Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

A freelancer’s journey in payment: my first 5 paid-for articles

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The idea for this blog post comes from reader Sam Shan who asked via email about how, when you’re starting out, you first start asking for payment and how to negotiate this aspect of getting paid for your writing. I replied with my advice. A background blog post about my beginning days and my first five published articles for which I got paid I thought would be a good structure in which I could detail my thoughts and struggles of negotiating payment. As well as the stuff I did for free that were beneficial in other ways. Before anything though I will say this, always, always, at least try to get paid for your writing, the sooner the better really. And thanks to Sam for this post’s topic!

1) The Guardian: Chinese students suffer…, 2010. £151

So I’ve written about this before, here – How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig. Needless to say I was determined to get my byline into a national newspaper and The Guardian is my favourite one. I didn’t really care about the fee, but the fee is always a validation of your work. I got what to me was a substantial sum, for about 400 or so words. When the receipt of the payment came from them, the fee was split into a sum for the newspaper article, and then a much smaller sum for the online edition. I don’t think they divide it like this anymore. It was a good strike for me but it took two years before I got published in the paper Guardian again (and that was only following the fact I wrote two unpaid “blog posts” for them for their Student blog section).

2) musicrooms.net: various reviews, 2011. £75.50

In my second year of university (I did a journalism degree), I started a film blog, and I wrote film and music reviews for a website: musicrooms.net. It was a reviews and entertainment website started up by an individual with an entrepreneurial streak. At this time, I was also writing reviews (unpaid) for music website allgigs.co.uk. They would send out an email to their freelancers with listings of CDs. We would reply with which ones we wanted. A week later we would receive said CDs in the post. Listen to CD, write up our review. It was neat to receive these CDs and then getting your reviews published about them. Good practice.

Anyway, the payment from musicrooms.net wasn’t for a single article. It was for a series of reviews. And we were paid according to how many hits our reviews got. Our fee was determined, by some baroque measure, by how many hits we accumulated. I must have published around 10 or so articles over the course of three months. I stopped writing for them at the end of these three months – I just wanted to move on – and cashed out with £75.50.

3) Acoustic: Scott Matthews interview, 2011. £100

Scott Matthews and I at Bournemouth's Old Fire Station. Scott is 6'4". I am not.

Scott Matthews and I at Bournemouth’s Old Fire Station. Scott is 6’4″. I am not.

While I was at university, doing my journalism degree, I would, on occasion, write for the student newspaper and the student magazine. One time I pitched an interview and gig review of a musician who was coming to play at our student union bar. The musician was someone whose music I admired and enjoyed, so I thought it would be a hoot. I was successful. The musician in question was Scott Matthews, a singer-songwriter with a love of acoustic guitars. I had a brainwave and thought: why not pitch this interview to a “real” magazine, and then I’d get paid for it too. So I went to a newsagents and browsed the shelves for potential markets. I hit on a magazine called “Acoustic”, a niche music magazine aimed at lovers of acoustic guitars and the kind of music they play. I looked for the masthead in the magazine and found the email address of the senior editor.

I did the interview and it was a gorgeous experience. We eventually spent almost an hour talking, and he was a brilliant interviewee, humble and forthcoming. He even played the intro to his most well known song “Elusive”, or rather the initial idea for it, and I blushed at the amazingness of it, similar to how Jack White blushes when he sees Jimmy Page play the intro to Whole Lotta Love in the documentary It Might Get Loud.

I wrote up the 2000-word interview for Acoustic magazine, and a truncated version for the student magazine. I got a signed CD and was at his gig, and brought along two friends for free. Perks of the job. However, there is a sad coda to this story; the publishers of the magazine went into insolvency just after the feature was published so I didn’t get paid unfortunately. Happily however the magazine survives and is still going, under new publishers.

