I’m on tour!
This is the first time I’ve taken part in an ARC tour. I wasn’t even sure what that was, but basically I get a free book on the basis that I write about it (and no, I don’t have to say I liked it) but I can’t keep the book (instead I send it on to someone else who’ll review it and send it on, etc). Which is ideal for me, because I’m all about decluttering these days.
Thanks so much to Holly Taylor for letting me participate (and to all the women before me for sending the book on and not pretending it got “lost in the post”).
You can’t pick your family…
The Kid Table is the perfect book for the festive season as it’s based around five family get-togethers over the course of a year. Our narrator is Ingrid Bell, who at seventeen, feels too old to be stuck at the kid table at every event, especially as her older cousin Briane has just graduated to sit with the grown-ups.
Ingrid certainly doesn’t feel like a child anymore: she’s sharing a secret flirtation with Briane’s boyfriend Trevor, and keeping a dark secret about her other cousin and best friend Cricket. Plus, her parents (and aunts and uncles) aren’t exactly acting like adults.
Over the course of a year, Ingrid copes with her first love, learns more about her family than she ever wanted to know (there’s alcoholism and eating disorders and cheating partners, oh my) and discovers that becoming a grown-up is about a lot more than where you sit at dinner.
(And neither can I)
As soon as I read the description of this book, I knew I wanted in. Whenever we went to my grandparents’ for dinner when I was younger, my cousins (and later my stepbrothers) and I were all shoved on a small table in another room. This had its advantages (the chance to chat without adults overhearing us) and its disadvantages (feeling excluded). We weren’t as close as Ingrid and her cousins, but I could relate to her feelings of cosiness as well as of claustrophobia about always sitting in the same place, always being considered a kid.
There’s something about spending time with relatives that makes us revert to childishness, so I totally understood how hard it was for Ingrid to assert herself and be seen for who she really is. But she’s not an entirely reliable narrator — she doesn’t take her parents’ problems seriously, finds it hard to understand that Briane isn’t out to get her, and has an unrealistic view of Trevor, Briane’s boyfriend, who is unworthy of either cousin.
…But you should pick up The Kid Table
The book tended to tell rather than show (I never quite got the sense that Ingrid was as charismatic as she kept telling me she was, plus the way the book was organised lent it more to flashback than to action) but I really liked Ingrid’s voice, and her off-centre way of looking at the world, so it wasn’t a hardship that most of the book was her inner monologue.
I was drawn in right from the opening paragraph:
My earliest memory is fuzzy, not because of time, but because I’m looking out of a full-body jumper. It’s sea foam green. My mom has cinched the hood so tight that my vision is a fleecy porthole.
…and the pace never let up or left me bored. Andrea Seigel has a great snappy writing style that’s perfect for YA and snarky enough for older readers, too. (I’ve been in a reading lull for a while, especially with fiction, and this is the first novel I’ve managed to finish in months.)
This is Seigel’s first book for teens, but I hope it won’t be her last — and I hope it won’t only be read by a younger audience, as I think anyone with even a slightly dysfunctional family (and isn’t that all of us?) will relate.
Plus, how totally rad is the cover?
You can buy The Kid Table at a shop near you (probably), or via the internet: I like The Book Depository. (Free worldwide delivery, people.)
how to become a freelance journalist (maybe) part 2: pitching — who, what, when, where, why, and how
This might not make much sense unless you read part 1 first.
Once you’ve faced the realities of writing for a living — or what you need to think about if you want to think about writing for a living, at least — you can move onto the good stuff: getting published.
Ya gotta pitch
If you want to get published, you’re going to have to approach editors with your ideas. As you probably already know, this is called pitching.
You should always approach a publication with an idea, never a fully-written article. This is because the majority of pitches are rejected and even those that editors like will probably be tweaked a bit to their needs. (“Can you make it 600 words, not 1000, and drop the bit about Batman?”)
The only exception is when you’re submitting a personal essay to a regular slot (this is why it’s hard to make a living from personal essays unless you’re David Sedaris).
Before you pitch:
Read at least one, preferably two or three recent issues of the publication cover-to-cover, and take a look at their website. What is their tone/style? Who are they aiming at — women in their late 30s and 40s with kids, educated professionals with tons of cash?
