The Web
Post Categories
Buy my book!
Avia S-199 in Israeli Air Force Service

Archive for May 2007

Chicken head

Found and reattached, at least for the weekend.

Wednesday, I attended a production meeting at Alex’s and met our DOP, Mark Adam, for the first time. Nice guy. We set the shooting schedule, and I got a handful more work to do there and in ensuing e-mail conversations.

Thursday, I attended a gathering at the NFB. Representatives from BravoFACT (Which is the agency funding Alex’s short), the Canada Council for the Arts, and the NFB’s Filmmaker Assistance Program talked about funding shorts.

A year or two ago, I thought it might be a good idea to take a swing tune from the Disciples of Ursula Big Band and create around it a flight video made of mechanima (animation using video games). The thought simmered, and I wondered if I could get funding for a legitimate 3-D animation. My idea right now is to use a chunk of my “101” screenplay, polish it into a standalone story, and use it as a calling card. The band wins, I win, and the whole world is richer for it.

There’s only one problem. Writers don’t matter and almost certainly won’t get funded. I need to sell a producer on this.

Mark has directed dozens of BravoFACT shorts, and a feature. I’m hoping to throw my idea against him and see if it’s sticky. He’s an airplane nut, too.

Back to Alex’s story…. You can see some of my work online. I was sent to scout locations in the Plateau area. Alex’s preferred choice may not work with respect to the time we have to shoot and the height of the sun in the sky. If you want to take a look, you can see my craftsmanship here. Beware, phone-modem users, it contains 15 photos of about 2 MB each.

You know, someone industrious could upload those photos to Google Earth….

Bonus pet update for Joy:

We lost the last fish today. We are now a mammal-only household, with the exception of some insects and other arthropods. We have a few too many mammals, in fact. We discovered more mouse droppings behind the television cabinet.

Break out the traps!

Freelancing follow-up

I didn’t receive permission to post this follow-up to Roblimo’s advice in time to include it in yesterday’s post. This list comes from Esther Schindler, tech journalist/chocoholic.

I also do think that we need more. There are a bunch of things that you didn’t address – topics that, as an editor, I’m wishing that more freelancers understood.

* When I invite you, the freelancer, to pitch articles to me, I expect that you’ll spend a bit of time researching the publication (or at least its online site). I have the expectation that a freelancer will want to create an ongoing relationship with me, as an editor who can be a regular supplier of those fancy pieces of paper called “checks”, so it behooves you to learn the publication’s “voice” as soon as possible. I don’t mean just in the way of style, but recognize (or ask) “who is the reader?” I just had a freelancer pitch me a well thought out article that could be great to read, but is utterly useless to the readers of my publication. (If you can’t tell from the publication, or honestly can’t get your hands on it, it’s fine for you to ask who the reader is and what he cares about. This is one way to get into my good graces, as it shows me that you’re thinking about the correct issues.)

* If I ask you to provide me with a few article pitches, they should be specific and at least a bit thought out. You don’t have to know exactly which products you’ll include in your review, for example, but you should at least be able to say, “Several vendors are promising solutions to the old problem of [whatever], and at least a few are offering products under $100. I’d like to take a look at them and see whether they deliver what they promise.” If you can name names, great – but it’s always a good idea to err on the side of specificity. What I don’t want to see are vague ideas like, “I could write something about storage.” Once we have a working relationship, that might be feasible; at that point we’ll brainstorm based on your interests and my needs. But to begin with, I want to hear about things you know, and I want details.

* Apply the Rule of Three to your article pitches. Give me three ideas, each one in a single paragraph. Tell me what the idea is, why my readers will care about it, and why you’re the right person to write this story. In all likelihood, I’ll pick only one of the ideas. (Although I’ll feel stupid about doing so; however, I rarely want to give anybody multiple concurrent assignments, and surely not when we’re new to one another.) Recycle those ideas with another editor, but once you’ve finished the assignment I give you, it’s OK to remind me about one of the “failed” ideas one more time. (“I’m still interested in doing the comparative review of dark chocolate desserts, which I’d mentioned to you last month. Here’s why I think it’s still a timely story….”)