4) Wanderlust: Under-£250 feature, 2012. £250

Here I am falling off while mountain biking in Cyprus

Here I am falling off while mountain biking in Cyprus

In my third year of university, I wrote a couple pieces for The Guardian’s student blog, like I mentioned, which were unpaid. I was glad of the bylines however and it did eventually lead directly to paid work from them, as well as two weeks work experience at Guardian HQ. Entering that gleaming white building in King’s Cross, London, was a dream and a wonderful experience.

Anyway, in the winter of 2011 I saw a Tweet on Twitter that advertised a competition run by Wanderlust magazine, a great little British travel magazine that specializes in more rustic, solo wanderer-style travel ideas and features. The magazine was looking for entries to an under-£250 travel competition. We were invited to submit ideas for a holiday, where the total cost of the trip (including flights, accommodation, activities, food & drink etc) would come to under £250. We were given free rein: so we could go to New Zealand for a month if were able to go on such a budget (of course NZ was not possible). I did a bit of research and came across a factoid that Cyprus was the furthest and sunniest place in Europe. I based my pitch on this idea and researched costs too. It worked out. The place was cheap to go to and it was a reasonably priced island. Being the most southerly country in the Mediterranean, it would offer a little warmth when I proposed to go in January.

At this point, in the third year of my course (UK undergrad degrees are three years), we had a lot of free time, so I could afford to take a week off for this exciting travel writing assignment. Wanderlust would pay in £125 before I went and the remaining half upon publication of the article. It would be up to me to keep costs down to budget. I sent out requests on couchsurfing.org and stayed with a British couple in Paphos, Cyprus. It was my first and thus far only experience of travel journalism.

5) IGN.com: Where are all the British games?, 2012. £150

For one of our assignments for the final year of my journalism course, we had to undertake a project exploring a topic of our choice. We had to create a full multimedia package, with a feature report, timelines, video, podcasts, magazine layouts, all in support of a main story. I chose to explore the theme of British video games. This in part was motivated by the fact I had been commissioned by ign.com – one of the world’s biggest video games sites – to write a feature exploring British identity in video games, if such a thing existed.

There existed an identity in British film (think The Full Monty; Lock, Stock…; Trainspotting) and an identity to British music; was there a specific British identity to the video games we made?

I thought why not kill two birds with one stone by making my project on this, that way I had extra impetus to do it – getting paid for the report for IGN, and learning about the whole thing too for the university assignment.

All through my journalism course, I had concentrated far more on doing real journalism, pitching, getting published, rather than focusing on the journalism assignments we were given by the journalism degree course. In fact I was totally baffled by my coursemates who put so much store by the academic tasks given. I actually left with a 2:2 for my journalism degree – to US readers, that’s like a 2.5 GPA – and wrote about the very fact of that 2:2 for The Guardian (paid), and a lot of journalism students would kill for a Guardian byline so the irony is not lost on me.

Anyway, the feature for IGN took me about two months to report and it was a very great learning experience for me, to construct a feature of that type, which is investigative, socio-historical and narrative-led. I had to figure out who to talk to, who to talk to following that person, how to structure the narrative and fit in the elements I wanted to fit in, as well as how to offer an answer as an ending. It was my first entry in video games journalism (I’ve been a gamer since I was little) and I distinctly remember sitting in my university library, reading comments on social media when it had been published, and people like Tom Bissell and Simon Parkin, writers whose writing I adore, complimenting me and I got all teary-eyed reading what they said, in that library…and I realized how much this shit means to me.

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Advice

Whenever I pitched or sent out emails to publications asking if they accepted pitches in my beginning days, a lot of publications of which were online-only, I would usually ask if they paid. If they did not pay, and I saw that they were perhaps not a big name, or had not a good future, then I would make the decision not to write for them. Writing for small perks such as free shit, free gig tickets, or movie screenings, might seem cool to begin with – but it is not sustainable.

