How I found Margaret

When young aspiring writers ask me how they can replicate my freelance career, I often tell them, “First thing you should do is marry Margaret.” 

This is how that happened to me: 

I got the job of a lifetime in 1982, when the managing editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, a paper to which I’d been applying for months, finally relented and offered me a job.* I spent some months in Hong and Manila before being posted permanently to Singapore. Reporting in Asia was a gas, especially since, being either a former U.S. colony (the Philippines) or former British colonies (Hong Kong and Singapore), language wasn’t an obstacle. I was living a longstanding dream of mine — the life of a foreign correspondent — when a cassette tape arrived in the mail from my brother Michael.

jake mofe

Speaking from a bench in New York’s Central Park, Mike told me that he had a particularly deadly form of leukemia. When I told my bosses that I had to quit so I could return to New York to be with him, they kindly offered to wangle me a job in the New York office of the mother paper, The Wall Street Journal. Not only were they arranging for me to be near my brother for his final months, they were doing the equivalent of calling me up from the farm team to the majors. I covered the oil business from New York until the editors there decided that I should be covering mutual funds in Boston.

Sure, it was The Wall Street Journal, but covering mutual funds  was like dying of old age at 28. Meanwhile, a friend of mine, who was a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Consitution, kept telling his bosses about me and they kept inviting me down for an interview. I couldn’t go while Michael was so sick, but as soon as he died, on May 1, 1985,  I called Atlanta and offered to come interview. I was up to here with interviewing white men in suits about money, and wanted back out on the streets where the action is.

 While waiting to speak with the Journal-Constitution’s  top editor, I picked up that day’s edition to familiarize myself with the paper I was hoping to join. Stripped across the top of page one was the story of a shipwreck off Savannah. Dateline: ABOARD THE USS RAPPAHANNOCK– possibly dictated using ship-to-shore radio. On went an amazingly vivid tale of a fishing boat caught in a storm, whose crew then did everything wrong — like throwing their box of emergency food overboard before jumping in the liferaft. It was a great oceangoing tale, but it was the writing that lifted the story off the page and hung it glittering before my eyes. In a few column inches the writer managed to make three-dimensional people out of each fisherman, arrange suspense, and wring meaning from every word. This was writing! And I was being invited to join this paper! I was working the paper like a bellows, looking for the jump, when the secretary called me inside to his nibs. “Who,” I said, pointing to the byline, “is this Margaret L. Knox? She’s incredible.”

“Oh, that’s just Meg, the Savannah reporter.” First clue that the people running this paper were idiots; they had no idea what they had there in Savannah.

I took the job anyway, bought in Boston the kind of stupid-but- awesome car you can only justify as assuagement of grief after your brother’s death — a red 1969 Pontiac GTO convertible with a 400- horsepower engine, four on the floor, and air shocks that let me pump the back way up — and took a week driving it down the coast.

From Charleston, I called the Savannah bureau. At the very least, I thought, the person who wrote that terrific story is smart enough to put me wise to the paper and its personalities. She said I should stop by when I got to Savannah.

 

Her office, when I opened the door the next day at about 3:00, was large and almost entirely unfurnished. Stacks of files and books lay everywhere on the floor. Nautical charts were scotch-taped to the walls. It looked like an 11-year-old girl’s idea of what a grown-up’s office might look like. Margaret sat a desk, talking into a big black corded telephone.

After hanging up, she walked across the room, wearing a purple-light-green-and-white blousewith matching skirt, to shake my hand. This is the face that approached me:

 

margaret-knox-baum

She walked me outside, apologizing that she was on deadline but that she’d be happy to meet later for a drink. “In the meantime, you should go out to Fort Pulaski,” she said. “It was the last all-brick fortification built on the east coast before the development of the rifled cannon, which put an end to all-brick fortifications.”

 

Now, I don’t know how that strikes your ear, but I’m a history guy, and a gun guy, and there was something simply cool about this woman, whom I ‘d already known wrote so well, and whom I was now only starting to appreciate face to face, talking about the role of rifled cannon in transforming eighteenth-century military architecture.

We had a nice drink, and then dinner, and even went for a late- night swim in the ocean in our underwear. No hint of romance passed between us; she was living with a boyfriend who’d followed her from Michigan, and I — grieving, uprooting — was, ironically enough, taking a short break from my obsessive wife hunt.

Ain’t it always the case? You search and search and search, and the minute you lift your eye from the task, that which was sought appears.

Only problem was, I didn’t know it at the time. After congratulating myself endlessly for my deliberate search for a wife, “so I’d know her when I found her,” here she was, and I didn’t recognize who stood before me. Some guys don’t deserve the good fortune they enjoy.

 

*Having no real experience to offer the AWSJ I fell back on a cheap trick to get the job. Let me know if you want to hear that story.

 

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. 

My agent*  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, who had sold my proposal for Nine Lives  (then called The Neutral Ground) to an imprint of Random House, jumped into action and negotiated for me a dream deal. I could work off the remainder of my 2006-2007 New Yorker contract by writing a daily blog post from post-Katrina New Orleans for the magazine’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. (Not a problem in New Orleans.) The New Yorker called the product “New Orleans Journal,” and you can see them all here. (Scroll down to “by far the most fun….”) Reporting and writing New Orleans Journal 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. She knew me well enough to know how perfect a gig that would be for me. That’s a great agent. 

 

*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

**Name withheld at her request. I’ve just added to my page of successful book proposals one for a book I really wanted to write, but for which even she couldn’t find a publisher. Please take a look and, if you can figure out why it flopped, tell me. Stop me before I try again to sell it. 

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.