding like I'm bragging, let's run through the reasons:

1. They know I can turn around accurate copy, and I can do it quickly. I have 25 years of experience under my belt, 12 of which were in the mainstream newsrooms, and five of which were with The Associated Press. I am accustomed to dealing with deadlines that were "five minutes ago." I have a wide network of news sources and a wider network of PR people who can connect me with sources. I can do the reporting on a story within 1 day and, if I have to, write it that same day. (That's rare now that I no longer work for daily publications, but it's definitely a skill in my toolbox.)

2. They know I have experience unearthing unusual details to give the story edginess. I know how to ask questions. I know how to interview people to get to the heart of the issue. I know how to find the hard-to-uncover truths, because, again, I have experience.

3. They know my copy will be clean. Unless we have a miscommunication about the editor's desired angle, there is a rarely a time when I have to do any rewrites. Editors can take my raw copy and pretty much print it, verbatim. Fact checks come back clean, and if there are discrepancies, it's because the source usually has second thoughts about their quote once they see it in black and white.

4. They know I'm honest. I don't make things up. I don't take people out of context. I don't rush a job. I don't turn in substandard copy to make a quick buck. I am available day and night, for any question, any edit.

5. They know that if I have an emergency, I'll still get the work done. Remember the story earlier about waking up with a gouging pain in your right side? OK, well that happened to me in September 2013, and I had to have emergency surgery. AND, I had a story that was due in four days. I spent the day at the hospital, went under the knife and was released at 11:30 p.m. The next morning, I called my editors and explained what had happened. They told me I could have extra time to finish the story. But you know what I did? I rested for 24 hours, and then the NEXT morning, I wrote that sucker from bed while my mother brought me mugs of tea and chicken soup.

Sorry if I sound like a street-wise teenager, but I don't mess around when it comes to my deadlines. And the editors know that.

Now I don't have any qualms charging what I charge. I am very confident in my work, and I am not shy about letting a client go if that client 1) acts like my work is substandard (because it isn't) and 2) acts like I'm not worth what they're paying me and 3) gives me all kinds of reasons why their pay scale is so low.

If you are working for someone who is short-changing you on payment, they are probably treating you very badly. Anyone for whom I ever worked who paid me on the low side of the scale ALSO was very manipulative, very unappreciative, very demanding, very difficult to please, very full of their own opinion of their own ability to "write."

Conversely, people who have paid me well treat me well and love my work.

It's not worth it for you to spend time with the bloodsuckers. Cut yourself a break and cut them loose. Work for people who will pay you what you're worth and treat you with the professionalism that you deserve.

Now what if you're really a "physician's assistant" and not a "surgeon?" What I mean is, what if you're fresh out of school, jumping into writing from another profession, etc.?

You still have the right to expect fair payment for your work.

Do a personal assessment. How much would you pay you?

How much do you really think you bring to the table? Get a number in your head and then inflate that by another 30 cents per word. That's how much you should be charging. The reason I can assert this is that it goes back to the original issue: Most people can't write. Most people are paying you to do what THEY CAN'T DO. Don't let those people -- those who would underpay you or not pay you enough -- treat you like they're doing you any favors.

You're doing them a favor by giving them the words they don't have.

Do yourself a favor and demand that they treat you fairly.










Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Botched Scrooge Story by ABC News

This morning ABC News had a report about a so-called "Scrooge" in Ross Township, Pennsylvania. But if the reporters had done their jobs, they would have discovered that the real Scrooges were the people who were accusing this man of insanity.

For years, brothers Bob and Bill Ansell of Ross Township, PA, had an enormous holiday Christmas light display. This wasn't just any light show. We're talking 84,000 watts of twinkle lights. The brothers would work from Labor Day up until the Christmas season hit to assemble everything, sort of like their personal hobby. They'd put up lights on weekends and about five hours per night on weekdays after they'd finished their daily jobs as electrical contractors.

They weren't doing it just for sheer kicks, either.

These two guys had a donation box in front of their house, whereby anybody who came down the street to see the lights could leave a little something for charity. Old news articles indicate that they started accepting money in the late 1980s and early 1990s for a children's hospital and The Salvation Army.

