Let the Plan Rule 2

Okay. When we left off, you’d decided you want to move to Colombia on your own to set yourself up as a freelance Latin America correspondent. First thing to do — and this is perhaps the most essential piece of advice in this entire blog — is to set a departure date and put it on your calendar. I’d put it out about nine months, maybe even a year, to be sure you can get done all things you’ll need to do, some of which you haven’t even thought of yet but you’ll come upon as you get started. So if  you make this decision today, Monday, December 31, 2018, “Depart for Bogotá” goes on the calendar on Wednesday, September 30, 2019. (Many factors can affect this date. Your little sister’s Bat Mitzvah might already be scheduled for Saturday, October 4. Your current lease might be up at the end of the previous month. Your high-school girlfriend and her new husband might be expecting a baby the weekend of October 11. Figure it all out now — ask the people who might be planning schedule-disrupting events next fall — because this magic only works if, once implementation goes on the calendar, no power on earth can move it. 

Meet your new master. This departure for Bogotá on 09/30/19 cannot be changed, cannot be denied. It is a ruthless dictator who — regardless of whatever else happens in your life — must be obeyed. You will be amazed at the power inherent in this self-hypnosis tactic once you fully convince yourself that, whatever happens, you will be on a Bogotá-bound jet on 9/30/19. Tell everybody you know,”I’m leaving for Bogotá at the end of September.”  Your departure on that date simply becomes the reality. “I wish I could be at your wedding, but I’ll have left for Bogotá by then.” “We’d better do that in August, because I’m on a plane to Bogotá at the end of September.” When they ask, “Do you have to?” say, “yes.” “But this is your own deadline, right? So if you want to change it you can.” “It’s my own deadline, right. But no, I can’t change it. Once it becomes fungible, it’s useless to me.”

Put up a whiteboard in your kitchen with the date, time, and flight number of your departure so you see it every day and even more, everybody who walks through your kitchen sees it. Then, if you fail to depart on that day, you’ll not only be letting down the tyrant and yourself, you’ll reveal yourself to everybody you know as a feckless, ineffectual sac of hot air and nobody will ever again believe anything you say. Think of this as a wedding; you’re marrying your plan, and everybody you know is standing around you smiling and dewy-eyed while you speak your vows, which means you’re not only promising your plan, you’re promising everybody there.* You can further nail this down by buying your one-way ticket now, while fares are low. This may be a time to use a travel agent with experience in Latin America rather than winging it yourself on Kayak or Expedia. If you really want to make a tyrant of your departure date, don’t buy travel insurance. You’re going. That’s that. Come hell or high water, you’re on that plane. 

Again, making a life-bending tyrant of a deadline works in all sorts of contexts: My boyfriend and I are going to move out of his mother’s house as soon as he graduates in June and we’re going to get jobs and our own place to live. Put that on the calendar for July 1, and look at it every day, and on July 1 you will find yourself in your new apartment getting dressed for your first day of work. You simply have no alternative. It’s the Plan. You have to make it happen. 

But getting back to the freelance-foreign-correspondent example, we’ll start tomorrow making lists of things you need to do before departure.


*Yes, you can divorce your plan like you can divorce a spouse. But then you’re breaking your vows not only to the plan, but to everybody who heard you speak them, which is everybody whom you told that you’re leaving to be a freelance foreign correspondent in Bogota on September 30, which, if you’re smart, is everybody you know. 




Let the Plan Rule 1

Slightly updated repeat of Friday’s post. New post coming soon.

Okay, say you’re inspired by this post about launching a freelance career by going abroad and setting yourself up as an independent foreign correspondent, or by this post and you’re girding your loins to start a big writing project. Or you’re not inspired by this blog at all but your heart is carrying you toward something big, complicated, and hard to achieve. The question becomes: how do you make it happen? How do you accumulate the money you’ll need? How do you get everything done that needs to be done first? And how do you do it all without a) letting work/school/other responsibilities keep you from achieving this big, complicated dream, b) losing heart that you can really pull it off, or c) losing interest in something as distant, complicated, and abstract as this big, scary plan?

The trick, I have found, is to let the plan rule. Make it a tyrant who will not be denied, and then bend your entire life to its will.

