Episode 61—Susan Orlean on Writing for an Audience and the Entrepreneurial Nature of a Writing Career

Susan Orlean for Grub Street / New York Magazine

By Brendan O’Meara

Tweetables by Susan Orlean (@susanorlean)

“What can I do with the tools I was given as opposed to the tools I was expecting?”

“If a story is just exactly what I expected it would be, I don’t think of that as all that interesting.”

“Entrepreneur, I had the instincts of an entrepreneur.”

“OK, this is how you do it…you make a connection, you think of stories that would work for a bigger audience.”

“In very practical terms, if you’re gonna be a person doing longform journalism, you will be running a small business.”

“Look at it as a business you’re running, but you also happen to be the raw material the business is producing.”

“Each story starts from zero. It never stops being exciting.”

Hello, CNF-buddies, it’s The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, the show where I speak with the world’s best artists about creating works of nonfiction—journalists, essayists, memoirists, radio producers, and documentary film makers—and how you can use their tools of mastery and apply it to your own work.

That’s right, you are in for a treat. Well, let’s face it, you’ve always been in for a treat, but this week you’re in for an Easter basket and Halloween sack all rolled into one verifiably true candy locker.

New York Times bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin, The Orchid Thief, (which was made into the movie Adaptation), Saturday Night, My Kind of Place, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, and the children’s book Lazy Little Loafers. She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker (full archive here) and she came by the podcast to share her wisdom and experiences from a career writing deeply reported features. You can find Susan online @susanorlean on Twitter and visit her website Susan Orlean dot com.

What are some takeaways? Susan talks about always having an audience in mind, having supreme focus, and needing to see yourself as a business person if you plan on doing this type of work and that it’s actually freeing, not stifling, in order to do the kind of work that excites you and feeds your ambitions.

Before we get to that, I ask that you please subscribe to the podcast, share it with a friend, and leave a rating or, ideally, a nice review on iTunes, like this one from Meredith May. She said, “Real conversations among professional writers about the essence of craft. A behind the scenes look at the way stories come together, from inception to publication, that doesn’t shy away from the truth about the difficulties and triumphs of making a living from words. One of the hardest concepts for my podcasting students to grasp is how differentiate between a story and a topic—this podcast helps them find that X-factor that makes a story sing.”

Wow. Shoutout to that five-star review. If you leave one, I might just read it on the air! It’s time for the show, episode 61 with Susan Orlean!

Episode 31—Jen Miller on Freelancing, Tenacity, Running, and Swinging Her “Where’s My Money Bat” (It’s a Thing)

Jen Miller
Jen Miller sits down and talks to me about her freelancing career and her memoir “Running: A Love Story”.

Written by Brendan O’Meara

“Good ideas still find homes.”Jen Miller

“When it gets too easy, I need to challenge myself and make it harder again.” —Jen Miller

What’s this? Three weeks in a row? It’s happening, folks, and thanks for hanging in while I get my feet back under me after the big, cross-country move.

What better way to follow up that sentence than by talking about Jen Miller (@ByJenAMiller), a runner who wrote the engaging, funny, and raw memoir Running: A Love Story (Seal Press, 2016). It’s about running, love, and control and we talk about that and much more.

We also chat about freelancing and some of the more granular details of the business that I think will benefit any freelancer, novice or expert.

Lots of good stuff here. Please go and subscribe to the podcast. Share it with a friend or two or three. I’m trying my hardest to keep it consistent and hopefully it can keep growing.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 29—Pete Croatto, 10 Years a Freelancer (and counting)

Pete Croatto reading the paper.
Pete Croatto reading the paper.

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Pete Croatto stopped by #CNF HQ to talk about freelancing. What prompted this? This blog post right here where Pete talks about ten of the things he learned in his first ten years as a freelancer.

There are so many gems in this episode whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned vet.

I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for listening. Oh, and while I have your attention, be sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and subscribe to my monthly newsletter.

Your buddy,

Brendan

Freelancing is Salesmanship

Written by Brendan O’Meara

It goes without saying, or maybe it doesn’t, that all freelancing is is salesmanship.

A customer walks into a speciality running store. You don’t sell them what YOU feel like selling them because YOU find a certain product more interesting than another. You understand the customer’s need and sell accordingly.

When you think of it in those terms, suddenly the pitch or the query takes on a different tonality. If you’re not doing this already, now you’re thinking how to please the customer (editor).

What is it YOU can sell THEM that fulfills THEIR need?

Selling a story is no different than selling shoes. The story is the product. Does it fit their need? If not, you never close and you have no chance to do good work.

Episode No. 16: Charles Bethea on Late-Night Pitching, the Anxiety of Reporting, and the Magnitude of Breakfast

Charles Bethea
Charles Bethea, world traveler, great writer.

Written by Brendan O’Meara

“I was a poetry major in college which was of course of great concern to my parents.” —Charles Bethea

Here we are with the first episode of 2016, No. 16, sweet sixteen, Charles Bethea. This was a fun episode as we talk about Charle’s start in freelancing, his love of breakfast, and one of his favorite quotes of all time.

Like Eva Holland, Charles’ writing takes you places. He’s funny and his writing has a smooth feel to it. Suddenly you’re done with the piece and it felt like nothing, like gravity did all the work for you.

