Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelancing

Bangkok & Chiang Mai

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Last month I went to Thailand, for the second time this year.

I was in Bangkok for about a week in total, and several days in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city and about an hour away, by plane, north of Bangkok.

Jungle and hills surround it and it doesn’t feel like a city at all, more like an overgrown village with a temporary leasehold over the jungle.

Quite a few of my friends told me about their love for Chiang Mai. It’s a very chill, laid-back place with lots of cafes and guesthouses. But for me it was too chill. I prefer the raw energy of Bangkok which feels alive and visceral — intense — like life has been crammed into every inch.

In Chiang Mai I happened to meet up with Brent Crane, a fellow freelancer, who was on a journey traveling overland from Cambodia, where he’d spent a year at the Phnom Penh Post, to Nepal. Brent’s a prolific freelancer (and a guest contributor to the site) and by the time I’d met him in Chiang Mai he’d already sold features to The New Republic and Men’s Journal, making more than enough to cover his travel expenses.

I was taking it easy; reading and writing more of my novel. In Chiang Mai I didn’t do much of the things you’re supposed to do (elephant riding, trekking, jungle zip-lining, etc). I didn’t really have the appetite to do them so I didn’t.

If you’re there though try Counting Sheeps (sic) hostel. It’s comfortable, centrally located, and very good. Say hi to Goieurh too, who taught me how to play checkers. And you really should check out the Sunday evening market in the old town.

In Bangkok, I made a new friend who I came across playing Pokemon Go. It was on the steps next to Paragon, a shopping mall in downtown.

I also spent a couple of nights in Sofitel Bangkok, a five-star hotel. Having written for travel publications such as Wanderlust, CNN Travel, and NineMSN, I got a deal.

The suite they gave me was grand and lovely. It was the biggest hotel room I have ever stayed in. I was chauffeured to and from the airport in a Mercedes, which had WiFi and hot towels. I had my own personal butler and access to the VIP lounge, where there was served wine, canapes, fruit, cakes, cheese, prawn cocktails, and other beverages. There was a cool swimming pool, and breakfast buffet with a rack of honeycomb. The bathroom had Hermes toiletries.

It was the best I’ve ever been treated — a truly luxurious and memorable experience at the Sofitel Bangkok. Did I mention dinner on their rooftop restaurant L’Appart? It was elegant French fare — delicious scallops — and I had great company.

Having twice stayed in five-star hotels this year, the experience is rather agreeable I have to say and checking online the expense for these hotels in Asia isn’t as extravagant as you may think so it’s worth spoiling yourself sometimes. The experience really does linger long in the memory.

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Moving Onward

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2016 has been a pivotal year.

In January I managed to secure a freelance contract with a PR firm. This guaranteed income stability, the single biggest contributor to freelance happiness this year, in contrast with last year where I had no such guarantee. This year I also decided to start writing a novel.

This summer has been busy. I added two jobs to the one I had with the PR firm. The others are teaching English (which I did for a month, paying for the next three months’ rent) and the other is copywriting.

Copywriting is a new occupation for me. And as a writer it always amazes me how much there is still yet to learn. As a writer of nonfiction and journalism I’d never really paid that much attention to adjectives and verbs, they came quite naturally. But in advertising and marketing every word needs to count, conveying information about the brand and the product.

It’s about trying to locate the voice of a brand and then trying to speak with the voice of that brand consistently. It’s a craft uniquely suited to novelists and screenwriters, rather than journalists I feel. It’s more about character and voice, rather than information.

What does this mean? Have I abandoned journalism for the dark arts of advertising? Have I become something I’d always forsworn was the easy, commercial position?

At the start of this year I thought I’d take a step back from journalism to concentrate on my own writing, namely fiction and essays. There are, after all, many more forms of writing. And journalism is a severely limiting form with very rigid constraints.

I will always continue practicing journalism, and I still do. I’ve got an article to work on right now in fact. But journalism seems to be dying. Well, print journalism anyway. Part of it died in a very real way this year when The Independent newspaper was shuttered in March.

The British newspaper industry appears to be in terrible decline. The Daily Telegraph is not what it once was amid colossal changes and scaling back. The Guardian is asking readers for donations. Regional and local papers announce regular falls in revenue and circulation. Across the pond even mighty names like the New York Times report troubling times as the entire industry’s business model is being made redundant.

