Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Avoiding Pitching Pitfalls

Pitching ideas to editors is the lifeblood for every freelancer. And for me, if an editor says, "Send me your ideas," it's my opportunity to prove that I have the researching ability to handle any topic. It also gets my foot in the door, because once an idea is accepted, it opens opportunities for more stories to be eventually assigned.

But sometimes I actually choose not to send ideas to an editor, based on the initial email response from them.

The only comparison I can make to this is dating: I sift through a lot of people, and I have eliminated men based on what they may or may not say to me ... not in person, but in an email.

In person, everybody is putting their best foot forward and uses non-verbal communication to their advantage. But in an email, people have a tendency to say what they really think. I'm not sure why or how this happens, but a computer screen automatically tears down a psychological barrier to people saying things they otherwise may not say in person. For example, I lean strongly to one political argument. On a date, if a man tells a political joke, he'd pick up my non verbal cues on whether I agreed with the joke. But in an email, he can send a joke freely and not fully anticipate my response. Why on earth would anyone send out a political joke in an email when they can't predict how the other person will react, I can't tell you, but it happens to me a lot. And if I know that a person is on the opposite polar spectrum of a political issue, chances are we're not going to agree on other meaningful areas in life. I don't have to waste anyone's time or money on a date.

So. How does this relate to shopping for editors?

Let's look at what happened to me yesterday.

I'm on vacation, which may or may not have set up my frame of mind to reject this editor, but suffice it to say, I'm glad I had the presence to walk away.

I sent an introductory email to an editor at a trade magazine for theaters -- not the kind where you see movies, but where you'd go for live, dramatic productions. I'd written for this magazine from 2001-2003, but the pay was low, and I'd move on. But I took a renewed look at its Web site and thought I'd test the waters to see if pay had risen in 10 years. I enjoyed writing for the former editor, so I sent the new editor an offer to come up with a list of ideas.

Yesterday morning in my hotel room, he got back to me ... and it was clear from his email that he thought he was doing me a favor. You know how this works if you're on a date, especially if you're a woman. Think of it as a guy taking you out for dinner and overtly checking out every other woman in the restaurant.

So this editor says, "Go ahead and send me a list of your ideas. And I only work with writers who have experience in the theater, so tell me why you're qualified to write these stories."

Well, I picked up a hint of snobbery. Let's look at our dating analogy. It's like a guy saying, "I'll take you out to dinner, but be aware that I'll be looking at other women the entire time we're out. And I only date blonds, so if you're a brunette, no chance, but let me know why you think we'd be a good match, anyway."

But I wanted to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. So I responded that I had 24 years of reporting experience on many subjects and easily adapt to writing about any area. I've written about everything from rocket scientists at NASA to window treatments in pizza restaurants ... and, point in fact, I'd also written for his magazine about theaters. I explained to him that I didn't want to waste time for both of us -- mine to research story ideas, or his if he was going to dismiss me for not currently working in theater.

Here's the way I saw this situation: An editor who understands how experienced reporters work understands that they are chameleons and have no problem at all researching and presenting stories for the targeted professional audience. But an editor who is a little too puffed up with self-importance would make things difficult for even a producer at "60 Minutes." It's just not worth the time and effort to try to please someone like that. The hint is that these types of editors will insist on people who only work in their industry. And, of course I see that as short-sighted, because they are missing out on an opportunity to work with someone who can give stories a fresh and objective eye, while digging thoroughly to uncover an insightful storyline.

I sent this editor my email and then left on the second part of my trip -- a six-hour drive to Charleston, SC.

This morning, as I got ready for a day at the Isle of Palms, I pulled up my email and saw that the editor had responded, unfortunately in the way I had predicted he would.

He agreed that it would be a waste of time for me to send him ideas, because he would not work with me if I didn't have theatrical experience. BUT, he said, "If you come across a burning story that needs to be told, let me know!"

And that's all I needed to know that if I'd submitted my ideas, not only would he have rejected me as a contributor, but he more than likely would have taken those ideas and given them to one of his "theatrically experienced" writers.

I could draw another dating comparison here for you, but let's keep this blog at "Rated PG."

Bottom line here is ... don't waste time coming up with ideas for a potential editor if you haven't screened them for whether they really are interested in using you. If I'd jumped at putting ideas together for this guy, I would have used precious time during my vacation, only to be told that I lacked his desired "experience."

And now ... I'm off to sand and palm trees ... I may not have an assignment in hand, but I'm glad I'll be spending today in the surf rather than at my laptop, churning work for a person that never would have validated my efforts in the first place.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Finding Stories Behind the Stories

When I was a college senior and a broadcast communications major, I did an internship at a CBS affiliate in Lexington, Kentucky (WKYT, Channel 27). The year was 1987, and I was frequently paired up with a 25-year-old hot shot reporter on whom I had the world's largest crush.

