Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Professional Development Day

I’ve never been much of a joiner.

Mostly because when money’s tight, the association memberships are the first things to go.  So I am currently not a member of PWAC, which used to stand for “Periodical Writers Association of Canada” and now stands for “Professional Writers Association of Canada” (presumably, because the writing biz these days is almost more about online content than it is magazines and newspapers).

But I do keep tabs on what the Toronto chapter of PWAC is up to, and when the opportunity presents itself I try to attend some of their evening or weekend seminars, which they kindly open up to non-members who are willing to produce a $20 bill at the door.

It’s mostly about the networking for me.  Living in the boonies as I do, I’m disconnected from the urban writer’s community (where everybody knows your byline) and certainly disconnected from their reputed $1-a-word planet.  (There’s that Holy Grail AGAIN … and I notice it gets mentioned at least once in every PWAC seminar, like you are doing the world a disservice, or at least are remarkably stupid or can’t possibly be any good, if you write for less …)

Other than that, though, they’re generally positive experiences and an opportunity for me to play Urban Grown-Up and wear the nice shoes for a few hours.

Last night’s topic was “Digital Journalism for Pay”, and it was mildly encouraging.  There were three panelists:  Wilf Dinnick, of OpenFile , Bert Archer of Yonge Street Media (for you out-of-towners, Yonge St. is Toronto’s iconic main drag, as well as the world’s longest non-highway street — it goes up to Hudson Bay or something), and Navneet Alang, of the Toronto Standard.  All of these are paying, online-only markets.

Dinnick’s enthusiasm, in particular, was infectious; he insists that people not only want and expect solid, well-written journalism on the Interwebz, but that there are markets which are willing to pay for it.  OpenFile’s numbers would seem to bear that out; according to Dinnick, they have quadrupled their audience in the last three months, and the metrics are still going nuts.  What’s even more encouraging is OpenFile’s model.  While it uses a certain amount of the dreaded UGC (user-generated content, aka ‘citizen journalism’, aka the stuff that’s putting me out of business), what it does mostly is solicit story ideas from the public, then (and I will italicize this because it’s mildly mind-blowing) assign actual professional, paid journalists to write articles based on those story ideas.

In case you don’t know what the fuck I’m on about in this regard — the vast majority of online ‘news’ markets these days get their content from unpaid, unprofessional journalists whose content is usually worth exactly what they are paid for it.  See Huffington Post et al.  (And no, I’m not giving you a link to HuffPo, because I refuse to give it any gratuitous hits. Find it yourself if you must.)

Now, OpenFile isn’t Grailworthy … from what I understand, they pay a flat rate of $200 for stories.  But most of us are grateful for such crumbs these days.  And they aren’t even grabbing rights; they ask exclusivity of the content for a mere 48 hours, after which you are free to do what you will with your work (re-sell it, make giclee prints of it, give a copy to your mother).

A reasonably fair deal for writers?  In this day and age?  Well.  Whatever would Arianna Huffington say to that?

Archer backed up Dinnick, saying that journalism hasn’t really changed; if you have the chops, you’ll do just as well or better in the digital age, than you did selling to traditional print markets.   Furthermore, he thinks good journalists will

Thanks to Patrick Blower of the Telegraph, who would have been consulted had I been able to track him down.

be valued for those skills — if not now, then when the dust starts to settle on the whole changing-face-of-writing thing, in three to five years (est.) — and shouldn’t need to re-invent themselves as podcasters, videographers, and/or code-writers.

Hope that part’s true, because I really can’t afford to invest in video equipment and my hair looks funny on-camera.  Also, I hate the sound of my voice.  Dammit, I knew I should have taken that broadcast class in undergrad ….

All three agreed, “there’s never been a more exciting time to be a journalist”.  I presume they mean in that uber-fun, “please be the first to bungee off this bridge into the gorge … it hasn’t been tested but we’re sure it’s perfectly safe” way.  They’re certainly astute in pointing out that the ‘traditional’ print markets — venerable institutions like the Toronto Star, the Wall Street Journal, and Atlantic Monthly — have not yet really come to grips with the possibilities and pitfalls of online journalism.  “They’re casting about at the moment,” Archer said.  “They don’t really know what they’re doing.”

And when money starts to get tight, publications like this don’t respond by selling the printing press.  Nope.  They fire reporters.  That, says Dinnick, is an almost limitless talent pool that online markets can tap into.  True enough.  We’re here and we’re hungry.  And we’re in no position to hold out for $1 a word.

