Adventures In Freelancing: Building A Story

I can’t believe it’s been nearly three years since I wrote an Adventures In Freelancing post! I don’t have a particularly good or bad reason for that, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how I write these days and figured my strategy might work for some of you too.

Before getting into the nuts and bolts, I’ll preface by saying that most of my professional writing is for Comic Book Resources, Spinoff Online and With CBR, I have a specific beat covering BOOM! Studios and Image Comics before that, plus I do a variety of collectible-related stories. My Spinoff work mostly involves rewriting news stories with our audience in mind and for, I do the occasional creator interview written up in a prose format. Much of my work involves communicating with a creator about their upcoming comic and turning that interview into either a prose piece or a question and answer (Q&A) style piece. I do a lot more of the latter, so let’s start there.

With a Q&A, much of the heavy lifting gets done by the interview itself. Whether you’ve done it by way of email or phone, once you have the answers written down, that’s most of your work right there. Of course, you have to edit these sections, make sure they fit your site’s style guide and also check to see if they make sense. Sometimes that involves moving quotes around and rewording your questions to better reflect the answer.

But, there’s still the matter of the introduction. For CBR, that’s usually three to four paragraphs that hit all the important facts like what the project is, who’s working on it, where it’s coming from, when it’s coming out, background information and a bit of a tease about what’s in the interview itself. Basically, I think of this section as a really good movie trailer. It needs to get the reader excited about what’s coming without giving too much away.

This week, a story I wrote about Mondo’s upcoming toy offerings went up on CBR. I did my best to get right into the story — something my Spinoff editor encourages on the regular — and explain the news right away. I usually try to start with a clever opener, something that will grab the reader’s attention, but this time the news itself was the big attention grabber, so that made sense to start with. From there it was a matter of explaining the products, talking a bit about the company and setting up the conversation. Sometimes, you’ve got to explain things in greater detail, but in the case of Mondo, I figured the poster sellers were well known enough to the CBR audience. It’s easy to get bogged down in over-explaining things you think the audience might not be familiar with, so it can be difficult striking the right balance.

When it comes to Spinoff posts, the process is somewhat similar, but I go about it a different way. Since there’s no interview to build off of, I tend to start with the background and basic information first. The other day, I wrote this story about the Daredevil showrunner talking about the feel of the series. I read through the original piece, copied and pasted that money quote about the grittiness, laid down some of the show’s basics and then went back and wrote the opener, which was edited to the much better one seen in the final post. I’ve found that knowing what’s involved in the body of the story makes writing that opener much, much easier. In other words, sometimes it’s better not to start at the beginning.

For Spinoff posts, I’m actually writing them in the system and saving them for the editor to read, so I’m not just writing, but also making sure the links are there, coming up with tags and finding a photo that works for the piece. Sometimes that last part can take longer to get than the actual writing. Then again, my roots are in image-finding, so I try to find the best pic for the post.

The stories tend to be a hybrid of the previous experiences. Most of the time, I’m interviewing a creator and using that in the body of the article, but they prefer to go with more of a prose style. This means you’re laying out the quotes, but connecting them with your own text.

Last week, this story I wrote about the new Winter Soldier comic went up. For this one, I got the quotes in via email, gave them a read through and then copied and pasted them into a new document in an order that made the most sense to me. I think of this like sedimentary rocks, which are basically larger rocks made up of pieces of smaller rocks and something keeping them all together. In this case, the quotes are the rocks and what I write acts as the connecting material. In this format, there’s still the matter of the opener which I also tackle last.

So that’s how I write these kinds of things. There are plenty of days where I look at an assignment — even a seemingly simple thing like a Spinoff post — and just can not figure out a way into it. I’ve written a lot of pieces over the years and I do my best not to fall into too many ticks or ruts, but I still find the best way to get the wheels spinning is to move past the intro — the hardest part for me — and get into the details. I might not know how I’m going to get you to read the story right off the bat, but I do know that I can lay out who’s involved, when it comes out and a few story details. I also know I can work with my quotes and figure out the best placement. Once I’m further down the road, it’s easier for me to look back and figure out a good way for everyone else to start down the same path.