Lower your chances of failure by understanding what editors are looking for. Appreciate how far in advance most publications work (suggesting a Christmas idea as late as October will get you laughed at), never suggest something similar to a piece that’s just run, and always spell people’s names right.
Never pitch a column or section that one writer does every week/month, even if you think they need a change, and never pitch a topic the publication wouldn’t cover in a million years. They’re not unaware that it exists, they just know their audience.
Look for sections that seem to be written by freelancers (usually features but sometimes smaller sections, too) which can often be easier for newbies to break into (my first piece for a glossy was 200 words on podcasting for Essentials).
Who to pitch:
For smaller publications, you’ll deal directly with the editor. Otherwise the features editor is usually the person to contact. Their name should be in the “flannel panel”, the part of the mag which lists the staff. Their email address may be next to it, or you might have do some sleuthing to find it.
Members of journalism forums often share contacts, but don’t be one of those members who only posts asking for contacts, or you’ll quickly erode their patience (and always do a site search first to see if that answers your question).
For newspapers, you can phone the switchboard and ask who deals with health or finance (or whatever) or you can Google the name of the publication (in quotes) + “education editor” (or whatever) — use the advanced search option to make sure you only get recent results.
It’s worth trying to find the right email, because those general email addresses (e.g. on a magazine’s letters page) are rarely if ever checked by features eds, and sending a pitch there will mark you out as a complete amateur.
Where to pitch:
You can’t always write for places you know and love. Linda Formichelli is an expert at this stuff, and her post on trade magazines is a must-read for anyone who thinks they can write exclusively for glossy mags and national newspapers and still afford to eat. (That might be possible way down the line, but not straight away.) Finding new markets is a big part of a writer’s trade. Try Writer’s Market and Mediabistro for US publications, or Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook in the UK. The author of the Pitching The World blog is approaching every magazine in the latter with ideas. (Kind of.)
What to pitch:
Finding good ideas, or fresh new ways to present old ones, is half the battle. Anne Wollenberg’s post on finding non-crap inspiration has lots of great ideas, and also consider the news, your friends, blogs (and Twitter and Facebook), and your own life.
It’s worth subscribing to all manner of RSS feeds that might give you ideas. When I wrote for Popgadget I’d often write about things I’d read in hard-core science magazines, as they gave me a fresh flow of things general publications had yet to cover.
To get people to send you info that might spark ideas, create a profile at freelance journalist databases like this one and choose what kinds of press releases you’d like to receive (go cautiously, soon you’ll have more than you bargained for). Ask charity press offices to put you on their mailing lists, and if it’s relevant to your interests sign up for one (or more) of the News 4 Media weekly email newsletters.
How to pitch:
The key to writing a good pitch is to have a great idea and communicate it well.
Write your pitch in the same style/tone as the publication you are approaching — but so that it sounds like something that belongs there, not like a parody. (If you have disdain for the place you’re trying to get published, this will probably come across.) This is where your research and reading comes in handy.
To stand a chance of getting commissioned, make your pitch as good as possible.
An editor needs to know:
What the piece is about
I know, duh.
Why it’s timely NOW
Every freelancer has sighed to see an article that’s not at all timely written by a staffer when they were told their idea wasn’t zeitgeisty enough, but this is one of those things freelancers have to suck up: you’re asking an editor to spend extra cash on you, so you need to offer something special. Which isn’t to say that evergreen ideas like new ways to lose weight aren’t commissioned on a regular basis, but you do need to think of a new way to angle it, perhaps using new research or news that hasn’t been widely written about yet.
Editors want to know why they should run a story at this point in time, and your ideas are much likely to work if you provide a strong reason. Don’t make the mistake of tying your piece to an awareness day no-one cares about (sorry to sound harsh but every day is an awareness day for something; it doesn’t make it news).
Maybe an X-Factor finalist wobbled at the weekend, so you pitch the health section of a national paper a piece on beating performance anxiety. Or it’s the Olympics in three months, and you’ve just taken up synchronised swimming and want to write about how it’s harder than people think. (I’m not saying these are great ideas, and it can be a pain when you have ideas you think are good but aren’t “timely” but the more you can tie a great idea to an important news debate or upcoming event, the greater your chances of success.)
