Friday, November 10, 2006

To Blog or Not to Blog

What role do you think blogs should play for freelance writers. Are they of use in advancing a writer's career? Can they help them get published? Are they a help or a hindrance to publicizing their works? I would be very interested to find out what you think.

There isn't a black or white answer to this question, so I'll break it down into a few (obvious) categories - when it can help (not that often), when it can hurt (probably ditto) and when it has no effect at all (most of the time).

When it will give your career a boost: If you're able to develop a blog with a huge following, in the way that Stephanie Klein or Jen Lancaster have, you could set yourself up for landing a great book deal. (Both of these gals, not for nothing, have written hilarious, insightful memoirs that I suggest you check out if you like that sort of book. They're also supercool people whom I've been fortunate enough to correspond with.) BUT, the days of bloggers getting picked off by agents or editors are more or less over, and toiling over a blog takes a lot of time and effort...I'd say there are far better ways to hope to catch the eye of potential publisher. Not to mention that when I say you have to generate a huge following, I mean it. An agent isn't going to be impressed with a few hundred hits a day or whatever.

Of course, having a blog can also help you if you have a book coming out. Cindy at Conversations with Famous Writers has a built-in audience (including moi), folks who are ready and willing to snap up her book as soon as she says go. And my pal, Laura Dave, author of the smart and poignant, London is the Best City In America, just started a blog on MySpace as a way to chat with her readers.

When it will sink you: I've heard a few writers complain about various blogs that were poorly written, riddled with errors or just plain bad. (And yep, I know that I have occasional typos...I'll admit that sometimes I'm so busy that I can't proof the posts, and for that, I really do apologize.) If an editor or agent checks out your work and sees writing that she finds less than professional or maybe learns something about you (like, I dunno, your ridiculous partying habits) that she doesn't like, she's not going to hire you. When I first started this blog, I wondered what on earth I'd write about, and I think that blogging lends itself to personal venting, to airing information that you might normally keep to yourself...and with good reason. True, if you're blogging anonymously, there's no harm in spilling sordid life details, but if you're trying to use it as a career tool, you should keep it to that. But there's often the temptation to share more intimate details, and I'm not always sure that - for professional purposes - that this is a good thing.

When it won't matter: Nearly all of the time. Magazine editors and book agents are looking for good writers, and true, maybe they can distinguish your voice from your blog, but that doesn't give them any idea if you can research and craft a strong story or pull off an 80,000 word novel. Not to mention that these pros don't have time to skulk around the web looking for great bloggers. They'd much prefer that you have strong clips or a completed, polished manuscript than a daily log of your random thoughts. And remember: blogging isn't considered being published, so really, having a blog -which is the easiest thing in the world to set up - isn't a feather in your cap. It's simply a non-entity.

Bottom line: blogging takes A LOT of time, especially if you're committed to daily upkeep. If you're trying to use it to break into the industry, I really do think that there are better ways and places to pour your energy. If you're using it for a marketing tool, well, then that's something different, and even then, I still don't know if there's a quantifiable effect on sales due to your blog. Blog only if you have the time, energy, and commitment and have something to say. And have no expectation of getting anything out of it. If you do, that's just gravy.

So...I know that a lot of you guys have your own blogs. Have you seen any professional gain from them?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Spreading the Love

Since different editors at national parenting magazines edit different sections, is it okay to pitch different editors at the same magazine, at the same time, with different story ideas for their sections? Or, should I focus on developing a relationship with one editor at each magazine I want to write for (which is what I've been doing with limited success).

It's definitely not only okay to pitch more than one editor at the same magazine, it's recommended. Back when I asked editors for some of their dos and don'ts (see the archive for their answers), several of them said that they get really peeved when a writer hasn't taken the time to seek out the correct editor. So by NOT pitching more than one editor, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Of course, as you note, you shouldn't pitch different editors the same idea. That's just setting yourself up for blackballing. But as mastheads clearly indicated, different editors handle different sections: the health editor isn't going to be interested in your relationship story idea, and the relationship editor isn't going to care about your query on sleep deprivation. So do your research and pitch accordingly. Heck, at Parents Magazine alone, I work with three different editors. All this means to me is that I have three opportunities every month to get a story placed.

Should you focus on one editor exclusively? I dunno. It seems to me that you should focus on breaking into the market, period. If an editor isn't responding to your queries, or you're getting nowhere fast, try someone else. Or consider exploring a different subject which will nab a different editor's attention. No use in beating a dead horse, and just because one editor at a magazine isn't turned on by you, doesn't mean that another editor wouldn't be.

This whole question does raise another point and tangent. And that's using your current relationship to build a new one. And this is always a good thing to try to do. If I have a story that I know editor A wouldn't be interested in, but suspect that it might be a good match for someone else at the magazine, I'll often ask editor A for a referral. If you have a good relationship with him or her, he's always happy to pass you a name (and often drop your name to this new-to-you editor), and you can take it from there. One foot's already in the door.