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With the addition of those jobs to my freelance portfolio success, or some measure of it, has followed. This criterion of success is making more money. Before, I was surviving only on the income generated by one job, and the meagre income of infrequent freelance gigs. I’d become used to surviving (quite well, if not lavishly), this way.

When I was catapulted into something else entirely, into greater earnings, that very change made me feel vulnerable. It made me feel anxious.

I spent some time trying to diagnose what this was.

Money is an abstract idea. It’s conceptual. And that means it has the capacity, as an idea, to control and influence you beyond its physical component. Think of it this way: money, which is really just some bits of paper or bits of metal, is almost worthless in itself. Its value comes from the value we have given it. And this value can stretch and grow in accordance with the value and meaning to which you give it yourself.

Once I realized this, I understood how to get over its control over me, at least partially. It means trying to hold onto things that really matter: spending time well, my books, going for a swim, having a joke with friends, walking in nature. It sounds corny but money should fall under your own whims and decisions, not the other way around.

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I have been reading a fair amount this summer, getting through novels. I have also been writing fiction. It’s been a revelation to me.

Even as I read and write more, my adoration of it, of language, ideas, character, and story, develops still.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a recent profile I read of Eimear McBride, the Irish novelist, in which she says writing never stops being hard and painful and yet it brings her great joy. But, she adds: “happiness and joy are not the same”.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 1, 2016 at 9:52 am

The Luxuries and the Poverties of the Freelance Life

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It’s just gone a year since I went completely freelance.

Last year I was made to leave my job as a scriptwriter at a Chinese TV company. It was around February or March.

For over a year now I’ve been self-employed. I’ve not had “work” to go to — an office which demands time obligation. I’ve had no schedule other than that fixed by my own internal compass (a hazy, inefficient compass). I don’t wake up to an alarm. I don’t fall asleep feeling guilty about the lateness of the time. And I’ve had a freedom both luxurious and, at times, incredibly burdensome and crushing.

I feel no desire to wax and shine the wonders of the freelance life or working for oneself. If you want one of those crass, “inspiring” articles about “quitting the office job” to go freelance, please go read one of those.

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February 20th — in Thailand

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I’ve been to Thailand before. It’s a fun place.

It’s 5.17am and I’m in my hotel room, just off the road, in some seedy town on the island of Phuket.

I’ve been here a few days and I’m still jetlagged, operating English hours under the hot, Thai sun.

I’m here for a week, making the most of cheap flights and southeast Asian weather, before returning to the grim cold of Beijing.

Today I woke up, went to buy a ticket to go to Krabi (I need to catch the boat in a couple of hours), had some food and then went back to my hotel.

I then slept until early evening, whereupon I took myself to the beach and swam, bobbing up and down until the sun sank into the ocean. I jumped up at that moment, the moment it disappeared, as if I could jump higher than the horizon.

I went back to the hotel and showered, and had dinner and then walked the length of the beach and back. (I did the drinking and the partying yesterday). Then I binge watched the show Californication. I took a break to write the rest of chapter one of a novel I’ve started writing. And continued my binge until I felt the urge to write again, which is where the past meets the present in this blog post.

I’m here alone, traveling solo. Several people have asked me about how it’s been, traveling alone — from the guy at the check-in at Heathrow airport, to the travel operator I bought my ticket to Krabi from, it seems like it’s almost a predicament rather than a position of possibility.

But I like traveling alone. You can do whatever you want. And right now, it’s unalloyed freedom. Balance is important and this week in the sun and the sea and the palm trees and the delicious pad thai and the sense of feeling you get from detaching from “reality” (which is often a reality spent staring at a screen and endless, pointless updates) is a week worth its weight in gold.

It’s a week that will sunny up the weeks to come, and help the creativity flow. I’m a writer and so I chose a week of sun. It seemed like a good idea.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 19, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Where I am right now

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Published on Monday, December 7, in The Independent, p. 23.

After four weeks in Yunnan, I am back in Beijing. Before I fly back to England for Christmas I am staying on a friend’s couch in Beijing.

Recently, I was published for a piece analyzing international affairs. It was my first time writing such a piece for a national newspaper. I asked the editor for advice on tone, to which he replied: “It’s supposed to be written in an authoritative manner, by you, our correspondent, who knows about China’s approach to climate change”.

The pressure was on. Certainly I did not want to write an article with my name on it, and my picture, a first for me, that had holes in it — or a poorly researched piece that could make me look like a fool in the printed paper, and online, for an audience of millions.

