Illustration by Demian Johnston for City Arts
Coming up with good ideas for magazine columns isn’t easy. Still, I’d rather do it myself.
When I tell people that I’m a freelance writer, the usual response is one of dumb amazement. “That’s it? You just sit there, think stuff up and write it down? And they pay you for that?!”
Well, yes. If you call this a living.
After getting their minds around the concept of submitting proposals to magazine editors in order to get assignments, my inquisitors quickly move into the story-pitching phase. “You know what you should write about?” Do tell. “I picked up my dry cleaning the other day and it was, like, sixty-five dollars. That’s crazy-expensive, right? What are they doing in there? You can have the idea if you want.”
The only time I get upset with people telling me what to write about is when the idea has already been turned into a bestseller. “It would be cool to write a story about all the people you might run into when you get to heaven, you know? After you die and stuff?”
Yeah, it’s called The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, that guy who also wrote Tuesdays with Morrie. Which it also would have been a good idea for me to write.
All I ask is that you do your research, people! You don’t see me walking into my accountant’s office and telling her how to do her job. “You know what you should do? Use one of those computer programs that helps with tax stuff. I just can’t believe you get paid for this.”
Not all the ideas lobbed my way are bad ones. In fact, many actually could be sold to editors. I’m sure the way your five-year-old uses toothpaste to compose watercolors, for example, is interesting to someone. Pitch it to Martha Stewart Living, perhaps. Or Modern Dentist.
Stusser’s current assignments with looming deadlines:
“Parentricity” blog post
Mental Floss column
Parent Map column
Seattle Business Monthly column
City Arts (Eastside)
Java Jive column
Cheat Sheets, a New York Times syndicate
Essay on riding along with cops for Washington Law & Politics
I did recently sell a friend’s pitch to a legal magazine: a story about an organization that takes money from corporate law firms and then pays recent graduates to work for nonprofits. I gave him 20 percent. Maybe that was unnecessary: it was his organization.
When people talk to me about their desire to write, I try to be encouraging. I listen patiently to the woman who used to keep a diary but hasn’t written anything in decades. I nod empathetically when the guy at the bar goes on about the novel that burns in his brain and makes him want to take up arms against the government. And I clap my cousin on the shoulder as he goes on (for the fourteenth time) about the screenplay he’s (still) fine-tuning about an alien who works in a car wash. Everybody’s got a story, blah, blah, blah.
The missing link is that these people DON’T WRITE ANYTHING DOWN.
It’s true: if you own a pen, you can be a writer. Shakespeare may have had all sorts of ideas about kings, Capulets and cross-dressing. But if he (or someone using his name) hadn’t put them on parchment, no one would ever have heard of him. Stories, essays, screenplays, notes, skits, concepts for board games or plans for a flying machine – get them out of your noggin ?and onto the notepad.
The most important time to write something down is when you want to sell your work. That way you’ll actually have something to show editors, directors or randomly encountered celebrities (Oprah, it’s me, Michael!). Though it may seem as if this column was dreamt up in an overcaffeinated stream-of-consciousness frenzy, it was actually culled, pondered, outlined, drafted, fleshed out, edited and reworked for several weeks before arriving in your free magazine.
The bennies of freelance work are many: my schedule is my own, I don’t work in a cubicle, I get to see my essays in print and I don’t work with too many idiots. (Note to editor: I’m referring here to the guys at the other magazine.) The cons include lack of health care, modest pay and the occasional fear I may be hit in the head and have my ideas cease.
I’m not cryin’ in my martini – in fact, the ability to do my job in a bar is maybe the best benefit of all. I’m just saying that, though there’s not a lot of coin coming in, the freelance game is still a professional job.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have eight hundred words due tomorrow and I’ve still got to figure out why dry cleaning is so damned expensive.