How many of you guys work for multiple editors at the same magazine?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Burning the Midnight Oil

Are you a workaholic? In other words, how do you get it all done? And how many articles do you work on at one time.

Hee! I loved this question. It's so funny: I have people say to me all the time, "I have no idea how you juggle so many things - motherhood, magazines, books, etc," and let me tell you, I really don't juggle that much. The moms I really admire are the ones who trudge off to an office every day. Seriously, my job is a BREEZE compared to them. I roll out of bed, pretty much work in my pajamas, schedule my day however I feel, and take on however much work I want or can. So many women work a lot harder than I do or are away from their families a lot more than I am, and honestly, they're the ones whose work ethic I admire.

All of that said - how do I get it done? I'm hyperly organized. I've mentioned my to-do lists before, but I think if you're juggling a lot of different aspects of your life, they're essential. Not only do they help remind me of what I have to get done, they also motivate me. There are very few things more fulfilling than axing something off your list. Really! I'm not lame! Try it, and you'll see.

The other thing I have working for me is that as I've gained experience, I've also gained efficiency. Which is to say that I pretty much know how long a story, an interview, an outline, etc, will take me. Whereas a few years ago, I might have lingered on the phone with an expert, asking unnecessary questions or interviewed too many authors for a piece or struggled to find the required research for a story, all of that is cake to me now. Which cuts down on a lot of the needless busywork. I don't know if there are strategic ways to become more efficient, however. With me, it simply came with experience, much in the same way that I assume that anyone who has done a job for a long time becomes more skilled and better at it over the years. So, while I might write more stories these days, I actually probably work fewer hours.

How many stories do I work on at once? It all depends on the month: how motivated I was to pitch, how many editors came to me with ideas, etc. I'd say though, that I usually have about 4-6 going on simultaneously, as well as or including a few revisions. Here's a look at how Nov is breaking down for me (as of now):

-Nov 9th: deadline for Redbook
-Nov 10th: deadline for William Morrow (my publisher)
-Nov 14th: deadline for Prevention
-Nov 15th: deadline for Hallmark
-Nov 17th: deadline for First for Women
-Nov 24th: deadline for American Baby

I'm also waiting on a few revisions which I'm hoping will get back to me before my due date! I've asked my editors to push them through, so fingers crossed...

Generally, I like to aim for about a deadline a week for a new story, which gives me wiggle room for revisions that get handed back to me; if I have to, I can research, draft and write a piece in the span of just a few days (though I try to work much further ahead), so the one-a-week rule really works well, gives me some cushion and doesn't make me too crazy. In fact, I just counted how many stories I've written this year, and it's almost eerie: I'm at 47...and aren't we just about in the 47th week of the year? Or somewhere pretty close? Keeping in mind that I took about a month off over the summer to work on my second novel (which I've since abandoned) and spent several weeks in Feb and March working on revisions on TDLF, I'd say that I'm pretty on target.

So...that's how I get it all done. Oh, and I'm not going to lie: I have excellent childcare. Even though I work from home, I DO consider myself a working mom...and just as you wouldn't expect a lawyer to work with her child running around in her office, you shouldn't expect me to either. So I make no apologies for that. I have help Mon-Thurs, and then chill with my son on Fridays, which works out well for everyone involved. I get to do what I love and still have some quality time with him. Everyone wins. I realize, of course, that not everyone has this luxury, but if you're serious about a writing career and have little ones, I suggest that you treat yourself as you would in any other profession - ask your mom, a neighbor, your best friend, whomever - to look after your kids for several hours a day or a week and focus on your writing. If you don't, I really don't see how you'll ever find the time or the mental energy to raise your game.

So how do you guys balance your work schedules and home lives? And how do you know when you're working too much or crossing that dangerous line into workaholic-syndrome?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

When an Editor Screws Up

Random thought of the day: Am I the only person in this country who doesn't find Borat just frickin' hilarious? My husband tried to drag me to that movie, and since I can't even sit through a 30 minute episode, I swore to him that I'd walk out. He's there now with my brother. Seriously...what am I missing? I Can. Not. Stand. The. Guy. (Borat, not my husband!) :)

Question of the day: I'm a new freelancer, working hard to build some decent clips. To that end, I recently did a piece for a small-but-national niche magazine. Having read an issue, I knew that the editing was pretty sloppy, so I made sure to have an editor friend review my piece before I sent it in.

After I submitted it, I spoke to my editor at the magazine only briefly. I asked about changes, and she told me generally about one small change they were making. Well, I've got the published book in hand now, and I'm seething. The one omission they told me about resulted in a lack of transition (forgivable), but they also added an erroneous comma in the first sentence of the second paragraph! Then, farther on, they made some cuts that resulted in unclear antecedents and a clear run-on sentence. So I'm mad, but trying to be constructive about this.