What jerks, right? :-P

OK, so apparently, the neighbors didn't like the traffic on the street that this display generated.

One in particular, Vince Heck, started complaining to township officials. He fussed and fussed. That was in 2005. See these articles for the back story, and read it for yourself:

http://triblive.com/x/archive/1436062-74/archive-story#axzz3MSiWUPJs

http://triblive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/columns/heyl/s_405093.html#axzz3MSiWUPJs


Let's fast-forward to this weekend now.

I learned about this story, but not because of the harassment that the two brothers endured, for what seems like a pretty long time.

I learned about it because ABC News had a story about Bill Ansell (which Yahoo News put up on its home page this morning). Here it is:

http://news.yahoo.com/one-man-terrorizing-neighbors-hostile-holiday-decoration-display-165658608--abc-news-topstories.html

From this account, it appears that Bill is pretty crazy. The neighbors describe him as "an angry person that's very unstable." He has changed the display into a beheaded choir, a hanging Mickey Mouse and a urinating Santa, among other things.

Apparently, it changed after Vince Heck's wife, Pamela, called Bill one Thanksgiving to ask him to turn off the lights because they were bothering her dinner guests.

When you read the story, you're under the impression that's what kicked this six-year feud off. However, if you look at the archives from the local newspaper, you get a completely different picture.

When you read the history of how Vince and Pamela Heck harassed, cajoled, complained and fussed about ALL OF THE MONEY BEING COLLECTED FOR A CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL AND THE SALVATION ARMY, is it any wonder that this guy is pissed off?

I'm not going to defend his actions today. But I understand him. However, what I don't understand is how a national news organization -- which apparently aired this segment on 20/20, of all things -- covered this like an in-depth piece and didn't even get the other side of the story into it. The other side of this story is pretty significant, if you ask me. All they had to do was look at newspaper archives.

And what happened to Bob Ansell? Why isn't he even mentioned in the piece? That's another piece of the puzzle that may also shed some light on Bill's hostility.

I know people get tired of me Monday Morning Quarterbacking a lot of these news organizations. But come on. This type of sloppy reporting is something that J-school freshmen students do. The standards of journalism have been plummeting since the proliferation of bloggers that self-style themselves as "reporters" and news Internet sites that hand over the reporting reins to people without classical journalism training. But now when I see this type of reporting by a national outfit? I'm seriously concerned about the future of our industry in this country.

And I hope that Bill Ansell keeps putting up his beheaded choir year after year, because he was trying to do a good deed and has been brush-stroked as a crazy criminal.

I don't think he's crazy, for the record.

But I do think that you're crazy if you work for ABC News and are proud of the "work" that went into this piece.





Friday, December 12, 2014

How the CIA "Handled" a Roomful of Journalists

First of all, you're going to get offended, because I'm going to use some bad language and bad descriptions, and I'm not holding back. So if you're wearing your granny panties and can't take it, click the X button on the upper right portion of your screen. You have been duly advised.

Now.

Most people these days are fussing and fuming about the Torture Report on the CIA's antics, recently released by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

But today, I'd like to fuss and fume about the malleable idiot "journalists" who covered the press conference yesterday by CIA Director John O. Brennan.

I really have to hand it to Brennan and his PR team. They did a masterful job of stroking the press corps into post-blowjob submission. I watched with my jaw agape as Brennan deftly moved through softball questions and deliver his statement as if he was reading a page out of Webster's dictionary. In fact, watching him, I kept envisioning the goblin named Griphook from Harry Potter, standing behind a podium and asking for Harry's keys to the Gringotts vault with no-nonsense authority.

But I digress.

Here's the most important part of what happened yesterday. The CIA got those reporters under control by doing one simple thing:

Sanitizing the events described in the report by changing the description from "torture" into a bureaucratic phrase:

"ENHANCED INTERROGATION TECHNIQUES."

Actually, the more I think about it, Brennan didn't even use that phrase very often.

What he said over and over was:

"EITs."