Why you’re the best person to write it
If you’ve been published elsewhere mention it — but only if it’s impressive or relevant. When I got that Essentials commission, I mentioned that I’d covered podcasting for two charity newsletters and was an avid listener myself. Not a lot of people were back in 2006 (not a lot of people who wanted to be freelance journalists for women’s magazines, at least) so that made me stand out.
If I’d had better clips, or had written about something not relevant to my pitch, I wouldn’t have talked about the charity newsletters. If you don’t have much writing experience, for god’s sake don’t say that. Play up something else an editor will like, instead. For a piece on keeping kids entertained you might say, “As the mother of four children under ten, I know school holidays can be a challenge…” or something. Some editors will ask where else you’ve written for, and some won’t commission if the answer is “nowhere” or “my blog”, but be honest, keep getting clips, and keep plugging away. If your ideas are good and especially if you start with smaller pieces, editors will give you a chance sooner or later.
Don’t forget the basics:
Use “pitch” or “feature pitch” in the header of your email, along with a working title, like: Feature pitch: Are you too needy?
Never send attachments. The pitch should be in the body of an email, with links to relevant clips if you have them, or just to your website. (Also: you should get a website with samples of your work as soon as you have some.)
Don’t ramble on, but do include everything relevant. Don’t ask loads of rhetorical questions without providing answers. There are lots of opinions on length, but two-three paragraphs is probably about right for most markets.
When you’ve worked with an editor before you may be able to get away with shorter pitches and with sending more than one idea, but I’d avoid both with a new editor.
Honestly, if I had all the tips and tricks for a perfect pitch, I wouldn’t have time to blog because I’d be too busy knocking back appletinis with Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter. But just to show you what I’m talking about, here’s a pitch I had success with at The Guardian:
Hi [relevant editor]
I enclose a feature idea for you below. I’ve also written for the arts
blog and Guardian Education, as well as on technology for Easy Living,
Woman’s Weekly, The Telegraph, Popgadget, and more. My website is
Do let me know if you might be interested in a commission.
[Sometimes I've included the pitch in the email, sometimes enclosed it below like this.
Here I wanted to foreground my tech-writing experience and the fact that I was a Guardian regular, online at least.]
Blindingly good tech? [Hate this working title SO MUCH, but it's what I used]
Most of us think of touch-screens as a handy convenience, chip and pin
cards as a secure way to pay for stuff and captcha codes as a
necessary annoyance. But to the visually impaired, these handy
technical innovations actually make life more difficult.
Isn’t new technology missing a trick if it doesn’t make things easier
for all of us?
I’d like to look at some of the latest innovations which the visually
impaired find difficult to use, and suggest solutions for visually
impaired people, as well as asking what tech manufacturers can do to
make sure their innovations don’t shut out sections of the community.
I’m in contact with an experienced technology journalist and author
who has a lot of opinions on this and would be a great interviewee. [I should have mentioned here that she is visually impaired herself. I also should have added e.gs of further problems + simple ways they could be overcome.]
I think it’s an interesting subject for those who have visual impairment
as well as those who have never considered the ways gadgets may make
life more challenging for those without 20:20 vision.
Because I’m not a doom-and-gloom merchant, [why did I use this phrase? Oh, 2008 me, no.] I’d also ask interviewees
for suggestions on how tech companies can take their needs into account without forgoing their design goals, and look at some new inventions (such as transcription tools) that may make the world more accessible for the visually impaired.
Always be chasing
If you send in a pitch and never hear anything back, don’t assume the editor hated it and is ignoring you. Editors go on holiday, emails end up in spam folders, and sometimes editors mean to get back to you but get caught up in the million other things they have to do. I once chased up a pitch three times and had success, and at least half of my commissions are the result of chasing up, a quick email to say “Hi, I sent you a pitch about X three weeks ago (details below), and just wanted to check if you might be interested.” Or words to that effect. Three weeks is the soonest I’d chase up, by the way. Some writers like to chase up by phone; I think most eds feel email is less invasive. But do it if you have a great phone manner and it feels right to you.