* I’ve been surprised at how many freelancers expect me to contact them with ideas for them to write about. When I know you, I’ll tend to do so, especially once I’ve discovered that you’re really good at covering marketing issues or that you grok the matters important to Notes users. At that point, I’ll pick up the phone to say, “Hey, I had an idea for an article we could do about marketing chocolate-covered mouse pads, and I think you’re the right person for it.” But if you want assignments, buck-o, you’re best off to suggest them to me. Otherwise… – well hey, how else will you get to write about the things that really interest you?

* Re: introducing yourself. I’ve found that it’s hard to “get to know” a new-to-me freelancer. Give me some idea of the beats you cover, and the way you cover them (product reviews, news, trend features). Tell me what topics enthuse you; I’d rather assign articles that you’re passionate about. Not only are you more likely to spend a lot of time on subjects you care for, but your enjoyment is likely to show through in the text.

* Ideally, I’ll send you an e-mail that confirms what we agreed to: “You’ll write 750 words for me on the history of chocolate, and how it relates to recent events in the computer industry. I’ll pay you $1/word, and you’ll get me the text – with at least one screen shot – by November 1.” If I don’t send you this, it’s OK for you to send me a written understanding of what you’ll be doing; at least this way we both have a record. (It isn’t for CYA reasons, at least not usually, but I know how often, as a
freelancer, I’d forget the details and wonder, “Did I say I’d have that done by the 1st or 2nd?” As an editor, my memory is even worse, as I have a lot more article balls in the air.) You and I are best off if this e-mail assignment letter is very descriptive: this is the angle you’re going to take, these are the vendors you’ll probably include, etc.

* If you run into trouble with an article, tell me as soon as possible. I’d prefer you err on the side of worrying aloud in my direction, to tell me that “I’m having a hard time getting through to the PR people… if I don’t hear from them by Monday, I may ask you to step in.” If I know, early enough, that a product won’t arrive or that your mom went into the hospital, I have a chance of assigning something else. (Maybe even to you. If it’s a product-not-arriving problem, you might end up with two assignments: the substitution and the original review, when the item does eventually get there.) If I don’t know about the problem until two days before the piece is due, I’ll be in a world of hurt and you’ll never get another assignment from me.

* I’ll try to send you comments on the text you send in, within a couple of days of receipt. Unfortunately if I need major work done on it, I’ll need an unreasonable turnaround period – this is karmic payback for the times you called a PR person and needed questions answered in three hours. I still need you to drop everything and respond to my queries.

* Not every editor sends back your text with queries, though, and (unfortunately) few give you an opportunity to correct errors introduced during the edit process. Don’t expect it.

* It really helps me if you write a spiffy headline and appropriate subheads. I might not use them, but at a minimum I appreciate that you spent time figuring out the break points in the article. If we use them, include a deck too. (From a creative standpoint, try writing the deck first: a wise editor once told me that if you can write the deck, the rest of the article is easy. I’ve found it to be true.)

* And please, please learn to write a useful lead, that draws the reader into the article. In the assumption that most editors will change your lead no matter how good, I’ve found that several freelancers do a shoddy job at this figuring that “the editor has to earn her pay too.” In reality, I’ve found that most people who don’t write a good lead don’t have a good article that follows. Make every word your very best. Even if I change your text, I’ll appreciate your good writing – and I’m apt to talk with you, the next time, about how you can structure your piece so it fits into what I’m looking for. (If you hope to write for me often, it’s a good idea to do a before-and-after, comparing what you sent in to what I published. The more you can approximate our published style, the less work I’ll have to do and the more I’ll cherish you.)

* This point really varies by publication, but I feel strongly about it myself: for God’s sake, let yourself show through. Let your article reflect your personality, your sense of humor, your delight with a cool product, your disgust with a bad situation. That doesn’t mean that you should make every article an opinion piece, but pick expressions that reflect who you are. You can still stand on the sidelines as a dispassionate observer, but let it be you standing on the sidelines, not some other bozo. Note, for example, that I always choose chocolate examples; that’s part of my online and writer’s persona, and reflects a real person who, of course, h
as the good taste to know that chocolate is an important part of life. I could pick much more mundane and boring examples but this lets me show through even when I’m being very serious. Readers respond to this sense of a “real person”, too; I’ve had readers give me pounds of chocolate when they’ve met me at conventions.

