Sunday, June 12, 2016


I had a pen but no paper on which to record their wisdom. Quick! Something, anything!

This dilemma occurred over a decade ago while I was listening to four well known freelancer writers talking about why they were so successful in global markets. The only paper available to me was a greasy paper bag that had held my muffin five minutes before— it would have to do!
What I heard from the writers that day was so valuable I follow it still.
Unanimously, the foursome agreed that a good freelancer has "To live hard, write free." They were referring to having to experience life to the fullest before you can write about it with passion. "Get into situations," they said. "Live on the edge." Okay!
Starting out, each wrote prolifically with high aspirations and for little money. Three said that they analyzed the publications, which they yearned to sell to, for 'gaps'. All said that they quickly evolved into go-to experts in a key area of interest. "Write, write, write for that 'killer clip' that will launch your career."  (This is the one pubbed in a big-name magazine and that has appeared within a year of the event, experience or adventure that spawned it.)
The queries that worked best were "lively and spoke with their own unique voice." The freelancers talked about grabbing the editor by the throat and not letting go, and it's advice I still give emerging writers today. All agreed that each query had to have a unique slant on a story. "Remember," they said. "Local events have international impact." For example, Europeans had a surprising appetite for stories about the wildfires that threatened the city of Kelowna in 2003. At that moment, I realized I had a front row seat to an event of worldwide interest. The idea became my next book: Sing a New Song (Dundurn).
These writers discussed the art and science of research and advised that writers must know what they are looking for in a story: weirdness, conflict, universal appeal, melancholy, irony, truth, to name a few angles to follow. Then when a writer writes the piece, these freelancers insisted that you must storytell it; another tip I have followed as much as my editors allow.
Articles must always have human interest . After all the elephants you may be writing about are not going to be reading the article! 
Most importantly their advice, which many writers minimize, revolved around the editing of the piece. Every one of these successful, international writers also advised that writers must make it easy for magazine editors to buy our work, i.e. nothing less than perfect manuscripts and be sure to add value such as images, video clips, etc. Also, never pester a magazine editor and submit your articles with three to six month lead times for the top publications; never miss a deadline.
Since that salutary experience without paper, I carry a small notebook everywhere. Today I'm mostly paperless and voice-record ideas on my smartphone, but the notebook remains for spelling names and places. And, no more used paper bags are mouldering in my "morgue"!