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10 Lessons Learned: Confessions of a Covert Freelance Writer

Categories: There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest Tags: Better Writing, freelance, freelancing, no rules, Tips & Advice, writing goals, writing rules.

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You don’t know my name. You don’t know my face. But it’s now several decades since I earned my first farthings by putting words in some sort of publishable order … at last tabulation, now some 3,000,000 in print, and still counting. I’ve produced novels, nonfiction books, fiction stories, nonfiction articles, photo features, screenplays, multi-media scripts and even catalogs and speeches. Call it meat-and-potato writing. One of my catch phrases is, “If you can point at it, I can write it,” which relates to an eclectic approach to both subject matter and genre. Writers, like the human species, profit best as omnivores.

So I’ve decided to spill the beans as it were. It’s time to come out of the freelance writer’s closet and perhaps pass on some pearls, cultured or otherwise, concerning the lessons I’ve learned—some I’ve purloined, some spurned, but now ready to return to those standing at that proverbial fork in the writer’s road. To be a writer or not to be, or more importantly, whether one can earn a living in its pursuit. Maintaining that metaphor, my Uncle Duncan from Gallway would often wag his finger in front of our young upturned faces and admonish us with these words of wisdom: “When you come to that fork in the road, take the spoon!” We had no idea what he was talking about, but he would laugh himself silly.

Now let me step back in time to that indelible image when my first words appeared in print. It was a check for $10. Oh, the beckoning lure of lucre ignites the Muses’ fury. Seen through the wide eyes of a 10-year-old back in the mid-1950s, it was a momentous amount. The prize money resulted from my entry in an elementary school campaign focusing on the dangers of smoking. I had drawn a scary-looking cigarette and penned a few words curling out of its burning wrinkle of a mouth. It was a winner and the check was awarded to me in front of my fellow schoolmates. My face burned red and my hands shook as I held the check and certificate. From that day I never stopped writing nor did I ever take a puff.

Now to those promised Ten Lessons learned along with some self-indulgent biography to provide credence to my pronouncements on successful freelance writing. To get things started…

Lesson One: Freelance does not mean you work for free … although a lot of current Internet sites seem to think so. They offer “exposure” which reminds me of being left out in the freezing cold. True, we all know one must create a “buzz” or “go viral” to get any attention these days, so maybe passing out some free samples might be a good idea. Or as Lenny Bruce said, “Time to grow up and sell out.” Other options include entering any of the myriad “writing competitions” most of which now seem to charge an entry fee, another money maker for the legions of struggling publications which we naturally hope remain with us. Today, in response to the “screen culture” many jump into the whirl of words with their own blog, some even capturing considerable audiences that can attract “sponsors” and thus some payment in return. Of course, for those that have the back-up of a “real world” job can practice their writing on the side while adhering to oft heard aspiring writer’s mantra… “keep your day job.” Bottom line, living the life as a full-time writer, and like getting old, is not for sissies.

Lesson Two (in the form of a question): What is the difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer? Answer: The only difference is that the professional gets paid.

Ok, now back to my credentials. Fast forward a few more years into the early 1960s and a south Florida high school where I was elected president of the Creative Writing Club. Our group was one rung up the geek ladder from the A-V Club but we benefited from a great mentor, our English teacher, Mrs. Young, who fanned our teen-aged angst into poems, essays and fiction appearing in our school publication aptly named The Raconteur. I tried my hand at all the various genres to varying degrees of success. I also penned an “expose” of the clique-culture of my high school contemporaries that so impressed my psychology teacher that copies were printed up and disseminated throughout the school which resulted in the other teachers looking at me warily as some kind of wunderkind/freak while my schoolmates were further convinced of my geekhood but now one deserving of total banishment from their society. It was my first work of journalism, but certainly not my last. Undaunted by a lack of comparison with Milton, Salinger or Walter Cronkite, I pressed on.

There followed a bit of a hiatus, beyond term papers, while attending Tulane University where my major in psychology shifted to the path of least resistance to homework…English…aided by a predilection to intense studies of Smirnoff 101. Hey, after all this was New Orleans and the distractions were of Mardi Gras-proportions. One could chalk us this period to what writers traditionally call their “experience-gathering time.” If you haven’t lived it, how you can write it? At least that was my excuse.

Upon a miraculous graduation, a year followed teaching “Communication Techniques” to children dealing with life within a migrant agricultural worker environment. This is a whole other story, but suffice it to say it further tempered my life as a writer. My students delved into performing plays and writing haiku of such quality that the state authorities displayed their work. It was a learning experience all around and my first foray into helping others find their writer’s “voice” and in turn my own. It was yet another fork in the writer’s road, and like Rome, it all led to the same destination.

After the teaching stint, I ingratiated myself into the venerable Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, an M.A. program. Blissful is the word that comes to mind. It was all about writing with other committed writers and outstanding instructors. During this stay in Baltimore, with a statue of Edgar Allan Poe lurking outside my apartment doorway, I published my first “official” story. As it turned out, the short story took First Place in the Carolina Quarterly’s Young Fiction Writers national competition. It certainly helped with my course grade as well as other “perks” as a Young Turk now with something of a writer’s credit.

Somewhat “authenticated” by the success and after graduation I sat down for six weeks at a small Olivetti typewriter and with nothing else to do “between jobs” I wrote a science fiction novel. I sent it “cold” to Bantam Books who then passed it on to Doubleday who published it, no doubt based on the gracious preliminary review given by A.E. Van Vogt, one of the icons of the sci-fi world at the time. Publication really never went to my head … it only meant it was time to write something else.

