Adventures In Freelancing: Interning

As I promised, this week’s column (hopefully columns, actually) will focus on breaking into the world of pop culture writing. I did it the hard way by becoming an intern first. During the Christmas break of my Junior year of college I found an old issue of Wizard that had a whole feature about how to become an intern at various comic companies and what you could expect from the experience. With that and some addresses I found online for a few magazines, I applied to places like DC, Marvel, Rolling Stone, Wizard and some others. I sent out a bunch of resumes in envelopes on nice paper, went back to school and waited (this was right on the edge of when physical resumes were losing favor and everything transferred over to digital).

One day towards the end of the school year, I was awoken by a phone call. I didn’t have classes on Fridays that semester, so I could sleep as long as I wanted. The only reason I even got out of bed was because our phones were set up so you could tell if the call was coming from within the school system or outside (different rings). I figured it might be important, maybe a parent call or something, but it turned out to Matt Senreich, then of Wizard, but soon to leave to go start Robot Chicken. We did a phone interview that I honestly don’t remember much of, though I was worried I sounded like I just got up and a week or so later I found out I got the internship! I was on cloud nine, but I also had a few worries: what if DC or Marvel called and wanted me to intern for them? Where the hell was I going to stay?

Well, the first turned out not to be a problem because I didn’t hear from either of them and don’t know if they ever even got my resumes on pretty paper. Even if they had, I figured that Wizard would be the best place because I’d be potentially interacting with people from all kinds of companies at various levels. My other problem was also soon taken care of when the folks at Wizard suggested renting a room at a nearby religious university called Nyack College. I had a problem with this place right off the bat because they wanted me to sign a paper that promised I would neither do drugs nor dance while on school premises. I swear to you, both of those items were in the same sentence. There was also something forbidding drinking as you might expect. It wasn’t that I wanted to do drugs or dance, but I didn’t like signing away my rights. Without any other real alternative, I swallowed my moral indignation, signed the papers and spent nine weeks living in Nyack, New York, driving to the former site of Wizard in a nearby town on the weekdays, working and spending the weekends in downtown Nyack hanging out in bars and going to barbecues at staffers houses.

I had a ridiculous amount of fun meeting my fellow interns and the rad people who worked at Wizard, ToyFare, Anime Insider and InQuest, but that’s not the point of this piece and I’ve waxed historical for a bit too long I think. I went in thinking I would be a coffee monkey or tasked with making copies, something along those lines and while I did make copies, I also got to mix it up a little by doing some writing and also helping to organize the comic book library. We also got to sit in on planning meetings for upcoming issues which was hugely interesting to me as the various writers and editors threw out ideas for features based on comics that wouldn’t see print for months!

When I wasn’t making copies or filing comics, I would get small assignments. Most of us cut our teeth writing sidebars in the Price Guide. Luckily we were working with some really solid editors who would take the time to pull us aside and tell us what we were doing right and wrong in our pieces (using incorrect tense or verbiage and just getting facts wrong). We also got to write some news stories which sometimes involved actually talking to creators, but I had one assignment that turned into my white whale. I was assigned to talk to the director of that movie Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, a guy named Kerry Conran. The Hollywood editor at Wizard gave me contact information to set things up with his assistant. I was nervous as hell because even though the director hadn’t done anything (and hasn’t done any features since, this dude was Hollywood and on a whole different level), but gave the assistant a call and…Conran couldn’t do the interview. I called a bunch of times after that trying to nail things down, but it never happened because the movie was like two weeks away from being completed and the timing was really bad. The assistant was super nice and at least sounded like he felt bad about things not working out, but it’s not his fault and there’s no hard feelings, I even dug the movie when I saw it. But I learned a few lessons through this ordeal: not every assignment is going to come through and keeping your editor up to date on what’s happening is super-important, no matter how seemingly bad the news might be. They’d rather find out ahead of time that something’s not going to happen than when it’s too late (I learned that lesson again during my tenure at Wizard and can’t tell you how much I regret needing another lesson).