Rejection (and success)
As I’ve said before, success usually comes slower than we’d like. But hang in there. If this is what you really want to do, you need to be determined. You might get a commission straight away and then nothing for months, you might do brilliantly straight out of the gate, but more likely, success will come in fits and starts. It’s like a marathon, except it’s not a race. You need mental toughness and a lot of protein (probably).
Approaching editors can be nerve-wracking, but remember the worst thing anyone can do is say no, and at least it’s over email so you can be humiliated and depressed in the comfort of your own home. (Seriously, it does get easier. Every time I’ve been knocked back by a bunch of rejections in a row, something good has come round the corner. You just have to keep at it.)
Good luck out there!
But don’t worry, I haven’t finished with you yet: the third and final (phew) part of this series is coming next week, and will tackle some FAQ about actually writing the article, and what can sometimes feel like the most challenging part of this whole shebang: getting paid. It will also include a lovely link-y list of resources. (Yes, I am too good to you.)
In the meantime, I’d love your comments, below. And if you’re a wannabe journo yourself, is there anything else you’d really love to know? (If you get in quick, I can answer your query in my next post, so hop to it!)
First, the caveat:
This isn’t my usual type of blog post. A lot of bloggers these days are trying to establish themselves as “experts” (and many of them are wonderful at it) but I’m not sure I have the clout. Or the wisdom. (I didn’t get a single wisdom tooth, so…)
It’s not like I’m a jaded hack of twenty years, accustomed to smoking cigarettes while typing with one hand, phone in the other as I beg my editor to hold the front page ‘cos boy oh boy, have I got a scoop! (Although I may have pieced that image together from His Girl Friday and Woman of the Year…)
I haven’t been doing this a long time, and I only spent 18 months doing it full-time, but I do get the odd email asking me for writing tips, and I have been published in a few places in the UK and the US in the last four and half years. I’ve also thought about this topic a lot.
So here are some of my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Please remember it’s just one perspective, and your results may vary.
And now… Diane Shipley’s steps to becoming a freelance journalist (maybe):
Be honest with yourself. In fact, be brutal. Answer the following questions (in your head, silly):
Are you good enough?
As anyone who has seen The X Factor can attest, it’s hard to strike the right balance between delusion and self-belief. In other words, often the least talented people are the cockiest, and the best writers can have zero confidence. If you’re telling everyone you meet how Cosmo should give you a column even though you’ve never written anything apart from your journal, you might have joined their ranks. What we’re aiming for here is a love of writing, a feeling that you’d rather write than anything else, and the quiet confidence that maybe, just maybe you might be kind of all right at it.
Are you experienced enough?
Freelance writing is an egalitarian profession — more about how good you are than what qualifications you have.You don’t have to have ten years on a regional newspaper behind you before you get published in The Guardian.
But if you have no writing experience at all, except for your blog (which can be a great showcase and certainly get you noticed, but doesn’t count as a publishing history ‘cos anyone can have one) it’s probably a good idea to get some clips before you start sending your ideas to big-time editors.
How to get clips:
— Contact every magazine, paper, or website that you love and ask to do work experience. (Different media companies have different guidelines for work experience, and places are hotly-contested, but be enthusiastic and optimistic, and give it a try, even if deep down you’re quaking.) To find work experience application info for magazines, Google the publisher (Conde Nast, Hachette Filipacchi etc) and search their website; most post guidelines and contact info.
— Contribute to a blog. Writing a guest post for a top-quality blog with a large readership will boost your profile and give you some extra kudos, especially if it covers a topic you’d love to be a specialist in.
And there are still some pro-blogging opportunities out there, although this part of the industry attracts rip-off merchants by a ratio of about 10:1, so tread carefully. If there’s a blog you like, it’s always worth emailing to ask if they’re looking for writers (this is how I got my Popgadget gig back in 2008). If you have no clips at all, sending a couple of great sample posts in the style of the site (in the body of your email, never as an attachment) is a great way to show initiative and stand out.
— Try smaller, local publications and trade magazines, where the competition is less fierce. But if you’re not a regular reader, research the publication before you approach them. Never have the attitude that ‘cos they’re small, they should be grateful you’re interested.