So this reporter (let's just call him Clark Kent) and his side-kick camera guy often invited me to tag along with them on breaking news stories. And as I rode along in their news van, they would impart their wisdom, while I took copious notes.

It was on one of these sojourns that the news hottie gave me the golden advice which has actually served me for two full decades.

The police scanner in the newsroom crackled that there was an oil spill and that a Haz-Mat team was on site on winding, well-traveled Kentucky road. My eyes lit up when Clark cocked his head at me, and with a wink said, "Let's go get a news story." It was about 10 p.m., and we were going to broadcast live from the van for the 11 p.m. newscast once we got there.

When we got to the road in question, the intersection was ablaze with flashing police lights in pouring rain. Cars were lined up for a couple of miles, while a police officer in a rain slicker directed traffic, as the traffic signal wasn't working. But there were no Haz-Mat workers, and the only thing in front of us was a traffic snarl.

The reporter and I jumped out of the van, and he approached the traffic cop.

"I got nothin' for ya!" the officer shouted at us.

"Nothing? We heard there was a spill!" Clark shouted back.

"False alarm -- we had a Haz-Mat crew out here, but they found nothing, and in the meantime, this traffic light went out with the thunderstorm, so now I'm directing traffic," the officer replied.

Clark shrugged, and we hopped back into the van.

"OK," he said, "Tell me how you'd do this story."

I stared at him open-mouthed. Was he serious?

"You are kidding," I said.

"I am not," replied the Boy Wonder.

"There is no story," I said.

"Oh yes there is," he said, eyebrows raised into his forehead. "Think. What do you see?"

I looked outside the rain-spattered windows. "I see a line of cars."

"How far?"

"At least two miles."

"Good. What else?"

"I see rain, and I see a cop directing traffic. And I DON'T see a Haz-Mat crew, like we thought there would be."

"No, but who is in the cars?"

I studied the drivers and passengers.

"Moms and kids!"

He grinned.

"There's your story. There's always a story. How many people, on your estimation looking at this traffic pattern, had their evenings upset tonight?"

I paused to do some calculations. "If the traffic is moving at this rate, and there are on average two people per car, and this has been going on for the past hour ...."

"Right," he interrupted. "We can't really put a number on it for the viewers, but we can definitely say that traffic was backed up significantly because of a false call on an oil spill. People will get home from being on this road and will turn on the TV, wanting to know why they were sitting for 45 minutes at this intersection. And we're about to tell them why."

It was my first -- and probably my most important -- news coverage lesson in my entire career.

Why, you may ask?

Because, like I learned from Clark Kent, there is always a story behind a story. Maybe the story you envisioned isn't the actual story. But there's always one there, and it usually has to do with the disruption of people's lives -- an event that affected their normal routine. And of course we know that anything that interferes with the normal routine -- is news.

Now you may ask, what does this have to do with writing magazine articles?

Simple: Let's take as an example something that happened to me as recently as last night.

My child called out to me from his bed at about 11:15 p.m.  When I checked on him, he was talking in his sleep, although the yell for help was very loud and very real.

A disruption to the normal. Not a news event, you say? OK. Let's fast-forward to 20 minutes ago. We took a break from my work to drive to a comic book store. Every Wednesday, we pick up the latest installment on a Sonic the Hedgehog series. On the way home, as my child was thumbing through his new comic book, he said, "This looks like my bad dream last night."

Now he had my attention. When I pressed him, he described his late-night fears and how his latest obsession with a comic villain was invading his sleep. He'd seen this character on the Internet, and the scene in the comic book looked like what he'd seen in his dream.

My wheels started turning: How many parents might be dealing with their children's fears at night? It's a common issue dating back to the dawn of mankind, obviously, but what do you do about it? Then there was another spinoff story: My child has Asperger's Syndrome and gets abnormally obsessed with certain things. This leads to more stories .... dealing with the fears of children on the autistic spectrum. And what about video gaming? Who comes up with these characters, and if your child plays a certain number of hours per day, is he or she more prone to nightmares? Now I have story ideas for parenting magazines, psychologist trade magazines, teaching magazines, special needs child magazines .... and my audience is other parents, who may just need to hear from psychologists about dealing with night frights.

Do you get the picture?

Always step outside of yourself in any and every situation where your routine has been shattered. In my case, it was a cry for help from my child late at night.

Ask yourself, "Can I make this into a story? More than one story? What are my markets? Who is my audience? What is my angle? Who would I interview? What questions would readers want to know?"

Do this as a regular exercise during your days.