More than ever, it pays to be nimble.  It’s fatal to have all your eggs in one editorial basket these days.  Got to hustle, got to diversify.  Ten times $250 blurbs = one $2500 feature back in the day.  But here was where something of an elephant strolled into the room … when our three esteemed panellists were asked to think of some other online news outlets which paid (other than the three they themselves represented), well … they could only come up with one (The Tyee, a Vancouver-based and -focused online newspaper).

Not such a positive close to the session.

I’m sure it’s all going to sort itself out over the next few years … I’m just not confident I’m not going to starve to death waiting for it to happen.

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Dear Editor: Seven Things Freelancers Want to Get Off Their Chests

Sometimes I feel like a three dollar hooker.

By which I mean the lowly freelancer still doesn’t get a whole lotta respect in this mean ol’ world.  And it’s not just a matter of having no dental plan.  (Mercifully, I am Canadian, so at least I have basic health coverage … I really feel for my American counterparts who are forking over 3/4 of their income every month for health insurance!)

There’s this vast, yawning gulf in perspective on the publishing industry, depending on which side of the editor’s desk you’re observing it from.  Funnily enough, most freelancers, including myself, have spent some time as editors, so I like to think we’ve got a fairly balanced viewpoint of the priorities of each job.  The converse, however, is not always true —  not all editors have spent time as freelancers.

Many years ago, I started a little e-mail chatlist for freelance writers and photographers who work in my little niche, the ‘nag mags’.  I was just trying to develop a community of similarly occupied people who could compare notes on the markets for whom they were writing, share story ideas and sources, maybe kvetch a little.  Freelancing of any sort can be a very isolating thing, toiling away in obscurity as all are in our various versions of home office.  The chatlist, as Mesozoic as it was, took off, and it’s still alive and just as Mesozoic (technologically speaking) today.  I like to think it serves a purpose, beyond giving me egoboo as its ‘listgoddess’.

But oh my, you should have seen the knickers twisting and the hands wringing, when some of the horse mag editors got wind of the fact that the freelancers were talking amongst themselves!

The horror.  The horror.

Somehow, I was instantly cast as Norma Rae, rabble-rousing in a factory.  Good lord (thought the terrified editors), if we let them compare notes, we can’t divide and conquer anymore!  It’ll get out when we take months to pay someone.  When we steal a story idea and assign it to someone in-house.  When we forget to assign something and then expect one of our little factory minions to churn out a brilliant 2000 word feature on a 48-hour turnaround with no additional compensation.    When we send out a completely draconian contract that requires writers to sign away rights they hadn’t even conceived of yet.

Well, yes, that was sort of the point.

Needless to say, assignments for me were rather thin there for a while.

But eventually the editors got used to the idea.  And got over themselves.  Everyone had to come to grips with the fact that this whole Interwebz thing was making it much easier for people to converse.  I don’t really get frozen out anymore over it … most of these same editors probably assume the chatlist is long dead by now.  (It isn’t, but it’s invitation only, so if you’re a freelancer who’s genuinely interested, leave me a comment and I’ll e-mail you details.)

Oh, and btw, the idea of freelancers unionizing does come up regularly, and there are organizations out there, but unfortunately none of them really has the clout they would like to have, so they haven’t really made much headway on behalf of the really struggling demographic like myself, which can’t afford the annual dues.

Yup, pay them pathetically enough and you can keep ’em under your boot-heels indefinitely.

Now, to be fair, it’s often not the editors who are really to blame when freelancers get a raw deal.  The edict usually comes from further up the food chain, and the editor just gets to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Still, when it comes to freelancing in the 21st century, there are a bunch of things we freelancers would like editors and/or publishers to know.

(Here comes the crowdsourcing part. I asked for contributions from my fellow freelancers for this, so editors, please don’t take these as personal attacks on my part, but as constructive and deferential commentary from freelancers at large!)

1. If you can’t pay well, then at least pay quickly.  Believe it or not, I’ve got biiiiig vet bills, just like you.  POA, or payment on acceptance — meaning that once the writer submits the article, and a cursory glance has determined that it isn’t irretrievable rubbish and has the potential to be published, the writer is sent a cheque for a previously-agreed-upon amount — used to be the industry norm.  But increasingly — and especially, for some unfathomable reason, within the horse magazine niche — it’s now POP, or payment on publication.  Which can be months and months and bloody months after you’ve done the research, interviewed the sources, transcribed the tapes, written and edited the piece, chopped 650 words off it because it was too long (um, maybe that’s just me), and sent it out.

