Wordwork: the art and craft of making a living as a writer.

  Writing is a hard business. Finding the right words, and making sure their meaning and their sound and their rhythm all merge properly on the page, has been a head-banger since people were scratching on cave walls. Those of us who write stories we make up have one special set of problems, and those who try to research and write the world’s literal truth have another. This blog will be my attempt to share what I’ve learned in more than three decades as a reporter and writer about gathering and organizing information, and then writing it down as clearly as possible.

    I’m going to try to do something else as well: discuss how to make a living as a writer. Because as much as writing is a literary act, it’s a mercenary one as well. If we don’t get paid — if we can’t pay the rent and buy groceries and keep the lights on — it doesn’t matter how brilliant we are as observers, investigators, and wordsmiths. It’s the dirty little secret of the literary life: Words are to writers what shoes are to cobblers. We have to produce enough of them and sell them at a high enough price to stay in business. It isn’t easy.

I started writing this blog in 2009, am re-posting it upon request, and I’m writing new posts. The latest is at the top. To read them in order, read from the bottom. If, reading these blog posts, you encounter any that require a password, email me at danbaum@me.com. You can also get new postings in your email in-box by clicking in the Follow box and typing in your email address.

My wife, Margaret, and I both started out as newspaper reporters. Then we were full-time freelance writers, with no other income, from 1987 until taking jobs with an NGO, in 2015. We didn’t live large, but we lived entirely on our writing income, and rarely had to resort to writing stuff we didn’t want to write. We were lucky. But we also were careful never to forget that alongside the responsibility that we have to write the truth and inspire with our words is the equally important requirement to make a buck so we can keep writing. We’ve watched a lot of freelancers fail over the past three decades, and usually it has been not because they failed at the former, but because they lifted the eye from the latter.

If people who claim to love you suggest you minor in accounting  or learn construction skills “so you’ll have a fallback,” remind them that people who have a fallback tend to get the fallback. If you have a parachute in the plane, you’ll use it when the engine catches fire instead of bringing the plane in for a wheels-up landing and saving the lives of everybody else aboard. If you have a lifeboat aboard the Patna, you’ll jump into that instead of toughing out the storm at the helm.*  Need I keep stringing out the metaphors? I think not. You get it: Have no fallback. There’s nothing wrong with learning construction skills or knowing the basics of double-ledger accounting. But if you have your heart set on writing for a living, better to be hungry for a spell and work your ass off at writing than to flop back into something “practical” that you don’t want to do and from which, once you’re accustomed to the regular paycheck, you will find it difficult to extricate yourself. Stay hungry. Let’s begin:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” — Samuel Johnson.

Now, sit up straight and stop mumbling. Your use of the language is about to improve a lot, whether you like it or not.

correcting you grammar.jpgShirt sent by my good friend Phelim. Margaret says she’s going to hold me to the “silently” part.

The blog posts already published are here:

 

*Obscure literary reference. The Patna is the storm-wracked ship full of Mecca-bound pilgrims into a lifeboat of which the protagonist jumps at the start of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. When he is rescued at sea and steams back into port, there sits the Patna, safe as houses. That Jim is branded a coward doesn’t mean I’m calling you a coward for jumping into the lifeboat. Just that had he had no lifeboat, Jim’s life would have depended on piloting the Patna home safely, as someone obviously was able to do. If you can arrange things so that your life depends on getting paid to write, you’ll vastly increase your chances of getting paid to write, as some people obviously are able to do. 

 

Finding and Working With an Agent

Some writers try to sell their books directly to publishers, but I don’t recommend it.  The publishing world is a shark tank, and you want your own shark. A good agent will not only sell your book* to a publisher for a good price, he or she will also be your advisor, perhaps your first-line editor, and your friend. It’s up to you, of course, but I strongly recommend having an agent to sell your project. A good one, with whom you have a good relationship, is well worth the commission he or she will charge you. Mine has even negotiated good magazine and web work for me. **

The trick of getting an agent is: you need the right agent. You need an agent that not only appreciates your kind of book (and the market for it), but has lunch regularly with the editors who buy such books. This is why a lot of writers have more than one agent — one for their non-fiction, one for their fiction, one for their poetry, etc.