Here are my questions:1. In the future, should I demand to see final copy before it goes to press? 2. Should I mention my discontent (politely) to my editor? Frankly, I don't want to work for them again if I risk this sort of thing happening. However, it could behoove my career to get a couple of more clips this way. 3. Most importantly, is there any way I can use this clip now? The errors are really glaring from an editor's perspective (I was an editor, though not an assigning one, for several years). Is there any standard means of saying "these aren't my fault!" Or is it possible that editors are unlikely to actually read my clips?

Whoo boy. First of all, I'm so sorry. This really blows. Really, really blows. Let's answer your questions in the order received and see if we can't make this a little better.

1) Yes, you absolutely can ask to see a galley of your article before it goes to press. I know several writers who insist on this - they might even put it in their contracts - because they've been burned in the past or because they want to ensure that they're happy with the work that will carry their byline. I don't demand it, but many of my editors do send me a Word file and ask me to approve the piece before it gets printed. And clearly, you can and should do the same, should you continue working for this magazine. You can ask nicely but firmly without coming off like a pain in the ass.

2) Oy, this is a murky area, so I'd love to hear how other readers would handle it. I'd probably take one of two routes, assuming that you decide to keep writing for them. 1) I'd wait until I landed another assignment and then, once everything was hunky-dory, just ask to see the final copy of the piece. Why piss her off by pointing out her errors when you're capable of policing them on your own? Or 2) Send the editor a very gracious note, so she wouldn't in any way take the tone to be accusatory or hostile, and say something like, "I was so thrilled to receive the clip of my article on How to Fly to Space. Thanks again for assigning it. I did notice a few changes in the piece, such that some of the sentences were slightly askew or could be misinterpreted. It's not such a big deal, but I know that you guys are committed to putting out a top-quality magazine (which is why I love reading it!), so thought I'd mention them as something to be aware of in the future." I wouldn't make the note about YOU; rather, I'd make it about helping HER, without sounding condescending, if that makes sense.

3) Ugh, geez. Again, I'd love to hear what other people think about this. Well, one thing I wouldn't do is send out your clip with the disclaimer that the editor added in several errors. I mean, if you're sending this to other editors, they're going to think it's pretty lousy of you to throw your editor to the wolves. (That said, if you already had a relationship with these editors, then it might be worth mentioning. I'm friendly w/a lot of my editors to the point where quick publishing gossip is occasionally exchanged - i.e, how is this magazine to work for, etc - so I think in that circumstance, I could probably point out the errors, but I wouldn't do so to a stranger or a new-to-me professional contact.) If you think the writing really isn't top-notch, then I probably wouldn't use it, sad to say. You could still list this magazine in your credits in your cover letter, but it wouldn't be the first thing that I'd send into editors. If they pressed you for it, hmmm, I dunno, I guess maybe you could send it over with the disclaimer that "a lot got cut, so it reads differently than the version you sent in, but that you did want to give them a feel for what you can do." This is different than placing blame on your editor, and I'd think that an editor wouldn't read too much into it.

I dunno, but I do know that I'm sorry that this happened to you...thoughts from readers? What would you do?

Monday, November 06, 2006

The World is Your Oyster

I'm based in Moscow, Russia, but I really want to start writing for American markets (via the Internet, without relocating), I really hope I can do it with 10 years of experience of writing for Russian newspapers and magazines and with a degree in English linguistics. I hope I can break in by writing articles about some Russia-related issues, I have a few ideas and good access to all the necessary local information sources. If you can advise anything to me I'll be really grateful!

The good news is that given how most freelancers and editors work, it really doesn't make much of a difference where you live these days. You can certainly have a flourishing freelance career from Moscow. I have a writer friend who lives in Germany and works steadily; ditto several writers I know in London and Amsterdam.

I think the key here, and you've already started to focus on this, is that you're able to offer something that US-based writers can't: namely, insidery access and first-person scoop. I, for example, wouldn't have the slightest idea about, say, an issue that's currently afflicting Russian women, but you certainly would. And if you do, I suggest that you explore it and pitch a magazine like Marie Claire, which loves to focus on global women's issues. Similarly, you're in just the right position to pitch yourself as a travel expert...newspapers (and increasingly magazines) have no interest in paying freelancers to fly halfway across the world to write about a city or cultural phenomenon, and with you, they don't have to. So I'd definitely explore that route - coming up with a few queires about specific, unique destinations in your area and firing them off to American-based papers or magazines that either focus on travel or have travel features. Sure, you might not want to solely be thought of as a travel-writer, but by generating clips and getting in with some of these editors, you'll get your foot in the door which will open up future possibilities.

Along those same lines as travel - what about food or music? Who knows? Maybe Cooking Light would be interested in a front-of-book piece on the latest healthful trend in Russian food and how Americans are lapping it up. (I'm making this up, but you get the gist.) I think you could have a lot of success by really pinpointing WHY you stand out (i.e, your geography) rather than trying to compete with US-based writers. Use your unique situation to your advantage, and I'm guessing that you'll land quite a few assignments.

Any overseas writers want to weigh in? Or anyone have any other tips?