1.You say you wear more hats than my old aunt Millie. Give us a thumbnail sketch of what makes up Linda Formichelli's professional life.
Well, I'm a big proponent of diversifying, so I do all kinds of writing and writing-related work: magazine articles, books, corporate writing, e-courses on getting published in magazines, and e-mentoring.
I see that a lot of these questions have to do with my full plate, so let me preface them by saying that the amount I do of each type of work varies. I don't go full-out on all these things! For example, I do only the rare copywriting gig these days, though I'd like to get back into it. And just six months ago I was doing mostly health writing, and now I'm doing more articles on business and marketing. It's always in flux.
2.What was the first hat you put on? How did you break into that field?
It was magazine writing. I got my master's degree in Slavic linguistics, but then discovered that there wasn't much call for Slavic linguists in the job market (who knew?), so after grad school I thought I'd try a career in publishing. I went on several informational interviews, where I interviewed publishing execs to find out if this was the career for me. It wasn't, but I thought that my experiences in informational interviewing would make a great article for a career magazine. I got a copy of Writer's Market and a book on writing query letters, wrote up my very first query, and sent it to several pubs (which I had never actually read). The article idea sold to EEO Bimonthly magazine for $500!
A mini rant: When I think about that, I'm amazed at the number of writers out there now busting their butts writing keyword articles for five bucks a pop to get experience or clips. Don't be taken in by website owners and editors who say you have to write for free or cheap to break in! If I got $500 for my very first article -- ten years ago, with a 1200-baud modem and no clue -- other writers should be able to break into paying magazines without writing keyword articles (which no print magazine editor takes seriously as a clip anyway) for free or peanuts.
I understand that the industry changes, but there are still tons and tons of respectable, paying magazines out there. Some writers insist that they can pound out a $5 article in ten minutes, but really, (1) is that your best work? and (2) if you can write a $5 article in 10 minutes, you can probably create a $500 article in two hours (which is what I do in some cases). That's more than four dollars per minute. Rant over.
3.Some of our readers may be doing well in one or two areas, but have a real itch to try something else. However, when they start to consider adding another dimension an old adage, “Don't spread yourself too thin” may run through their minds. How can they identify if it is too much?
I think it's different for every person -- and believe me, you'll know when it's too much! For me, when I want to do more of a thing, I naturally tend to cut down on others. For example, after my career got off the ground, I decided to concentrate on magazines, so I naturally stopped marketing myself as a corporate writer. Several months ago I wanted to do more business articles, so as I got caught up in that I let up on querying the health and women's markets. It's great to be a freelancer because you can do that. You can test the waters instead of having to do everything full out.
4.Do you work your career around a strict schedule? Or, do you wing it as you fly from one career to another? Some feel that flying by the seat of their pants and taking one thing at a time works well for them. What's your take on this subject?
I really feel that I have only one career: I'm a freelance writer. But in terms of my daily schedule, I do best with a loose schedule. If I have no schedule at all, I end up getting up at 10 am and messing around online all day. But if I try to schedule everything down to the half-hour, I rebel. So I try to get up at the same time every day, I try to check e-mail only at certain times of the day, and I have a rough idea of what I want to get done.
5.Many believe that everyone works off their self-image that tells or allows them to do what they do. How do you see yourself now?
I see myself as a person of action. That's not to say that I don't relax -- in fact, I'm pretty lazy -- but I know that you never reach (or even start to reach) your goals unless you learn to flip the switch in your brain from “I should do X” or “I'd really like to do X, but [excuse]” to “You know what? I want to do X, so let me figure out the first step and get started.” Getting started is the hardest part, but once you do it you really start rolling. It's really simple when you think about it -- and once you realize that you can do it, you can do pretty much anything.
6.You add a personal life to all you're involved in and that is quite a juggling act. Let's take one challenge at a time. Writing a book and magazine articles on a multitude of subjects, just those two activities, how do you combine them? Is your brain so compartmentalized that you never run the risk of your thoughts hitting head-on? How does this work for you?
