Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reaching for the Top

It’s the end of another year and time to take stock of what you’ve accomplished. Take a moment to list your outstanding and most successful projects. Perhaps you’ve reached a plateau at which you’ve been selling a variety of short articles to regional or trade magazines. You’ve definitely succeeded but not at the level you want. Do you still long to write for the top markets in your subject area? This year may be the time to make that longing a reality.

No one can promise you'll be able to make that enormous leap into top-paying markets. But if you’ve bolstered your credits by doing good work in the lesser markets, you’ve put yourself in the running for a shot at the top. If you’ve learned how to formulate queries that sparkle with excitement and precision so that top editors will take you seriously, then you’ve got a chance.

Too many beginning writers start out by sending queries or manuscripts to the editors of top publications only to be shot down or, worse yet, ignored. They wonder why their work is constantly rejected with form letters or Emails. Most never stop to think that perhaps they’re just not good enough. In order to crack the top markets, you have to be able to write well and have a bit of luck.

Improving your writing skills is easy. The more you write, the better you’ll become. However, you may need some help along the way. Be honest with yourself and list the writing skills you either lack or that need improvement. Once you have that list—and it shouldn’t be that long—you should do something about improving your skills.

Lady Luck also plays a big part in getting plum assignments. Being at the right place at the right time or offering the right story to the right editor at the right time is the key. That’s a lot of “rights.” And you can’t hope to always be in the right position for a particular publication. To do that successfully, you must study the periodical, inside and out, forwards and backwards, for at least a year’s worth of issues. Get to know how the editor thinks. Read their commentary at the beginning of the magazine, then read the readers’ comments and the editor’s reply to them.

Explorations into this rarified territory may lead to frustrations. Sometimes you'll be ahead of your time with an idea or concept. Have you ever been out of step? Have you ever appeared foolish because you forecast what others can't yet envision. Is your style of expression too avant garde for all but the most fearsome publisher to toy with. Don’t write for the culturally elite. Write for the masses. There are quite a few magazines aimed at the super rich. If you aren’t a jet-set type of person, then you won’t know how those readers think. For example, if you always camp out when you travel, you’ll have a hard time writing about ultra luxurious hotels with any credibility. Your budget-minded approach will constantly force you to question the high price of everything.

With a strong belief in your idea and a good deal of perseverance coupled with patience, you may find that your ideas will eventually pay off handsomely.

To reach for the top in freelancing, you'll want to consider all the possibilities. Other than negotiating for a position as a special correspondent or a columnist, or adding photographs to your package, or reexamining your ideas to see if they were ahead of their time when you first presented them, your path through the freelancing ranks might begin with writing for newspapers, then move to the pulps and small-circulation magazines. Eventually you might get a few pieces published in middle-market periodicals paying from $300 to $500. From there, you might move up to those paying $750 to $1,500 per article.

If you find yourself poised to reach for the top rung of the freelance ladder as the new year dawns, stretch as far as you can and perhaps you’ll make it.

Friday, December 21, 2012

An Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Burbs

Every year the holiday season seems to get longer and more glitter-filled. People rush around buying trees, presents, food, and decorations. All to satisfy their need to bask in the glow of an old-fashioned Christmas—a concept created by greeting card companies and retailers to get people to buy, you guessed it, more stuff.

What exactly is an old-fashioned Christmas? The pundits say that you should savor the traditions that have helped countless generations celebrate the season of Jesus' birth. If that were so, it would be more prudent to break out the shamrocks since it has been proven that Jesus was actually born in March.

And there’s certainly no lack of cultural traditions that you can follow, depending, of course, on your family’s heritage. While many people decorate Christmas trees, it was actually the Germans who started that practice. Consider the image of families trudging through knee-deep snow to swing axes and claim the trees that will grace their parlors. Today, families are more likely to ride over to a nearby tree farm in the warm comfort of their SUVs while their children sit in the back seats texting their friends on their cell phones. Once there, they pile out and climb aboard a hay wagon to be pulled passed rows of carefully manicured fur trees that look more artificial than the artificial ones. And after they’ve picked their trees, everyone can sit by a fire and drink hot chocolate. Now all that someone has to do is put this scene to music—oh, that’s right, someone has.