* Once we’ve been working together for a while: If you’re going to be at a trade show, let me know about it. I may want to guide you for possible assignments. (“If you’re going to be there, please make a point of looking at the biometrics devices, and tell me if you think there’s something worthwhile for us to cover.”) If you’re lucky, I’ll be there too and we’ll have lunch on my publication’s expense account.

I haven’t touched on getting freelancers paid, on what happens when I edit your deathless prose, on asking for contacts, on the “package” matter (screen shots, side bars, etc). Maybe someone else (who’s working as hard as I am to procrastinate will chime in on those subjects.

Bonus notes on nocturnal activity:

I had a migraine last night that took four pills to kill. I paced around my room for an hour and a half until the pain was dulled enough for me to lie down in bed and fall asleep, about 11:30. Until the painkillers kick in, lying down makes the pain worse as the blood vessels enlarge further with increased blood pressure.

I woke up about two hours later, pain-free, but wide awake. I got back to sleep about 3:00 and spent the rest of the night in that same sort of fitful sleep I went through last weekend. So, Alex, that might explain why I would fall asleep on your couch later this morning….

Freelancing and queries (for Wendy)

In a comment to my last post, Wendy asked me for freelance advice, specifically, how to proceed with a pitch.

The goal of a freelancer is to get a steady gig. That doesn’t necessarily mean a staff position, but I suspect most freelancers would jump at one. Freelancing has its benefits but so does a steady salary.

Even freelancers who aren’t seeking permanent employment want to be able to place work again and again at the same outlet. It’s much easier to cultivate an established relationship than it is to cold call. Still, there’s always that first pitch you have to make, and that’s what Wendy asked about.

Here’s how to do it.

The first step is to identify your audience. Is your work for a newspaper? That’s usually not a fruitful path. Newspapers rely more on staffers. As a freelancer, you want to write for magazines. Look at the magazines. Who is their audience? The editors want stories their audience will read, and you want to deliver those. It’s better to send one query tailored to a specific magazine’s content than it is to shotgun 20 queries to magazines in the hope one might like it.

Next, aim your query at the right contact. You need to find the correct individual at the publication to send your query to. Make a phone call or two to find out who that person is, and find that person’s e-mail address. You don’t want to query by snail mail these days (I don’t think).

Now that you’ve identified editor X at magazine Y, it’s time to construct the query letter. Don’t make the mistake of crafting a letter that sounds like you’re applying for a job in middle management. Keep it short and specific. Don’t ramble. Don’t get atmospheric. Sell your idea, sell how you’re going to get there, and, once you can, sell yourself. You want to put down why your article is important, who you will interview (you might want to set up some interviews beforehand), and how many words you plan to write (and of course you know how long the magazine’s articles are).

I’ve included some links at the end of this post, most of which have query-letter advice or examples.

One science freelancer told me to start with a query for a 300-word article with some clever news angle. This was for magazines like Discover, Canadian Geographic, etc. I still haven’t tried that so I can’t vouch for it but it makes sense. A magazine will usually want to test you on a low-risk gamble first. Once you’ve proven you can do that, you can move up to features.

Reread your letter from the editor’s perspective. I’ve done more as an editor than as a freelancer and I want a writer who turns in work on time and who doesn’t whine. “I’ll rewrite this as much as you need” = whining. “I’ll work so very hard on this” = whining. “I’d be thrilled to be in your publication” = whining. I don’t care about your motivation. I care about work on time and at the allotted word count. Avoid the sniveling in your query.

Ideally, you should know what the magazine pays before you query, but that’s not always possible since they can offer different rates to different contributors. Don’t mention pay in your initial query – wait until they want to hire you. Fifty cents a word is a decent rate, but you may have to start with less than that.

The key to successful freelancing is placing one story in many markets. You can’t sell the same story to multiple magazines, but you can use the information you’ve gathered to write about the same idea in multiple places. For example, if you’re working an an article on melamine in pet food for Cat Fancy magazine, you can use the same info with a different slant for Reader’s Digest. Query both before you start.

Don’t underestimate queries. As a beginning freelancer, you should spent most of your work time on queries. You need to generate income, so your efforts should go toward that – which means working on queries. Aim for one query a day by your second week. Once jobs start to come in, you can cut back, but try to maintain 20% of your time for query work. You are a conveyor belt, and you need to manage work at all stages at all times to avoid dry spells.

