Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘money

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”.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 1, 2016 at 9:52 am

Being a journalist and being rich has little to no connection

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I’ve been pondering something. The connection or correlation between how prestigious a publication is and how much that publication pays. When I first had the idea for this blog post, I had an alternate title:

“The Correlation Between a Publication’s Prestige and How Much It Pays”.

Journalists often develop an understanding of where publications stand in the hierarchy of prestige. That hierarchy may have individual quirks, dependent on your beat, but there will be some commonly held tacit acknowledgements.

That, for example, The New York Times is right up there, significantly above USA Today — even though USA Today has a higher circulation — and that “The Gray Lady”, on an international level at least, probably sits above The Wall Street Journal in terms of byline prestige.

Magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Esquire are many writers’ dream destinations in which to be published. They form the Royalty.

Next come the venerable Dukes of Journalism: The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Times (of London). Adjacent to these are The International Names of Standing — The BBC, CNN.com, Al Jazeera, The EconomistTime. 

And there are now digital titans who, like Knight errants, have a glamour of their own: VICE; BuzzFeed, disrupting things.  

And yet, often, when I tell people about some of the publications I’ve been published in, they expect an amount of money I should have been paid commensurate to that publication’s prestige.

When I tell them the amount that I am actually paid, they are shocked.

And appalled.

So why do it?

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After Burma, now I’m broke

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I spent quite a lot of money traveling to and from Burma. This is largely because I dropped big sums buying plane tickets to and from Burma. It is not likely I will make all that spent cash back from the stories gathered from the trip. Ho. Hum.

I had a fantastic, eye-opening time over there. And I met a wonderful array of people: travelers from China and Taiwan. Locals. Interviewees. Journalists.

Now I have very little money. I had to ask my landlady to give me an extension for paying the rent. I have the equivalent of about £30 in my Chinese bank account. And in my UK bank account, which I consider my “savings” account, I have something in the region of -£500. Yes, that’s right – minus. Thank god for bank overdrafts.

The effect of this has mostly been that I’ve curbed the frequency that I eat out or drink beers. I do not really buy a lot of things in Beijing…clothes, shoes, gadgets. I don’t feel any great compulsion to buy things. But I do spend a lot on eating. And I don’t even really think about it. It’s just one of those things. In Beijing, eating out and eating tasty things is kind of unconscious.

I cannot say I feel a great deal of anxiety. Oh and I quit that script editing job I had at the Chinese TV company. I was barely working for them part-time and I thought it was time to part ways. So I am just freelancing right now. And also applying for some jobs.

I do have money coming in from the published stories so I think I will be okay. It’s mostly making rent that I worry about but that also should be okay once payment for those stories start accumulating. It is an annoyance not having a local source of income. But that also should be okay as I’ve been networking and feeling around for opportunities. One of the great lessons you learn living abroad is how to hustle, feel and adapt, flex and initiate. Resourcefulness.

I have managed to sell, or rather get commissioned for a couple of Burma stories, but it’s not been the easiest but I will persevere on that front. It is a struggle and there’s no use in pretending otherwise. The trip will be a loss-maker. But I did say, before I went, in my earlier blog post, that it was part of my plan to get to know southeast Asia better.

Being “broke” is a curious thing. Obviously I can still afford to feed myself. Rent money may be harder to acquire but it’s not like that time I was living in a tiny hovel eating sweet potatoes for lunch and dinner for a week while I was waiting for a payment to hit the bank (and what a beautiful recurring anecdote that has become).

There is no moral to be extracted from this. No lesson to be drawn – apart from maybe buy cheaper plane tickets next time. I have little money, making the choices I have fewer. And yet I am content and satisfied. And I feel free. Somewhat. Okay, maybe there is a summary of sorts. And that is…when you come across limitations like having less money, that can be – oddly, ironically – freeing.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 31, 2015 at 7:43 pm

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!

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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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Money: or rather the lack of it when you’re trying to freelance

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A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

Until very recently I did not have a regular income and though 2013 was marked by great experiences (some of the best ever in fact), it was not one that saw me in great wealth. I won’t go over the details but there were periods where I had to subsist on the cheapest foods and debt seemed unending.

Poverty. Not many of us actually know it and know it well, and I would not be one to claim expertise. But a couple of things I saw recently helped to reaffirm my position toward the accumulation of cash. The first was a quote I saw in Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours. In an essay about writing and writers he quotes author Natalie Goldberg: “I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work”.

The second thing was a video of an interview with a musician who said: “If I have enough to pay rent, buy groceries then that’s cool – I can just concentrate on my music”.

Being ‘poor’ is relative. We live in an age of bounteous opportunity. Being so-called poor provides a clear set of options. How? Well, it frees you to concentrate on what most matters.

A month ago I published a post on WannabeHacks.co.uk, a website for aspiring journalists. There I set out the argument that in order to freelance, especially in the early stages of your career, one of the best things you can do is go and live in an emerging economy country.

