Adventures In Freelancing: How I Work

So, I’ve told you how I got into the freelance game and got my friend and editor Tracey John to comment on her experience with bringing in new writers over UGO.com, but now I figured would be a good time to let you know how I work. It’s not too complicated really, I get up in the morning, spend the rest of the day writing until about 5PM and then start cooking dinner for the missus and me to eat when she gets home. We hang out until she goes to bed around 10 or 11PM, then I stay up watching movies or playing video games, but generally spend this time relaxing. But I guess like most things, it’s more complicated than it appears on paper.

As far as schedule goes, I wake up when I wake up unless I’m going down into the city for a meet-up or have a phone interview I need to do. Otherwise, I’ve gotten into a routine of staying up til around 2AM and getting up around 10PM. The way I figure it, the beauty of being a freelancer is being able to write whenever you want. If you’re a night owl, stay up late and get your work done (something I do every now and then when I’m particularly swamped) or if you prefer mornings, get up early. I prefer nights, but I’ve also found that my more lax schedule has served me well. I know some people have to keep a more regular business hour-like schedule especially if they run a site (I kept basic 9-5 during my very short tenure as the site editor of Gamma Squad, for example) though I guess if you’re running a site, you probably aren’t strictly freelance.

Aside from my sleep schedule, which I’m sure you’re fascinated by, I work on your basic MacBook. I’m guessing I could do a lot of my work with a simple netbook, but I’m a fan of Macs and use this computer for all my media like music, movies, pictures and that kind of thing. I’ve also got an external hard drive I use for backing things up. When I was using more than one computer (before the desktop crapped out), I also utilized Drop Box, a great program that allows you to upload files to an external source that you can access from multiple computers, Google Docs has similar funtionality. If you have a day job and can get away with doing some freelance there, this is a great way to keep your files available wherever you are without the hassle of a thumb drive. Instead of buying Office, I downloaded the free Office emulator called NeoOffice which doubles everything from Word to Excel. I use the Excel clone to keep a detailed record of my assignments, when I got them, when I turned them in, how much I’m supposed to get paid, whether I’ve been paid, when I got paid and whether I moved a percentage into a special bank account I keep to pay my taxes at the end of the year. This is incredibly helpful, especially for gigs where I have to send invoices to my editors. While NeoOffice is the most important piece of software I use (editors tend not to like getting submissions in TextEdit docs), but I’ve also come to rely on iCal, which, as far as I can tell, is very similar to the Google Calendar, which I would utilize if I used more than one computer. As it is, iCal works for me. Instead of using the more detailed weekly view as an hourly schedule, though, I use it more like a checklist. Blue boxes denote assignments, Red are personal blog posts I want to do and Green are personal things I need to take care of. When I finish something, I delete the box unless it’s a recurring event like a birthday or anniversary. As you can see, I’ve got a busy day on Tuesday. I don’t expect to get all that work done, but I’m going to aim high. I load bigger assignments like online lists or magazine features earlier in the week, so I can wear them away by the end of the week. Some of my assignments like WTF Star Wars for UGO.com don’t take a lot of time (I’ve got a folder filled with links to use as potential entries on my desktop) while others can take up a full day, depending on how much I have to do for them. Writing a list takes a certain amount of time, but that number can grow if I’ve got to track down YouTube clips to go along with them, uploading and editing images and sometimes double checking my facts with source material like movies and trades. I’ve made some real dumb mistakes in my writing that haven’t been caught which drives me crazy, so I try to double check things I’m not sure about.

So, there you have. This is the real nuts and bolts as far as day to day writing goes. I write either from home or a local coffee shop I discovered one town over and either listen to music and podcasts or watch TV and movies while working. Of course, deadlines are king in this game and missing one can completely screw a job up. When you’re working day to day and project to project, I’ve found it’s best to get your work in on time if not early and do whatever you can to help your editor out. Sometimes that means doing a little extra work or bumping up a deadline without too much hassle. By doing that, you’re showing that you’re flexible and reliable and it makes an editor more likely to cut you a break if your schedule changes and you need to change things up, though I wouldn’t make a habit of that. If you’ve got any questions or comments, leave one below or drop me a line at tjdietsch AT SYMBOL gmail DIGGITY DOT com.