Adventures In Freelancing: I Had It Good

Any of you who read my photo diary entries–which have been moved over to their own site The Monkee Diaries–will remember that I did a pretty long phone interview with a pair of creators during my vacation last week. This might seem like a crazy thing to do to some, but it wound up being not only the perfect opportunity to do a lengthy phone interview without our darling daughter screaming partway through, but also served as a reminder of just how good I used to have it.

I don’t mean this in a negative way. I’m not saying I prefer the time I had before Lucy came along. What I mean is that I used to think this whole freelance writer/interviewer gig was tough before a baby came into our world, when in reality it’s a lot more stressful now.

For the most part, the creators I deal with prefer to do email interviews. It gives them an opportunity to go over what they say and refine their answers. I’ve talked to plenty of folks who prefer this so they don’t come off as rambling in interviews. I know in my pop culture journalist’s heart that live interviews (either in person or on the phone) are the best, but you just can’t beat the ease of an email interview. You send out the questions, they send back the answers, then all you have to do is read through for any errors or differences in style (let’s say they capitalize their titles when the place you’re writing for prefers them in quotes, for instance) and write a headline, subhed and intro. These are still pretty easy to handle with Lucy, but they take way, way longer for me to put together. For example, I just whipped one up in about 20 minutes. I’m going to read it over tomorrow and it should be ready to turn in.

On the other hand, phone interviews are a lot more involved. You schedule a time with your subject, come up with a list of questions, talk to them and then transcribe which can take a long time. Every time I have a long interview, I wind up spending a bunch of time looking online for any programs or hardware I can get to help convert voices to text. If you know of one, let me know. I’ve always been intimidated by phoners. It doesn’t matter who the subject is, it can be someone I’ve talked to several times, but I still get butterflies. So, you’ve got all that on a good day. Then add in the eternal wild card known as baby.

Luckily, I’ve been able to schedule my phoners (that’s what I call them, I have no idea if it’s a widely used writers term) for times when Em gets home from work which either means in the evening or during one of her flex days (when she gets home by 1PM). It works out okay, but I still get stressed about the whole thing. I like to think I’m dealing pretty well, but I get these nagging thoughts that won’t leave my head when I’m figuring out my schedule, who to contact and trying to remember who prefers email interviews. For what it’s worth, I was only slightly nervous when I did my interview last week. I think watching a baby every day puts things in a whole different perspective. I know I’ll get to a place where Lucy will be able to entertain herself and I’ll be able to talk to someone on the phone again, but in the meantime, I’ll just have to control my nervousness and keep up my scheduling kung-fu.

Adventures In Freelancing: Today’s Workload

Today was a pretty busy day work-wise, so I figured it would make for an interesting AIF post.To give you an idea of what I have on my plate, I’ll run down a few of my regular assignments. I cover Image Comics for CBR. That means, when new solicits (info about comics coming out in a particular month) come out, I pitch a list of interesting sounding ones to my editor. He approves all or most of the list and then I’m off contacting the writers or artists and putting the pieces together. I’m also the main toy guy for Wizard World. Every week I send a list of potential pieces/lines/toys/waves/statues/whathaveyou to my editor, he narrows it down to five and then I get that all together by Friday. I’m also doing several pieces for that require coming up with questions, running them by the editor and then sending them off to the creators.

At the moment I have a dozen articles in the works for CBR. I’ll be turning one in later today, another is waiting on artwork and will be going in soon as well. Four of the twelve I’m working on popped up today and took priority, so I sent out emails to get the ball rolling with those creators. I’ve actually heard back from all of them (it was only two when I wrote the first draft of this post), sent out questions to two and even got answers back from one of them! That means I can get that piece together tomorrow if not later today and turn it in ASAP. There’s another CBR piece that will hopefully be done in the next day or so too.