Soon, you will have so many story ideas that you literally will not have enough hours in the day to research and sell them all.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

When Real Life Crowds Into Creativity

We have a sloppy, dripping Fourth of July today, and I feel like I'm sitting in Jane Austen's deluged  England rather than the hot and sticky Bluegrass of Kentucky.

I wanted to do some creative writing today. There are unfinished stories on two of my blogs that I would like to revisit. And frankly, as someone who writes for trade magazines to pay the bills, sometimes a little creativity is just the juice I need to refuel my tired brain.

But today, it wasn't happening.

Real life was encroaching.

You know how this works: You start to write, and all you can think about are the things that are creating worries. In my case, I shelve the writing and immediately start thinking about solutions to those worries. And then of course, all creativity is dissolved.

In this case, I've had several spinning plates during the past week, all related to onerous health care insurance policies and having to wait until October so that I can shop for an affordable plan under Obamacare. This may not sound like much to most people, but as a single mom who sees 60% of my freelance income absorbed by health insurers, it is a significant issue and regularly drains my energy and creativity.

And face it -- holiday weekends are no picnic for those of us who are divorced. If you have your child under roof, you worry about whether they are missing out on the benefits of a "traditional family." And if your child is with your ex-spouse, you are relegated to finding ways to caring for yourself while alone.

In my case, it was the latter today.

Now I'm not telling you all of this to trigger pity. Life is what it is. My point is that all of us have our own storm clouds. They take different forms. But just like the rain on the 4th of July parades and fireworks, they can dampen the most steadfast among us.

What I decided to do next was flip the tables on this rainy day. I did an Internet search for book stores that were open on the 4th of July. If I couldn't read a book in a hammock, eat a hot dog from a street vendor while watching a parade or lounge under the stars to watch fireworks -- and if my Muse was not cooperating due to the worries -- I'd create my own version of a "new" way to celebrate. I found a place where I could meander through bookshelves, inhale the wafting fragrance of brewed coffee and escape into the tales written by others.

And that's when it happened.

On a table reserved for books about artists was one with a simple title: "642 Things to Write About." The cover was designed to look like blue-lined yellow notebook paper. And within the pages were statements, questions, descriptions -- and open spaces.

They were things like this:

"You are a pirate. Describe your perfect day."

"Fix the plot of the worst movie you've ever seen."

"Write a love letter to a person you dislike."

"Pen an ode to an onion."

It was a journal of sorts, except it was a book for writers to kick start their writing juices. The writing "prompts" were compiled by members of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto.

How cool is that?

I bought the book, along with some greeting cards and small gifts for friends and some Kentucky Bourbon balls for myself, and here's what I'm going to do:

For the next 642 days, I'm going to tackle each one of these prompts. I don't know where this will lead, if anywhere. But my point is that when we are saddled with too much worry and care, sometimes we need the insistence of others -- in this case, the dear writers of San Francisco -- to get us going again.

Maybe one of these entries will lead to a short story for a magazine.

Maybe one will lead to the beginnings of a great book.

And maybe one will just give me what I need for that particular day so that I can accomplish that which is most difficult for me.

Does real life crowd into your creativity?

Take a deep breath. Take care of yourself first ... and along the way, you may be surprised to trip over the next thing to inspire you to move those mountains of worries aside.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Biggest Mistake Among Would-Be Freelance Writers

So you want to write for a living.

You have dreams of crafting prose in a funky little coffee shop while everybody else is slaving in a sterile cubicle. The vagabond writer's lifestyle ... taking your laptop to hammocks, the beach, a lakeside cabin .... hey! That's something to which to aspire, right?

This is the biggest mistake of the mindset of would-be freelance writers.

They focus too much on what they want and completely forget about the needs of their clients.

Now don't get me wrong. Freelancing does provide a lot of freedom. Notice that "free" is in both of those words? As a single mom of a boy with Asperger's, I often need the flexibility of freelancing to meet my child's unique needs. However, if I focus solely on my needs, suddenly my business becomes single-mom-centric, and clients pick up on that vibe.

Not good.

So what can you do?

Stop thinking about your freelancing in terms of a writer and start thinking about your freelancing in terms of a business person.

Recently on Twitter, I found Richard Petrillo (, who provided great insight to this very question:

I could rehash the whole thing here, but if you're serious about getting your writing off of the ground as a business, then check out Richard's advice. Everything you need to know is right there. When he uses the word, "product," substitute it for the word, "article," or "fiction book," or "poem," whatever type of writing you're selling. And really put yourself in the shoes of your potential clients.

Because at the end of the day, you won't find yourself in that funky coffee shop unless you have people who are excited about paying for what you're generating.