Which essentially means that the magazine has your work in its hot little hands, interest-free, for yonks.  Which, frankly, Ontario Hydro doesn’t understand, even when I try to explain it to them in words of one syllable or less.

When the pay rates keep plunging, POP is really adding insult to injury, folks.  I understand that budgets get slashed and that sometimes your hands are tied and you’re only hanging onto your own job by the slimmest of threads.  But listen, if you’re only able to offer some paltry amount for my blood, sweat, and tears, you’ll soften the blow considerably if you can hustle that cheque into the mail (or my PayPal account) just as quickly as the accounting department’s little legs can manage it.  My cel phone and internet providers and all my other utilities, thank you.

2. It is not easier to “write short”.  Several times in the past few years, I’ve received breezy e-mails from editors, announcing that their publication is reducing the wordcount for their feature articles to approximately half what it used to be … and yet they’re still willing to pay me 2/3 of what I used to get.  Like this is doing me some big fat favour or something.  Like it’s going to save me so much time and work.

Writing short is not easier, especially when (as is almost invariably the case) my gentle editor still expects me to include just as many quotes from just as many experts, and thoroughly cover just as many thorny aspects of whatever the topic du jour might be.  Writing short just means I have to do that much more machete-ing of copy once I have the framework down.  And when I do that, I risk having to eliminate something that’s crucial to the subject and also really interesting, and then, sometimes, being told to shoehorn it back in there somehow (without increasing the wordcount!).

I once had an editor ask me to cover a week-long international showjumping tournament at Spruce Meadows in 600 words.  Not one class — the entire tournament, which if I recall correctly included at least 14 big-news classes.  And then he complained that my copy didn’t “sing”.  Sing?  With that wordcount I could barely manage to list the names of the winners in point form.

Writing short, writing ‘tight’, is a skill that not all writers have.  It’s something I continuously strive towards, and I’m a lot better at it than I used to be (this blog notwithstanding).  But c’mon, peeps, don’t be trying to spin it like it’s some great big Sisyphean boulder off my back to have less space in which to express myself.

3.  When I bail you out of a tight spot by generating fabulous copy on a ridiculously short deadline, at least have the class to acknowledge that I saved your ass.

Or as one of my compatriots put it, “Your publishing / editorial mismanagement is not my problem!  WHY would you call me on Friday with an offer of a project, only to tell me it’s needed on Monday? Your editorial calendars are set months in advance. What happened? Someone let you down? You know I’m reliable and will get it done so you call me? What’s the incentive?  None.  Your rates are draconian and your attitude simultaneously arrogant and demeaning. I’m doing YOU a favour! At least offer me a slight ’emergency’ bonus.”

4. Hellllooooo?  “Editors who don’t have the decent common courtesy to at least respond to the read request when you send in an article or photo — that’s a pet peeve.  They expect us to have stuff in on or before deadline, then can’t even have the decency to let us know they received it.  I only have two editors who faithfully respond back, and it is so nice not to have to wonder if the thing made it or not.  It’s just bad manners and makes the person sending the article feel unappreciated.  I meet their requirements; can’t they at least have the decency to acknowledge me?  All they have to do is push a button.” — a fellow freelancer (Oh, we are legion, people … and apparently, we’re pissed!)

5. Identity theft is a crime … or at the very least, bad form.   “When you copy-edit my work, I would appreciate it if you would not change my style of writing quite so radically.  You asked me to write it, but now it reads like you were the author.  I also don’t appreciate it when you make changes that make the copy grammatically incorrect.  I’m not complaining about issues that might be right on the line or could be interpreted in different ways … I’m talking about making changes I learned not to do in Journalism 101.”  — a victim of butchered copy (see machete, above).

It’s true that one has to have a thick skin when one is a writer.  Some editing is inevitable, and you can’t be joined at the hip with every precious bon mot you generate in a Word doc.  But there’s editing, and then there’s the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.  When you don’t recognize a single sentence in the published copy as your own, you know you’re not dealing with an editor, but a control freak.

 6. Please stop trying to rob me blind with rights-grabbing contracts.  I know, I know, these don’t get generated at the editor’s desk.  They’re handed down from some weasely little lawyer at the behest of a bean counter in a corner office.  But it’s the editor who mails it out, accompanied by another breezy message which thanks me (I kid you not, I actually received this) for helping their company to “thrive”.

Funny how I end up feeling like you’re thriving at my expense when you send out a contract which requires me to sign away not only my right to get paid if you decide to use my material in six different magazines instead of the one we discussed, but also my right to make a little extra income from my work in alternate formats existing or not even imagined yet, forever and ever amen.  Oh, and then there’s that liability clause which asks me to assume all responsibility for your edited copy, and the little “moral rights” thing.