The first thing to do is go to a bookstore or library and pick out several books that are similar to yours. By similar, I mean same genre, same market, same sensibility, etc. Books that might be shelved next to yours.

Assemble a list of about ten, and first look in the acknowledgements; authors often thank their agents. If not, write down the publishers. Then call the publishers, ask for the editorial department, and when someone answers ask for the assistant of the agent who represented the book published by that house that you identified as being similar to yours. This will leave you with a list of about ten agents that are possibilities.

Then call those agents’ offices and make sure you have the name spelled right and the address correct. In the same phone call, ask for the agent’s assistant and ask that person how the agent likes to receive things. As an attached Word file? In the body of an email? As an attached PDF? In a paper envelope? Send the proposal to each according to her preferences, along with a letter saying you are looking for representation for this project, that you have sent it to several agents, and that you’d appreciate hearing from her quickly. Any agent that writes or calls and says he/she doesn’t look at simultaneous submissions — that is, won’t look at someone’s work while other agents are looking at the same work — strike from your list. You are the client. They are auditioning for your business, not the other way around. 

When you have a few agents that want to represent you, ask them first what they charge. Most agents charge fifteen percent commission. There is room to dicker, especially if you have several who want to represent you. (Keep in mind that you also need to put aside about a quarter of the advance to pay the taxes, so between that and the agent’s commission, you really only get about half the advance. But remember: you’re likely only to get a quarter of the “advance” on signing — then you’ll get a quarter on delivery of the manuscript after however many months you’ve said it will take you to finish the manuscript, a quarter on hardback publication about a year after that, and a quarter on paperback publication about a year after that. So that $100,000 book contract that you thought would let you retire young really puts only about $50,000 in your pocket — over three years. That’s less than $17,000 a year.  Whatever dollar figure you hear that a publisher is willing to pay, divide it by four, imagine that dribbled out over three years, and decide, using this formula, if you can accept the offer. If you can’t do a good job on that much money, refuse the contract.

Then ask the agents for the names and phone numbers of some of their clients, and then call all those writers. Figure out what’s important to you in an agent and ask the clients of each about the characteristics that are important to you. Does she return phone calls? Does she work quickly? Does she get big money? Does she follow through on foreign/film rights, etc. Will she edit your proposal? Does she offer career advice? 

Another thing, and this is important: Disqualify any agent that requires you to sign a contract with him, especially if it’s a contract for a period of time. Stand firm on this. Tell him you’re willing to pay his commission if he sells the book for an advance you can accept. But if he can’t, you need to feel free to take it back from him and go elsewhere. This is important: do not sign agent contracts. 

That’s my advice in shorthand, for what it’s worth. 

*If your book is a novel, you must write the whole thing  before you can try to sell it or even find an agent for it. If your book is non-fiction, do not send around a completed manuscript, even to agents. Agents and publishers want to see proposals for non-fiction books. You can find the ones that sold my four books, along with a little essay about non-fiction book proposals and finding an agent, here

** Mine — and I will check with her before putting her name in a blog post — worked a true stroke of genius when David Remnick told me in September 2006 that he wasn’t going to renew my staff-writer contract the following June. I’d been worried anyway about how I was going to produce 30,000 words about the Iraq War II military (my beat) while doing all the research and interviews for the book whose proposal my agent had just sold and whose manuscript was due in eighteen months. I was on the verge of asking Remnick for a book leave — a common enough thing at The New Yorker — when he called to lower the boom. My last day as a staff writer was nine months away. With my body and my head deep in New Orleans, I was going to have to fly in and out to write the Army stories I was contractually obliged to write. So not only was I losing the best job in journalism, the end game was going to break my concentration repeatedly on what I hoped would be my most literary book yet.

