Friday, August 23, 2013

Tapping Into a World of Ideas

Ideas are around you all the time. As a busy freelancer, you’ll discover that as you get on a regular schedule of researching and querying markets, you’ll uncover an abundance of ideas and places to offer them. Your problem, however, is to keep your workable ideas in perspective and to discard or file for later use those that aren't ripe yet.

So where do you get your ideas? There’s a whole world out there just filled with ideas. All you have to do is tap into them. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many writers find it hard to come up with good ideas. Would-be freelancers often find it difficult to recognize the right idea or angle.

Look first at what constitutes a good idea—a subject and a specific angle on that subject. The same applies to fiction as well as non-fiction. Fiction writers come up with a premise on which to build a story while non-fiction writers come up with an angle, based on who will be reading an article. Knowing who the reader will be in an important part of non-fiction writing. And while it’s also important when writing fiction, a fiction writer doesn’t have to be as targeted.

Take the subject of retirement, for instance. A non-fiction writer might think of a number of possible article ideas that will be of interest to retirees. However, knowing which group of retirees will be reading the article will further help to focus or slant it to them. Will the article be aimed at those who want to travel or will it be aimed at starting a new business? A fiction writer, on the other hand, might write a story about how a particular person dealt with being "put out to pasture" or the idea of not being useful to anyone anymore.

Also, an article idea will sell more quickly if it’s important and timely. A good idea should take into consideration basic human drives—sexual gratification, maternal love, self-preservation, greed, acquisitiveness, ambition, etc. These selling ideas, which are of vital interest to readers, should also offer something extra—new details on an old story or added insight into an age-old problem.

Since ideas are everywhere, you should be looking for them wherever you go—at the supermarket, at professional meetings, at the bank, at the doctor’s or dentist’s office. There’s an idea hidden in everything you do—cashing your checks, doing laundromat, cooking dinner, or traveling to a relative's.

But observing isn't enough. Once an idea has clicked in your mind, jot a note to yourself so that you're clearly reminded of it when you need it (See the previous blog on creating an idea book from Dec. 11, 2009).  Otherwise the clever notion will disappear with yesterday's online news or in the heat of today's frantic schedule. And as soon as possible, draft a query about your idea and the angle you'd follow—a couple of brief but very specific paragraphs will suffice at this point—and list at least six possible markets for the story. If you’re writing a short story, create a synopsis of several paragraphs telling yourself what the story will be about. Then list 10 possible markets.

With this plan, you have already conquered the vagueness that surrounds most beginners' writing wishes, and have committed yourself to a professionally conceived follow-through.

Remember, there are two kinds of writers—the first writes whatever comes out of their head without much thought or planning (the “I-have-a-book-in-me crowd”) while the second comes up with lots of ideas that will keep them writing for a long time to come.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ready, Set, Go...

No, you’re not in a race. But it may seem like one if you’re a travel writer. What you’re actually doing is racing to find the most information in the least amount of time to use in as many articles as you can. Sounds like a tall order.  It doesn’t have to be if you’re organized.

Before you can get a go-ahead from one or more editors, you first have to research your subject, not your destination. Travel writing may seem like it’s about writing about places, but it’s really about writing about what’s at those places, and what the reader can do there. It’s really not about writing about your travel experience, but what the reader needs to know to enjoy a similar experience.

So before you begin, you have to know who your reader will be—young, old, married with a family, adventurer, or budget-conscious. Knowing who your reader will be will go a long way to helping you figure out what sort of information to collect. If you have multiple readers from different demographics, that means that the information you collect must be multifaceted. And to make the most profit from your work, you need to produce as much as you can from your research on a subject.

Before you approach editors, you’ll need to know what’s been done before on your subject. So instead of researching the subject, itself, you’ll need to research periodicals to find out how much has been done and when. If little or nothing has been done, then you might as well forget it. That often means readers aren’t interested. If a lot has been done, then, again, you might as well forget it, unless you have a very unique angle. Once you know what sort of market you have to work with, you’ll be able to query editors with your ideas.

In preparation for querying editors, brainstorm your subject. Try to think of as many different articles for the readers you’ve targeted as you can. Ask yourself questions. And based on what you discovered in your market research, come up with a dozen or more article ideas based on a general subject or destination.