—Also think about contacting charities, to help craft or proofread their newsletters. My first articles and reviews were published in charity magazines, because I have a chronic illness (which was finally useful for once). You may have something wrong with you (yay!) or be a member of a professional organisation, or part of the parent-teacher committee at your kid’s school. Newsletters abound, and a lot of the smallest are looking for content. It’s a great pressure-free way to practice your writing and get your name out there (some published writers have started this way, you know. Seriously.)
— Read. I know that doesn’t technically get you a clip you can pop in your portfolio, but it may save you a lot of mistakes along the way. Read journalism forums (join them too, but spend several days reading before you make a post so you get the lay of the land), read blogs about journalism, and read some of the excellent books available. [I'm putting together a list of resources for a future post, so you'll have no excuse.] Don’t get bogged down in all the info out there, but do learn as much as you can, and find writers who inspire you to keep going.
— Take classes. Again, not a direct approach. But consider enrolling on an online course or evening class. A journalism degree can be a little insular but can also give you great contacts and experience if you use your time well.
—Twitter. Someone I know just got a writing gig on Twitter this week. But the way NOT to do this is to contact feature editors on there and ask for work. Instead, be your charming social media self and get to know them as people. Read and watch Marian Schembari’s fabulous advice on internet connecting to make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself.
How not to get clips:
— Twitter beg. (See above.)
—Answer one of those ads for an unpaid internship where you’ll be a total dogsbody for three or four months. Chances are, you’ll only be fetching tea and feeling exploited. These posts should be advertised as first jobs, not work experience. I know they’re tempting if you’re super-keen and full of energy, but don’t sell yourself short. The more people who accept this kind of treatment, the more companies can get away with it. Work experience should be short, snappy, and involve at least a little actual experience.
—Write for a content aggregator like Suite 101 or Demand Studios or anywhere else that pays a pittance ($15 for 1000 words is not a living wage). It can be hard to get good clips when you’re starting out, but these sites devalue journalism and are a total waste of time: trust me, reputable editors couldn’t be less interested.
Are you enthusiastic enough?
If there’s anything else you think you might like to do, pursue it. It’ll probably be easier. (Unless it’s acting or dancing or being a professional athlete, or something else with the constant threat of failure and rejection hanging over you every day.)
I’m serious about the rejection: it may get easier to handle as you get more work, but the rejection will always keep coming, and unless you’re an automaton, it will always be disappointing. You need to be prepared for it and find a way to deal with it. (Coming up with new ideas and ice cream both help.)
Also, I know I said you have to love writing, and you do, but if you’re thinking you’ll do this as your only source of income at some point, you also need to be willing to deal with the business side of things: invoicing, spreadsheets of commissions and expenses, the dreaded tax returns. You need to be registered as self-employed, and have the attitude that you’re a business, including an appreciation of the value of networking and pitching your services. I don’t want to put you off, but you need to know this before you give up your job and jump in. Speaking of which…
Do you have any money?
Sure, you’ll put “payment is due within 30 days” on all your invoices, but how many of your clients do you imagine will pay you promptly? I’ll tell you: the minority. (And do everything you can to hold onto them…) Anyone who jumps into freelancing with no savings, overdraft, second job or rich benefactor is likely to be living on ramen, credit cards and pure panic for several months. If that anxiety isn’t for you, save up, write on the side, and get some regular freelance work lined up before you make a move. (This is even more important if you’re reading this in the US or somewhere else healthcare isn’t free/cheap, obviously.)
I have more (much more!) to say about pitching and writing articles, but your head may be spinning by now, so let’s save that for part 2.
Any questions or comments? Let me have ‘em, below.
In approximate order:
Do people struggle to get your name right?
You may remember that a couple of months ago I had some (disgusting) tests. When I got the results back in September, they showed I had very low levels of adrenal hormones and very low levels of both the main thyroid hormones.
That might not sound like a reason to be happy.
But for a few minutes after reading the results, I felt euphoric; convinced that now we knew exactly what my problem was, we’d be able to fix it. I dared to dream about foreign holidays, finishing university, maybe even getting a job and a home of my own.
