Sager Says—My Unlikely Conversation with a Best-Selling Author

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It was by design that I was at Mike Sager’s talk with Chuck Klosterman on the University of Arizona campus during last month’s book fair. It was also by design that I harassed ever single writer and editor at the event that I could get to bend an ear in my direction.

It was completely by chance, however, that I actually got one of them to not just hear me for a moment, but to actually talk to me in their free time. Woah.

Perhaps it was because I promised to buy one of his books (which I eventually did), but when I asked Mike Sager for advice or (yeah right) help with my writing career, I was stunned when he (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed to hear me out. I was knocked on my ass when he later agreed to talk with me on the phone. Imagine—little nobody freelancer Craig talking with a big-shot writer for Esquire Magazine. The guy has won awards. He was a peer of Hunter S. Thompson, for God’s sake, so as a writer, I am not fit to lick the mud off of this man’s boots. But, believe it or not, most writers, it turns out, were once nobody nothing freelancers just like me and they, too, had to put a little extra elbow grease into paying their dues in order to finally get noticed.

Mike, like a lot of other writers from the last generation of greats (Mike is known as the “American Beat Poet of Journalism), got his start young working for a newspaper. That mike sagerpaper just happened to be the Washington Post. Once he had proven himself indispensable there (and this is what he says you’ve got to do to keep getting the big stories), the door opened itself to bigger and better things.

But it was persistence, confidence, and perhaps even a little bit of measured arrogance that kept those doors open. Mike explained to me in his slow style of speaking that somehow melded both Californian and Brooklyn dialects that he used what charms he had to his advantage—being a small guy allowed him to approach men that would have perhaps been intimidated by guys bigger than he was. “Oh, girls love me too,” he said, largely because he made himself so deliberately approachable. The reason he ended up forming his own publishing group after years working as a journalist—“I just got tired of hearing no all of the time (from editors)”.

In lieu of the daily reporting jobs, Mike advises you find a way in to your alternative weeklies, your local lifestyle magazine, and whatever bylines you can get. Can’t find a place to publish? Put it online. The point is, he told me, (and I paraphrase here) that as a writer there are going to be a lot of times when it all feels too tough—like nobody cares about you or your work and that all of your hard work to date has been for naught.  But for the writers that find success, this can’t be a stopping point.

You have to get out there. Pursue the stories that mean something to you, assignment or not. Make connections, get out and do the leg work, send out queries, then send out more queries. You have to keep on working, even when it feels like the entire industry is working against you. “You know, it’s weird,” said Sager, “that these editors are so overloaded with queries and people that want to write for them that they can get overwhelmed—but they are always looking for good people—people they can trust to do the work and do it well.”

As a writer, you need to know that a ‘no’ is not always a no, but more often than not, it is more like a “try again.” If an editor didn’t want to give you the time of day, you wouldn’t even get a proper rejection. So save your ‘no’s’ in your contact list and put together a new query for those editors—do some research and make sure this one is better than the last. Knock that editors Goddamn socks off and take the nail polish with ‘em. Keep at it until you do and the ‘yes’s’ will come. Eventually.

Until that day, I can only follow (and, I suppose, share) the most poignant piece of advice given to me in my forty-minute conversation with Mr. Sager, and this one really is a direct quote. “You’ve gotta produce like a motherfucker,” he told me.

And so I am.

Check out Mike Sager’s website for some valuable tips for writers or read his latest book, The Someone You’re Not (available on Amazon) for insight into creating stellar pieces of “Journalistic Anthropology”, or just for a great read.

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I used to shudder when I heard the word—WEBSITE. Ugh. I knew I needed one. I knew they were expensive. And I knew that there was no way in hell that I would be able to build a decent site myself. People pay thousands of dollars for those things, after all, right?

WRONG! I mean, yes, people used to pay oodles and oodles of money to have a decent website made, hosted, and managed, and at the time it was worth it. Having your own website meant that you were ahead of the curve. It showed that you were professional, you paid attention to your image, and frankly, that you had some disposable income which allowed you to afford said site—an indicator of success.