On the side of things, I turned in my monthly Five Favorite Avengers column today, you’ll have to tune in on Friday to find out who the focus was. I think this might be the earliest I’ve ever had this column in by. I admit, Five Fave is one of those recurring jobs that sometimes slips my mind and other times is just hard to put together because creators get busy, especially with SDCC coming up. I’m glad to have it done, turned in and knowing that the next one will be due well after the big con. I’ve also got a pair of news stories for them that I’m working on. I had turned the questions in to my editor the other day and sent them out to the respective creators. Now, I wait. There can be a lot of that in this game, but I’m luckily busy enough that there’s always something else to keep me busy.

The batch of Wizard World assignments this week also took up a part of my day and will probably take up a chunk of my evening as well. Since I’m a kind of freelance editor for toys and collectibles that appear in the digital mag, I don’t just write them up, but also get images to go along with the articles. That can actually take a lot more time than the writing. This week, however, I lucked out and have immediate access to most of the images. I’ve written three of the five up, have images for four of the five and am looking to finish tonight.

So, not to toot my own horn too much, but today’s workload included finishing a handful of pieces, getting very close to done with two more, emailing four creators about setting up interviews and hearing back from three of them so far, sending out questions for four pieces, gathering some images and setting myself up to finish even more stuff tonight and tomorrow. Between SDCC looming in the near distance and a trip to New England for a wedding this weekend that will mostly keep me away from my “office” (the couch) on Friday and Monday, I’m hoping to power through and get as much done as possible. It’s a lot–something I realize now after typing it all out like this–but that’s not a bad thing. I’ve gone through days, weeks and months when I’ve got nothing going on and that’s far worse. Better to be somewhat in demand and busy than forgotten and bored out of my mind.

Adventures In Freelancing: Picking Up What They’re Laying Down

It struck me recently that my last few Adventures In Freelancing columns have not only been infrequent, but also pretty negative. Taking The Good With The Bad was about my insecurities regarding expired contracts, Learning To Accept Workless Days is pretty self explanatory but also about how not working can result in some work and my wife told me that 5 Things I Miss About Working In An Office made her feel bad for me, though that wasn’t my intent. I plan on being positive with today’s post.

Anyone who pays attention to the self serving links I post in the semi-regular Casting Internets will notice that I’m still writing for and doing the occasional list for Topless Robot, but posts for and have ceased to exist. Also, ToyFare, the magazine I had been writing a good chunk of ceased publication. That’s the way things work in the freelance biz. I sound pretty casual about such things now, but I was not happy when it happened (hence the almost three month gap between AIFs). I worried incessantly that I wasn’t helping out enough when it came to finances. I made peace with my wife making more money than me a long time ago when she was bringing in more green as a temp than I ever did in my various professions. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help as much as possible. Hell, we had a kid on the way and don’t want to live in this condo forever. Was it finally time to ditch this crazy dream and get a job at the Post Office?

Thankfully that didn’t come to pass. As it turned out, some people I knew and some I didn’t know were going through some changes of their own. All that shifting created an opening at Comic Book Resources. They needed a writer and as it turned out, I am in fact a writer. It also helped that I’m good friends with one of the editors there. Never let it be said that who you know is not important. Almost all the gigs I have right now are thanks to friends and former colleagues, plus, I hope, some degree of talent on my part. Anyway, I wound up getting a pretty darn fun gig as the Image Comics contact. There were some growing pains as I got used to their style, but I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of things. Better yet I like the job itself because the people working on these books have a lot of enthusiasm and are doing really fun and interesting comics that I feel good telling the internet about.

In a weird reversal of fortune from a few months prior, I was contacted about a few more jobs. One I can’t really talk about yet because I’m not sure if it’s happening or how it will work. The other though is for the next evolution of ToyFare now known as Wizard World, a digital magazine. I started off doing some feature work for them, but now I’m essentially the freelance toy editor. It’s like working for ToyFare again, but without having to get on a train or drive 45 minutes every day.

I’ve talked to a few family members who own their businesses about the ups and downs that come with them. They all say that it’s important to remember that there will be another up during the downs, though it’s sometimes hard to remember. Of course, being the pessimist I am, I worried that all my contacts would dry up, my lack of gigs would look bad for potential future jobs and I would become a has-been in this fickle market. Hopefully next time things take a down swing I’ll remember this. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m going to enjoy this high point while it lasts and continue to work on my own projects on the side. Onwards and upwards!

