Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Richard Linklater, and the Importance of Obsession

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A still from the movie Boyhood, directed by Linklater.

On the way over to Beijing I passed the time watching a movie on the in-flight entertainment system. I had heard about this movie called “Boyhood” that had been garnering praise; from actors, directors and my peers. I recalled a quote from a Hollywood star: “[…] and of course Boyhood, which blew me away”; one of those half-remembered quotations that lodge in your mind, relentlessly persuading.

The movie is directed by Richard Linklater, a director who makes fervent, lucid films about grown-up things, or more specifically the moments that come to inform your grown-up self. Films like Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (my personal favourite) and Before Midnight – a trilogy that feature the same two actors (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) in nine-year installments following the same couple as they go from chance encounter to rekindled romance to settled couple.

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Freelance Journalism: Adventure & Travel (Getting to Know Asia)

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I'd like to do more of this. But without the cameras. A notebook will do.

I’d like to do more of this. But without the cameras. A notebook will do.

Hello. By the time you read this I should have already arrived in Beijing, after flying from England which is where I have spent the past 27 days. Time to get back to the Big Beige.

January is a busy month for me, with a couple of commissions, and most urgently the planning of a trip to Myanmar. I’ve talked about it in previous posts but finally it should be on the cards. I have a story related to it that I’ve been developing for a while now. But the biggest reason I want to go there is simply to look around and make it less unwelcoming: to get to know it.

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was once a British colony and is the second largest country, after Indonesia, in southeast Asia. That fact alone, its bigness, is beguiling.

It is a Buddhist country, nominally now a democracy after decades of military imposed rule, filled with unspoilt landscapes, and yet riven with hate crimes and ethnic conflict, as well as drug barons, mines and smugglers. A perfect recipe then for a journalist.

This year I intend to go out more from my Beijing hub. I want to have bases spread throughout Asia. Once you’re familiar, once you’ve mapped out and made a place previously unknown known, it’s so much easier to grasp the geography of traveling.

It’s part of why I like this idea of freelance foreign correspondence: the adventure. I’d gotten complacent, too comfortable and sequestered in Beijing. It was seeing a fellow freelance having so much fun that spurred me. He has been journeying around China and Myanmar traveling and writing and getting published. Goddamit! I want some of that! Some of that momentum and adrenaline and the wild experiences. Brent Crane, I salute you!

I hope to ask him to write a guest piece about how he did it, how he traveled and wrote at the same time. Did he first travel somewhere and then look around for stories or did his successful pitches determine his itinerary? Hopefully he will oblige and teach us, because I haven’t actually done it yet and it would be good to know.

VIDEO: A year in the life of a freelance journalist abroad

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In early 2014, I decided to buy a new camera. With it I started to take short videos that captured how life unfolded. I would record at dinners, while I was commuting, when I’d travel and so on. It wasn’t every day, but over a year I’d collected enough footage to make a short film about my life as a freelance journalist.

The video shows what Beijing is like, my horribly cramped former living quarters, what I get up to on my off-hours, and includes footage from my North Korea reporting trip and other travels. I hope to make more videos for my YouTube channel this year, so please consider subscribing.

This blog is a guide on becoming a roving freelancer, as well as a chronicle of my journey. The above video, I hope, fills in some of the blanks: a visual record. A written round-up of 2014 can be found here: Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On.

The video was shot on a Canon S120 and edited in Windows Movie Maker. These are the tools I currently have, and I intend to make the most of them. For more on this, see these posts: 6 journalism resolutions for the new year, and getting into video storytelling: using a cheap compact camera.

Part two: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Kate Burt is a freelance writer and editor for publications including the Independent (“where I’ve also been a commissioning editor – so I know the other side!”), and the Guardian. She also blogs at yourhomeislovely.com

Publication: Melody Maker (RIP)

Fee: About £30 as I recall!

What were you doing at the time?

I was a staff writer on a teen magazine, my first proper journalism job. Then I met the editor of Melody Maker [a now defunct music publication] on the bus to work, which I took every day, and he kept on at me to write some freelance reviews for the mag as we’d always chat about music on the bus. It became a regular thing and started me on the road to full-time freelancing.