Here are some sites of varying quality I found.

Business Guide for Writers – An excellent site with forthright information.

The Beginner’s Guide To Freelance Writing – I’m not crazy about the writing style, but some good advice.

The Freelance Writing FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Writing for Newspapers & Magazines – More good advice.

Freelance Writers: Don’t Waste Your Time with Query Letters – An alternate view.

I’ll end this lengthy post with advice from Robin “Roblimo” Miller, editor in chief for OSTG (best known for maintaining Slashdot).

On Becoming the Perfect Freelancer

As I write this, I am waiting for a story to come in that should have been in my hand three days ago. The freelancer to whom I gave the assignment swore up and down that I’d have it by Monday, but here it is Thursday afternoon and I am late putting together my Friday e-mail newsletter that goes out to 70,000 subscribers because I am missing that one story.

I’ve heard, “I’ll have it to you tomorrow,” for three days running, but still no story. I am not going to use this freelancer again.

To an editor, deadlines are not “objectives” or “goals”. They are the times after which a story is no longer useful. A writer who cannot meet deadlines is a writer who does me no good. Conversely, one who consistently gets work to me by or before deadline is pure gold, and I will turn to that writer again and again.

I want copy that meets basic AP style guideline most of the time. I want all proper names spelled right, and (since I edit online publications) all HTML tags and hyperlinks to work correctly. I need an extra-strong, extra-terse lead paragraph on every story because my Web sites, like most news Web sites, use a blog format with a main page that shows readers a list of story titles and lead paragraphs or summaries and invites them to “click for more” on each story. If a story’s headline and lead paragraph don’t entice readers into making that click, I might as well not have run the story in the first place, because hardly anyone is going to read it. And, like it or not, online publishing is a business, and pageviews are our life and breath.

The business end works like this: our company sells between one and five ads on each page, and advertisers pay us a negotiated rate per thousand pageviews. I am not always sure which stories are going to capture our readers’ imaginations, and there are many times I will buy a story because I think it is important rather than because I think it will be overwhelmingly popular, but in the long run, from my employers’ perspective, my job is to make our pageview count increase every week and every month, year after year, while keeping costs (including freelance fees) per pageview low enough that our Web sites produce higher operating profits every quarter.

Another pressure I deal with is time. I don’t have enough of it. I work six or seven days a week, often more than 12 hours a day, and so do my site editors. A writer whose work need a lot of revision takes up a lot of our time, so we are always going to favor writers who turn in “clean copy” that needs little or no proofreading or rewriting.

A professional freelance writer recognizes the business and time pressures faced by editors and realizes that, no matter what other relationship we might have, he or she is a vendor and I am a client. I am not the right person to call at midni
ght, dead drunk, to complain about your latest fiction rejection or a problem with your love life, no matter how friendly I am toward you during our professional contacts. If you persist in using me as a free psychologist, sooner or later I am going to turn to other writers who are more businesslike in their approach. It is not that I lack compassion; I simply don’t have time to listen to very many hour-long tales of writers’ woe every week.

By contrast, I have one freelancer to whom I have happily paid an average of $3000 per month for over two years in return for ten 250-word pieces per week that take him less than an hour each to write. This person always turns in copy well ahead of time, rarely makes a spelling or grammatical mistake, and makes sure all of his hyperlinks work before he sends a story to me.

When other tech-oriented editors ask me if I can recommend a writer, this person’s name is often the first one I mention. He is not aggressive about selling his work so he is usually grateful for these leads, and every one I give him increases his loyalty toward me. Conversely, the day this man slipped on ice outside of his home (in a small town in the northern Midwest), I filled in for him personally and paid him his running rate for the days he was unable to work even though I was under no legal obligation to do so.

Please note that I have not yet mentioned creativity or writing quality, but have emphasized the business side of the relationship between a freelancer and an editor. This is because I edit news Web sites, not a poetry quarterly. I need accurate reporting and reliability more than I need copy that will make readers mutter, “This is truly elegant writing. Wow!”

I have nothing against creativity, mind you. I’ll take it when I can get it, and I will pay extra to any writer who consistently produces work that turns my head (and readers’ heads) with its beauty.

