This morning I put my phone in the freezer.
I’d just arisen, I was pre-caffeinated, I’d just struggled out of a dream where I was being chased along Scarborough seafront by Darth Vader improbably clad in luminous Y-fronts (believe me, this was petrifying at the time), and thanks to some savage, awful weather, the house was gloomy and full of shadows. I fumbled my way downstairs, tripped over a pile of notebooks (setting my Mum’s dogs baying in terror) and lurched into the kitchen. I finished checking my phone for e-mail, opened the fridge, noticed we needed some milk from the freezer, went to the freezer and put my phone in it.
As indicators to my general mental state go, this one is probably right on the money. I’m clearly going nuts. I’m doing a lot of things at the moment and they’re driving me potty. Why? Partly a lack of boundaries. I’m incautiously let them blur into one long day of Varied Stuff. Not only is this contrary to my own advice about destroying the world in order to focus, it’s demoralizing and draining. For that reason, I’m hacking up my working day into manageable chunks, with each one separated by something that is most definitely not work (going for a walk in the driving rain until I can’t feel my legs, or playing guitar until I can’t avoid the fact I can’t really play guitar – stuff like that).
I’m also getting out into the world. It seems I’m not one of those writers who can happily lock himself into a silent room and churn out his best work. I need people around me. A few weeks back I spent a 4 hour train journey getting some writing work done, including this, and the rumble of the train seemed to unlock a lot more of my brain than expected. The same thing happened in a Starbucks in Durham (below). I need a certain amount of incoherent ambient noise.
According to Hans Villarica of the Atlantic, I’m not the only one.
It’s been 2 months since I quit my dayjob and became a fulltime writer. In that time I’ve been to Italy, spoken at a conference, flown back via the bumpiest flight of my life (which I was fine about – no, wait) and returned to build myself a steady, regular income from this writing lark.
I’m aware there are a fair few people who call by this blog to learn how a freelance writing career works. I usually scare them off by saying things like “hahahaha!” or “I’m wondering that myself – CAN YOU HELP ME?”, but since that doesn’t seem to satisfy them, I’m going with a different approach…
1. I’m Starting To Pitch Articles Like An Egomaniacal Fool
In “My Life In Stories” over at The Millions, Josh Rolnick has this to say about submitting work for publication, referring to the efforts of Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford:
The conventional wisdom (in 1970, but it’s no less true today) was that you wrote stories, sent them out to lit magazines, and gradually, as your writing improved, you moved up to the ladder. You became known. Eventually, if you persevered, you might land in the Atlantic or New Yorker….
“I began to resent what seemed to me the unprovable premise that there existed any useful structure or scheme of ascendable rungs whose rule was that my stories weren’t good enough at first but might be better later on,” he wrote, “and that I should have patience and go on surrendering myself to its clankings. What I felt was that I wanted my stories to be great stories, as good as could be written. And now. And if they weren’t (and they weren’t) that was my own business, my problem, not the concern of some system for orderly advancement in the literary arts.”
“What was out there,” Ford concluded, “is not a structure for writers to surrender to, but fidgety, dodgy chaos. And our privileged task is to force it, calm to our wills.”
The same, I think, applies to pitching. It’s easy to conclude you’re not good enough for a particular publication – that your time has not yet come, but someday, ah yes. This puts faith in the existence of a recognised ladder. Want to get into publication A+? You need a good A-grade and at least 3 B-grades under your belt, otherwise, forget it. Build that CV and pay your dues.
I’m pretty sure this is horseshit. It helps if you have a good CV, I’m sure – but from everything I’ve read of editorial work, it’s far from a requirement. The quality of your work will sell it, not your track record. And as for getting noticed? The absolute best way to get noticed by someone is to get rejected by them and just keep coming back for more. (Note, wannabe stalkers: this is a post about writing). Feeling brave enough to skip a few rungs? Do it. You may fail – in fact, if you’re pitching at the level you should be pitching at, you will regularly fail. This is how it is in the big leagues.
So I’m getting out there, submitting proposals that are way above my comfort zone, and I’m going to get rejection letters flung in my face, again and again, because it’s the only way to do it.
So let’s do it.
This is my short-term plan.
2. I’m building assets
Sean Platt is a smart man. His writing earn him money again and again. In The Digital Writer’s Guide To Building Assets (which is an absurd £1.97 on Amazon right now) he pulls together everything he’s done over the last few years to sell his words using the tools of the self-publishing revolution. It’s a short read (35 pages or so), but he pulls together everything I’ve seen people successfully doing inside and outside of travel blogging. In a word, “products”. Things that people buy because they are useful.
I have some ideas along these lines.
This is my medium-term plan.
3. I’m building a business
If you check out my portfolio on the Travelllll.com Job Board, you’ll see I’m now calling myself a consultant.
At TBU Umbria I was speaking about the importance of storytelling in every walk of human life, but particularly for anyone wanting to engage the interest of massive amounts of people. At TBU Porto in September I’ll be speaking again and expanding on this theme to look at personal branding…
Stories get things moved. They move products, from retailers to consumers. They move ideas around. They move people emotionally in a way numbers and logic never could. They underpin everything.
And the really fascinating thing about them is that they’re just a relatively small (if remarkably flexible) set of tools for getting into the heads of strangers – or more simply, they’re SEO for the human brain. Nothing mystical or inhumanly complicated. There are basic patterns, essential techniques and little tricks that work on us, again and again. For reasons that are currently lost to us, we all respond to stories in pretty much the same ways, as if we’re hard-wired to be suckers that never truly wise up.
Since Christmas I’ve been looking at the work of narrative consultants around the world. Some are embedded inhouse in some of the world’s biggest companies, steering a brand’s story and managing the public delivery of it in chapter-sized chunks. Some work freelance, serving the education sector, small businesses, the military, videogame designers (like Manchester’s International Hobo). In each case, they’re working to create products that sell. Storytelling, like strong writing, isn’t just a nice thing to be able to bolt onto a brand or a service to give it added credibility – it’s how it gets sold in the first place.
This is half of my long term plan. (The other half? Telling stories).
I intend to have lots of fun.
First up, you’ll be seeing my writeup of my TBU Umbria speech, a free handout giving an overview of the role of storytelling in the modern world, along with a number of powerful techniques writers of all kinds can apply to get people hooked. That’s coming as soon as I possible can manage, if my house isn’t blown away by the hurricane moaning at my window right now. In the meantime, you’ll find me writing about storytelling in this ‘ere blog. The latest such post is “10 Ways To Start A Story“.
And otherwise at Fevered Mutterings? I’ve barely begun writing about Umbria (although I have begun missing it dreadfully). I still have things to say about my trip to Austria last year and my time in Berlin in March. And there are other things I have planned that are just too bizarre to be summed up without the aid of alcohol. It’s all going on.
So anyway, how have you been?
And…you haven’t seen my phone, have you?