Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for April 2015

How To Make A Name For Yourself pt 4: Defining Your Own Path

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As a guiding principle life shrinks and life expands in direct proportion to your willingness to assume risk.

Casey Neistat, filmmaker

There is a huge difference between making it within a system, and making it on your own terms. 

Jostling along the path of freelance journalism, I’ve increasingly found that the clutch of bylines I’ve accumulated count for very little. All it means is that when I pitch or when I get emails out of the blue, from editors, I just have that little more cache.

It affords me more freedom; the ability to take up stories that really interest me. And take punts on travel.

But you will never make it.

Not as a freelance journalist.

But you may do as a bonafide writer. Or some other high-powered creative.

So how do you break out of the tiny little achievements that you get as a freelancer? By focusing less on the litany of tasks that require urgent deadlines, and focusing more on the slow long-term creative projects that once produced and completed will be of higher value.

Why?

Because that kind of work is hard. And harder to replicate.

That is how your define your own path.

This is a continuing series exploring the strategies of success of journalists and writers. Part one in the series can be found here – and here is the previous entry

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Photo gallery: what’s it like in Beijing – my immediate neighborhood

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 28, 2015 at 9:33 am

Top 5 mobile phones for journalists

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Most productive

The stylus helps to frame the Note 4 as a productivity tool

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

The Note 4 has a large screen, a top-of-the-line processor to handle multitasking, a very capable camera, and, best of all, a multifunctional stylus with features journalists may find very handy.

The phone has two-day battery life and there is the option of expandable storage with a MicroSD card slot.

The larger screen, which is one of the sharpest and most vivid on the market, is an important feature. Web browsing, having multiple windows open (which the phone allows you to move around and resize), and typing out emails or memos, are all made easier when there’s extra screen space. The downside to this is the phone really has to be handled with two hands in use. But few other phones has the ability to act as a very portable computer as the Note 4 does.

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The perfect story: do all journalists want to become novelists?

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I’ve written one “perfect” story in my life. It’s a bold claim but it’s ironic because the story in question is a Japanese fable about Perfection. I wrote it when I was 15 years old. Before the story materialized I had spent the previous two weeks or so thinking about it late at night while I was in bed. Slowly the rough outline or arc of the story took shape and I kind of vaguely knew how it might turn. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know what the story was or what the story would be. But over the two weeks it was what I thought about during the day and before I fell asleep.

Hemingway and a small tiger. Hemingway started his career as a journalist.

Ernest Hemingway and a small tiger. He started his career as a journalist.

Then one afternoon at school, while I was in some form of detention, I decided to write the story, for an English assignment. I was in the library with a few other miscreants. And I just started writing – in longhand, with a blue Biro on lined paper. And what came out was 99% perfect. The story was rounded, full, and did what the story set out to do. My English teacher read it out in class and I distinctly remember the enraptured silence as the story gripped my fellow pupils, and the applause once it ended – the applause! And she showed it to the other English teachers who also praised the story.

But before you tire of this anecdote, here’s the point: I have never, in the 11 years since, been able to reproduce anything approaching the same level of effortless flow, the ease with which that story seemed to shape itself, the logic and momentum, the plot and the ending all taking shape as the Biro made its way across the page. As if brain, arm and pen were one single entity all directed toward the inevitable creation of that story.

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The secret anxiety of being a freelancer

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I am not the world’s most prolific freelance journalist. I tend to report and write fairly slowly. I don’t pitch all that often and I’m not insanely busy with assignments. These are all great faults that I need to improve. And yet even with this somewhat leisurely state of affairs I find myself feeling stressed, anxious and under pressure.

This boils down to one thing and something perhaps unique to the freelance trade. And that’s you always feel like you should be doing more. 

I find myself constantly worrying about story ideas, about the fact I haven’t written enough pitches, or that I haven’t pitched enough, or about new ideas. In bed, at cafes, at diners, my mind is abuzz with activity, always whirring, constantly active. A lot of the time it’s cycling through trivial, arcane bits of matter, pop cultural references and connections, things people said and the songs that are for some reason stuck.

And yet this constant activity is conducive to making the sorts of connections and curiosity that can be a freelance journalist’s source of power: that ability to generate story ideas that people have not yet identified previously.

But it can be tough on your sanity to be living with such an always-on state of mind. I know other, better, more experienced, more meticulous freelancers will be more organized and have routines that best manages their workflow. I guess I still need to fumble and reach toward that ideal.

April. It’s a transitional month. It’s still fairly cold at night here and the days are sometimes warm enough for a light jumper. But it’s windy and everyone is expecting real warmth to arrive. I feel April should be the month you spend, if you’re a freelance, on those tasks, some of which may be leftover from the previous year, that are important but not urgent.

Any creative will have those ‘just-started’ or ‘half-finished-but-haven’t-looked-at-it-for-months’ projects that they know are important. Even if it’s just something they want to produce, create, get out into the world, they know it’s important to finish such projects because the value of these things can be great.

I’ve been working on an essay (nonfiction memoir) for a while now and I have no idea if it’s even halfway complete, but I know that once it is complete it may be worth more than those urgent journalism pieces. Why? Because it’ll capture something important for me personally, and for others it may be a piece of writing that leaves a more memorable and longer lasting impression than a news report. But I hope the anxiety of living, working, doesn’t leave me bereft.