I came in at the middle of the press conference, and I'm listening to Brennan saying, "EITs," thinking, "What is an EIT? What is that?" Suddenly, ABC News put on the bottom of the screen the words, "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques."

I caught my breath.

Were the producers at the network actually going along with Brennan by substituting the word, "torture," which was the actual description of what happened in that report, with this bureaucratic bullshit?

Apparently, they were.

Then, I watched in further amazement as the REPORTERS started using the terminology!

In question after question, they stood up and assigned the acronym, "EIT" and occasionally the phrase, "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" in place of the word, "torture."

Question after question.

Sentence after sentence.

Enhanced Interrogation Technique.

EIT.

And the producers at ABC kept putting it up on the screen.

OK, now I do know what those of you who are political reporters are going to say to me next, because I've been in your shoes: It was a very rare press conference, held by a very secretive organization, with a director who will rarely do exchanges with members of the press. Therefore, you might argue, it was incumbent on you to play along, be respectful, give him his due, give his phraseology a respectful nod.

Um.

Pardon me for regressing into my old infantile newsroom persona when I say this to you:

No, it FUCKING WASN'T!!!!

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE???

Do you realize that this is what the NAZIS did when they substituted the words, "mass murder" with "The Final Solution?"

Listen. I get it. I covered politics for The Associated Press in the Pennsylvania State Capitol from September 1995 to January 1999. I don't know if you've ever been in that grandiose building, but it's one of the most intimidating places on the planet, and I'm not even making this up. It is ornate and awe-inspiring and jaw dropping, with marble and stained glass and long corridors of power and all that we envision when we think of the seat of government.

And that's just one state Capitol in our grand nation.

I understand that if you're in Washington, D.C., and you've been summoned to a press conference by the CIA director over one of the most controversial stories in our history, of course you're going to be intimidated by the surroundings. Of course you're going to be acquiescent. Of course you're going to be respectful.

And that's exactly what the folks at the CIA were counting on.

But that doesn't mean you have to play along with their rules! Yes, you are on their turf, but you are a representative of the "freedom of the press" that we love to wear on our lapels like badges of honor. It is your God damn responsibility as a journalist to be in your face and be your no-nonsense self right back at them.

God damn it!!!!

I will tell you that more than once, I got into yelling matches with politicians and their PR flaks in the hallways of that Capitol building. In fact, I once screamed at the PR guy for former Gov. Tom Ridge, right outside Ridge's office, knowing Ridge was on the other side of the door and could hear every fucking word I said. I told him he had five minutes to get an answer for me, or I was putting my story on the wire. I marched down to my office and told my editor, who then told me to "GO BACK UPSTAIRS AND APOLOGIZE." I then had a yelling fight with the editor about why I would NOT do that, and he was about to fire me, when the phone rang. It was the PR guy. And he was calling to apologize to ME. And give me a statement. And tell me everything I wanted to know. I looked at my editor with one eyebrow raised, stuck my tongue out at him and started taking notes and filed my story in 15 minutes. Yes, I did.

And he didn't fucking fire me.

Don't for one second try to say to me with a straight face that you had to accept that bureaucratic terminology from the CIA for what can be described as nothing else but FUCKING. TORTURE.

You are representing the people of the United States of America. We have free rights here. We have a freedom of the press. You will NOT GET INTO TROUBLE FOR GETTING INTO THE BAD GUY'S FACE AND TELLING HIM THAT HE IS FULL OF SHIT.

Still on the fence about whether you should have complied with his usage of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques?"

OK, let's look at a few of those "techniques."

1. They kept human beings in pitch black rooms for days on end with blasting music and sleep deprivation and buckets for their waste. When they opened the doors, these people were crouched in corners "like kenneled dogs."

Do we even treat our dogs like this?

2. They dragged a guy naked from the waist down around and left him in sub-zero temps so that he and his penis froze to death.

If you're a man, just let that sink in for a few seconds.

3. They waterboarded three people. Well, they say there were three. But you and I know that people in the CIA like to brag that they tell lies for a living, so if you want to believe there are only three of them, then I have a wonderful bridge in Brooklyn for sale. And it's super cheap! Contact me for details!