So I chose to aim my pitches for publications that were large enough to pay. I never really thought about writing for no-name blogs or shitty publications that might email you with some bullshit promise that they may, may, give you something more in return in the future. Usually I would be offered a fee for my services, which is how it should be. I have no time for writers who write for free, it just creates downward pressure on prices, means you don’t have confidence enough to value your own work, and puts working, professional freelancers out of work.

Whenever possible I would negotiate for higher fees. I did this with The Independent when I hadn’t written a thing for them, and I did it at Acoustic, nudging them toward a higher figure. I see nothing wrong with this. If they are a reputable publication and they’ve already shown interest in your work (and therefore buying it), then you can negotiate. In the current economic climate for print media, the room for negotiation is incredibly small, but that room should be yours to claim, if you simply believe you deserve something more. That’s my advice but use sense and think critically about how to write or make videos, in journalism, for a living. It’s a learning experience and mistakes will be made, but you will learn for next time. Any questions, hit me up in the comments!

Living freely

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“Living freely is one of the most difficult things you can do”

I freelance because I like the freedom that it affords. But I do it because that’s what I do – I’m not really capable of much else currently. And it’s only the visible aspect of a larger idea that motivates how I choose to move through life, the decisions I try to make, and the values I hold.

For me, freedom is the idea that’s become most important. And there was a clear moment when I realized that to live not according to that idea was simply, staggeringly ludicrous.

Life is about trying to enjoy it. Once you adopt this aspect, it all becomes pretty clear. Why do a miserable job? Why work in something that only makes you miserable? Enjoyment and misery has to be framed correctly however. You may not “enjoy” it all the time but satisfaction can arise from accomplishment. It means more about thinking critically about the choices you make, and why you make them. If it brings so few rewards and you do not, categorically do not enjoy it then why continue doing it?

To live freely is one of the most difficult things in the world.

You can live according to your own whims, your own ideas, your own momentum. You can choose how you live your life. We forget this. We forget this all the time. Every single day. Every single hour. Because we’ve set up our societies to do so. The clock forces you to compartmentalize your time into the most productive packets, segments of time that you can squeeze more into. Because capitalist systems require you to work more, make more money. To buy more stuff. To buy more stuff. It’s so blindingly obvious. But why do any of this? Why? Who is forcing you to? Why not live according to the things that you yourself deem important, rather than the things “society” has deemed important.

Why not enjoy things just as what they are, rather than by what they represent?

You have to slow down. You have to enjoy it more. You have to be in the moment more. Because if you aren’t, you’re just moving faster towards the end. Enjoying what you see right in front of you right this second, see it for what it really is. It is just that thing, nothing else, nothing more. If you don’t see it that clearly then time and mind will speed up into forever, and you will lose it, lose your claim over Now, that should be yours to seize. And it’s lost and time just speeds along, hurrying you towards oblivion.

Unless you stop and see, hear, feel the now that is your life. The incredible joy that is being.

You can choose how you live your life.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 11, 2015 at 4:53 am

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

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At Inle lake, March 5th. A great strawberry shake can be found up the road from Remember Inn.

At Inle lake, March 3rd. A great strawberry shake can be found up the road from Remember Inn.

I’ve been in Burma now for 12 days and I am writing this post from Rangoon, the country’s commercial capital and largest city, and my end destination.

I traveled from Mandalay, where I touched down from China, then I went via slow boat to Bagan, a place filled with hundreds of pagodas dotted along a picturesque landscape, before heading to Inle lake to meet an interviewee.

I am hoping to meet two journalists living here in Rangoon who are around my age. Joshua Carroll, a British freelancer, and Catherine Trautwein, an American who writes for The Myanmar Times.

Along the way I have enjoyed the sunshine and warmth of the climate and the people. It is an immense relief to be away from Beijing, away from the cramped conditions of mind and body that was the prison of overly WiFi’d Beijing.

Here I’ve been able to relax, and to practice slow journalism. Sitting at temples, cafés and restaurants, waiting for a local to come talk to me or just observing what’s around and in front of me. Picking up kernels of story ideas or pouncing when one comes along, changing schedules on the fly.