And what of the carolers singing their way through quiet streets, and grateful residents offering steaming mugs of cocoa?  You can thank the Brits for that practice. While people still carol, they’re more likely to bring their own hot chocolate from the nearest Dunkin Donuts.

And, of course, all the grandparents out there delight in the children—little ones stringing popcorn. Actually, they eat most of it and throw the rest at each other. And what of their small, hopeful faces pressed against windows? Just what do they see out there in their development?

And who can forget the candlelight tours of historic homes. Don’t they just make you feel warm and cozy. They’re great to look at but would you really want to live there? Outside, imagine horse-drawn sleighs gliding down snow-packed streets. When was the last time you saw a horse-drawn sleigh in your neighborhood?

Think of the deer in the evening shadows, eating up all of your prized azaleas. And what about those yule logs popping in hundreds of fireplaces. Chances are the fireplaces are gas, and the only yule log you’ll see is the one burning on T.V. with carols playing in the background. You might consider building a fake brick fireplace, then putting your flat-screen T.V. in the opening and hanging those special stockings made just for filling above it on the mantel. All you need now is the smell of pine and a wood-burning fire. Oh, that’s right, you forgot to plug in the holiday air freshener.

And don’t forget the Christmas feast. No figgy pudding for you. This year you’re serving a turkey with all the fixin’s that you picked up at your supermarket, along with a “freshly baked” pumpkin pie that you have warming in the oven.

What holiday would be complete without St. Nick? Well, Easter for one and Fourth of July for another. But again thanks to the Brits and the Dutch, you have the jolly old elf to keep your pre-schoolers enthralled. For the rest of us, he might as well be the guy with the white beard selling cars in the T.V. commercial.

But what an old-fashioned Christmas really means is sharing—little gifts in bright wrappings, a pie baked for the needy, an extra dollar in the Salvation Army kettle, neighbors invited over for cider and eggnog and store-bought cookies.

Slip out on Christmas Eve to shuffle along your neighborhood streets. Treat your eyes to the sight of a thousand lights strung around windows, trees and doors. Try to imagine what it would be like to smell the ginger cookies baking and the turkey roasting, if people actually did that any more. Feel the gentle touch of snowflakes gliding down. Wish whoever you meet a “Merry Christmas,” knowing that you’ve just spread a little Christmas cheer of your own.

Here's wishing you and yours a holiday filled with love and happiness. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Business Side of Photos for Freelancers

Adding photography to the list of talents you offer editors will greatly increase your odds at getting published. After you purchase a digital camera and get some instruction in using it, you’re almost ready. Before you start taking photos to accompany your articles, there are a couple of things you should know about.

The kind of photos you take of your family and on your vacations just won’t do. These more then likely are snapshots, quick shots you take on the fly without much thinking. To create good photographs, you’ll need to know what you need to illustrate your work.

Before you begin taking your own photos, study the photos used with articles in the magazines or other publications in which you want to be published. Notice how many people are in them, what information they convey to the reader, and whether they’re in horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait) format. Search for the listings for these periodicals in Writer’s Digest’s Writer’s Market or some other market directory. Read what the editors require in photos or contact them to get a copy of their publication’s photo guidelines.

While you’re at it, check to see what they’re looking for in cover photos. Photographers working regularly with these periodicals usually do the covers, but it doesn’t hurt to check. Remember, cover shots are always in portrait format. Be sure to leave an area clear of objects and such at the top for the magazine’s title. Keep cover shots simple, especially if the publication places other text on it. Again, check back issues of whatever periodical you plan to shoot a cover shot for to see what they’ve done in the past. A good way to increase your odds here is to include several good cover shots in the selection you send along with your article. If the editor places your article in a prominent place in the magazine, chances are good that he or she might choose to use one of your cover shots to lead readers to it.

When composing your shots, be sure to get in close. Always imagine that your photo will be printed no longer than a quarter of a page. If it’s that small, the closer you are to your subject the better. Also avoid crowds of people. Unless the art director—the person who ultimately lays out your article and photos—decides to make one or more of your shots double-page spreads, readers will be barely able to see the people in the crowd.

Art directors of today’s periodicals like their photos to be bold and graphic. They’ve learned from the pages on the Web and want to make their pages stand out, too.