My agent jumped into action and negotiated for me a dream deal. I could work off the remainder of my 2006-2007 contract by writing a daily blog post from post-Katrina New Orleans for The New Yorker’s new website. The web editor said a few lines and a couple of links was all I needed to send, but I said, no, I’d like to write you complete story every weekday. So every weekday for five months, while doing the interviews and research for Nine Lives, I had to go out and find something interesting and perhaps amusing about which to write. The New Yorker called it “New Orleans Journal,” and you can see them all here. (Scroll down to “by far the most fun….”) It was the best imaginable crash course in the city about which I was writing a book. That was a dozen years ago and I’ve still never done work that was as satisfying and as much fun as that. (New Orleanians loved “New Orleans Journal” and would stop me on the street to shake my hand. That never happened to me  before or since.) And my agent got me that gig without even asking me ahead of time if she should. That’s a good agent. I’ll try to get her name in here. 

Whudduya wanna know?

Rather than have me drone on aimlessly, is there anything in particular you want me to address about the language, the researching and writing process, or the business of making a living as a writer? Please address questions to: danbaum@me.com.

Let the Plan Rule 8

I know you’re a writer. But you’re also a human being who needs to eat, sleep under a roof, and travel. So I recommend multiplying your income streams by adding radio and maybe even television to your bag of tricks.* 

When you talk to NPR, as you should, having sent them a packet offering your services, you should also talk to CNN**. Ask NPR what kind of recorder and microphone you should carry to gather broadcast-quality actuality (a radio-industry term for the live sound you hear in a report — interviews, explosions, chickens clucking, etc.) Ask, too, how to get your sound to them and write down their instructions in detail.

Margaret went on a junket organized by the the government of Angola, which was eager for the world to know that it still held the town of Cuito Cuanavale in its long ground war against the South African Army. At one point, Margaret had to cross a river on a rope-and-slats footbridge and, bless her heart, she kept her tape deck running with the microphone sticking up out of her shoulder bag. On the tape — which ran on All Things Considered and for which she was paid well, you can hear her feet rattling on the slats, her breathing hard, and then, suddenly, voices yelling frantically and the whistles and booms of incoming artillery rounds. Great actuality, as they say in the biz. It would have made great television, too, but broadcast-quality cameras weren’t small enough then to tote around. 

Google “smallest broadcast-quality video camera” and see what pops up. (This is what comes up today, but six months from now could be different.) Show the list to the people at CNN with whom you’re negotiating permission to call collect and whose email addresses you are collecting. Ask them what they’d like you to carry and get detailed instructions for getting your footage to them. 

I can hear you now, saying, “but I have no experience in either radio or television!” Let me tell you another story:

On that same trip to Angola,*** Margaret met a nice man named Noel Grove, who was a staff photographer on assignment for the ne plus ultra of photojournalism, The National Geographic. She asked him: “What’s the secret of NatGeo photography? and he replied “F8 and be there.” (F8 on a camera is the most basic F-stop, the one at which you’re apt to get approximately the depth of field of a naked human eye, good for a quick shot and for freezing action. You’d use different F stops for artistic effects; F8 is plain Jane.) The important part of Grove’s advice, though, was, “be there.” You may have no television experience, but if you’re on the scene when disgruntled elements of the FARC attack the presidential palace and you have the footage that nobody else has, you’ll be golden. This is why you want the smallest and lightest audio and video recording gear you can get — so that you’ll have them with you all the time. Be there. 

 

* It must also be said, if mumbled disgracefully down here, that certain stories are better told on television than in print. When the space shuttle blew up or the shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad began, did you run to your newspaper? No, you hastened to CNN. No medium is inherently more legit than the others. People get information all kind of ways and it’s a privilege to to feed the public’s right and appetite to know with as many tools as you can muster. Just because you sent CNN footage of the attack on the presidential palace doesn’t mean you can’t also write a 4,000-word think piece about it for The New York Review of Books. 