Being on the road without the distractions of Internet and social media (Internet is quite patchy in Burma) has meant I’ve been writing more in longhand, a welcome change of pace.

I might head to Vietnam after but I have not yet made up my mind. All this travel and the money spent on it I hope to recoup by selling the stories I am picking up along the way, but it is risky as I am not certain they will sell.

But the momentum of travel, the sensation of discovery, new people and new places brings you alive, shaking off the chill of a dark winter. It has been a great tonic.

A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia – by Brent Crane

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Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the DailyTelegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. This is his guest post for the site.

Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com. This is his guest post for the site.

I landed in Beijing on June 16th, 2014, in the early afternoon on a one-way ticket from Boston. I had just turned 24. China was not new to me. I’d been before in 2011 when I had studied in Kunming and also before that in 2010 for the Shanghai World Expo. But this was my first time in the nation’s capital and I thought it’s very grey here.

I stayed with a friend from a study abroad program at the Beijing University of Science and Technology. When she and others asked what I was doing in China I’d get shy and mumble, “freelance journalism”, and felt like a five year old saying, “I want to be an astronaut”.

I wasn’t confident because I really didn’t know what a freelance journalist was or if I could even be one and I usually stumbled when I tried to explain anything. I’d come to China off a whim and depending on who I was talking to they’d either be impressed or think I was an idiot.

Now, seven months later I can answer people with more assuredness. I have written and shot for the Diplomat, the Daily Telegraph, VICE, Al-Jazeera and the BBC, among others. In the name of “journalism”, I have been smuggled into rebel-held territory in Myanmar from China, toured refugee camps, reported on one of the year’s largest and most daring democracy movements, sampled hairy stinky tofu and tracked down a Hunanese peasant who claimed that a tea brewed from animal feces had cured her cancer. I sampled that too.

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Published pieces about being in China: 2012-present

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Some friends and I.

Me and some friends

Here is a list of articles that I have had published about my time in China. The following collection of articles are specifically about life and the experiences I’ve had in China, rather than journalism about China itself. This post will be updated whenever something new is out.

Fast track to love? Hunting for a date on Beijing’s subway

This is a lighthearted piece about the time I took on a bet to see if I could get a date while riding Beijing’s crowded subway system within a week. A piece of whimsy that was fun to write but hard to pull off.

“Finding a date in Beijing is not especially difficult. If you know where to go, you can have your pick of either wayfaring expats, happy-go-lucky students or young, eager Chinese all on the lookout for potential mates. Beijing, like any other great city of the world, is a mass of people trying to hook up”.

An ode to Chinese greasy spoons

This is quite tightly written and quite a personal piece too. About the first fragile months after I’d moved to Beijing, my ambition as a young journalist, and growing up in the city through the habit of eating out.

When I first arrived in Beijing in the autumn of 2012, I was nervy. A confused young journalist straight out of university and with big ambitions. I walked the large, grey streets of the city aware of my surroundings, but alien to the environment. Everything was ordinary and extraordinary, new and old; a city of 21 million people where the mundane – a beggar, a street festooned with litter – jostled with the outlandish. 

Travel and Videogames: Missing Play in Beijing

I’ve been a gamer for a long time but since moving to Beijing I’ve mostly not been able to. This essay explores the incredibly strong desire I had to play and how much I missed playing my console. It’s also about travel, reality and the desire for adventure.

“I knew that I should be having adventures and experiences for real, too. For myself, rather than through a virtual character. That I should get to know “reality”…. When I was 18, I decided to go abroad. I lived in a small town thousands of miles away from home. I learnt a lot about relationships, what I want and how to get it, all that stuff”.

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The weekend of February 13th: getting ready for Myanmar

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I booked a flight to Myanmar on Friday. It’s a one-way ticket. My situation here in Beijing has changed a little. I am now part-time at the Chinese TV company where I’ve been working for over a year. The salary I draw from them is now low enough for me to consider jumping ship, to other jobs, or even to cut loose, though I still consider Beijing my base.