4. And oh! This one is my FAVORITE:

They took hummus, raisins, nuts ... I think there was a fourth ingredient, but I lost count after reading those first three ... and they put them in a plunger thing and shoved it up a man's ass to "feed" him.

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.

EITs.

If you want to keep using that description for what would make a Quentin Tarantino film look like a Disney's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse TV show, then be my guest.

But just be aware that John O. Brennan and his team at the CIA are giving you your own hummus-raisin-nut enema and laughing at you while they shove those words up your ass.

Do your fucking jobs or go work for the CIA's public relations team, because that's exactly what you did yesterday.

I'm done here.

Post critical comments at your peril.


--Heidi Lynn Russell




Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing on Deadline with a Yoga Mindset

During the past 18 months, I have become more and more entrenched in a yoga lifestyle.

Notice I didn't say yoga "workouts," but a yoga "lifestyle."

What I mean by that is, when you regularly practice yoga as a physical exercise, soon other things follow ... Your taste for food changes so that you crave healthier options. You sleep better. And you actually start to take different approaches to your way of thinking and solving problems.

I'm not sure why all of this happens, but I apply the way I think about conquering certain yoga poses to the way I am tackling the challenges in my day.

This is especially true when I am on deadline.

During a yoga class, you move from pose to pose, and your body has to adjust to new ways of bending and stretching. Some poses come to you more easily than others. For example, I've gotten to the point where I could move through Warrior poses and Triangle poses in my sleep. In fact, usually during yoga class, I move through those poses with my eyes closed and almost go into a dream-like-state while I do it.

Then there are other poses that don't come so easily for me. With those, I have to learn how to transition my body with an intermediate pose before I can actually move into the actual pose full-throttle. And there are still others that I can't master at all, even with the transitions. For those, I have to revert to Child's Pose while I catch my breath.

Now what does this have to do with writing on deadline? Everything.

There are some days where I feel the world is crashing on my head -- in short, a series of difficult yoga poses.

Today is one such day.

I have two magazine assignments due on Friday. Two days ago, the foundational source for one of my pieces suddenly flaked out and said she wouldn't be interviewed. (Another blog entry, but I digress.) I had to rebuild the framework for that story and find replacement sources. The other story was ready to write, but I have tons of notes and a word count ceiling of 600.

In the middle of that, my child got sick and is home from school with his third virus in the past two months.

On top of that, yesterday morning I stepped on a shard of glass (dropped the night before by the same child ... and I thought I'd swept all of it up, but I guess NOT) ... and have a nice slice into my right foot -- which is either here nor there when it comes to time management, but I think I've replaced bandages about 12 times since then and fussed with some Epsom salts -- anyway, it's been another distraction.

I would call this the equivalent of moving from one difficult yoga pose to another.

Today I am completing two more magazine interviews for one of the stories, outlining and writing the second one and .... oh yeah .... simultaneously communicating with a second client, for whom I am ghost-writing a book about a chapter that we are tackling this week.

Sooooooooooooooo .... This is where a yoga "lifestyle" comes in:

First, in yoga, with a difficult pose, you learn to master the intermediate pose.

In this case, to jump start my writing cylinders, which completely feel zapped, I am tackling an intermediate pose: I am writing this blog entry. You might think that this postpones the magazine article, but it doesn't. For me, when I'm writing something that has nothing to do with the immediate deadline assignment, I kick-start my brain into the required action of concentrated word gathering and organization.

Next in yoga, as you move to the more difficult pose, you learn to breathe through the discomfort.

There are poses that I want to get out of as soon as I've entered them. I close my eyes and practice the art of the "breath." When you focus on your breathing, the physical discomfort begins to vanish, and you start to relax into the pose.

In the same way, as I work my way through endless interview notes and organize them into a coherent story format, I "breathe." The "breath" for me looks like this: I put on music that I know will motivate me. The music relaxes me, I start literally breathing deeper, and I automatically sink into organizing and writing.

Finally, you master the difficult pose. You are able to hold the pose and allow your mind to travel to the state of relaxation.