Good exposure is paramount. If you can’t figure out how to refine your exposure or are just starting out, shot everything on AUTO. No one will know. It’s the end photograph that counts. If it’s a good one, you’ve succeeded, no matter how you got there.

Another photo selling point is to give editors a good selection of photos. Let them choose which ones they want to use. How many photos you send along depends on the length of the article and status of the magazine. For short pieces in lower-paying markets, three or four photos might do, but for longer pieces in higher-paying markets, you might send up to 20.

Today, most digital cameras have rather high megapixel resolution. That means that the photos they produce are huge—too big to send along with your article text. Before you send your photos, you’ll need to resize them and change their resolution to 300 or 600 dpi (dots per inch). Make each photo 6x8 inches or 7.5x10 inches by 300 or 600. The higher the resolution number, the larger the image file size.

Freelance writers used to send their photos as slides or color prints. Today, almost all photography is done digitally and sent electronically. If you don’t know how to attach photos to your Email messages, you better learn fast. When you have a larger amount of images to send, send several messages, attaching three or four image files to each message. Most likely your editor will have high-speed Internet service, but even so it’s best to break up your photo group in case one or more of the messages drops into the black hole of cyberspace.

Some publications pay extra for photos while others include them in an article/photo package. If some of the periodicals you want to work with don’t pay very much, you might consider letting the editor know where he or she can obtain stock photos to use with your article. If you’re not getting paid extra for your photos—or at least enough for the package—you might want to forego taking your own in favor of using others that are readily available.

Learn how to use a digital camera and shoot photos with some imagination. Shots with different angles, shots with different lenses, shots with impact are the ones editors like.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Add Value to Your Writing With Photos

Today, we live in an iconographic world. Images bombard us from every angle. In the good ole days back in the early 20th century, photography was a new form of communication and for the most part stood by itself. As the century progressed, writing changed as photographs drew readers to articles and stories. Photos topped the front pages of newspapers and the covers of magazines. It was the photos that began to be the main selling point for periodicals.

Many freelance writers look at photography as a chore, an extra step that takes them away from their main purpose, writing. In fact, photography can enhance writing, adding a third dimension to an otherwise two-dimensional medium. But creating good photos is a skill, and one not easily learned until today.

Photographs add value to any piece of writing. Most editors want them included with articles. Some pay extra, others include them in the price of the package. So as a freelancer in today’s upside-down, inside-out world of publishing, it will pay you to take the time to learn some photo basics.

With the advent of digital photography, learning to take good photos just got easier. One of the big advantages to using a digital camera is that you can see your photographic mistakes right after you make them. Instead of waiting until after your film has been processed to see your results, you can see them instantly. This allows you to retake the photo if necessary to assure you that you have the image you want and need to complement your story.

However, not all digital cameras are created equal. Don’t fall into the trap of purchasing a cumbersome, extremely complicated DSLR—a digital Single Lens Reflex is a camera which has removable lenses. Just because a camera like this has all the bells and whistles doesn’t necessarily make it a good one for you. And while you’re at it, forget the photo vests and all the other pseudo-professional gear. A fancy camera and fancy gear won’t make you a good photographer. You’ll only look like one. What you need is a good basic camera that will enable you to capture what you need to enhance your writing package and make it more saleable.

With today’s high-resolution, high megapixel-sized digital cameras you can obtain good photos without much effort. In fact, you can operate the camera on the AUTO setting and get fine results. No one will ask you how you took the photo. They’ll only see that it works perfectly with your article or story.

But you will need to learn a few things. Check in your local area for a non-credit digital photography course. These run from 4 to 10 weeks and cover all the basics. Don’t worry if the course isn’t taught in a computer lab. Remember, you need to learn to use your camera, not a computer as such.

The best type of camera to start out with is a compact model. One like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS8, which sells for less than $200. It includes loads of features, allowing you to take great photos without straining your brain or your budget. Learn to use this type of camera well, then consider moving up to a super-zoom.

A super-zoom digital camera has a powerful zoom lens that will enable you to take photos at an extreme wide angle for overall shots to a long telephoto of up to 600mm. The cameras weigh less than a pound, and everything is included—no extra lenses to buy or lug around. This helps with your budget and your back. But start off with a simpler camera first. The photos you get from it will work just fine with your writing.

NEXT WEEK: More on using photos to improve your odds at publishing.