A good website with a strong domain name (like YOURNAME.com) still looks more professional than a social media page or blog. And it still shows that you care about your image. Web design has become so accessible and easy, though, that having a website no longer puts you ahead of the professional writing curve—now it simply means that you’ve caught up.

Having a good-looking website is essential for driving potential clients to your portfolio. Really, I would go so far as to say that a good website is even more important than a business card—at least your website can’t be thrown away. And if anything, that business card is going get a lead to your site to look over your portfolio long before they attempt to contact, or for that matter, hire you.

Now, with respect to design, don’t start sweating yet. A number of web hosting companies (like GoDaddy.com) have made it easy and now offer simple drag-and-drop website builders with a large selection of customizable templates. Don’t tell anyone, but this was how I made my site (www.CraigSBaker.com). Check it out and let me know what you think. Also, if you have any questions about how I went about making my site, please feel free to ask. I will respond directly to you myself within a couple of days.

There are a million marketing professionals and coaches out there telling you that you can build a home business nowadays without spending any money out of pocket.       Where this may be true if you are a computer genius with loads and loads of excess memory from which you can host your own website, this is, in general, a misleading concept.

Everything costs money, and this is still true of websites. But fortunately, over the last several years the cost of having your own website, complete with email and a custom domain, has been shaved down to the bare minimum. Look around for deals online—I know GoDaddy is running a special right now that will get you a domain, a website builder and template, and an email address for an entire year for just $12. Mine even came with $100 of advertising credit. So, unless you are literally overdrawn in your bank account and late on your billing cycles, you really have no excuse not to get on that. Seriously. (If you really can’t afford $12, wix.com offers free websites, and you can upgrade your domain here at a later date).

A professional looking website can be the make-or-break difference to a client—even the best portfolio on earth is doing nothing for your career if nobody can find it. As such, this one simple addition to your marketing arsenal can take you from the level of ambitious amateur to up-and-coming professional instantly, and trust me on this—it will be the easiest and most worthwhile promotion you have ever given yourself.

9 Ways to Break a Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block: we all get it. The question is how do you deal with it? Here are a few exercises to get your mind jogged in those times when you find yourself struggling to get the words on paper.

 

1)      FREE WRITE

I know it may sound silly, but just getting your mind in a place where it is ready to start channeling ideas through your pen can be really helpful, even if what you produce is not. Grab a piece of scrap paper and just write something. Anything. Whatever comes to mind. My free writes usually start with something like “OK, so I am stuck again and so here I find myself free writing.” It’s like talking your ideas out with yourself without the threat of looking like an absolute loony, or worse, a jerk using a Blue Tooth in public.

 

2)      WRITE A SCENE USING ONLY DIALOG

This is a challenging exercise that can sharpen your skills as a writer while you are trying to stir up some new ideas. Focus on a real conversation you heard in public or one you had with a friend. The cadence of writing real dialogue may well help you to find a rhythm that helps you in your more serious writing endeavors.

 

3)      RE-WRITE AN OLD SCENE FROM A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Drag one of your old works out of the closet and look at it with fresh eyes. Toy with new perspectives, voices, or points-of-view in the piece. You may find yourself breathing new life into something you once thought tired, or at the very least, you will be providing your brain with very valuable, novel information on work you have already produced. Don’t have anything written to look at? Re-work your favorite classic essay or short story in a similar fashion.

 

4)      WRITE A TWEET-LENGTH NON-FICTION PIECE

Sometimes all you need to get moving is a little bit of confidence, and completing a piece in less than 5 minutes may just be the boost you have been waiting for. The journal Creative Non-Fiction actually publishes a handful of these little gems in their quarterly issues. Worth looking at if nothing else.

 

5)      START A DISCUSSION

Take advantage of those social media platforms and get some people talking. Linked In groups, Facebook, and Twitter all provide forums for writers to talk with other writers about whatever they choose. Use it—you just may be pleasantly surprised.

