Home / The Freelance Life: Publish or Perish

The Freelance Life: Publish or Perish

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The empty mailbox is the bane of every aspiring writer; as dreaded as the legendary writer’s block. For an unpublished author, even finding yet another rejection letter in your mailbox in response to yet another of your precious “babies” — your beloved manuscripts or proposals — being launched into the cruel world to test their wings would at least be proof that you indeed exist. The rejection letter (and there are varying degrees thereof, some better than others) signfies that you ARE a writer, that your words are being received and responded to by another entity, instead of existing in a limbo-like void! Sadder is the mailbox filled only with bills and junk mail because the would-be writer has never sent a single query or manuscript to an editor for consideration in the first place.

When I was first trying to get my articles published, I experienced a daily mailbox angst. Back then, e-mailing back and forth to editors was not an option, at least not for me. I had an old battleaxe of a PC, but no connection to the Internet, which had not yet reached the user-ubiquitousness it has achieved today. So it was the old snail mail agony — and snail mail from editors could often mean weeks, if not months, of waiting for a reply.

As a newbie, I struggled mostly on my own. Since I wrote “propaganda” for a living for a nonprofit organization, I knew how to write. I could craft the blab-vertising for the Man, all right — you’d be surprised at just how many different ways there are to say something is wonderful, marvelous, flawless, and the best in the land — but for many years never really dreamed of writing freelance, for newspapers, with a byline.

About 18 years ago, I had my first hypomanic attack, and it was a doozy. I started hatching multiple schemes — get married and have a huge reception, teach an editing class, go for a second master’s (or a second and third simulaneously), convince my Luddite boss to explore computer applications for our office as of yesterday, and on and on. But of all the ideas that popped into my fevered noggin’ at the time, the one that bore the most delicious fruit was my decision to take a journalism course through my alma mater.

Although I had received an MA in English through this same university, this particular course did more to help me understand newspaper and magazine publishing than any class I’d ever taken before.

The professor was a great, affable guy with a lot of publishing creds under his belt. He had a bulletin board called the Wailing Wall where he posted rejection letters, including his own. He started the first class with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Since, except for my paying gig, I’d only done academic writing up til then — the kind that only other academics read when they needed some footnotes for their own papers — the idea of getting a byline and getting paid for the effort was a new venture for me.

We were taught how to research a publication we were interested in by requesting a media kit (meant for potential advertisers), which would give us inside info about the publication’s demographics, philosophy, and other nuggets of wisdom so that we could determine if our piece or idea would be a good “fit” for that particular publication. This was crucial, since one of most newbies’ biggest mistakes is submitting a piece or idea to an inappropriate market, wasting their precious time as well as the editor’s.

I learned that for nonfiction work submitted to newspapers and magazines, the professional writer will often submit a query letter rather than the entire manuscript. This letter gives the editor a little tease — telling them what the author has in mind in brief and an idea of their style, as well as the author’s qualifications for writing the story, their previous publishing experience, if any, and other info. From there — especially if one has composed a killer query — one may get an invitation from the editor to submit the proposed piece for publication.

The prof granted an automatic A to anyone who could get an acceptance from a paying market. I submitted three queries. One of these was to the late, great Spy Magazine. I received a personal reply — not a form rejection letter — that said something kind about my submission, but regretted that they could not use it. I can’t remember anything about the second.

With my third query, I got a much more favorable response. The letter, sent to an editor at the Village Voice, was a proposal for a humorous piece about a “lingerie party” I had inadvertently attended at my now ex- boyfriend’s sister’s house on Long Island. This is very similar to a Tupperware party, except that the hostess hawks cheezy underthings with names like “Kiss Me,” “Thrill Me,” and “Take Me,” rather than the microwaveable two-quart container or the jumbo multi-piece all-purpose food storage system.

Since my query provided an example of my style and humorous take on the proposed story, the Voice editor wrote back and said that although this topic had been done to death and she could not run with it, she really liked my style and would welcome further ideas from me.

This could have been my entree into writing for a major NYC alternative paper (which would, no doubt, pay me something for my efforts and give me that much-coveted byline every writer craves.) But shortly thereafter, I descended into a deep depression and my rejection/acceptance letter was filed away.

Years later, most probably in another hypomanic state, I decided to resume my writing in earnest. I managed to get a short piece run in the “Metropolitan Diary” section of the New York Times, as well as winning a New York Press “Best of New York” reader’s essay contest and getting a piece run there, too. I did not receive payment for either of these little essays, but I was thrilled nonetheless. I had my first published “clips” – and they were good. They would serve me well when I submitted other proposals or pieces to editors to demonstrate I knew how to do it up right.

