Dan Baum and the half-empty glass

Dan Baum, a writer who’s worked for Esquire and The New Yorker, talked with the Renegade Writer blog about freelancing and the future of the magazine business.

A couple things caught my eye. First, I always feel a bit lost when I’m working on a freelance piece and someone I’m interviewing asks me who I’m writing for. I always feel a bit sheepish saying it’s a freelance article that doesn’t have a home yet. Baum, a big advocate of writing a piece for a specific target magazine, has another approach:

When you are calling people and you don’t have an assignment yet, how do you convince them to talk to you?
I say, “I’m working on a story for The New York Times Magazine.” Or “I’m working on a story for Wired magazine.”

So you don’t let them know you don’t have the assignment in hand?
No, I say I’m working on a story for Wired magazine and I am. My relationship with Wired magazine at that point is none of their business.

What do you do if they ask when the publication date is?
I say “I don’t know, that’s out of my hands; it’s above my pay grade.”

He also has some bleak things to say about the current state of writing for magazines:

Do you worry about competition — other writers coming in and horning in on your gigs?
No. For one thing, we’re kind of out of magazines. I think in a way, it’s over. I think the days of being able to make a living as a magazine writer are rapidly coming to a close.

That is so sad.
It is. I’m not boasting here, but I should be able to get work, right? I was on staff to The New Yorker for 3 years, I worked for Rolling Stone for a long time. I have written for the biggest and most prestigious magazines out there and I can’t get work. Magazines are closing, they’re shrinking, they’re going from 12 issues a year to 10 issues a year, and they’re going from 300 pages to 140 pages.

Anyway… interesting, motivating, and despressing, all in one tidy little article.  Check it out.

Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Two, P.M.

Over lunch, a bunch of strangers and I tried to figure out how to save the newspaper business. We didn’t succeed in finding a solution, but the brownies were quite tasty.

For the first afternoon session, went to “Conversation on Craft” on Magazines. The conversation focused on this powerful feature story from the New Yorker: The Last Tour by William Finnegan. Interesting session, from which my biggest take away is that William Finnegan is a hell of writer.

The second afternoon session was a tough call. I wanted to attend five of the seven sessions, but ultimately wound up in Tom French’s talk on “getting organized, mapping a story, finding a structure.” This handout is a great summary. Again, I was really impressed with Tom French. A few interesting tidbits you won’t find on the handout:

  • Cover of 'D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics'The best book on structure, according to French, is the D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Seriously.
  • Readers are smarter and more open to new approaches than we think. Reader are often ready for a lot more than editors and writers expect. The conventional wisdom about what they read or won’t read is often wrong. Sometimes, you can bury the lede and the world wont come to the end…
  • Even great writers often think their work sucks, especially when their working on it. It is common, he says, to be frequently “fighting off panic and terror.” “It’s good to be scared,” French says. “That means that you’re pushing yourself.”
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Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Two, A.M.

The Keynote session to kick off Day Two was a discussion with author and writer for the New YorkerJon Lee Anderson.  To me, it seemed like a little too much fawning over Anderson.  Felt like I was watching “Inside the Actor’s Studio”…  Despite that, I did take away a few morsels of value from Anderson’s talk.  

First was the idea that he often learned a lot about the meaning of his own life’s experiences through the act of writing itself.  

Second, he talked about “going the distance” as a reporter.  By that, he meant that you have to keep researching, keep interviewing, keep talking to people, even when you’d rather quit and take a shortcut.  If you feel like there is still more to try and unearth, you have to pursue it.  His example was illustrative:  when researching his book on Che Guevara, he almost didn’t bother to interview an old Bolivian military officer, but dragged himself over to do it.  That man, at the end of a long interview, admitted to Che’s murder and revealed the fate of his body, which had long been a mystery.

Following that, I sat in on “From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary: Mining narrative gold in the everyday” (perhaps the longest title for any session at the conference).  Interesting, well-organized panel on how three writers — Katy Butler, Louise Kiernan, and Victor Merina — developed feature articles, selecting scenes, developing structure, and spending time with their subjects.

Moderator Christine Larson kicked off the discussion with a great analogy comparing the writing process to romance. You fall in love with an idea, and fall even deeper in love with the story as you report it and talk to people and collect material for it. But then when you take it home to try and write it up, the romance fades away and you’re stuck in a troubled relationship with something that drives you crazy. I’m not doing justice to Larson’s entertaining set up, but you get the idea…

Some important ideas I took away from this session:

  • Kiernan talked about the importance of being “willing to embrace the gray” in our storytelling; that is, be willing to accept and write about complexity. It’s easy as writers to try and tidy up reality into a nice package, but sometimes, reality is ambiguous and unresolved, and our job is to present that in all it’s maddening grayness.
  • Merina described his process of visualizing his stories on paper and mapping them out, literally, so that you can step back and look at them, seeing where themes and content overlap, and where there are clear holes and missing spots that need to be filled.
  • Butler explained the idea of looking for turning points and key moments in your stories, then walking backward from those spots to construct a compelling narrative structure
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