 

6)      GO OUTSIDE

Take a walk and look around you. Listen to the sounds and voices, look closely at the objects, plants, buildings, and people around you. Think about how you might describe those things in prose. Bring a notebook if you like or just absorb it all until you get home and make notes then. The world outside, believe it or not, is often a better place to look for inspiration than even the internet.

 

7)      READ SOMETHING NEW

Introduce yourself to a new writer or author and study their style. Try writing a paragraph emulating that style and compare your work to the original.

 

8)      READ SOMETHING OLD

Re-read something you love and pay attention to what it is you love about it. Is it the language? The imagery? Are you fascinated or in love with a particular character? What about them draws you in? Examining the work you admire in a critical way is a great way to sharpen your own skill sets.

 

9)      WATCH A BAD MOVIE OR TV SHOW

Again, this one is about confidence. Some of the stuff out there for which people are actually being paid is downright bad. Take it in and take some of that pressure to perform off of yourself.

 

We writers often feel some intense duty to create and a lull in that process can be maddening. But relax. Even the greatest of the great writers were human—they too had off days, though we do not read about those as often as the good ones. If all else fails, do something else. Just like trying to remember where you put your car keys, those great ideas will probably refuse to reveal themselves to you until you are elbow-deep in dishwater.

Happy Writing.

5 Tips To Help You Become a Successful Freelance Writer and Editor

You love to write. Though you may not be a professional, you are dedicated writer. You get up in the middle of the night to jot down story ideas and have even called in to work because you “got the bug”. There has got to be a way to get paid for this, right?

Right! Though the world of freelance writing is competitive, if approached in the right way by a dedicated individual it can also be extremely lucrative. So what are the steps you need to take to start making an income doing what you love? I’m glad you asked.

1)      Research.

The best way to know where your writing will fit in a paying market is to take a look at the material they are currently publishing. Go out and pick up a few copies of your local publications. Get a feel for their individual styles, the voice they use, the general length of the articles, the subject matter they prefer, and see if they have contact info for the editors inside (usually on the “Contents” page or near the back). Do the same for online publications. Maybe you can suggest a piece for a specific section or regular column—knowledge  of the publication(s) you are querying will go a long way.

2)      Reach Out

Tell your friends, family, and colleagues of your intentions to become a professional freelancer. Who knows—you may know someone that needs copy written for a website,  a brochure made, or who happens to be the editor of a major magazine.

Besides, you are not likely to find any work if nobody knows you are looking for it. Use social media, and if you are not on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, make your profile(s) for each one now. No really, now, in a separate window. No excuses.

3)      Brand Yourself

No, not literally—I mean create a unified professional image. What does that mean exactly? Well, clean yourself up and make sure you dress to impress in public, but also be sure to create a basic marketing package for yourself. Handing someone a professional-looking business card with your contact info and website will dazzle in comparison to ripping off a piece of the newspaper you are reading to scrawl out your email address for a potential client. Vistaprint.com offers 250 full-color cards at no charge to anyone. Just pay shipping.

The second part of that package is your website. Don’t panic yet—it can be very basic. You just need a page that tells a little bit about yourself (your background, and the services you offer), another page with a few samples on it, and one more with your contact info. The goal of your website is to make it easy for potential clients to get in touch with you and to see samples of your work, so these three basic pages posted publically on your own website are an essential piece of any professional freelancers marketing arsenal.

Do some rooting around the web to find great deals on hosting and domains. Find a drag-and-drop website creator that will take the pain out of building a website. I suggest starting with Wix.com and GoDaddy.com for an intro to web building and hosting.

4)      Write.

Basically, you have to do the work to get the work.

Blogs are great for this. The freedom inherent in the format is fun and, as long as you keep yourself posting regularly, you are demonstrating to potential clients that you are dedicated to the craft and that you can create original content consistently. WordPress and Blogger offer quality platforms that integrate easily with most web builders. Make sure your blog is linked to your website and vice versa.

5)      Reach Out Further

You have done the research. You have the samples. Now it is time to put your ideas to work!

Take a few of your blog ideas and pitch them as story ideas to paying markets. Draw upon your research to decide where to send each story idea and to whom you should address the query.