It’s now time to do some preliminary subject research. For this, you’ll need to check a variety of sources–books, previous articles, the Internet. Get to know a bit about your subject so you can compose some intelligent queries. Then send them off to the publications you’ve chosen.

Once you hear back from editors, the fun begins. Now that you know what you’re going to be writing about, it’s time to start researching in earnest. Researching for the articles themselves requires that you go beyond books and the Internet. For travel writing, research requires that you travel to a place and talk to people and do things that your traveling readers would want to do—traveling there, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, seeing the sights, enjoying entertainment. While you may not include all the information you obtain from your trip in your articles, you, nevertheless, have to make a note of it. You never know when you might want to use it in the future.

Before you go, you need to know as much about your destination as possible. And while you can read travel books on your destination, you may find other books, including novels set in the place, will give you a feel for it. The more you know before you go, the better you’ll be able to find unique information while there. You can even access your destination on Google Maps Street View and actually see the place where you’re going. Though you can only view it from the street or road, you’ll get an idea of what to expect when you get there.

You’ll also need to set up appointments with tourism people, curators of museums, and interesting persons related to your subject. Contact the local tourism department and ask for recommendations and possible help setting up appointments and interviews. They may be able to set up special tours or get you in to places that may be closed to the public temporarily. Remember, while it may be interesting to readers to write about special places or things to do, if they can’t do it when they travel there, it’s really no use to them.  Part of the downfall of many PBS travel shows—Globetrekker is a good example—is that they show too many things that readers just cannot do or places they can’t get into. Rick Steves’ series, on the other hand, is an excellent example of keeping viewers (or readers) in mind.

Now that you’ve done all your preliminary research, made your reservations, and purchased your tickets, it’s time to go. Once you arrive, you’ve got to be “on” every waking minute. You never know when the information you need will pop up unexpectedly.

Still think you want to dabble in travel writing?

P.S. And after you get home, you’ll want to collapse, but you can’t because you have to compile all your notes and such and get writing those articles. Soon it will be time to do it all over again. Not quite like a vacation, is it?

Friday, August 9, 2013

On the Road Again

Have you dreamed of traveling around the world then writing about your travels and getting paid for it? A lot of beginning writers and lots of other people have done just that. There’s something glamorous about travel writing. You’ll definitely impress your friends when you tell them you’re off to another far-off land. For them, travel comes maybe once or twice a year during vacation time. But to travel whenever it beckons you is to them a dream come true. But is it that easy?

True there’s a touch of glamor surrounding world-journeys-for-pay. Getting started in it isn't all that difficult if you hustle enough, but since 9/11 things have changed, not only because of what happened on that fateful day, but also because the publishing markets have changed.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, most readers got their information about other places from reading articles in magazines and travel guides. Since then the market has drastically shifted to include videos, podcasts, and hundreds if not thousands of Web sites with information on where to go and what to do. So the market for travel articles isn’t what it used to be.

Secondly, for the most part, you’ll make more if you work for minimum wage at McDonald’s than if you traveled the world and wrote travel articles. Have you seen what it costs to travel today? Compare those travel costs with what editors normally pay for travel pieces. No, I don’t mean the ones in Travel and Leisure and National Geographic Traveler. I’m talking about the majority of travel markets. The pay is pitiful for the amount of time and energy involved.

But still many writers try to break into this field. That’s because it seems to easy to everyone. Retired doctors who have the bucks to travel think they can dabble in travel writing. Retired teachers, who have the time and some bucks want to do the same. But how would they feel if you, the writer, wanted to dabble in medicine or teaching. You might be able to do the latter, but certainly not the former. To say the field is overcrowded is an understatement.

If you want to succeed in travel writing—and not just dabble in it—you have to work hard and be extremely organized. Remember, every moment you spend traveling is time spent, time for which you need to get paid.