From the Writer’s Union of Canada: “Stay away from or amend contracts that ask you to waive (i.e., give up) your moral rights. Waiving moral rights permits a publisher to make substantial changes to your work, even to your viewpoint, or to alter the authorship credit by publishing it anonymously or under someone else’s name.”

“The biggest thing is to stop grabbing rights that a) they’ll never use, and b) prevent us from re-selling or making additional income from our work. It is a total piss off.” — another compatriot of mine.

Gawd, we’re a bunch of ungrateful wretches, aren’t we?

7.  Make up your mind.  “Be clear about what you want when you make the assignment, and ensure that you and the freelancer are on the same page. It is wildly frustrating to have an editor ask for rewrites not because the story is lacking per se, but because his/her vision of the story is “evolving” as you go along.” — yet another comrade, who when acting as an editor, strives for clarity.

Thanks to Simon Chadwick, whose cartoons can be found at http://www.ceratopia.co.uk

And at this point, I’m going to save further constructive criticism for a future post.  I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself blackballed by at least a dozen of my regular markets for this one.  Editors, after all, don’t have the thick skins freelancers do …

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I Am the Juicy Steak of Blogs

I know.  You hunger for my snark.  You do.

But you never know exactly when it’s going to appear.

Truth is, neither do I.  Normally what gets me blogging is article-completion-avoidance.  Or insomnia.  Or both.  Or just that there’s a particular bee in my proverbial bonnet.  All of which is contrary to the conventional wisdom of how to build an audience, namely:  be consistent.

At last, I have absolution for being erratic as hell.

So sayeth James Chartrand, who btw is a girl.  Read her words here.

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Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget

Reconnecting with travel writing has brought home to me just what a nasty, mean, cheap little life I’ve been leading.

Not that I have high expectations.  I’m a barn rat, after all — wind, rain, exceptionally unglamourous (and oft-times unflattering) clothing, all manners of filth, and wheelbarrows full of shit and shavings have all been a life choice for me.

I had a solid middle-class upbringing.  Wasn’t deprived of very much (although my parents didn’t exactly encourage my riding career and forbade me to get a horse of my own until I was 16 and could drive myself to the barn — I thought it was severe deprivation at the time but you’ll be ecstatic to know, Mom and Dad, that I Get It now).  I was encouraged to work to pay for my passions, if only by digging dandelions or flinging the Globe and Mail onto people’s lawns at some ungodly hour of the morning … and we had vacations, generally of the Holiday Inn rather than Hilton variety.

The truth has been whacking us all upside the head for decades now, and still neither my generation nor my parents’ can quite wrap our gray matter around the fact that I (and my generational compatriots, for the most part) are never going to achieve the financial or social status our parents found relatively easily, by getting degrees, landing jobs, doing those jobs for three to four decades and then retiring to a modest, but adequate pension and a great, wallowing RV that gets 50 yards to the gallon.  That dog no longer hunts.

And yeah, I didn’t exactly help myself by continually bucking trends.  Everyone else got an MBA.  I had to pursue microbiology, of all things (and that was a second choice when it turned out that astrophysics and I weren’t as compatible as I’d hoped).

Hey, at least I had the foresight not to go after that BFA Music Theatre degree.  Couldn’t see that feeding the horses for any length of time …

But I did end up in journalism, and seriously, that’s just about as practical.  Way to go, girl.

I can’t say it’s inevitable that you develop a bit of a disconnect between your income and your appreciation for the finer things, when you’re raised by academics, because my brother had essentially the same upbringing and (unless this has recently changed and he has failed to disclose it) he has absolutely no interest in going to museums or the theatre, much less the ballet.  Culture just didn’t stick with him, or if it did, it was totally outranked and ground into the dirt by football and hockey.

Maybe that’s not so much upbringing as testosterone, come to think of it.

Me?  Love me a good museum.  Practically grew up in an art gallery.  Would spend my last dime on a ticket to a musical.  (Have, on occasion.)  Yearn hopelessly after a nice ballet, tickets for which have ascended into an unreachable (for me) stratosphere.  And I don’t really see the point of having a totally mediocre and uninspiring restaurant meal at, say, Swiss Chalet, when for a dollar or two more (if you’re clever) you can find a little hole-in-the-wall bistro which serves up the most astonishing phyllo pastry fennel arugula seabream confit confection, with foam (or is foam declasse now?), that you’ve ever had dancing on your tongue.