Say you have decided, after careful research, to move to Colombia and establish yourself as a freelance foreign correspondent, reporting on the Colombian peace process, the effect on the drug trade of a shifting global attitude toward illegal drugs, the crisis in  Venezuela and the refugees therefrom living in Colombia and Brazil, environmental despoliation in the Brazilian Amazon and elsewhere, Chinese efforts to crack central American markets  and blast a second inter-ocean canal through Nicaragua, the caravan-inspiring gang violence in Honduras, and any number of other roiling regional issues.  Lots is going on, and while the New York Times has people in the region, such Triple-A ballclubs as the Kansas City Star, the Atlanta Constitution, the Minneapolis Star-Herald and others probably depend almost entirely on wire-service copy for their Latin-America coverage, leaving you an opening. You intend to become the Central American correspondent for as many of these newspapers as you can sign up, a process I will take up in detail if you’d like me to.

The advice that follows doesn’t only apply to deciding to move abroad and freelance. Making a tyrant of a deadline works for finally moving out of your parents’ house, finishing a book proposal, finding a job in your chosen field. But to return to the freelance-foreign-correspondent idea as an example: 

Your parents don’t want you to go. They worry about your safety and they’d prefer you have a job with a regular salary and health insurance. Your friends don’t want you to go. They’ll miss you, and also — and this is a painful secret truth — on some level your peers are going to be threatened by your pulling this off. If you can launch yourself into the big world and live your dream, what are they doing at Starbucks, or at safe jobs that don’t really scratch their itch? Your having the courage and energy to do this will be seen by some of your friends — even some who love you most — as a rebuke and a reproach. Point is: don’t expect a lot of support from the people around you. When it comes to making this big thing happen in your life, you’re on your own.*

I will continue tomorrow about how to make the plan an absolute dictator over your life, which is how you make plans come to fruition and dreams come true. 



*Unless, like me, you have a sweetheart who is also your partner in this adventure, which not only makes it way more fun and rewarding, but vastly increases your chance of success. I’ll write about how I got struck with that particular lightning bolt in a later post if you’d like me to.

Finding the topic

A reader writes, essentially, that droning on as I have about how to organize your notes is putting the cart way before the horse:

“I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to answer a question I have regarding how you more or less typically end up with a story idea worth chasing after. Another follow up question would be how many ideas, or projects, do you typically have going at once? Throughout your career, have there been certain common denominators when it comes to how you come across leads worth pursuing?”
It happens that this is the aspect of the writing life at which I think I’m least good. The person to whom to address this question is Michael Lewis, who always finds terrific topics for his best-selling books. His are usually about sports and money — two topics for which Americans seem to have bottomless appetite. I don’t say this derisively. Money and sports consume a lot of Americans’ time and energy, so it is important that they understand them well and Lewis is doing the country a service writing the books he writes.
I can write well enough and Margaret is a terrific editor, so our books get good reviews that you can see by clicking through to each book’s page from here. But none of books sold many copies because, I think, none of our topics was particularly compelling or of-the-moment. 
As for magazine articles, I have no magic to offer except always to have your antenna up.  Re-watch the movie Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous writer. In the first scene, he reads a six-inch story about the murder of a four-person family in Holcomb, Kansas, on page two of The New York Times and immediately picks up the phone to call his editor at The New Yorker. “I want to write about this,” he says, and in so doing Capote invented an entirely new genre, the “non-fiction novel,” a form to which I will return in this space. 
As for what you can do to find stories, read newspapers and magazines, and take notes while you do — people’s names, names of documents you’re going to need, dates, events, and so on. What I personally look for is something that can be made into a story — with beginning, middle, and end, a good cast of characters, some action, and, if possible, some national significance. It also has to interest you, deeply. I hate to say something as seemingly useless as this, but you’ll know when you see it.” Your idea should thrill you. It should be something about which you want to be thinking 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future. Be bold. Don’t talk yourself into timidity with such self-defeating claptrap as: “I’ll never get access.” “I won’t understand it.” “I’m not an expert.” Make access. Find people to explain it all to you and read deeply. Turn yourself into an expert.
Teachers and books used to advise beginning writers to write about what they know about. Tom Wolfe turned that on its head in a way that is spot-on: Write about what you know nothing about. That way, you have to ask the basic questions and can’t fall back on your half-baked misconception-filled “understanding.” 
You can pretty much reverse engineer any of my magazine proposals, or even my book proposals and see what got me there. 
You could also assign yourself a beat. Way back in 1977, when Iran was holding the American diplomats hostage and the Carter administration was imposing financial sanctions on Iran, I knew a freelancer who made it his business thoroughly to understand how those sanctions worked, where the Iranian assets were parked, how “freezing” them worked, and so on. He turned himself into the country’s leading expert in the Iranian sanctions and thus was in demand by magazines that wanted to report on them.
I’m thinking now about assigning myself a beat: covering, day to day,  the process by which the city in which I live — Boulder, Colorado– aims to create its own electric utility. I knew it was a good story for me when I saw yet another story about on page one of my local paper and heard a voice in my head say, “what about that?”* I realized in a flash that the story contains a lot of what I want in a topic right now —  a chance to get a piece of the climate-change story; it’s positive, instead of grimly negative and contentious; it’s local, so I don’t have to uproot myself and Margaret, it has a manageably sized cast of colorful characters; and I can fit it in around the job I’m currently holding. Once I’ve done enough initial spadework to write, say, a dozen dispatches about it, I’m planning to send irregular missives —  as a kind of serialized non-fiction book —  to the 338 people who used to read my daily newsletter Third Act Trouble. I also have a national magazine wanting me to turn all those dispatches, six months to a year from now, into a podcast. 
As for how many ideas I have going at once, I might have two or three percolating until one emerges as the solid bet, at which point I will store the folders containing notes on the others somewhere safe, to be taken up in the future. 
Short answer: choose the topic that most moves your heart. Because you’re going to be living with this idea, full time, for quite a while.
*In all honesty, the voice was Margaret’s. It was who suggested I write serially about Boulder’s attempt to detach from the big corporate utility and start it’s own. 