Adventures In Freelancing: 5 Things I Miss About Working In An Office

After “How’s that freelance writing thing going?” the most popular question I get from people is “Do you miss working in an office?” My usual answer is “I miss working with the cool people I’ve worked with over the years, but I prefer working from home.” I really do love being a freelancer and the freedom it brings. I can get up whenever I want and go to sleep when I want (though that freedom will disappear for a while once the baby is born, I assume). Plus, on days when I’m feeling a little more shut-in than I prefer, I can always run over to the coffee shop, get some amazing coffee, tea or a chai latte and talk with the always-friendly baristas. But, if I’m being completely honest with myself there are some things I do miss about working in an office. Here are five of them.

1. Being Able To Blame Someone Else For Getting Me Sick
Seeing as how I only have regular contact with one person (the missus), it’s really easy to figure out who got me sick. When you work in an office there’s always someone who may or may not have gotten you sick, but working from home narrows the possibilities down pretty substantially.

2. Work Parties
Around Christmas time, I actually got pretty bummed out because my company party consisted of the cat and I watching Silent Night, Deadly Night with a Coors Light at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday. Hearing the missus come home talking about how she could hardly get her work done because of all the holiday parties she had to attend didn’t help. It brought back fond memories of the occasional holiday party or the company picnic that gave me my last opportunity to play football. Plus, getting a little (and sometimes a lot) buzzed on the company dime was always a lot of fun.

3. Free Donuts
I’m not the biggest fan of sweets in the world, but I do love a simple glazed donut. I miss that thrill of the chase when word got around that free food/candy/donuts were on the water cooler. If you weren’t quick, you weren’t getting a treat (at least in the days when there were more than a dozen people in the office). The other day, I got a real hankering for donuts and realized it was because I hadn’t had one in quite a while. I guess I could start taking advantage of the Dunkin’s right down the street, but food always tastes so much better when someone else buys it.

4. Lunch
I was lucky enough to work with some great people, so our lunch time was actually a lot of fun. We’d either all get together in the office’s lunchroom and talk about comics, TV and life or all head out to a singular location and do the same there. Lunches got a little thin there for a while, but once we moved down to the city I found myself surrounded by a lot of those same people. Sure, not every lunch was amazing, but it was nice to know that I could see some friends and get some interesting food. Now, lunch is just another way to get food in me so I don’t pass out. Without other people involved, I have a tendency to forget to eat until late int he day, which leaves me lightheaded.

5. Free Stuff
Between the free table, people getting rid of their stuff and the constant flow of things into our office, there was always something being offered to you that you’d otherwise have to pay for. In addition to that, we had access to one of the largest comic book and trade paperback libraries around (I’ve never seen a bigger one personally, but I’m sure they’re out there) with nearly every comic printed coming in every week. This might sound strange or greedy, but it’s not easy going from unlimited access to none. I think I’m finally done with the withdrawal that came after that, but I do miss being able to keep up on all the comics I cared about and getting the occasional free action figure. On the flip side, I also miss having a place to get rid of some of my comics. You’d be surprised at how hard of a time I’ve had getting rid of a longbox I’ve had in the backseat of my car for months.

Adventures In Freelancing: Learning To Accept Workless Days

From a work perspective, November was a tough month. After not having one of my contracts renewed due to financial troubles on the website’s part, I found myself without one of my most consistent sources of work. This really messed with my head on several levels: confidence, finances and creative. I’m kind of a paranoid guy, so anytime I’m told something in regards to my writing, I always have a nagging thought in the back of my head wondering if I’m the problem and not the thing I’m being told. This is something I need to learn to deal with obviously and I’m working on it.