**Here’s how you, a total newbie in television, should approach CNN: Call the main number in Atlanta and ask whoever answers the phone to switch you to the Latin America desk. If the person says that CNN has no Latin America desk, say this: “I am an independent correspondent based in Bogotá, Colombia, to cover Latin American news. To whom should I offer my services?” When you reach that person, ask for an email address or, better still, a paper mailing address and send your packet to that person. I promise you that nobody will hang up on you. CNN needs eyes everywhere. Then send your clips-and-resume packet.

*** Yes, I did do some reporting in Africa, too. I wasn’t in Angola with her because I am a physical coward. War reporting? Me? No thank you. Send Margaret. 

Let the Plan Rule 7

You’re going to need good gear. I’m sure you’ve been practicing typing as fast as someone can talk — in Spanish — in the manner I recommended here. You’re spending time sitting in front of Spanish language television with your computer in your lap, writing down every word of dialogue. Good for you. That is exactly what you should be doing in preparation for your lead-pipe-certain September 30 departure for Bogotá.  

When Margaret and I arrived in Africa in 1987, the Radio Shack Tandy TRS-80 was already the laughingstock of the computer world. It held 36 kilobytes — that means only 36,000 characters. It had no hard disk. It ran off of — get this — AA batteries. The cool foreign correspondents were packing Toshiba laptops with 20 megabyte hard disks and rechargeable batteries.

Turns out, though, that for reporting in Africa, the “trash eighty,” as it was known, was the better axe. Traveling through Africa often meant having one’s backpack thrown onto the roof of a bus, or down off a pier into a dhow. A laptop with a hard disk — moving parts — wouldn’t last a month. You don’t have to take the Wayback Machine to 1987, though, to get a computer without a hard disk, and you don’t to put up with such limited storage and capacity. Every major maker of laptops, Apple included, offers laptops with solid-state drives. Buy one of those. At the same time, buy a solid-state backup drive that you can attach to your computer via USB. You’ll want to be backing up constantly because laptops disappear or suffer breakage on the road, usually at the worst possible time. Back up obsessively and keep your backup drive in your little trove inside the waistband of your pants with your passport, etc., or, if that’s too uncomfortable, someplace else safe. 

Planning on doing radio reporting? Television? We’ll pick this up tomorrow. 

Let the Plan Rule 6

To recap: You’ve put your flight to Bogotá on the calendar for September 30 and by now you may have heard from the Colombian Embassy that yes, you have permission to establish a freelance news bureau in the capital. You’ve gotten a passport and enough shots to spring a puppy from the Humane Society. Now it’s time to start lining up clients. 

What Margaret and I did was open the Editor & Publisher yearbook* at the public library and write down the name and address of every newspaper editor we wanted to approach. The Washington Post was as far up the food chain as we dared venture. It had two of its own staff reporters in Africa, but one was in apartheid Johannesburg, and therefore couldn’t travel to what was called then, “black Africa.” The other was in Nairobi, three air hours or 42 difficult road hours, from the “frontline states” that Margaret and I would be covering. Most of the ones to which we intended to sell ourselves were the ones who couldn’t afford their own Africa bureaus — papers like The Dallas Times Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, the Kansas City Star, and so on. We carefully wrote down their full mailing addresses and then prepared a neat little package to send each one. We used pocket folders; when you opened it, our resumés faced you on the left, and a few of our best clips faced you on the right. The cover letter that went into the envelopes with these packets said something like this:

Greetings: 

A new source of Africa news will be available to you starting in May.  Margaret Knox and Dan Baum, veteran reporters of The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers, will be establishing The Africa Bureau — an independent news bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, to cover the region for you. This will be your chance to have exclusive, non-wire copy from a turbulent but under-covered part of the world. Please look at our enclosed resumés and samples of our work. We ask for nothing in advance but your Telex number and permission to call collect if we have a story we think you might like. 