Once I have the notes and outline and lead of the story conquered, I master the story in much the same way. The words flow like water. The "pose" is no longer an issue.

Then it's time to move to the next "pose" ... and by then, you're home free, because if you find it's difficult, you just put the same plan into motion again -- hit a transitional activity to jump start the mind or body and then breathe into it.

And now that I've successfully blown through my transitional time, i.e. writing this for you, I'm off to plugging in some music, breathing deeply and starting the difficult work of the day.

The next time you hit a tight deadline and face challenges that may circumvent you from reaching it, try this. Even if you don't practice yoga as a physical exercise, learning to move from one activity to the next with a sequence of transitional activity and relaxation will free your mind from stress. Creativity then takes over, and before you know it, your work will be done.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Freelancing, Time Management & the Single Mom

For the past three weeks, I've been on a tear, racing from one activity to the next.

Here's what I had on docket professionally: 
1) A book ghost-writing project
2) A Web site writing project, with 10 pages of Web site copy to churn out
3) An annual project in which I write up 40 bios of top military members
4) A major feature story for my top magazine client
5) Two short stories for my top magazine client and one short story for yet another magazine

Here's what I had on docket personally:
1) Doctor appointments for my child, who has a form of high-functioning autism
2) Schoolwork for my child, which takes on average 2 hours per night to complete (including two major school projects)
3) Not one, but two viruses that my child brought home from school (which sidelined both of us)
4) Two ongoing personal crises that have absorbed countless hours

Now.

This is where the beauty of a freelance lifestyle comes in.

I am a single mom. The challenge here, of course, is continuing to generate top-quality writing product, on time, while also balancing the needs of my child.

If you've ever wondered about whether you can adequately manage your time on a freelance lifestyle, then take it from me ... I've had every conceivable hurdle and challenge known to womankind thrown in my pathway for the past 4 1/2 years. During the past three weeks, all of those professional obligations I listed had the same deadline priority. Every. Single. One. None could be sidelined while I worked on others. And all of the personal obligations had an equal or higher priority. You can't shelve a child, can you?

So how do I do it?

I learned long ago that to conquer the clock, you have to be willing to work in the nooks and crannies of your days and nights.

This is what a typical day looks like for me:

6:30-8:30 a.m.: Rise and shine, walk the dog, make the school lunch, get the child ready & take to school.
Morning and Early Afternoon: Write or do magazine interviews. Three times a week, I go to a yoga class. Walk the dog a second time.
2:45 p.m.: Pick up child from school ... walk the dog for the third time ... Talk to the child about his socialization challenges at school, which are connected to his autism and must be addressed before homework can be started.
5-5:30 p.m.: Make dinner and feed child.
5:30-8 p.m.: Homework.
8 p.m.-9:30 p.m.: Walk dog for the 4th time of the day, get child showered and start bedtime routine.
9:30 p.m.: If I'm on a tight deadline, I return to writing and usually write until midnight.
Midnight-6:45 a.m.: Sleep.

I didn't really come up with this schedule as a hard-and-fast routine, but it just sort of fell into that automatically. Things are adjusted, depending on deadlines, but each minute of each day must be carefully scrutinized and treated as a highly-valued commodity. There is no room for much else.

If you throw in a pediatrician's appointment, a crisis at school that necessitates a visit to the principal's office or a teacher conference, a stomach virus, a dog's mishap that requires an unexpected trip to the groomer ... and the regular daily activities like grocery shopping, bill paying, laundry .... You can see where freelancing for me is a lifestyle that I can't afford to lose.

Many people look at my job and say, "You have my dream job. I wish I could do that." Well, I'm here to tell you that you CAN do it -- but you also have to realize that you have to be a master at juggling multiple tasks. Editors do not care about the extra hurdles that may prevent you from finishing a story. If you accept a deadline, turn the story in on time. And to do that, you have to carefully plot each hour (sometimes each minute) of your day.