How did you get the commission?

My first commission following a pitch – rather than bus chat – was for the Guardian Guide. I had pitched dozens of ideas to them for months and been rejected over and over but it was my dream to write for them at the time. I learnt that I needed to give them something no one else would – so I offered an interview with the then obscure Derren Brown whose first late-night C4 TV show was called Mind Control or something.

I got the PR to provisionally agree that I could interview Derren if the Guardian said yes so I could put that in the pitch, which is important (what if they say no after you’ve pitched?). I outlined an idea that I would try out six of his mind control tricks on various strangers and write about how it worked. No staff writer had the time for that, it was quite quirky and funny and introduced a new talent that fitted the Guide’s entertainment remit. Getting the word “new” into a pitch, I learned, is key, as is being game to get out there and understanding what is a good fit for the publication.

Make your idea unique to you

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Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Brent Crane is an American journalist who moved to Asia in 2014. He has since traveled around China and Myanmar, scoring bylines in the Daily Telegraph, Vice, Aljazeera, and Roads & Kingdoms, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com

I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

My chosen topic was the unprecedented dangers of freelance reporting from the Syrian civil war and how this related to the sea change that was taking place in the world of journalism in general. I’d been turned on to the idea from a book that I found in the AI office, a memoir by freelance photojournalist Paul Conroy called “Under the Wire”.

It took me forever to narrow the subject down from “the problems faced by freelance war reporters” to “the problem faced by freelance war reporters in Syria and why this matters for journalism as a whole”; but I had a lot of help from the editors at AI.

Pitching is something you can only get better at with practice, but that experience did teach me to never stop asking myself “Yeah but why should anyone care?” when formulating a story idea. A topic being interesting is not enough. It must be newsy in some way if an editor is going to bite.

My 1500-word feature went through numerous edits. It was a major learning experience for me.

To research it I spoke with eight highly accomplished freelancers, most of whom had reported from Syria. Being able to pick their brains about how they operated as freelancers was invaluable to me as an aspiring journalist. And also they made for great first-time interviewees, having all been in my shoes at some point. Talking with them humanized the field.

Before that, a freelance journalist in my mind was a kind of mysterious character and freelancing was more of a theoretical career choice than a realistic one. Actually meeting some lone wolf writers I had a kind of lightbulb moment: If these people can do it, so can I. That was a huge confidence booster for me and a major push for me to take the leap.

And for the first time in my life I’d actually made an actual sum of money writing. Holding that check for $200 in my hands I thought anything was possible.

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6 journalism resolutions for the new year & how to achieve them

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1. Write More

It sounds so simple but it’s not. All writers know that they should be writing more. The successful imposition of the “write more” intention then requires rules and routines (tricks, really) that, crucially, forms a habit. Here are a few that I’ll be following:

  • 50 words a day

This rule is designed on the understanding that motivation is a fickle and finite resource. We only have so much of it and so the barriers to entry for any task should be as low as possible. The clearest analogy I’ve heard is for flossing your teeth. Instead of a broad goal that you should be flossing more you should have this aim: floss one tooth. Just a single tooth.

Now this is much easier you think. I can do one tooth. But of course you start flossing one tooth and then you end up doing another and another until you end up doing every one; fulfilling your goal without guilt or anxiety because you’ve already achieved your aim of flossing one tooth.

The same goes for writing. You may set yourself the well-meaning goal of 500 words a day, but this may be too daunting especially if you’re in the process of habit forming. 50 words a day is much more manageable; there’s even an argument for a more drastic 10 words a day, anything to get your bum on a seat and writing. Once you’ve written those 50 words, the rest will follow.

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The Journalist’s Christmas Wishlist: 2014 Edition

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Beyerdyamic T51i: $299/ £246

They are compact, well built, include an in-line remote and microphone, and offer outstanding sound quality. These Beyerdynamic headphones are highly rated (if you don’t believe me, check here, here and here), and are quite possibly the world’s best portable headphones. If there’s one piece of tech that’s worth spending more on it’s headphones. Unlike smartphones, cameras and laptops; good headphones made 20 years ago will still be good headphones today.

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