I learned a lot in those nine weeks. I had no idea how magazines were put together before going in and learned probably about half of the steps that summer (the research and design departments were like foreign territory at that time). In fact, I can honestly say that I leanred more about the magazine world during my few weeks there than I did in four years of college. The amount of lead time magazines work on, especially monthlies, is kind of shocking when you think about it and a lot can go wrong between the time you close the issue (finish all work on it and send it to the printers) and when it comes out. Creators can jump off books or the news can get leaked before the issue comes out, any number of things, but you’ve got to just power through and hope the next issue kicks even more ass.

I also learned basic interview skills. I had done some of this with friends for the lame journalism class I took the first semester of my Freshman year, but I knew those people and I idolized everyone in the comics world, regardless of their status, so it was intimidating. I still get nervous when I interview anyone, even friends in the industry, but it’s all about putting that aside and asking really good, interesting questions and knowing when to freestyle follow up questions. I learned that checking out other interviews with your subject really helps because you can pick up where other interviewers left off and hopefully get more and better information out of them. You don’t want to do the same exact interview they’re doing other places right? The thing to remember is that all of these people, even the biggest names in this or any industry, are just people like anyone else. In my time I’ve talked to down to earth directors and top shelf artists. I always tried to keep my interviews levelheaded, respectful and not too fanboyish. I’ve been present for ultra fanboy interviews and they’re just painful and don’t get great results from what I’ve seen.

The most important thing that I learned at Wizard was time management. In the magazine world, you’ve got a very set time table to do your work in or else it won’t make the issue, someone will have to fill the space and you’ll probably get yelled at. So, even if you’ve got to spend an hour in the comics library organizing the Justice League comics (no easy task unless you’re an uber fan like myself) you’ve got to have a handle on doing the research for your Price Guide sidebar and arranging the interview for your news story. I had those skills before, thanks to high school and college, but my internship showed me exactly how important that skill is when it comes to work. And boy, do I use that now what with writing for several different venues all of which have their own cycles, time tables and due dates. Being organized is key.

So, what you’re really probably wondering is, “How the hell do I get an internship?” I recommend keeping an eye on Journalism Jobs, Media Bistro and Craigslist for whatever area you feel comfortable traveling to. I personally haven’t used those sites to get an internship (before my time), but when I look for new freelance opportunities from time to time I invariably see postings on those sits looking for interns. Be warned, they’re usually unpaid. Even with the seeming decline of print media in New York City, this is still the best place to look for internships at magazines or websites. There’s always someplace you can stay and the fact of the matter is that if you don’t want to move for an internship, they’ll easily fill it with someone else. Maybe you can crash with a relative, family friend, school friend, guy you meet on the subway, rent a hotel room or even get a room at a place we dubbed Footloose University.

Hell, on the way out to New York, my parents drove me in their car and towed my car behind theirs. Somewhere in the Poconos my dads car broke down thanks to a dying alternator. There we were stranded in an SUV with a trailer and a sedan hooked up to that that we couldn’t drive because the drive shaft was disable for towing purposes (or something like that, I don’t know much about cars). I was reading “The Langoliers” at the time which made everything even creepier. We sat there on a busy highway at night waiting for a tow truck that could not only tow my dads car but also my car behind it. He was a really nice guy who also broke the rules and gave all three of us a ride in his cab which was against the rules. We got a hotel room and luckily a mechanic was able to fix my dad’s car soon after. He also fixed my car and I drove it the rest of the way. That night the idea of this whole endeavor being cursed swam through my head and things looked dire (what would happen if I missed my first day as an intern the following Monday?), but then I said something that my parents repeat to me all the time: If it was easy, everyone would do it. Sure, that’s an extreme, weird situation and has nothing to do with writing or working in the pop culture world, but it’s a good motto to live by because there are thousands of people out there who WANT to do the same thing you want to do, but a much smaller number of people who actually do that thing. Another good motto comes from the greatest poet of our day, Jay-Z: “I’m a hustler homey, you a customer crony. Got some, dirt on my shoulder, could you brush it off for me?” Be the hustler, not the customer, but take care of your own shoulders, otherwise everyone will think you’re an asshole.

Give the internship thing a shot. You’ll probably learn a lot of the same things I talked about and a whole lot more as many internships are in the field of website and blog news. This industry is always changing, so the more information you can absorb, the better!

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