We’d like to hear from you ahead of time to discuss topics that might be of particular interest to your readers, such as communities of Africans who help constitute your city’s population, and the companies and industries in your city that do business in Africa and to which we should pay special attention. We want to make this as easy for you as possible, so if there are any technical issues related to filing copy and photos to your paper, let’s nail those down. We also will be traveling around the U.S. in March to visit future clients; might we stop by and see you, too?

Of course, today you’d be asking for email addresses instead of Telex numbers, but feel free to go ahead and crib that letter if you want to and adapt it to your purposes. We lined up about seven papers, plus National Public Radio and Mutual Radio News, this way. And damned if we didn’t get The Washington Post, too. Asking about industries and companies turned out to be useful; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, was interested in bauxite mining because Alcoa, based in Pittsburgh, uses a lot of bauxite to make aluminum. Permission to call collect from Africa is a big deal. Some even asked us to buy acoustic couplers — big hard-rubber cups that fit over the two ends of a phone receiver and that, when plugged into a computer, allowed us to send copy straight into a paper’s computer queue by putting atop the story a line of code that looked something like {kwky-slug{tttws, with “slug” being a one-word title for the story. This was very high-tech stuff in 1987. We wrote editors’ names, phone numbers, telex numbers, companies and industries to watch in a little hardcover Moleskine-like notebook, devoting one page to each paper, so that we’d have it all handy when it was time to file. My suggestion is that you do likewise. But do it quickly; you’re leaving on September 30.

More on equipment tomorrow.

*Editor and Publisher being the trade magazine of the newspaper-publishing industry

 

 

Let the Plan Rule 5

Let’s continue with the list of tasks you need to complete before you leave for Bogotá: 

If you don’t have a passport, get one now at the nearest post office. You’ll need to bring in a couple of passport-sized photos that you can get at Kinko’s or a camera shop, whichever is closest to you, and when you do, get four or five extras. They’re good to have with you when you go abroad. A Colombian press card might require one, as might press credentials for other countries you’ll be covering. And you might lose your passport or have it stolen and having a passport photo on hand will speed up the process of replacing it. 

As someone who had his passport stolen his first day as a freelancer in Africa — making my way by bus from Jomo Kenyatta Airport into downtown Nairobi — let me recommend a way to carry the passport, vaccination card, visas, press credentials, a credit card, and some cash: sew a little drawstring bag out of an old bandana and use a nice thick sneaker lace as the drawstring. Put your documents and cash — not too much; enough for a day, in small bills — in it and tuck it inside the waistband of your pants over your hip. Tie the ends of the drawstring firmly to a belt loop, and you’re done. Nobody can snatch it from there, and you can ascertain that you still have your trove simply by looking down and seeing the drawstring, relieving you of having to do every five minutes  the touristic self-frisk — feeling for your trove, which communicates to everybody around you exactly in which pocket it is. That’s how I lost my trove on that Nairobi airport bus — ceaselessly patting the cargo pocket of my trousers to assure myself that I still had my trove. I might as well have been saying, “Here it is, guys!”

Tying the trove to your belt will keep you, too, from falling victim to a robbery technique that befell me in Zamboanga City, the Philippines, in 1982. Someone, seeing from the outside that my wallet was in my back pocket, sliced my pocket open — presumably with a straight razor — without my noticing. Had my trove been tied to my pants and hanging inside them, I’d have felt the tug. It occurs to me now that both of these pickpocket stories — Nairobi and Zamboanga took place as I was boarding or leaving buses, and distracted by my luggage. A third pickpocketing incident, in Mexico city in 2017, happened on a Metro. Point is: be extra vigilant on public conveyances, especially if you’re distracted by gear.