In writing this blog, I have already made contacts with fellow freelancers who are doing what I am doing: taking a risk, moving to somewhere exciting where things are rapidly changing and kickstarting their journalism career. Someone I know (met via this blog) decided to relocate to Istanbul and has already been commissioned multiple times for a major magazine.

But it can be difficult, especially financially. It helps to have some money saved up. But one of the best things about living in a country like China or Turkey or Malaysia or Mexico is that although economies are growing things are still relatively cheap. In China I eat out almost everyday and party hard. If I were freelancing in London, I’d probably already be dead. Due to starvation and exposure (’cause I couldn’t afford a roof over my head).

Kate Hodal (Guardian) sold most of her possessions to finance a move to south-east Asia and was so hard-up on so many occasions that she almost went home. But she persevered and now has the envy-inducing job of being South-east Asia correspondent, meaning she gets paid to fly to places like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines from her base in Thailand. Jonathan Kaiman (also Guardian) had to survive on a low-paid internship and a visa that forced him to take a bus full of Mongolian tradesman to Mongolia every month for almost a year, but he got bylines in the New York Times, LA Times, Foreign Policy and is now one of the most talented China correspondents around. Alec Ash, a Brit and correspondent for The Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote for four years for free on his blog about China from his home in Beijing. Now he’s living it up on an advance for a book he’s been signed to write.

Having the ability to purchase that new phone or buy that bag makes people happier. But it doesn’t, not really. You have to switch your mindset around to focus on what’s really going to drive you forward. Those shoes or that expensive meal might seem important but the enjoyment is absolutely inessential. You cannot, must not, think short-term material goals at this stage. What is important and infinitely more satisfying is recognition, appreciation of your work; the attainment of value.

To want more and more stuff is unerringly shallow. Invest in yourself. Buy what you need to hone your craft, no more. Spend on experiences…but spend wisely.

Being rich is meaningless if it doesn’t make you better at what you do.

6 things I learned about the freelance journalism market while I was in China

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property. Say you’ve taken an interest in computer hacking, or maybe the latest developments in south-east Asian fashion. And generate even a casual expertise and a few contacts in this area, and dig around for stories and news unknown to others (and trust me, there is a lot of stuff that is unknown to editors), then editors will be clamoring for your attention.

If you’re a freelancer based in Latin American, South Africa or South Korea, say, then you’ll have access to stories that lots and lots of publications will want. Make sure you roam around topics and subject areas and find suitable publications accordingly.

There are holes and niches to be filled even at the biggest and most renowned publications

One regret I have is that I didn’t try to pitch more publications while China-bound. The areas I’m most interested in – culture and society means a lot of my potential markets are high-brow magazines like Prospect, New Statesman and broadsheet newspapers. Hard markets you may think. But because I was on the ground and had the balls to pitch them meant my potential for commissions was higher. The fact that you are there in a foreign locale (and China is massively in demand as a news source) and have ‘local’ knowledge makes you immediately sexier to editors.

You have to make the best use of your location and specificity

Simply because I was based in China, I felt like I had the access and privilege to write about the whole Asian continent. I wrote an article for The Guardian about job prospects in Asia, I wrote about India’s economics and entrepreneurs and of course about China. I did not have to be in China or Asia to have had written these articles. But simply by being there, my authority  to write about them increases.

Specificity? That means making the most of your skills and potential. For example, writing about politics, technology and business is quite difficult unless you have sufficient contacts and experience. Certainly you could try – for smaller magazines, websites and B2B papers, but the bigger papers will be harder to entice.

What subjects interest you? And what about those subjects could you write that is feasible? Will you be able to get access to interviewees and enough information? Think small to begin with – insights, observations about trends, culture, little aspects of society of the country you’re in before jumping into 2000-word features about the sex trade in Brazil for example.

Money is and probably always will be an issue

When you’re young and starting out, don’t expect to be making lots of money. By all means, please please don’t write for free. But don’t expect to be living comfortably off your earnings. Being based in China helps. Most things are dirt cheap, but I still ended up in debt once I got back to England. You are making a name for yourself – writing about a different country, translating that foreign news to an audience is massively impressive. You will be read by thousands, or even if it’s just hundreds – foreign news is consumed by elites and influential people. It’s about the kudos and the glamour, not the money.

Having journalist friends opens an exponential amount of doors

While in Beijing, I befriended several journalists. I used LinkedIn, personal recommendations and events to connect with my fellow journos. I’ll write about how easy it is to do this in a future blogpost. One contact was particularly helpful – he gave me advice, introduced me to a news agency journo (who emailed me potential freelance opportunities) and also put me in touch with editors looking for more China stories. It’s a knock-on effect. Be generous, be helpful, connect people.

Freelancing is super f-ing fun and empowering

I had a blast. I’d have 2000 words to write in a day. The anxiety and pressure was…uncomfortable. But I felt awesome. The freedom to write articles you’ve come up with, to delve into topics you’re fascinated by and to talk to and meet people whose experiences outweigh your own is like the crack-addiction of a cocaine fiend.

It’s exciting, free and opens doors to experiences that you could never pay for. Enjoy the ride.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 27, 2013 at 8:00 am