Life, as they say, is too short to drink cheap wine.

The gulf between my hankerings and my budget, these days, is ever-widening, I fear.  A global warming thing, perhaps?  (I have this vision of being one of those hapless polar bears, floating on a little patch of ice in an endless, melting arctic sea.)  More likely, an economic downturn thing, with me circling the drain perhaps just a wee bit closer to the hole than most people.

Gradually, I have been forced to pare away all the little joys of life.  Eating out.  Movies.  Vacations.  Satellite TV (I get by with an antenna these days).  The National Ballet keeps calling, the merciless bastards, asking in the sweetest British dulcet tones whether I would like orchestra seats for Giselle.  Or better yet, a season subscription, which is such a great deal and allows you to exchange your tickets for a different evening should your schedule change, all to accommodate the modern ballet patron.  Arrrrgghh.

Yes, I would like orchestra seats for Giselle please.  My birthday’s coming up … just tuck a couple into an envelope for me, won’t you darling?

No?  Then at least do me a solid and stop tormenting me by calling?

Though a host of horoscopes keep promising me that things are going to get Ever So Much Better Really Really Soon (I’m sure the astrological forecast on the day of my death will be particularly rosy, and I am tempted to leave instructions to etch it on my tombstone), the financial angst that comes with freelancing seems to have taken up permanent residency in my squishy bits.  It knots my intestines all my waking hours and keeps me up at night.  (Don’t ask what time of the morning I am writing this damn thing.)

This past week, I was briefly able to leave it behind, or at least loosen the knots just a smidge, thanks to the exceptionally kind folks at Charlevoix Tourism, who invited me on one of their midwinter press junkets to experience that region of Quebec.  I’m not going to get into the specifics of the trip because that’s for the paying customers, i.e. the magazines and websites who I hope will be fascinated by my adventures, and gobsmacked by the sheer street cred I earned by peeling off a staggering number of layers to squat and pee bare-assed in a blizzard (behind a spruce, my feeble attempt at privacy).  This was an act of desperation, I assure you, and has nothing to do with this whole Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget theme … but I mean, what editor could resist a story like that?  Seriously.

I promise I’ll post links (um, not to the peeing specifically, because I rather hope that was not caught on film).  Update:  you have a link! — ed.

As I’ve mentioned previously (and I know you read all of my blog posts religiously), I am not one of the big players in travel writing, so to get this invite was a very pleasant surprise.  Do NOT get me wrong, because these FAM trips are so, so, so not a vacation when you’re taking notes and shooting JPG+RAW and hoping the damn light will cooperate and that your camera sensor won’t freeze in the blizzard, and setting up shots and asking questions of the proprietors and collecting press kits and such … but they still are such a wonderful change from regular life at the home office.

There were very nice hotels.  With turn-down service and little treats on the pillows, and actual big fluffy towels that actually dry you.  Given that my standard hotel these days, when I am forced to use one, is more of the Super Eight variety or worse, a king-sized bed with a goose-down duvet almost borders on the ridiculous, but by gawd, I’m gonna sleep in it anyway.  And given that I usually tote my own towel to these Super Eights because the ones they provide are several lightyears beyond parsimonious and useless, it was the height of luxury not to have to put a nasty, damp towel back in my suitcase.

And there was food.  OMG there was food.  Again, without blowing my wad on the story here, Charlevoix, Quebec is an undiscovered foodie paradise.  Venison carpaccio.  Quite possibly the best onion soup gratinee I have ever picked out of my teeth.  Amuse-bouches of wild mushrooms on phyllo pastry (you might have noticed a certain obsession with phyllo pastry … truth is, I’ll eat just about anything if it comes on, or in, phyllo).  Tender, tender escargot swimming in garlic butter and cream.  And wapiti (that’s elk) Wellington (ooh, more pastry). Maple sugar breakfast crepes.  Duck foie gras.  Artisanal cheeses, and of course proper croissants with proper butter.

I vowed to myself to revel in the experience as fully as I could and eat everything that was put in front of me, even stuff I normally don’t like — and I did, and all of it was wonderful.

And I put on four pounds in six days, but WTF.

So now it’s back to the afore-pictured Kraft Dinner, angsting about all my unpaid bills, and doing incantations at the mailbox every day, hoping a cheque will arrive which will forestall my landlord evicting me.

But I did bring home a little slab of incredible sheeps’ milk blue cheese, and a tiny pot of the most exquisite strawberry jam with cinnamon in it.  Which might just get me through.

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