A quick note on queries—be concise, yet thorough. Include a VERY brief introduction about yourself, a headline, a brief summary of the article including sources and experts you might interview (if possible), and an approximate word count. Some pros suggest including multiple story ideas in your query letters, which I will not advise against.

Expect rejection, but be persistent. “No’s” may lead to other opportunities or even unrelated assignments. As long as you show that you are passionate, dedicated, and professional you have an advantage over a majority of the other queries those editors are reading on a daily basis.

So there you have it—everything you need to get started on your new career doing what you love. Please feel free to offer any pointers you might pick up along the way as I am still learning myself, and KEEP ON WRITING!

Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare Made Easy– Picking a Specialty Stress-Free

zoo bday 2012 082 Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in my professional career. With the launch of this blog post, I will have completed the finishing touches on my new website (www.CraigSBaker.com) and officially made my profile available to the masses– an intimidating thought, to say the least.

As such, I felt it important to draw everything together with respect to my image as a professional writer, editor, and copywriter. This blog is the culmination of that effort.

The time stamp on this blog post will forever mark the moment that I, traditionally a generalist in every sense of the word, will give myself a topic of specialization and take that leap feared by every writer, author, marketing or public relations professional, filmmaker, and artist alike.

I owe the decision, and the confidence I needed to make it, to a video posted by PR Wiz Brendon Burchard on how to position yourself as an expert in your field (Click Here). I recommend watching it if you are looking into going into business for yourself in any capacity.

What I realized while watching that video is that, though I may not be the world’s foremost expert on freelancing (yet!), I do already know a thing or two about getting started. After all, I have landed several lucrative and repetitive contracts, formed a relationship with the editor of a well-respected magazine in my home town, been in contact with just about every other editor in a 50-mile radius, set up two websites, made marketing material for myself, and held literally weeks-worth of non-stop professional correspondence– a heck of a leg-up for any fledgling freelancer, I would say. I may not have the coveted dollar-a-word blog offers yet, but I am helping to pay the bills at home. And since a good writing gig pays about 3-5 times what my last customer service job payed hourly, I have found time everyday to  keep on top of my housework as well.

In all honesty, I am not getting rich. Not by any standard. But I do have the best job on earth– getting paid to do what I love!

So how, you may be asking, can you do the same thing for yourself?

First off, YOU JUST NEED TO START WRITING! Start today. Start now. Go and get yourself a blog if you don’t have one– open a new tab in your browser, go to WordPress.com and register. No, really. I’ll wait. It’s free and if you are reading this post, I know you have the spare time.

Once you are comfortable with your blog format, read some blogs by other people that interest you. Make notes to immulate your favorites and put up one post tonight. Then one a week for a month or two. Don’t worry about picking your specialty– just write about what comes naturally. Once I had a medium for free writing, I found that my mind was always open to story ideas and, over time, coming up with article pitches simply became part of my regular thought processes. Share your posts with your friends and family and ask for feedback. Make sure you ask for honest feedback and take all criticism as compliment– after all, a critique is simply testifying to your level of toughness in telling you how bad you really are.

Then, sit back and review. What do you write about the most? What topics always seem to draw you in? What blogs are you following and who do you like to comment on the most? If you have put in the work you are likely to find that your specialty has been calling to you the entire time. My personal posts and interests, for instance, always seemed to lead me back to the same thing– HOW TO BECOME A BETTER WRITER.

And so here I am, writing about it. When I left the mall to work in the written word, it was scary. The big dogs occupy a lot of space in the field already, and pushing your way in hardly seems like an option. So I say don’t push. Do what you love and your experience will come organically, and it is precisely that experience that will see you develop from amateur to expert. If you find yourself writing and you don’t love it, then stop. Don’t force it– if it feels disingenuous it will sound that way to your readers. Take a break, try a different voice, a new topic or a new format altogether– video montage, podcast, audio journalism, digital photography, whatever.

When you finally do find the thing that you want to learn more about just because it excites you, or that goal that  you want to keep pursuing despite the fact that nobody is paying you to do so, you can stop looking.

Once that happens, it is time to write about it. So do that, and get back to work.