Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Rumpus

Confessions of an accidental freelancer

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One of the small surprises of the past few months has been the fact that, after a long absence from writing any kind of nonfiction, I’ve started to place occasional pieces online. This started out as a fairly calculated attempt to get the word out about my novel, but for the most part, I’ve found that the marketing benefit is minimal at best: there’s usually a slight sales bump after an article comes out, but it’s always temporary, and I don’t think I’ve sold more than a few dozen copies of my book based exclusively on my freelance writing. Still, I keep doing it, both because I appreciate the small amount of money it brings in each month and because I like doing this kind of work. There was a time when I really wanted to be a critic of some kind, and although my writing has since gone in a different direction, it’s still something I really enjoy—and it’s infinitely less taxing than working on a new novel, which has continued to take up most of my time. In short, it looks like freelance writing will continue to be a part of my life, at least for now, and with that in mind, I’d like to share a few pieces of advice I wish I’d had when I started:

1. Pitch to people you know. Back in March, when The Icon Thief first came out, I got in touch with a wide range of publications, both print and online, introducing myself and the book and fishing for possible coverage. In a handful of cases, it worked as intended, but for the most part, the response was a deafening silence—which is a reasonable expectation for this kind of promotional activity. All the same, I did get a couple of polite responses from editors at The Daily Beast and The Rumpus, and although they didn’t lead to anything at the time, they at least gave me a tenuous contact at each site, as well as an email exchange or two. At first, I only made a mental note to send them a copy of City of Exiles when it came out. But when I decided to try placing an opinion piece on David Simon and Mike Daisey, I ended up sending it to my contact at the Beast, if only because I knew his email address—and he passed it along to the right editor, who liked it. Similarly, months later, when my piece on Jonah Lehrer was killed by another publication, I tried my contact at The Rumpus, who eventually took it as well. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t have gotten very far in either instance if I hadn’t already been out there in a totally different context, making a handful of connections that didn’t pay off in one case, but finally did in another.

2. Don’t worry; they saw your email. One thing I’ve discovered about writing these kinds of pieces is that different editors have radically different attitudes about getting back to you. One editor will respond right away, or within a day or two, with a list of requested edits and revisions; another will remain completely silent for a week, not even acknowledging receipt of the attached file, at which point it appears with minimal changes; and others are even less communicative. And while a long silence may lead to paranoid thoughts that the editor forgot about your email, or even deleted it by accident, in my experience, this rarely happens. Have I ever followed up to make sure a piece didn’t get lost in the shuffle? Sure. But only after waiting a week or more—and in the end, it was never necessary. They have your article, but they also have a lot of other stuff on their minds. Let them do their jobs in peace. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found that if an editor likes your initial pitch, he or she will usually respond right away, and that an extended silence is usually a negative sign. Conversely, a long silence after you’ve submitted a finished article tends to be a good thing—if they have problems with the draft, they’ll tell you.)

3. Don’t get hung up over timing. The piece I wrote on Jonah Lehrer was originally written the day after the first reports appeared of his so-called “self-plagiarism” scandal, but it didn’t appear until more than two weeks had gone by. Would it have been nice if the piece had been published while the story was still in the news? Sure—but it was still a decent piece after some time had passed, and its circuitous route to publication meant that it would have been hard to post it before then. Similarly, my piece in Salon about the uses of historical irony in The Newsroom was held back for a week because the site had already run a lot of pieces about the show, so it had to be revised at the last minute to take the latest episode into account. As a writer, these delays can be frustrating, but if you’re a freelancer, as opposed to a staff writer, it’s hard to control timing on these things. The moral, I guess, is that as a freelancer, it’s difficult to cover breaking news or write pieces on stories whose interest will diminish quickly after an initial burst of attention. Days or weeks will likely go by before a piece sees the light of day, so you should write stories that will remain compelling long after you wanted to see them in print.

4. Don’t ever read the comments on your stories. Just trust me on this one.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2012 at 10:04 am

The greatest stories ever sold

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Last week, The Rumpus published an essay I’d written about Jonah Lehrer, the prolific young writer on science and creativity who had been caught reusing portions of previously published articles on his blog at The New Yorker. I defended Lehrer from some of the more extreme charges—for one thing, I dislike the label “self-plagiarism,” which misrepresents what he actually did—and tried my best to understand the reasons behind this very public lapse of judgment. And while only Lehrer really knows what he was thinking, I think it’s fair to conclude, as I do in my essay, that his case is inseparable from the predicament of many contemporary writers, who are essentially required to become nonstop marketers of themselves. The acceleration of all media has produced a ravenous appetite for content, especially online, forcing authors to run a Red Queen’s race to keep up with demand. And when a writer is expected to blog, publish articles, give talks, and produce new books on a regular basis, it’s no surprise if the work starts to suffer.

The irony, of course, is that I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. I think of myself primarily as a novelist, but over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself wearing a lot of different hats. I blog every day. I work as hard as possible to get interviews, panel discussions, and radio appearances to talk about my work. I’ve been known to use Twitter and Facebook. And I publish a lot of nonfiction, up to and including my essay at The Rumpus itself. I do it mostly because I like it—and I like getting paid for it when I can—but I also do it to get my name out there, along with, hopefully, the title of my book. I suspect that a lot of other writers would say the same thing, and that few guest reviews, essays, or opinion pieces are ever published without some ulterior motive on the part of the author, especially if that author happens to have a novel in stores. And while I think that most readers are aware of this, and adjust their perceptions accordingly, it’s also worth asking what this does to the writer’s own work.

The process of marketing puts any decent writer in a bind. To become a good novelist, you need to develop a skill set centered on solitude and introversion: you have to be physically and emotionally capable of sitting at a desk, alone, without distraction, for weeks or months at a time. The instant your novel comes out, however, you’re suddenly expected to develop the opposite set of skills, becoming extroverted, gregarious, and willing to invest huge amounts of energy into selling yourself in public. Very few writers, aside from the occasional outlier like Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer, have ever seemed comfortable in both roles, which create a real tension in a writer’s life. As I note in my article on Lehrer, the kind of routine required of most mainstream authors these days is antithetical to the kind of solitary, unrewarding activity needed for real creative work. Creativity requires uninterrupted time, silence, and the ability to concentrate on one problem to the exclusion of everything else. Marketing yourself at the same time is more like juggling, or, even better, like spinning plates, with different parts of your life receiving more or less attention until they need a nudge to keep them going.

When an author lets one of the plates fall, as Lehrer has done so publicly, it’s reasonable to ask whether the costs of this kind of career outweigh the rewards. I’ve often wondered about this myself. And the only answer I can give is that none of this is worth doing unless the different parts give you satisfaction for their own sake. There’s no guarantee that any of the work you do will pay off in a tangible way, so if you spend your time on something only for its perceived marketing benefits, the result will be cynical or worse. And my own attitudes about this have changed over time. This blog began, frankly, as an attempt to build an online audience in advance of The Icon Thief, but after blogging every day for almost two years, it’s become something much more—a huge part of my identity as a writer. The same is true, I hope, of my essays and short fiction. No one piece counts for much, but when I stand back and take them all together, I start to dimly glimpse the shape of my career. I wouldn’t have done half of this without the imperatives of the market. And for that, weirdly, I’m grateful.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2012 at 10:12 am

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