Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for April 2014

Freelancing in Beijing: 6 month update

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I am going to North Korea at the end of this week. I’m very excited because it’s a country not many can say they’ve been to; one of the most unusual nations on the planet.

I will be going partly for journalistic reasons. It’s a gamble  – although the travel company taking me says my safety is ensured – as the trip is expensive and I’m pretty sure I won’t earn it all back by selling off the related stories.

But hey, I’m young, without responsibilities and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime sorta thing. I’ve got several commissioned articles in the pipeline, with the potential for travel. I am fulfilling one of the aims I had for this year which was to combine freelancing and travel.

I am more or less financially stable now, with an increased salary from the TV company where I work. This month and the next I have more freelance work too. The freelance work does seem to come in batches; I’ll have periods where it’s bit of a desert, and then come sudden oases of plentiful commissions. I will resolve to try and make £300, at least, a month from freelancing. But what’s nice about having the other job is that I can do it for my own benefit rather than purely for financial survival.

As for my non-professional life, Beijing is starting to feel like my new home. I enjoy the social scene and the ease of going for lunch or dinner. It’s affordable and so very tasty. Let me emphasise again: the ability to eat out and hang out is unrivaled by what I could afford back in England.

It’s much warmer now. Winter is long and harsh here and the warming days changes drastically the atmosphere of the city. I will be soon be moving out of my tiny, tiny rented room into something bigger. Upwards!

The next three months – May, June, July – I will lay down more plans for travel. And I guess I’ll continue writing and selling. I am itching to do something big and to really venture beyond my comfort level, to tackle a large project or subject. I haven’t decided exactly what yet (I have a few ideas) but before this year is out I definitely want to try.

In my experience, taking a calculated risk in the creative field usually pays off – whether it’s professionally funded or led by personal motivation, the profit of the experience is invaluable. In my view, creativity is defined by passionate risks.

How to write an article you’ve never written before

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Over the years I’ve written about various disparate subjects. They’ve ranged from 1500-word features on economics to interview-based features, short travel pieces and investigatory video game essays. Sometimes you’ll write pieces which you have no clue how to write, how to structure it, what to put in.

In these cases, what I do is very simple. I was reminded of this when I read an online article in The New Yorker. It is about author Akhil Sharma and the 12 years he spent producing a novel: “After writing seven thousand pages over twelve and a half years, I now have a novel, published this week, that is two hundred and twenty-four pages long”.

The piece focuses on the technical challenges that Sharma faced writing his novel. It deals with what I believe writing can tend to be – a series of technical puzzles.

In these instances, it’s best to follow Sharma’s method:

“When I run into technical challenges, I look to writers who are not only better than I am but better than I ever probably will be. All I needed to do, therefore, was find novels that shared some of the same DNA as my book”.

I’m not comparing my journalism to the art of his fiction making. But what he said rung true. When I am unsure of how to achieve something, whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph or an article, I’ll often find prior examples, articles with similar subjects, and read. I’ll read it closely, and I’ll read it to study.

New territory

Recently I have not been so focused on pure journalism. I have in fact focused more on nonfiction. It is a fine distinction. Nonfiction tend to be essays, first-person pieces, memoir and narratives that don’t have a solely journalistic focus. Trying to make it as a writer, I feel nonfiction offers some of the creative freedom of fiction and the possibility of some personal renown.

You always have to aim upwards. I published a piece of nonfiction, but it was unpaid, and am now looking for paying outlets. Bigger and better.

Writing is a craft. And people may think writing just happens. But they don’t see the years of reading, of the early amateur practice pieces and the careful note-taking of other people’s sentences, the visual diagramming of how to put together an article.

But at least in journalism, there’s no sacrifice as equal in measure as Sharma’s: “The book took twelve and a half years of my life and I am not sure if it was the right investment of my time”.