For a few seconds, I felt a glimmer of how wonderful that could be. It was ecstasy. (The feeling, not the pharmaceutical.)
And then I remembered something that brought me back to earth with a bang:
My little drugs problem.
I think that’s what they call a “paradoxical reaction”
Medication and I have a long and sordid history, one which includes me (ten years ago) weeping outside my psychiatrist’s office, shoving a KFC sandwich down my throat as my Dad runs in to ask my shrink if he can do an emergency car-window consult in which we establish that yep, it probably is the antidepressant he prescribed that’s made me unable to stop crying for days and yep, I should taper that off gradually before trying something else…
Nine anti-depressants. All of which made me feel worse. Plus St John’s Wort and 5-HTP. Ditto.
Maybe it’s all in my
My doctor then thought there might be something wrong with my thyroid, since my lack of energy and hormone imbalances tallied with the symptoms of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). We did blood tests, but they came back normal. Well, normal-ish.
They came back in the range that doctors in the US and across Europe would treat without question, but the NHS takes as a sign that there’s nothing wrong with you. (Cynics might say the level is arbitraily set higher in the UK in order to save money. Thank goodness I’m not a cynic, eh? *coughcough*)
Luckily, I see a private GP who understands my condition, and he suggested we try me on a low dose of T4 (which the body is supposed to convert into T3, the active thyroid hormone).
Unluckily, this made me feel terrible: weepy, anxious, shaky, and worse than ever. So I stopped taking it.
Or how about another hormone?
For a while, I saw a hormone specialist who was treating women with hormone problems like mine with a low-dose oestrogen patch. Her tests showed that I had low levels of oestrogen, and I thought this might be my answer.
Yeah. It ended up making me feel much worse. I shouldn’t really have been surprised. I’d tried to take the Pill on two separate occasions: the first, it gave me migraines and stomachache; the second, it made me sit on the sofa clutching a cushion, crying and feeling like I didn’t want to be alive anymore.
That’s also how cod liver oil made me feel, when I tried to take a therapeutic dose in 2009. I couldn’t believe something so natural, that had helped so many people with depression and low energy, was making me feel so bad, but as soon as I stopped taking it, I was back to normal.
Crappy, but normal.
And as for antibiotics… ugh. They make my stomach roil. And that’s putting it mildly.
So you probably wouldn’t have thought I would have signed up for more tablets, but I’m keen to feel better and have all those things I dreamed of. It’s unbearable to me to think I might not, even though that becomes more of a possibility with every year that passes and every treatment that fails.
The giddy limit
So a few weeks ago, I jumped back into drugs. So to speak. I started taking a different kind of thyroid tablet, one containing both thyroid hormones, one that’s less synthetic (seeing as it’s made from pig thyroid and all… I know, ew). Plus something to boost my cortisol (one of the adrenal hormones) and while I was there, sure, why not something to help my insomnia? A girl’s gotta sleep if she ever wants to get better, right?
I didn’t think any of the tablets were having much effect, except for the sleeping tablets which took ages to kick in and gave me wackadoodle dreams, but really worked.
Then last week, something I was taking made me feel bad again.
At first, I didn’t realise. It’s so hard to notice the backward slip when it’s an emotional symptom, as anyone who’s ever had depression will tell you.
I had a cold or virus or something making me sneezy and more exhausted than usual, so at first I thought that was what was making me emotional — I usually feel a bit vulnerable when I’m ill(er). Then I was reading a really moving book, so it’s not surprising I cried for twenty minutes before breakfast, right?
Only on Saturday, when I found myself inconsolable at my inability to escape my life, did I find I couldn’t stop crying at all, and I started to wonder if maybe there was something else wrong with me: if maybe this was drugs.
I felt the same way as I had with The Pill, with Cod Liver Oil, when I was crying out my Dad’s car window, chicken sandwich in hand.
I keep hoping I’ll find some medication I can tolerate, or some non-medical way to re-balance my hormonal imbalances and increase my terrible energy levels (like acupuncture — owie).
I keep hoping that one day I will be able to live the life I want.
I don’t know what the answer is, where to trust next, how to keep on hoping for the best.
I do know it’s time for me to have a little detox.
I also know I’ll be taking life one drug at a time from now on.