Adventures In Freelancing: Editor Chat with Tracey John

After going on about my own long-winded way of getting into the world of writing in the previous AIF, I figured it would be a good idea to get one of my editors to comment on other ways for new writers to break into the freelance game. I sent an email to Tracey John who runs things over at the Goods section of UGO.com, the section I work for on a daily basis (check the Writing Links section up there on the right for examples). I first met Tracey back when I was an editor for ToyFare and she was writing for us. A little while after I got laid off, she found herself in an editor spot and I was looking for freelance work and it worked out perfectly. Like she says in the next paragraph “networking ftw!” Hopefully this interview will help some of you get on your way to writing for fun and profit. I think this will be it for the “how to get into writing freelance pop culture” section of the course for a little while unless someone has some more questions for me, which means more of these will focus on the day to day of being a writer as well as some of the benefits and pitfalls of the gig. Hit me up with questions or comments in the section or email me at tjdietsch AT SYMBOL gmail PERIOD com.

Does UGO.com accept unsolicited emails/work from unknown freelancers?

JOHN: It depends. I can’t speak for the other editors, but I do accept unsolicited pitches (no completed works, though!) from unknown freelancers. However, I rarely receive good pitches from out of the blue. The best pitches I get come from friends or friends of friends, which helps in terms of weeding out any substandard writers. If someone can refer you to me, that’s your best way in; I am more likely to look at your pitch if you’re recommended by someone I know. I have a few writers who came to me this way. Networking, ftw!

What do you as an editor look for when looking for a new writer?
I look for great ideas, clean and concise copy, and last but not least, punctuality. In fact, it won’t matter how talented you are or what great ideas you have if you can’t turn in your work on time. If you need more time to work on a story, it’s usually not a problem — but always let me know first. Otherwise, I’m wasting time chasing you down for it.

Another thing I look for: attention to detail. This goes beyond spell-checking. That means writing solid headlines (or at least trying),  providing the correct image(s) and properly tagging your article; basically, making sure you’ve got dotted i’s and crossed t’s. A little extra effort goes a long way!

What advice would you give for a hopeful writer trying to contact editors?

Pitch, pitch, pitch. I get quite a few e-mails from potential writers, even ones who are referred to me. They present past work and say how they’d like to contribute to the site, but they don’t provide me with any actual pitches. I need ideas! I can’t think of them all by myself. I don’t have a ton of assignments waiting around to give to writers, especially if you aren’t a regular. So when you send me an e-mail with your resume and clips, you should send a few article ideas as well. This will not only show me how creative you are, but also if you’ve even looked at the publication or website.

If a writer doesn’t have clips from a known website, would you look at personal blog posts or possibly college newspaper clips?

It would obviously help if your work has been published at other magazines or websites; it means you’ve worked with a professional editor before. However, if blog posts and college clips are all you have, by all means send your best ones! Along with pitches, too!

Does UGO take on interns? If so, where should potential candidates look for those listings?

UGO accepts interns every semester for college credit. We do post an ad for interns occasionally, but you can also check this page — http://www.ugo.com/corporate/jobs — for more specific information. If the intern shows enough initiative and know-how, we even let them write for us.

You yourself were a freelancer for a while. How did you get started?

I majored in Media & Communications and wrote for my college newspaper. Then I wrote for a few music magazines and websites (for free) while I held a full-time web production job. I kept writing articles and conducting interviews in my spare time. Eventually, an assistant editor position opened up at the same workplace where I was web producing. I showed them my clips and got the job. Ever since then, I’ve worked as both a full-time freelance writer and a full-time staff editor at various publications and websites. Oftentimes finding a writing/editing gig comes from networking and luck, but working hard, persistence and using your abilities to the fullest will always make you stand out above the rest.

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!

Adventures In Freelancing: Recent Links

After announcing the new recurring feature Adventures In Freelancing, I figured it would be a good idea to throw up some links to my work with a few comments about my process and that kind of thing.

My weekly TV column for Maxim.com continues to roll on. You can check out this week’s here and then check out the Writing Links tab up there in the right hand corner for past entries. I write We Like To Watch the week before it goes up by going through TVGuide.com’s schedule and writing notes about what new shows might be interesting to watch. With something like this, it’s key to keep your audience in mind, so I’m not going to write about how much I actually like Real Housewives of New Jersey or something like that, but I can poke fun at it. I try to match the voice of the magazine and other pieces I’ve read on the website. Adapting like that is key when writing for many different outlets.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been continuing to do lots of work for UGO.com’s The Goods section. I write a WTF Star Wars?! every single day, it’s usually the first thing I do in the morning. When my editor first pitched me on the idea, I thought it would last maybe a month, but I’ve got a whole folder filled with future entries and see a few things every day to add. So much Star Wars! I’m also continuing to work on a weekly DVD/Blu-ray column for them called Blu-sday which I picked up from my buddy Adam Tracey. This week’s entry can be found here and you should check out last week’s which isn’t based on new movies, but existing football flicks. For this one, I go through Amazon’s listings, open a bunch of tabs and narrow it down to five entries and then have fun with it.