After I’ve done some interviews and gathered up some electronic documents, all carefully footnoted, I take a break from gathering to do some mid-process processing of the material I’ve gathered so far. How soon I do this after I start my research, and how often I do this, depends largely on the expected length of my document — sooner and more often for shorter docs.

For this stage, I make a new document in the top level of project’s folder, and I give it the lofty name “Jewels.” Here is where I put the quotes and facts from all my interviews and documents notes that I think I will actually use in the piece. Here, for example, is “Wal-Mart jewels” that I made while researching “God and Satan in Bentonville,” the piece I wrote about Wal-Mart for Playboy in 2003. (For some reason, I don’t have that story on my “Articles” page — I’ll do my best to fix that soon — but on this page is a link to a story that the New York Times, of all papers, wrote about it.) 

By the time you’re done reading all the interviews and documents you have to date, you should be able to fill up a few single-spaced pages Now, when you’re writing, you’ll be looking at just a few dense pages instead of splashing around in all your notes, feverishly looking for that quote about the cordwood. Again, footnote every individual jewel on the page  so that the footnoting is all done when you’re writing your piece/proposal/book chapter. 


Footnote, redux

I discussed here the importance of footnoting everything you write. It’s worth rereading because too many people fail to do so and get themselves into various kinds of trouble.  And I will amend that post this way: Footnote your notes.

On the top of an Interview file I will put the source’s contact information, like this:

Dan Baum, 303-986-7994, danbaum@vatican.com

(Those aren’t real, by the way, so don’t try to contact me that way. Please use the Contact button on the first page of this website.)

Putting them all in one line makes it easy to block-define and copy into a footnote in the article or book you’re writing. If I’m digesting a book and taking notes on it, I’ll put the full bibliography information on the top of my page of notes, like this:

Baum, Dan; Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure; Little, Brown; New York; 1996.

Again, easy to block-define, copy, and transfer into a footnote or, ultimately, your bibliography if you’re writing a book. Of course, if you’re digesting a book into notes, you’ll want page numbers associated with every factoid or quote you derive from the book. So if you found this quote in Smoke and Mirrors and transferred it to your notes — “I don’t care if we stack ’em up in prison like cordwood,” Terwilliger said — you’d footnote is right there in your notes, using full bibliographical cite plus page number. That way, when you move that quote into your manuscript, the footnote will go with it.

You can add footnotes later, but it is infinitely more difficult and time consuming. You’re looking at Smoke and Mirrors right now, going through it for things you need. This is the time to footnote what you get so you’re not asking yourself a month from now, “Oh, Christ, where did I get that good quote about the cordwood?”