Aside from having his work published in The New Yorker (where he has a regular sports column on its website), the now-defunct Grantland, and Outside Magazine, he was also a producer on the short documentary Fair Chase, about persistence hunting. If you read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, you know that this is a theory about man’s early hunting by wearing down and overheating four-legged prey.

Anyway, point being Charles is a busy man with serious chops.

Here’s the link to the episode since folks with mobile devices still can’t stream it from the blog post (Podomatic is NOT on its game with this bout of customer service). Here’s the embed anyway.

Also here are links to a sampling of Charles’ work. You can find more at his website charlesbethea.com.

Selected Work

Fair Chase from Outside
Obama’s In-Box from The New Yorker
The Many Lives of Aubrey Lee Price from Atlanta Magazine
Star-Maker from The New Yorker
Will Shortz and the Ping-Pong Prodigy from The New Yorker

Books Mentioned

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Proud Highway by Hunter S. Thompson
No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie
Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade by Robert Sabbag
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

Podcap—How Gimlet Media’s ‘Surprisingly Awesome’ Teaches You To Pitch Stories

Written by Brendan O’Meara

For my first podcap—a recap of podcasts I’m listening to—I’m taking a look at the latest from Gimlet Media.

Gimlet Media released a new podcast, Surprisingly Awesome, featuring Adam McKay and Adam Davidson. Google their names if you want vital bio information.

This podcast tries to take something seemingly boring things like mold (Episode 1), free throws (Episode 2) and concrete (Episode 3) and illustrate how, you guessed it, awesome they are.

So far, all three have been, you guessed it again, surprisingly awesome, but there’s something more, something deeper this show represents that’s important to all storytellers and freelancers. It’s this: So what? or Why do I care about ­­­­ ______?

The podcast is, in essence, an elaborate story pitch of why something apparently mundane is, in fact, interesting, and worthy of our time and worthy of a publisher’s dollars.

In all three instances one of the hosts is bored while the other is excited. Like a defense attorney pleading his case for his client, he tries to sway a biased jury. No change of venue. The other host is the permanent venue so get over it.

Also at the core is this central statement, one created by Gimlet co-founder Alex Blumberg: I’m doing a story about X, and it’s interesting because of Y. You can take AB’s Creative Live course and learn all about this.

For the latest episode on concrete, AD could say, “I’m doing a story about concrete, and it’s interesting because natural disasters, like the Haitian earthquake, aren’t really natural disasters, they are concrete disasters.”

The story suddenly gets green lit because that is interesting. You feel it in your bones. Cheap concrete shatters and in poor, developing countries. The cheap concrete breaks like brittle when the earth rumbles.

This podcast, aside from being entertaining, is a master class in getting writers to probe deep into a mundane topic and find what is ultimately sellable about the story.

I host #CNF and would love for you to listen and subscribe. Also, throw down your email so you can updates from this website when I post something. No posts, no emails, no spam, ever.

iQuery: The Query Letter, the writer’s fast ball

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Today’s post deals with the ever-important query letter. It is the fundamental document of any freelance writer looking to make a living. It irons out what your pitch is about and who you are and why editors/agents should take a chance on YOU.

Here’s what got me into Vegetarian Times’s Vegging Out blog:

I opt for very quick and easy to read letters. One, editors are short on time. Two, they’re reading on a computer screen and most people want to read short pieces on a screen.

First, I called Vegetarian Times and asked for the name of the editor I should pitch to. Next, my opening paragraph is the hook and why the story will be interesting to Vegetarian Times readers (important, not what’s important to ME, but what’s important to THEM. Sometimes you have to alter—as in cater—your voice. Nothing wrong with this.)

Then I jump into my credentials so the editor doesn’t think I’m some yahoo (which will be totally discredited when they see I wrote a book on horse racing, but that’s neither here nor there). I also tag a page on my website where the editor can click and find clips of my work. If they want hard copies, I’ll send them, but in two clicks, the editor will have a broad sample of my writing capability.

Ultimately, my approach comes down to two things:

1. Get in, get out
2. Take Your Time with the Query (this applies more to book queries)

The letter needs to be read quickly and have some semblance of voice and a tightness of language that will be indicative of a longer piece of work.

With the second point, it’s important not to rush when querying an agent or a publishing house because it’s a painfully long process and sitting on your query for an extra day or week won’t kill it. Rushing will make it sound rushed. Treat it like a piece of art. It needs time. The publishing process is long. I’m as guilty as an when it comes to a trigger finger when sending a query or email. But let the query breathe. Your book won’t be published for at least two years. Hanging out for a few more days will help, not hurt it. Here’s my query for Six Weeks in Saratoga that had a few agents biting and sold SUNY Press.

This is a tad long, but it grabbed the attention of enough people to be moderately effective.

Undoubtedly my queries will get better as I learn more about them. As I learn more and experiment with what works and what doesn’t, I’ll be sure to share that information and samples. I may even try to get a friend or two to write a guest post about the subject.

(This is a great query blog post by the ever-valuable Nathan Bransford. RSS his blog. Just do it.)

How have your query letters been received? Where do you need to improve?