Financially, I’ve found other avenues for my writing and have done an alright job making up for the missing funds. I actually had a really good talk with my mom that helped put my mind at ease bit. She put freelance writing in the context of owning your own business, which technically I do as does she. Mom explained that in her first few years of running her own massage therapy business, she would panic too when business wasn’t going great, but that things wound up working out. Even now when she has a bad month, she’s used to the ups and downs of the biz and she noted that this was my first downward turn, basically saying I’d get more used to it the longer I do this. Mom’s way more positive than I am in general and believes that everything will work out for me in the end, but I’m more skeptical. It’s nice having someone so positive in my corner. She’s a good influence.

So, over the past month or so, I’ve dealt with the ego and financial issues to an extent, at least mentally, but the boredom is something that’s still bothering me. When it came to that old gig, I had work that I did both on a daily basis and a weekly basis, so it kept me pretty busy. I literally always had something to do on a given day, even if it wasn’t earning me a ton of cash. Now, though, there’s whole days where I found myself sitting around wondering what to do with myself. And, weird as it might sound, watching TV and movies and reading comics seem to be great ways to spend my free time. One of the most common pieces of advice for new pop culture writers is “Always be pitching” and I’ve found that I’ve been able to turn various personal reading and viewing adventures into financial gain. For example, watching Gremlins got me thinking about other movies that take place around Christmas which I turned into a list for Topless Robot. Something similar happened when I started re-reading Green Lantern. I also spend a good chunk of my day reading all kinds of different websites for inspiration.

Even if I can’t figure out a way to turn what I’m reading or watching into something I can get paid for, I at least try to use the material on this blog. I don’t make any money off of UnitedMonkee, but I do treat it like a job, trying to add as much original content as possible. One of my fears when it comes to being a professional writer is letting myself get rusty. By covering all kinds of different topics on UM, I’m trying to keep my writing style and subjects fluid and new. Today, I spent a pretty good amount of time writing a post about my favorite albums of 2010. I’m not making any money off that, but I did get to flex my music writing skills and it might bring some more eyes to the site, which is always a good thing, especially if those eyes happen to belong to people who run websites or magazines.

I’ll be honest, it’s surprisingly tough for me to spend a day watching TV or reading comics. It sounds great, but I was raised to work while I was at work and play when I wasn’t working, so mixing the two messes with my head a little bit. I’m not exactly in a traditional work situation here, so I’ve got to learn to adapt and look at work a different way. Plus, it’s pretty fun to say I get to watch TV and read comics for a living!

Adventures In Freelancing: Taking The Good With The Bad

This was kind of a rough week for me professionally. It started out alright on Monday with everything rolling along as normal, but then on Tuesday I realized that one of my contracts had run out. I talked to my editor and he told me that due to budget problems, he couldn’t for-sure send me another contract right now. This particular gig is actually one of my bigger sources of income as well as regular work. One of the good things about freelancing for so many different places is that even if something like this does happen, it won’t completely ruin me, but it definitely messes with my head. Will the contract get renewed? Will it get changed? Sure, I was told that it was a budget thing, but is it REALLY? How am I going to make up that fairly hefty chunk of change I’ll be missing out on? Do I suck?

Those are the questions that plagued me this week. I know I should just take things at face value and move on, but I get kind of obsessive and sensitive about things related to my writing abilities and especially the income I bring in for my growing family. Knowing that we’ll have another mouth to feed in five to six months weighs on me pretty heavily, even though I know how valuable it is to be able to stay home and raise our child while still making money by freelancing.

But then I realized that I had plenty of avenues I wasn’t fully taking advantage of. See, one of the problems with having so many set assignments is that I get set in my ways, but my new found lack of work shakes things up a bit. Without a set amount of work, I’ve got to be more of a hustler and pitch like crazy. I started talking to some of my other editors, said I was up for more kinds of work and pitched some ideas that got accepted. Right now, those things don’t quite make up for the potential loss of the aforementioned contract, but they definitely help and anything that brings in more work is a good thing. Plus, you never know how working with one person will help you out in the future. So, after a few dark days, I’ve come out on the other side feeling a lot better and feeling a little rejuvenated when it comes to my writing. I also set up shop at the dinner table when working at home instead of the couch which feels a little more legitimate and makes me feel like less of a bum for sitting on the same couch cushion most days.