Some countries require proof of vaccination against yellow fever or other maladies upon entry. This website will tell you the requirements, country by country, and also make recommendations beyond the requirements. You should check other sources, too, and if you can, find a travel-medicine clinic in your city, which will also have information. The aforementioned website offers good advice, too, on its Colombia page, about taking along mosquito netting and chemical mosquito repellent, and making sure all your standard vaccinations — tetanus, diphtheria, etc., are up to date. Have whoever gives you your shots note the shot and date on your yellow vaccination card, sign it, and stamp it to make it look as official as possible. You don’t want to get hung up at a border or airport over this, and if you’re like me you don’t want to get your shots at some flyblown clinic who knows where. 

Find out if you need malaria prophylaxis, and what kind. If a doctor recommends chloroquine, do some research to see if the strain of malaria in the places you’re going is chloroquine-resistant. Resistance to chloroquine is a byproduct of the American war in Vietnam. The U.S. Army issued its soldiers chloroquine pills to take daily, the parasite adapted to it, and resistance spread outward. This is how Margaret found herself delirious in a hospital bed in Harare.

As you start ticking things off your list — permissions, passport, vaccinations — your departure will feel more and more real. You’re on your way to Colombia to launch a career as a freelance foreign correspondent! Everybody knows it, you’re getting vaccinated for it, and nothing can stop you!

We’ll continue tomorrow with lining up clients.

 

 

 

Let the Plan Rule 4

Before we continue with the list of things you need to do before September 30 — the date you have set as departure for Bogotá to begin your career as a freelance foreign correspondent — let’s talk briefly about money. You don’t have enough of it, and you’re going to need plenty. So, as you write “Depart for Bogotá” on your calendar for September 30, say goodbye to restaurant meals, three-dollar  cups of coffee, movies, and other luxuries. It is time to start living on the bone. Cook* and make your coffee at home. You’ll save a bundle. Move in with your parents if you have to. It won’t be defeat; it will be in service to that tyrant on the calendar. Get rid of your Netflix subscription and use the time you’d otherwise spend zoning out over movies to read books and academic journal articles about Colombia and Latin America. (A good start might be Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, which is an only-occasionally-stridently Marxist analysis of Latin America since the conquest. It will give you a good feel for the essential complaint that Latin America has with Europe and the United States, a complaint that is reflected to this day in much of the region’s politics and economics.) Every time you deny yourself something — that latte, dinner at the hip new place on the corner, etc. — will be a fresh reminder that you’re leaving for Bogotá on September 30, further cementing the plan into reality.**

Stop driving your car to save money on insurance and gasoline, and get yourself a bicycle and a transit pass (if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with transit) instead. In fact, unless it’s a beloved and irreplaceable heirloom, this would be an excellent time to sell the car altogether. You can’t take it to Bogotá, storing it while you’re gone will be difficult and hard on the car itself, and by the time you come back who knows where you’ll be living? You might be a reporter for The New York Times by then, living in a city where you certainly won’t want or need a car. So ditch it, now, and put the money in a new bank account you call “Bogotá.” 

You can use that time you’re saving by not watching movies and TV shows to get your Spanish back, if you’ve ever had it, or to start studying it. I know a Dutchman who taught himself really excellent Spanish in a matter of months by using the program Rosetta Stone. But he’s a Dutchman, with that preternatural knack for languages shared by his countrymen, so don’t necessarily expect the same results. If your Spanish is already solid, as it might be since you’ve chosen Latin America as the place you want to freelance, start on Portuguese. Brazil is a newsworthy place, and reporters who speak Portuguese are rarer, and therefore more valuable, than those who speak only Spanish.

 

* If you would like some ideas about how to feed yourself cheaply — kitchen equipment you’ll need, how to shop, and some recipes, let me know at danbaum@me.com

** Remember that “leaving for Bogotá” is shorthand for whatever unlikely reality you’re trying to make happen. But, if you’re trying to get a freelance career started and have any Spanish at all, setting yourself up as a freelance correspondent in Bogotá isn’t a half-bad idea.