Then followed a long struggle to get more pieces in print. I read all the books I could find, and kept sending out queries. For some, I received personal responses, but nothing seemed to click. Then I heard of a continuing ed course taught by Susan Shapiro, a terrific writing teacher who was also a prolific freelancer with many NYC pub credits to her name.

I took several courses with Susan, and they were indeed the beginning of a very successful freelance run. For one of her courses, she invited an editor from a different publication each week, who gave us the inside scoop on what they were looking for, and how to approach the publication with queries and manuscripts. Sue urged us to send a follow-up thank you note to editors we were interested in writing for, and also enclose any clips we had, a formal query, and maybe a new writing sample.

I did this for two editors from major NYC papers, including the New York Times, and established a long fruitful freelance relationship with both. I had over 90 pieces publlshed in about 18 months for these two papers and another local rag that let me write on just about any idea I could come up with. I did music and book reviews and features, as well as a few humorous essays. I had arrived — a real published writer at last, paid for her efforts!

I finally abandoned the freelance gig in exhaustion since I was also still doing my 9 to 5 writing, and along with a brand new relationship, it just became too much. However, about ten months ago I started a blog under a pseudonym so I could write about anything that came into my hypomanic little mind, without an editor or client looking over my shoulder and advising me on style, length, tone, subject matter, or intended audience. I’ve discovered that the joy I get from this unfettered self-expression is something that no money can buy.

Free at last, free at last, great Editor almighty, I’m free at last!

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About Elvira Black

  • Good to see you found your niche. But I’m living proof that it works the other way around, too: blogging can lead to freelance opportunities. I was actually approached by an editor to write sports columns for a weekly tabloid. It was a direct result of Futon Report — he liked it enough to give me a shot.

    It also helped that there’s not a big market for Toledo sports blogs. (There may not be another active one out there).

    So Elvira, you were sure lost in the pond when trying to make it as a freelancer in the NYC market. Yeesh. I would have given up sooner than you.

  • Matthew:

    Yes, it’s really exciting to know that you CAN do it the other way around–and sometimes both ways!

    I didn’t really give up once I got established, since I was doing pretty well–I just finally quit in part so I could try to have some sort of a life. Deadlines at my nine to five job, then more deadlines with my freelance stuff–but I did have a load of fun, and I’m sure I can always go back to it (gulp) if I ever felt the overwhelming need to do so.

    Congrats on your success–it is great to have a niche! Tres cool.

  • I have a “success” story similar to Matt’s — I got freelanced after an editor found my blog, here on BC, actually. I think the road to success is different for everyone. Some people take route like you, Elvira, others go the route Sussman took, and others, like me, just kind of stumble into it. But hey, whatever works, right?

  • Chelsea, that is awesome! I think BC is a great place for writers to showcase their work. That must have been so wonderful to just have an editor approach you rather than vice versa, which is much more humbling and stress inducing–lol…

  • At first you think you get the e-mail by mistake.

  • Yeah, I ignored the e-mail from my editor at first (sorry Lori!) just because based on the subject line I figured it was just another mass email sent to all the journalism students! Glad I finally got bored and opened all my email!

  • Matthew:

    I can just imagine how it must have felt–when I had my first piece published I was walking on air for days, if not months…better than the best high…lol…

  • Chelsea:

    That is so ironic but in the best way. I did something similar but for totally different reasons. I was so eager to get published and so tired of rejection letters that sometimes I’d get a response in the mail and wait a day or two to open the letter because I hoped it would be good news and I didn’t want to be disappointed too soon. Sad but true…

  • I’m still in high school, but the one freelance type thing that I’ve done resulted in a successful story for the now-defunct New York publication The Black Table. I should see about getting into the fray again, it’s a lot of fun.

    Good article, Ms. Black!

  • Sam:

    That was a great, funny story! Any state that originated something as incredible as White Castle is ok by me…lol…

    Anyone still in high school who’s getting their articles published in journals and writing for BC seems virtually destined for some pretty successful times ahead. Congrats!

  • This post is right on time for me. Another one in the hole for you!

  • Hey Berry:

    Thanks! I’m glad you liked it…I tried to click on your link but couldn’t connect…

  • Thanks so much for mentioning your good luck in my class! (It came up on a google search.) Check out my new book ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR WORD: WRITING LESSONS FROM MY FAVORITE LITERARY GURUS (Seal Press.) I have upcoming events 9/19, 9/26, 9/28, 10/2 all listed on my website susanshapiro.net