Read the (less personal) part I with freelance writer Gigi Douban.
I have a lameness complex. I think it came around because most of the amateur writing I encountered in school was a conga line of impalatable metafiction, self-indulgent personal narratives and 800-page manuscripts that were “kind of like Twilight, only darker.” So I kept my dreams of literary derring-do secret, assuming people will only take a writer seriously if he is
a) already famous
b) doing something that would only be interesting in Dilbert.
Even in Asia, I still can’t shake the feeling that being a cool and exciting writer isn’t something regular schmucks do. I hinted at that in my conversation with Gigi. She said it was crap.
In fact we went through three of my hang-ups, and each one was more crap than the last.
Myth 1: You should have a killer portfolio before you put it online
I always get to know a girl before I let her see me shirtless because, while I’ve got a lot going for me, you might not catch it if you’re distracted by the unbaked Dominos pizza I call a torso. That’s sort of why I resisted having a professional page. My credentials are somewhat deeper than they are wide, and I thought it better to win editors with a strong pitch and a few impressive clips before they see everything splayed out online and realize the rest of the iceberg isn’t much bigger than the PDF’s at the tip.
Why it’s BS: “You can’t wait and say, ‘Oh, when I’ve got X-number or from X-number of different publications, then it’s legit, then I can go ahead with my website,’” Gigi said. “No, people want to see that you’re out there, and what you’re doing.”
As my former editor Carla Jean Whitley pointed out, your public offering may be stronger than you think. I asked Gigi if I should tote a blog whose niche is, basically, defacing its own writer. She said pimp it. In fact, pimp anything you got. “They just want to get a sense of who you are as a writer,” she explained.
And anyway, having no online presence is more of a red flag than a weak one. Fortunately: “You could have somebody who’s been doing it for fifteen, twenty years and writes like shit. They really are looking at quality. The more you can give them to go on the better, especially if it’s somebody you’ve never worked with before.”
Myth 2: Major publications ignore new writers
Last time I spoke with Rick Bragg I told him about a story idea for India. “You know who you should send that to?” he said. “Smithsonian magazine.” I agreed; Smithsonian would like it, especially if I was a bestselling pulitzer winner. But whenever I thought about cold-pitching Smithsonian myself, I saw my email getting drowned in an editorial inbox with a few hundred what-I-did-this-summer essays by stoned bohemians.
Why it’s BS: “If that’s the case, then nobody would ever break into a new publication or media outlet ever,” Gigi said. “You’d be constantly working with the people you’ve always worked with forever, and that’s it.”
I guess that has a certain logic, though there’s a difference between finding an established journalist for an assignment and taking a chance on some college schmuck. You need to at least be, like, on the radar, right? Gigi admitted maybe USA Today isn’t going to get its best interns fact checking your idea, but odds are good someone will at least see it. “That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get a response. That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get your first fifteen pitches to them accepted; you might get big, fat rejections. But they’re not out of reach or out of range at all.”
Myth 3: The market for international stories is lousy
The problem with travel writing is that, like writing novels, literally 100% of millennials want to do it. As for non-travel international features, I figured precious few publications were buying them (compared to the reservoir of local papers and city magazines), and my pitches would be competing with writers from Iceland to Papua New Guinea. Writers professional enough to have little sunshades on their camera lenses.
Why it’s BS: Gigi claimed that media companies are relying less on their foreign bureaus and more on freelancers and stringers. In fact, she said her first big break as a freelancer was with PRI’s “The World” with a story from Egypt. Again, it takes patience and persistence to build a rapport with editors and eventually find assignments, but these are just obstacles of starting out, whether in Tallahassee or sub-Saharan Africa.