It’s been very cold, although the days now are warming swiftly. The first part of the year in Beijing is always tough. The feeling is one of getting through the depressing days – and difficult for a freelancer I feel. Although commissions have been forthcoming, the motivation to complete them is low. Simply because the sun-deprived body and the comfort-seeking mind dreams of future summery days and craving small satisfactions in the meantime. A bonus of maintaining this blog however is that I can look back to blog posts from the same time last year and see that I felt the same mixture of misery and ennui, and that I eventually got over it.

I bought a TV. I also bought a one-way ticket to Myanmar. How are these two things connected? They aren’t so much as they point to different paths. The TV (which I use to play my Playstation 3) points to my increasing reliance on Beijing and its related comforts: friends, familiar bars and routines. The ticket out is exciting, quite scary and a path to very many unknowns. I am intending, once I arrive, to journey south, eventually reaching the former capital Yangon, although I do want to explore the coastline also. I might even head to Vietnam after. I have not too much money. I am in fact hedging on future freelance payments derived from the stories collected from my travels, to fund present and future life.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 15, 2015 at 5:33 am

Why did I move to Beijing?

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I moved to Beijing basically on a whim. If you have read previous blog posts, you may know that originally I had decided to move to Beijing in the autumn of 2012, after finishing university, and that, upon arriving, I knew exactly four people in the city, had no job and no concrete plans. That narrative is already established.

If you ask many of the students, the expats, the foreigners who have come to China, why, for all purposes, did they happen to choose China – So why China?” is the conversational fallback – they will often mumble out something.

They might mention the economic miracle, how it’s good to get to know China and Chinese and the culture, how employers might find it useful or at least you’ll stand out from the crowd. They might mention interest in learning the language, or an affection for Asian culture more generally. Or they might have come because they heard about others doing it, and it’s a good place to teach English to earn a bit of money.

A lot of people in Beijing, the migrants, the foreigners, don’t really know why they are here. Two and a bit years after arriving I feel now is a good time to identify why exactly I decided to come here, for myself, to work it out.

The reasons why of course reflects vast forces of which we’re barely aware. The confluence of economic, political and social factors far too large to comprehend on a macro level. It’s one of the tasks a journalist and writer should have in fact, trying to untangle this web of influence, to make clear the strands that tie people, politics and the decisions of every day, together.

The reason why I came here is obviously bound to that. China is big and large, important and vital. It made sense journalistically, and trying to make sense of it all presents great opportunities for the freelance journalist. But this is not why I came to Beijing. It is and it is not. Just like you may choose a job or a partner based on a checklist of reasons (because it offers better promotional offers; because she has a good family background), it does not really speak to the truth, the gut instinct of why you chose to do what you did.

I think the bigger part of me chose to move to Beijing because for the need of adventure, for experience, and for a narrative greater than that offered by the humdrum exactitude of the everyday. You may find such a reason laughable in its innocent sincerity, but such romantic ideals, I guess, are the ideals in which I find most fascination.

In Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed, she talks about a theory of the novel based on Miguel Cervantes’ classic novel of adventure Don Quixote: “The novel form is about the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books”.

Likewise, I find great empathy with the sentiment expressed by a reviewer writing in the New York Times about Jack Kerouac: “He trusted, finally, in his own energy, but it was an energy produced from the finest sources: great books, adventurous friends, high moral purpose and wide experience”.

That is what I live for. And when I set out, at 23, to go far away, to a new city, I guess a part of me instinctively knew it was the right decision to make, despite the subsequent misery of the first three months after arrival and some of the later moments of being here.

Why did I move to Beijing? Because anything else would’ve been easy. And the quest never is.

Blog posts from last January, 2014:

3 month update: freelancing in Beijing

Great journalists and great journalism: how to make a name for yourself pt. 2

How I got my first ever paid freelance gig

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