Freelancing offers me a lot of freedom. When I complete projects, like this week, I'm able to spend more time on things like ... blog writing. And this summer, my child and I spent 10 wonderful days in central Florida, unencumbered by work. I also took a few days to travel solo to Denver for some needed R&R and to sink into more in-depth yoga instruction. When I'm home, I can dash off to a yoga studio and plan my writing around my need to stretch, without worrying about an employer wondering where I am. But at the same time, I DO make my deadlines. I DO turn in a quality product. I DO remain accountable and available for editing and follow-up work to what I have already turned in.

My secret is to analyze the scheduling requirements of each day ... then each week .... then each month ... and what it will take for me to meet those requirements.

Freelancing does mean freedom. But it also means being responsible to your editors, your family ... and yourself ... with smart time management.

Oh .... did I mention time at the hair salon?

Don't forget to do that, either!

When you're dashing around as a freelancer, it always helps when you're exhausted to look in the mirror and see a rested and well-styled reflection staring back at you. :-)


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Ghostwriting: Getting Into "Character" with help from Richard Armitage

"I think I'm a concentrating actor. So in order to do my work in the course of a day, particularly with a character like this I have to concentrate. So it's about staying in the scene, staying with my head in the scene and attempting to keep the character with me. It doesn't mean I can't have a conversation or go and make a cup of coffee. But I actually stay with the character for 18 months." ~ British actor Richard Armitage, star of "The Hobbit" film series


As a writer, I love reading quotes by other famous writers (Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis, in particular) for inspiration when delving into a project.

However, during the past six weeks, I've had to turn to a completely different type of "artist" -- an actor -- to light a spark for a new project.

I've just signed on to ghost write a book. I can't divulge details yet. But right at the outset of this project, I hit a major snag:

I was ghost writing in my own voice.

I had worked on my introductory chapter and was really pleased with myself! I have to say ... I felt smug. I just knew my client would be effusive! I'd worked for about two days on this chapter. I was certain that I'd covered everything she wanted to convey, in a manner that would capture the reader's fancy and drive them further into the book.

The morning after I sent it off, I sat down with my steaming mug of French-pressed coffee and a gorgeous Southern biscuit slathered in honey. I gleefully opened my computer, expecting to see an email that said, "You're brilliant! Thank you! I love this!"

No.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Yes, that's what she said.

No.

My ego hit the floor like a a guy taking a knock-out punch from Floyd Mayweather.

"How in the world could she NOT like this?"  I thought.

To assuage my angst (if you're a writer, you know how you have to recover after your material is rejected), I took a mental break and pulled up some Youtube interviews with a favorite actor, Richard Armitage. You may know him for his role in "The Hobbit." On this particular morning, I pulled up an interview that he did to promote his current theatrical performance in London on "The Crucible." As I listened to how he traveled to Massachusetts to wrap his brain around the Puritanical community and the character he would be playing ... suddenly it hit me.

Ghost writing really is nothing more than acting on a page, rather than on a stage.

I pulled up more interviews by Armitage to see how he gets himself into character. One of his more fascinating exercises is that he writes his own fiction, creating "character diaries" for each person he is portraying.

"I kind of do stay with the character, yeah. He's always there. It's like marinating something – you're sitting in a marinade the whole time," he told one interviewer.

What I was missing was my client's voice. In short, I needed to "sit in marinade" in her character.

Part of her book is about her strong passion for her vegan lifestyle. So this week, believe it or not, I have eschewed MEAT. I have watched every link she's sent (Netflix documentaries and Youtube videos alike) about the evils of the agricultural industry.

And today, I hit the supermarket and picked up vegan butter, vegan sour cream, soy milk ... and looked into how to prepare vegan meals ... and have prepared a fully vegan diet to follow while I write this book.

Extreme, you may say?

Well, all I can tell you is that when I turned in the re-write of that chapter, the client came back to me and said one of her best friends remarked, "It sounds just like you." She's pleased with the changes.

I've been writing newspaper, wire service and now magazine articles for 25 years. I've never had to write in someone else's voice until now. But I am having so much fun "marinating" in my "character."

And, thanks to a fellow creative artist/soul, I think I've found the answer to successfully segueing into a new writing venture.

I'll keep you posted to let you know how the rest of the project goes.