But in the cold business of online news, a merely competent writer who turns in accurate copy on time and behaves in a professional manner almost always wins out over an artful writer who needs lots of handholding, turns in stories late, or doesn’t bother to proofread his or her work before sending it to me.

(Posted with permission)

Checking in

I’ve recovered from a two-day tension headache and a bizarre Friday night in which I would fall asleep and wake up 30 seconds later many times over six hours. I slept it off last night and all’s well.

I have a treatment to read and report on for Alex, and the rest of this week is devoted to assembling the JOUR 519 I’ll be teaching in June and July and applying for courses next fall and winter semesters. Although I won’t be a full-timer for the department next year, I will be able to teach three more courses, if the department will have me. I’m applying for my standard JOUR 202 and 319, and – looky, looky what’s available – 428, Online Publication.

I’m preparing 519 now because we plan to be shooting Alex’s short May 25-27 and I won’t have time then.

After a brief spurt to sixth yesterday, my Irrational League team is again back in eighth where it has lived most of the last month. Slow and steady…. I added Felix Pie in our monthly add/drop, just in time for him to become a bench player. Injuries and changing roles are hurting my team: Matt Murton is a pinch-hitter despite some good numbers; Pie is now a part-timer; Willy Taveras hurt something today; Carlos Beltran’s legs are sore; Orlando Hernandez hurt his shoulder; Clay Hensley hurt his groin; and Bob Wickman is out with a bad back.

Boy, I hope I can find something interesting to write about soon.

Pesky peculiarities of CSS

Readers of Alex’s blog, Complications Ensue, will have spotted his use of screenplay formatting in a recent post.

He borrowed that from me (see previous post for an example), and the process seemed hunky dory until some users of Internet Explorer v.6 on Windows (henceforth IE6) complained that all they saw was a green browser window.

Somehow, the use of my screenplay style sheets wonked the page display of Alex’s blog in IE6. While the reader’s complained of a green page, what was actually happening was that the top row of Alex’s table-based layout – two orange cells flanking a large green one – was extending downward far beyond the bounds of space and time. Well, close to it, anyway.

Alex used the readers who complained to test things. The way I set up my CSS screenplay format, I have a .screenbox class that I use for a div. One of the properties in that class is width, with a value I set to 400 pixels. Alex narrowed down the problem to the width property. His IE6 users had the problem when the width property was present, and the page looked fine when it was absent.

I have machines with Windows XP here at home, so I tested out subtleties in the CSSes. Alex’s testers reported that the problem was present when the value of width was measured in pixels or as a percentage of div width. My testing revealed a problem only when width was a percentage value. Even extra wide values in pixels rendered correctly.

I have no idea why this problem exists, but I didn’t have to know why to find a fix.

There’s a cottage industry that uses bizarre browser bugs to find ways to disable certain style sheets and/or content in certain browsers. I found a solution that’s specific for IE6, as follows:

.screenbox {
list-style: none;
  fakefake: “;
  fakefake: “”;

width: 432px;
  /*”;/* IE */
background: #eee;
border: 1px solid #333;
padding: 5px 14px;

The bold and indented lines are the hack. They force IE6 and only IE6 to ignore all properties inside them. The “fakefake” properties can be any word that’s not a valid property. Again, I don’t know why it works, but it does.

If you have any insight into what is happening, please let me know. I think the tables have something to do with it, but I can’t figure out exactly how.

Let this information flow freely unto the Googling masses….

Bonus mystery:

Last summer, the Angels drafted a high-school catcher named Hank Conger. Here are a few photos of him:

And one from the back to complete the set. Conger is supposed to be 6’0″ and 205 lbs. But does he have a sense of humour? I don’t know. That’s the mystery. The tags to the following YouTube video are “hank” and “conger”. Is this the same guy? What do you think?

Dinner conversation chez nous


Child Two dances around the table singing Hebrew songs. Child One, 12, pipes up.


Do you know any limericks?

Webs chortles. Elvi eyes him.


Not one about anybody from Maine.

She thinks a moment.


Or Massachusetts. Or wherever it is.



Webs cracks up. Elvi turns red.

(More on screenplay CSS styles later, after I decompress.)

Every click…
...contributes to world domination.