Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘writing

It took me four years before I started making good money from freelance writing. Could I apply this to other fields?

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A painting (based on ancient cave art) I did last week. It’s not great, but what if I kept practicing? Wouldn’t professionalism eventually be an option?

I’ve been freelancing since the autumn/winter months of 2012. Back then I’d recently moved to Beijing and was interning at a listings magazine called The Beijinger. And in order to supplement my meagre income I started pitching to UK publications.

I’d learned how to pitch and the rules of how to do freelance journalism while I was still a student on my journalism B.A., so I knew the fundamentals. But doing it while I was a student was like a game.

Doing it for real, in order to try and make money, as a professional freelance journalist, was something I learned how to do as a necessity.

For several years the majority of my income came from the full time jobs I had; freelance journalism was what I did on the side, both as a very satisfying sideline (with longer term career prospects) and extra income stream.

Last year I turned fully freelance, and it was tough, but since the start of 2016 it has become a viable and comfortable means of living.

It took me four years before I reached this state of affairs. I now control my time, am earning a comfortable income, and have many opportunities for travel, leisure, and socializing, while at the same time indulging in my interests and thinking of other ways to develop.

One of these interests is painting, and I attended a painting class very recently in Beijing. I discovered how much I enjoyed it and that I displayed a natural knack for it. And I’ve been thinking to myself, “What if I kept at this for four or five years?”.

What if I started learning how to draw, then how to paint, and steadily kept at it. Wouldn’t it, at some stage, reach a level where it could be professional?

At this point, two dissenting voices will come to light. They will come from family and friends and will go something like this…”He goes to one painting class and now he thinks he can be a professional artist!” Or it will be something like this…”You think it’s too easy, so easy to do it, but you don’t know how hard it is”.

That voice, which comes from a place of doubt, and short-term thinking, is one you do not need to listen to, especially at the beginning. If you are a person who shows discipline, dedication, obsession, adaptability, and a huge appetite for learning and, perhaps more importantly, an appetite for self-learning (and how to do that), then you need to simply disregard that voice.

The second dissenting voice, and this one is more serious, is the voice that says your motivation is wrong. This voice is one I respect much more. What it’s saying is that you shouldn’t automatically think you can just be a professional and think it’s so easy to make money from being an artist or writer or photographer. This voice says you’ve got it backwards. You need to first appreciate the process, before you can enjoy the outcome.

That’s a voice with serious authority. Too much have I seen other writers or journalists, aspiring to make a living from it, not dedicating serious commitment to actually getting better at it. I write, and edit, for a living, and I write for a hobby and in my spare time. Because I love it. And I try to constantly improve. So forgive me if I’m a little skeptical about the aspirations of amateurs.

This is exactly what a professional painter could say to me, with my little dream as an amateur of someday making money from painting. The only way you could disprove that skepticism is by putting in the time. By putting in about seven years or so into learning the craft. Why seven years? Well, I took four years learning the freelance game, but I spent three years previously learning more on my journalism degree. So there’s seven years of experience (not including earlier, perhaps foundational experiences before that) that has led up to this point.

However, I think there’s nothing wrong to have that dream of making money from an art or craft, as long as you respect the process of getting there, and the time and effort needed. For me, that thought is the little fire powering some of that motivation. The motivation of learning how to paint or write. What serious writer doesn’t harbour dreams — along with critical acclaim and crowd adulation — of, if not stupendous riches, at least very comfortable earnings from the work they produce?

If I want to become a professional painter, then I’ll need to commit. See you in about seven years then.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 20, 2016 at 4:51 am

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.

*

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.

*

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

Of all the jobs I’ve had…

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Perhaps the nicest was the summer job I had picking apples. I was 19 at the time. The farm manager would pick us up in the morning in a tractor, and drop us off to where we’d be working that day, on a row of apple trees ripe for picking. We’d work until dusk, taking breaks whenever we wanted.

It was 2008. I’d returned from ten months teaching English in China and I was looking to earn some money, ready for another stint abroad. I’d start university the following year, where I’d read multimedia journalism.