My gig with UGO also includes list elements every week or so, which we try to tie-in with something happening that week in pop culture or something coming up. I did a Fall Toy Preview list of upcoming products that look rad, a list of great American spies based on George Clooney’s The American, the greatest Star Wars toys of all time and a list of geeky movie and TV locales you should check out when you’re in NYC for NYCC. I generally don’t read the comments for these things because they make me sad, but I got a chuckle out of the guy who asked why I forgot to put James Bond on the list of great American spies. Sigh. With the lists, I find it’s best to use elements you’re familiar with maybe a few you don’t know about thrown in to mix it up. You’re always going to have people hollering why their pick isn’t on the list. That’s the internet, everyone has an opinion, but some people get paid for theirs while others give them away.

Speaking of lists, a few of the ones I’ve written for Topless Robot have gone up like 10 NES Games Based on R-Rated Movies and the 10 Most Screwed-Over Children of Superheroes in Comics. The first I came up with after seeing a ton of surprising games based on R-Rated flicks. I’ve got a whole second list that could be used for a follow up if there’s enough interest which is why some obvious ones were missing (another comment section I read a few entries from). The second list was spawned from all the internet clamor over the death of Roy Harper’s daughter Lian in Justice League: Cry For Justice. TR is great because you get to really exercise your snakry muscles. With these I pitch the editor with ideas and he either assigns them or doesn’t, then I work on them when I can, turn them in and keep an eye on the site for when they go live. More topical ones get posted sooner, so staying current is key. I just pitched a few Halloween/horror lists that I’m excited to work on soon.

I’ve also been writing for ToyFare lately, but that issue is being closed right now, so you won’t see those efforts for about a month. I do believe that #159 is out right now, which means you can check out my feature where I got to interview my former boss Zach Oat and sculptors Tim Bruckner and Ruben Procopio about their upcoming book Pop Sculpture and all the Incoming writing. #160 has a feature I was really excited to write and I think turned out well, but you’ll have to wait and see what that’s all about. I love all the web work I do but there’s something really cool about going to a grocery or book store and being able to pick something up with your name in it.

Finally, I’ve done a lot of work for Marvel’s website. These pieces are either recurring monthlies like Five Favorite Avengers (with Bill Rosemann and Tim Seeley) and Earth’s Mightiest Costumes (Quicksilver) or specific assignments on upcoming projects like Ant-Man & The Wasp, Chaos War: Dead Avengers and the Iron Man 2: Public Identity trade. I really like doing pieces for Marvel because it keeps me in touch with the world of comics, which is what I cut my teeth on as a writer. It’s also a lot of fun talking with creators about their process and seeing what’s coming up.

So there you have it, this is what I do all day, every day. If you have any questions leave a comment or drop me an email at tjdietsch AT SYMBOL gmail DOT com.

UPDATE: I just spent way too much time re-doing the Writing Links section, giving each website or magazine their own page. Check it out and let me know if any of the internal links don’t work. Thanks!

Adventures In Freelancing: An Introduction

I fully intended to kick this recurring column off last week as Friday marked the one year anniversary of my being laid off from ToyFare. It was a really strange and stressful time, but it actually turned out really well for me because I was able to realize a life long dream: working as a full time writer. I probably never would have jumped into the pool myself, but being thrown in really helped and now I’m moving along swimmingly.  Sure it’s freelance and no it wasn’t easy to get to a point where I could–in theory–support myself if I lived on my own and in a different state, but I’ve really grown to love my new job and don’t even find myself trolling websites for jobs anymore. It’s a good place to be at.

So, with that in mind, I wanted to start a recurring column where I talk about doing freelance writing for a living. Since I mostly write about toys, comics, movies, TV and other pop culture elements, the column will pull from that experience, but I would imagine that my experiences are somewhat universal and can be applied to other topics. I obviously don’t know everything, but hopefully I know somethings that might help you out either getting work or avoiding some of the pitfalls I fell into. I encourage lots of comments and questions. Next week’s more robust column will be the first installment in a multi-part post about getting work!