How do I get story ideas?
At any given time, I probably have hundreds of story ideas which I keep in a list and right now range from: sicario actor notes, “el negocio del odio,” tuna cowboys and “the best feeling is a tutu with nothing on underneath.” I get story ideas from graffiti, overheard conversations, wandering the streets of Mexico City - basically anything that intrigues me. For me, the issue is managing my ideas because if I don’t control them and focus, I will get distracted. I learned long ago that I cannot execute all my ideas, so I have to pick the best ones. But the beautiful thing is that I maintain and LOVE my list of ideas. I doubt there will ever be a moment in my life where I don’t have a story idea. You have to know yourself and let your curiosity be organic. I don’t program myself to look for newsy topics because that isn’t the kind of writing I’m interested in.
Do magazines pay for all my flights and expenses?
I think the biggest misconception about working as a freelance journalist is that magazines fly us around. In my experience, only a few magazines have the budget to pay for expenses and flights, and they assign that work. You will probably only be assigned such work at places like National Geographic or Time if you have a well-established writing career. The rest of the freelance world stacks assignments (works on multiple articles at the same time) and covers expenses from within that collective budget. It isn’t ideal to stack assignments because it mean you are almost always stretched thin. It also takes some guts to decide to take off to say, Nicaragua, report six stories, and hope you will cover your expenses and make enough money to pay rent.
How do I make and maintain relationships with editors?
I didn’t go to journalism school, so started freelancing with zero editorial relationships. Here are the rules I try to follow:
I pitch editors who I admire either because of their own writing or the articles they produce with writers.
If at any point in our communication an editor is disrespectful, asks me to work for free, displays signs of being an egomaniac, or asks me for significantly more work than is in the contract, then I walk away and vow never to work with them again.
I invest serious energy in my pitches, showing that I have the language skills, geographic expertise and security training to complete the work. I know it is tempting to email an editor dozens of times if you haven’t heard back from them about a pitch, but I would recommend giving an editor at least two weeks with a pitch unless it is time sensitive (and if it is time sensitive, write that in the email header).
I only communicate what is essential and related to the work at hand.
As soon as the pitch has been accepted, I negotiate the per word rate, expenses, etc. Good editors respect writers who negotiate, and any editor who shames you for negotiating is not someone you want to work with.
I do try to visit editors in person, but all of the long-term relationships I have with editors came out of pitching them via email.
I turn in work on time. I adhere to the word count assigned by the editor. I respect and love my fact-checkers (I can’t tell you how many people view fact-checkers as an adversary).
Why do I write?
Ever since I was a little, I’ve always wanted to write whether it be in my boxes of journals, on stones down by the creek in Arkansas, in the dirt. I feel grounded by that wellspring of love for writing which remains strong in me regardless of whether I’m published or unpublished, paid or unpaid.
Why do I keep freelancing if it is so hard?
There are moments of pure joy, of seeing a project I’ve executed from idea to publication go into the world or of working with a photographer who I’ve admired from a distance, of corresponding for three years with a migrant I met on the US-Mexico border and knowing that despite politics of hate, she is making a good life for herself. And then there is the random, wonderful serendipity of freelancing like when I worked with Chinese neorealist painter Liu Xiaodong last year on a US-Mexico border project. And this year I found out I’m the subject one of his gigantic neorealist paintings which will be exhibited at Dallas Contemporary Museum in April.
Sending you all love and strength in 2020,