We were paid 80 pence a box. We each had a black marker we used to initial every box we filled, leaving them out in a row for the farmhand to pick up later in his tractor. The boxes were not large, but the apples were not big either. The old ladies who owned the farm always gave us tips and covered our transportation costs; train fare in my case. But we did not make much.

Alongside me were a bunch of geezers who for whatever reason chose to work this late summer job. For lunch we’d eat our sandwiches and crisps and whatever else we’d packed. And of course we ate apples. Lots of apples. When it was time to take a break, I’d pick an apple from a tree, sit myself down, and eat an apple. Among our heads, there were apples ripening in the sun. We’d hear apples falling on the ground. Sometimes they’d fall on your head, and it hurt a little bit.

As the summer wore on, I’d have dreams of apples. They’d be yellow and red and warm. And I would dream the sound of apples falling to the ground, a sound I can hear still. A low thud, a compact thud, that often came one thud after the other, like a weighty round earth striking a far larger earth, and gravity would ring out the little’s earth slight hollowness.

*

It was 2011, and I’d sit alone in my room in a house full of people. Six people and three floors. I was in my second year of university. I’d travel to London every week, spending two nights, attending a free journalism course where I’d hone my pitching skills. This was on top of my journalism degree. I did not work especially hard in my second year. Not on my journalism degree work anyway.

In my second year, I wrote music reviews for a website who would send me CDs in the post. I kept a film blog and I’d go watch movies at the movie theatre alone, keeping notes in the dark, and then write about the film for my blog. I’d submit these reviews to another website which paid me on the basis of view counts.

In that year, I accumulated Microsoft Word files. I accrued more and more sentences and paragraphs. I did not do much reporting in my second year of uni. You might think that strange, but a journalism degree doesn’t actually provide much reporting practice or training. But what I did do was write a lot. It was what you would call a formative year.

*

I’m sitting in a Costa Coffee in Beijing, and it’s 2015. I’ve accumulated lots of bylines. But in the past few months I’ve felt little progress. I’ve achieved a few things, in my freelance journalism career. But I am looking forward to going home. For Christmas. I look forward to maybe going to Scotland, to hike in mountains of snow. I look forward to this as much as I worry that I’ll squander away the time leading up to December.

Amid all this, for whatever reason, the memory of that summer, where I picked apples for a living, arrives abruptly in my head, a thud on my consciousness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 30, 2015 at 10:00 am

How I became a novelist in Beijing — by Carly J. Hallman

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Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Later this year, through some mysterious cocktail of luck, hard work, and sheer determination, my first novel will be published in the U.S. ‘Year of the Goose’ is a dark comedy about the Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful fictional corporation. The novel weaves together tales of a deadly fat camp, a psychopathic heiress, a hair extension tycoon, a Tibetan monk reincarnated as a talking turtle, some witches, and an anthropomorphic diary-penning goose, among others.

I dreamed up the original idea for the novel back in America, sparked by a short story I wrote while still a student (about the aforementioned fat camp). I’d traveled and lived in China before, and, hailing from a boring small town in Texas, found it to be a treasure trove of inspiration — China is a place where things are happening, present continuous tense.

After I graduated I lived in Los Angeles for a while, where I worked as a glorified babysitter, sent out endless “real job” applications and resumes, and struggled to find my way out of a bad relationship. At twenty-four I gave up and got out, and moved back in with my parents. Depressed, disillusioned, directionless. The only thing I knew I wanted — needed — to do was to write that novel.

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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”.

The Greatest Article about Freelance Journalism Ever Written

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The author of the article is a guy who has won awards – who freelanced a front page splash for the New York Daily News. A guy who wrote crazy opening sentences about ‘boobies and gay Jews’ in the New York Times.

Someone who freelanced for seven years. And then got a job at Gawker.com and quit after the first day. Who once got paid $100 a word but who other times is so poor their dinner is a soup made from vitamin pills. Who once wrote entire features on a first-generation iPhone for almost a year, because they couldn’t afford to replace a broken laptop. Without further ado, here it is:

Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or, How To Make Vitamin Soup.

It is a piece of writing that inspires me every time I read it. And it makes the thrill of chasing a story, of pursuing bylines and writing, the very act of writing, seem like the most rock’n’roll fucking thing you can do. Richard Morgan, I salute you!

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 1, 2013 at 12:00 am