I then decided to try my hand in Hollywood and so made the move from Florida to L.A. where I planned to get rich and famous. It’s good to have a goal. It’s also good to have a sandwich to eat now and then. After several weeks guarding outdoor furniture in a shopping mall all night long, I sought a job as a janitor at USC, but somehow found myself taking and teaching classes. (It was either that or a scheduled appearance as a contestant on the Tic-Tac-Dough TV game show…yet another story.) Okay, so now I was teaching freshmen the art form of composition, basically essay writing. Teaching forces one to convey strategies of writing in a comprehensible form, in this case to18-year olds who for the most part couldn’t write their way out of a wet paperback book. The concepts of inductive and deductive reasoning were not in their repertoire of skill sets. It was enough trouble to get them to write with a pen instead of a pencil. But there was progress. One, I was able to convince them that while writing was an unnatural process, far from the brain centers for normal speech, it could be approached by a simple paradigm, a set of rules to follow to create a palatable essay, their goal for the class. And two, yes, you do have something worth writing about, perhaps the greatest initial obstacle to overcome. For the following two years my graduate work in media and literature co-existed with my teaching duties, and there occasionally appeared a glimmer of hope. While most of the students seemed more concerned about the ski slope conditions for the weekend, every now and a nascent writer recognized his or herself.

As for me, trying to grok and grade 200 freshman essays every week took its mental and emotional toll. There were screams in the night that probably rattled my neighbors. But USC also offered brilliant and stimulating professors and I would often leave my classes with my brain buzzing, every atom energized. So I had classes to teach and classes to learn from. No pain, no gain. I also managed to publish first one, then several fiction pieces that set the freelance writer wheels spinning forward. Spinning in an unexpected direction. Spinning on two wheels in fact. Motorized.

As it turned out I was putting around Los Angeles on a series of old motorcycles and somehow spun that into a series of short stories that appeared in well-known motorcycle and “men’s” magazines. After graduating, this motorized inclination led to seeking my first job as a feature writer at a motorcycle periodical publishing company. I rode in on my rather spiffy 1969 Norton which was a good opening move I thought. And when the publisher learned I had no magazine journalism/editor experience, I offered to go out, find a story, take photos and pen an article and be back the next day. If they liked what they saw, they could hire me. And they did. So

Lesson Three: Those who dare sometimes win writing jobs.

This first “gig” evolved into staff writing jobs at other “motorsport” publications, eventually as full Editor at several. I was writing about stuff I enjoyed and while I eventually went into full-time Freelancing, I still maintained my connections with many of those magazines and remain a full-time contributor to several.

Lesson Four: Write about what you know. Better yet, write about what you love.

Lesson Five: When you’re not writing about what you love, write about what you’re getting paid for.

Lesson Six: You can write about anything. If you know how to conduct research (and do interviews), you can write successfully about a wide range of subjects. For example, while I have penned tons of articles about people with tattoos and the artists who created them, I myself do not have a spot of ink on me. I have written about many musicians and bands, but can’t even whistle Dixie. I have written PR materials for a major pasta company, but can’t boil water. But I know how to listen, and I have developed a paradigm that always succeeds when conducting a “one to one.”

Lesson Seven: Learn the five cardinal points of a good interview. They involve, like any good newspaperman will tell you….Who, Where, When, Why, How? The rest of the interview, conducted in a relaxed “unprepared” conversational tone, takes its own organic form by careful listening, one question opening the next door. The magic involves truly caring about your interviewee, doing your background homework, and also remembering that for many, this is a very special moment in their life…when their story will appear in print…and it also emphasizes a writer’s professional and ethical responsibilities….your words can impact livelihoods and public image…and thus every word counts. Creative listening is the key. Importantly, remember the interview is not about you. While the interviewer sets the scene and applies the initial impetus, the story belongs to the interviewee. I’ve done literally thousands…in the field, over the telephone, over coffee…whatever and wherever the moment presents itself. Seize the day, seize the word.

Lesson Eight: There is no such thing as writer’s block. If you’re looking to expand your market base, go to a newsstand and look at what’s out there. Pick a magazine you want to write for then analyze the subject matter, style, tone, and the vibe of the readership, even the word count. Then go find a story that fits. Once upon a time, I discovered an old photograph taken in the late 1930s in Germany. It piqued my curiosity. To date I have written and had published two 500-page nonfiction books concerning WWII.

Lesson Nine: Follow the thread. If you have curiosity, that’s 90% of the game. The rest is leg work backed up by perseverance. Rejection slips: I could paper a wall with them, but more of my walls are covered with published works.

Lesson Ten: Self-discipline. Writing is both a vocation and an avocation. A real dyed in the wool writer is compelled to write…well, obsessed in fact. You get up every day, do your morning ritual to establish full-consciousness, and then get to work. At least 8 hours a day. At least five days a week. Like they say, it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. You’ll excuse me, but it’s time to practice what I preach…I’m currently shaking up a story about vintage toys, another about horses and another about earthquakes….

Oh … my name. That would be Paul Garson. I am Googleable.

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Paul Garson currently lives and writes in Los Angeles. His articles regularly appear in a variety of periodicals under his name and several nom de plumes. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he’s also taught composition and writing and served as staff editor at several mortorsports consumer magazines, and penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his most current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe through rare original photos collected from 20 countries. More info at paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com.

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2 Responses to 10 Lessons Learned: Confessions of a Covert Freelance Writer

  1. akellett says:

    Great essay! Should be “piqued,” not “peeked.”

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