Today, you pretty much have to have the means to travel to do travel writing full-time—or a spouse who will pay the bills while you travel and write about it. It used to be that airlines, hotels, and the like gave writers discounts or free transportation or accommodation. That isn’t so true anymore. Many hotels still give discounts and free rooms, but you have to get there, and the cost of doing that could hit you out of the ballpark. It doesn’t make sense to spend a $1,000 on a trip, only to make $200 on the article that results from it. So that means you’ll need to write and publish five $200 articles from that same trip to make up for the cost. And in reality, you probably won’t get paid $200 for each article, but less, which means you’ll have to publish a whole bunch of articles to make that trip pay for itself—and that doesn’t include any profit.

If you’re serious about travel writing, there are some things to do before you start packing. Discuss your travel plans with several editors—in person, by phone, or by email—regarding  places you'll be visiting, people you'd consider interviewing, and so forth. Often one or more of them will give you a noncommittal letter of introduction from them. This letter doesn't actually commit them to publishing any of your writing, but it helps open some doors, especially in foreign countries. At the least it should help establish that you are a working writer looking for good material. If you cannot get such a letter—and as a beginner that’s nearly impossible—then  take with you some backup material such as copies of your articles to present when strangers ask who you are and why you're asking all those questions.

Once you get established as a travel writer, you may, with luck, get a letter of assignment from an editor. This is the only way you’ll get any help with costs from hotels and such. Editors won’t hesitate to give one of their regular writers one of these, but they usually don’t give them to writers they don’t know.  Letters of assignment can get you out of tight situations when traveling, but more so they can get you into many museums and private libraries for your research and perhaps get you private tours with curators.

NEXT WEEK: More on travel writing.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Keeping the Wolf at Bay

Don’t kid yourself. Freelance writing is a tough business. If it’s not one thing going wrong, then it’s another. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep ahead. And keeping the wolf—no, your creditors, but depression—at bay can be daunting.

Writing is a solitary business. You can’t write with other people, but it’s those other people who can help you when times are hard or things start going downhill. So the first thing you need to do besides get your writing skills in order is find some friends. Actually, you really only need one good one, but a few occasional friends will do just as well. These may be people you used to work with, neighbors, people you’ve met online, perhaps even family members. But all of them should have one thing in common—their general interest in your writing and your welfare.

An interest in your writing doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to read everything you write. Perhaps when they call you or meet you from time to time, they might ask how things are going or what projects you’re currently working on. Discussing what you’re writing with them may even give you some new ideas.

Among your friends, you should be on the lookout for someone who is especially creative. They don’t have to be a writer, but a person who thinks creatively. Not only will this give the two of you something in common, they may be able to help you out with a difficult creative problem once in a while. And having someone creative around will keep your mind sharp.

One of the things that can drag you down is difficulty in finding work. Let’s face it, this can get anybody down. Just ask anyone who lost their job during the recent recession. But you have an advantage. As a freelance writer, you have many avenues open to you. Don’t be so narrow-minded as to think that you should only write books because that’s where the notoriety is. Become a well-rounded writer. Remember, if you can write, you can just about write anything—if you know the format.

Another depression-prone problem, related to that above, is being able to pay your bills. Make it a point to cut your costs and keep them in line so you don’t spend more than you make. And if tough times do happen, ask for help. You may at least have to find a part-time job to get you out of your financial mess.

A good depression-fighting tool is exercise. Sitting at your computer all day not only keeps your body from being in good shape, but also your mind. You don’t have to join a gym—another cost added to your already strained budget. You can go for a walk or a jog. You can life weights. You can do things around your home—cleaning, repairing, etc.

Related to exercise is good health. Get in the habit of taking a daily vitamin and perhaps Vitamin C. Eat healthy foods whenever possible—not the trendy kind, the real kind. You don’t have to shop at a health-food store to eat healthy. And you don’t have to follow any of the trendy diets out there. Just eat a balanced diet. And watch your sugar intake. For some people, the amount of sugar they ingest is directly related to their mood. While they feel good after they eat it, their mood tumbles soon afterwards.

Reward yourself for good behavior. Take a day off, or at least an afternoon, once in a while. Go somewhere and have a cup of coffee. Bring a book along to read. Relax.

Keeping all of the above in mind will not only help your mood but will aid in your writing. And isn’t that really your goal—to write the best you can and make the most of every situation.