Starting a big project

Okay; you have an idea for a story you want to pitch to a national magazine. You even know to which magazine you want to pitch it, following the iron rule I lay out in the essay at the top of this page. Now it’s time to get to the hardest work there is in this career you’ve chosen: turning an idea for a story into crackerjack proposal. As I told you here and here, most of the work that you’ll do to put a 3,500-word piece in a magazine you’ll do in the proposal stage that you are starting now. This is where you’re laying out the worm-turning moments of the narrative, describing the structure, walking all the characters on stage, and synthesizing the meaning of it all. Once you have the assignment, you’ve done all the hard stuff. So this is moment zero — when you grasp ahold of that unformed idea you have and begin turning it into something real. This is where you need all your smarts, talent, confidence, education, ambition, and energy, so do what you need to summon them. A brisk walk around the block thinking about what life would be like in the wake of failure, followed by cup or two of Margaret’s weapons-grade coffee, usually does it for me.

Thus begins what I call a “Red-Dog Day,” because I imagine myself as a big, loose-jointed red dog with snout on the ground, tail in the air, snuffling feverishly as I criss-cross the blank terrain ahead, desperate to find the story’s scent trail

Do this along with me on your computer so you can see it and so it really sinks in: I will use an example from 2009, when I wanted to sell to Harper’s magazine a story about the rapid growth of the concealed-carry movement as a way to launch the book I wanted to write about gun owners. First thing I did was make a folder called “Guns” in the main folder in which I keep all my documents. “Guns” was a top-level folder, equal in stature to any in my Documents folder, right up there with “Friends’ Writing,” “Journalism,” “Journalism Archive,” “Recipes,” “Toyota,” (about our car), Lombardy (about our house, on Lombardy Drive), “Brain,” (about my tumor,) and so on. You may be wondering why I didn’t put “Guns” in “Journalism.” We’ll get there.

Then I created in the “Guns” folder the following folders: “Guns interviews,” “Guns documents,” “Guns interview requests,” and “Guns Proposal Drafts.”

I also created in that top “Guns” folder two crucial documents:* “Guns people to find” and “Guns things to get.”

Then I turned to the stack of newspapers and magazines that had discussed the increase in the number of people carrying guns (the articles that had convinced me that I could do a good piece about this) and started reading those articles carefully. This is the easy part; published journalism on your topic is laid out like a cruise-ship buffet, chockablock with names of people you’ll need to interview and documents you’ll need to acquire, who and which will lead you to more. Every time I hit a new name, I put it in the “Guns people to find ” file with a little information, like this: “Jack Barklow, Florida CCW” or “Sheila Graham, Brady Center.” or “Drew Cunningham, Johns Hopkins;” “Marc Rachlin,” Detroit PD, pro.” Like that. Every time I hit a potential document, I put that in the file “Guns things to get.” (“Hopkins study CCW & Crime,” “Joyce Foundation white paper on the castle doctrine,” “FL lege debate on CCW,”) and so on You with me? By the end of the morning, the “Guns People to Find” and “Guns Things to Get” were each a full page of densely packed single-space gleanings of either people or documents I was going to need.  The real work was about to begin. We’ll continue tomorrow.


*Lately I’ve been using Microsoft Word because that’s what we use at work, but I don’t much like it and prefer Apple’s Word processor, Pages. You’ll find online a vigorous discussion of the pros and cons of many word processors for either Mac or Windows.


In this recent post,  I advised “abject honesty” as a strategy, and several readers reacted positively to that. It surprised me that they felt it worth noting at all. Reminding journalists to be  brutally honest with their bosses, their editors, their readers, and themselves shouldn’t be necessary.  A single drop of deception can curdle a working relationship or scuttle a career, and as I suggest here, delivering unto your editor unpleasant news about a story’s progress early will not  diminish you in her eyes, but rather elevate you. We are journalists, after all, and we are asking our readers to take our word for it every minute of every day. We need to guard especially against self-deception, that tendency try to convince ourselves that the story is really as good as we thought it was when we pitched it, that we can fudge that interview since it’s off-the-record anyway, that this one big dinner check we’re submitting for reimbursement could as easily have been for lunch with a source…. You can see where this is going. If you stick to the absolute truth about everything, you never have to worry about keeping your story straight. Let on to an editor even once that you’re not always 100% honest and you’re finished at that magazine. Amazing to feel it necessary to remind journalists of this, but temptations loom. The smart and the strong resist. Christ; if you’re going to be slippery with the truth, go into advertising and get properly paid for your immortal soul. We freelancers don’t get rich, but the good ones among us have our virtue intact.