But the piece was well received by the editor and appeared in Monday’s issue of the paper. As a foreign correspondent I have made progress since August, when I received a phone call from London, from the foreign editor of The Independent, asking me if I was available to write a story.

The call came around 6pm my time, which is about 9am in the UK, and of course I said “yes”. The editor knew me because I had, some months ago, Tweeted him on Twitter asking if I could contribute to his paper. We exchanged messages but nothing came of it. As no-else was available at that time, that day in August, he suddenly remembered me and gave me a call.

That evening, I rushed around Beijing, doing interviews, calling people, and wrote up my story in a Starbucks. The story I wrote impressed the editor and was printed the following day. From then on I got more work with The Independent.

A couple of things to note, especially for any budding freelancers out there. While I was on the phone to the foreign editor, even though it was my first ever time speaking to him proper, I still asked him if I could have a higher fee for the article I had not yet written. He said “yes”– he’d give me a bit of a higher rate (he didn’t have much of a choice) and so I established, from the beginning, a precedent for getting higher rates from them.

It’s important that freelancers do not price themselves out of their jobs, and importantly, price other freelancers out of their jobs.

It’s important that editors respect you, and that you respect yourself and your work. It is a question of confidence that you value yourself to a point where you feel you can ask for better payment. But it’s a good habit to have.

Pitchable outlets #3: CNN.com

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This is a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. Use the pitchable outlets tag to see more in the series.

Status: medium-high / 1st tier

Reach: CNN, short for the Cable News Network, was the first 24-hour cable news network and the first all-news TV channel in the US. It launched its online counterpart CNN.com in 1995. Since then the website has grown into one of the most widely read news publications worldwide. It has numerous bureau across the globe and international channels such as CNN Espanol and CNN Philippines.

For an idea of reach, one of my stories for CNN.com scored over two million page views.

Accessibility: CNN.com’s China section is well developed with broadcasting staff based in Beijing, and editors in Hong Kong. Its China coverage is excellent, even if their TV broadcasts still tend toward the bombastic, with deeply reported online articles and news features that are often informative as well as entertaining. They have a good stable of Chinese news assistants who help in producing short-form video, and in Will Ripley they have a video correspondent who makes use of innovative reporting techniques.

My contributions to CNN.com have been in news features covering cultural trends in China. I made contact with their China editor via Twitter — I found her Twitter account, Tweeted a message to the effect of, “Hey, do you take freelance pitches?”, and she replied in the affirmative. She then sent me her email address via private message on Twitter.

I’ve published two articles about China for CNN, and a travel story for CNN’s online travel section. The pitch for the travel story was forwarded on to their travel editor by my China editor.

I’ve also had a story killed by CNN (my first kill and for which I did not receive a kill fee). The story had been commissioned, but then subsequently killed by someone who had been standing in for the editor who originally commissioned it.

CNN has a roster of staffers who report breaking news and generate stories. For a freelancer, you will have to pitch original ideas; ideas that a freelancer would have the time and flexibility to cover. For instance, these could be stories from China’s rural areas or under reported regions and industries, which staffers may not have time to get to. Their email format is: firstname dot lastname @ CNN dot com.

Writing style: CNN.com has a quite distinctive writing style. They tend to use short paragraphs — one sentence or two sentence paragraphs are not at all uncommon. What this means in practice for the journalist is less writing, and more reporting. Both of the articles I’ve had published took months before they were finally published as numerous rounds of back-and-forth took place. My editor would often ask additional questions and for information to be added, all of which meant additional reporting.

Each paragraph in their articles contain important items of information. This does not mean their articles are not stories. CNN.com articles often contain narrative, but they will be truncated and will fulfill a purpose. Numerous angles will need to be covered and reporting will need to be deep and varied. The prose style is snappy and chatty but authoritative.

For a story about how Buddhism is once again colonizing the hearts of Chinese people, I used an interview with a young man who wanted to become a monk. The interview transcript ran to several pages, and was immensely useful, but his story was condensed into a much shorter version in the final piece. It nevertheless formed a vital part of the article, and demonstrates how a journalist needs to filter information in order to master the narrative.

Payment: CNN have paid me $300 for 1000 words, for articles. This is not bad, but, considering the amount of work involved, not great either. They will pay more for photos to go along with a story (ie a photo gallery) but only if you agree to relinquish copyright of your photos to CNN.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 7, 2015 at 8:38 am

Satisfying moments when freelancing

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 20, 2015 at 6:12 am