Heck no! My brain is so not compartmentalized. I'm a master multitasker. This is bad in a way, because it means I have trouble concentrating on any one thing for an extended period of time, but it's also good, because I can transition from one task to another easily, with no time in between. For example, I might do a phone interview for an article on weight loss, then after hanging up I'm immediately calling sources for the marketing article I was just assigned. Then I answer a few student e-mails, write a blog post, and do a couple of little things to market the Renegade Writer books.
“Don't be taken in by website owners
and editors who say you have to write
for free or cheap to break in!”
7.Now that we're getting a better idea of how you work, lets throw in the teaching part. Is this something you're able to structure so well that your brain knows when to turn on and turn off?
No. It's true that the lessons are already written (though I do update them), so those require no extra work. But every student is different: she has different article ideas, different challenges, and different writing experience. There's no way I can streamline the e-mail feedback so I can do it automatically; every student requires a lot of thought, and they deserve a lot of thought. However, I recently realized that there are some questions I get every session, so I was thinking of compiling those into a FAQ or adding them to the lessons so I don't have to answer them over and over.
8.You go a step further with your special e-mentoring program for writers. Start by sharing what you give of yourself in this regard. How is this different from teaching?
The e-course is structured in format: There are eight lessons and eight assignments, and the goal is to teach you how to generate a salable idea and write a stellar query letter. But the e-mentoring is open to whatever the student wants to do. Every Monday I send the student a form to fill out about what she wants to accomplish that week, what challenges she faces, and how she'd like me to help her. A lot of the times, the student is looking for motivation, and I'm pretty good at motivating people.
9.Your life involves activities that require a free flow of creativity. That free flow can't always gush, in fact, it could actually slow to a trickle or worse. Does it bring a great deal of stress on you to have to perform in all these different areas?
I think I'm naturally a creative person -- in fact, I have trouble turning it off! But I burn out like everyone else, and when I do I know it's time to take a day off to recharge. It feels counterintuitive to take a day off when you have deadlines breathing down your neck, but when I do take some time off I find I'm so much more productive when I get back to work that it makes up for it (and then some).
10.Now, let's add your being a corporate writer (for some recognizable clients, we might add). What do you do for them? Creatively, how does this differ from the other writing that you do?
I actually haven't been doing much corporate writing at all. I cut it down to almost zilch to concentrate on magazines and then books as well. I had only one corporate client last year. But I'd like to get back into it.
Believe it or not, corporate writing does not differ that much creatively from magazine writing. In both cases, you're trying to sell something. When you write a brochure, you're trying to sell a product. When you write a query, you're trying to sell an idea to an editor, and when you write an article, you're selling that same idea to the magazine's readers. Also, with the type of magazine writing I do (i.e., service pieces and not investigative journalism or creative nonfiction), even the styles are similar: short, snappy, fun, and easy to understand.
11.We have the picture of differing innovative aspects in your career and we'll plop your being a speaker on top. How did you get into this end of the business? Were you a natural, or was it a real struggle for you?
I can't truthfully call that a business, because I rarely get paid for speaking. I do it to get the word out about the Renegade Writer books. (Though of course I'd love to get paid for speaking more often!)
I was so far from a natural that it's not even funny. One of my first articles was a business piece on micromanagement, and a Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania invited me to speak on the topic. I was scared out of my mind, but I accepted, figuring it would be a learning experience. I joined Toastmasters to prepare, and it was so frightening that I lasted only a few weeks. And the Chamber talk was a flop.
But after The Renegade Writer came out, Diana and I were in demand as speakers. I managed to beat my fear of public speaking by always scheduling presentations along with Diana, or, if she wasn't available, with my husband Eric, who is also a freelance writer. I became so used to speaking about writing that my anxiety about public speaking has decreased greatly. Last month, I spoke at a panel at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference -- it was one of my biggest audiences, and I did it without Diana or Eric. Sure, I was on a panel with two other speakers, but still…I was so proud of myself!
In early 2008, Eric and I will be speaking at the Erma Bombeck Humor Writing Conference in Ohio. It's probably the most prestigious conference I've ever spoken at, and they're actually paying me! I enjoy public speaking now (at least about writing topics), and audiences seem to like my trademark funny style.
“…there's no such thing as a perfect
query letter since you can't read
12.We've taken a serious look at the various aspects of your professional life, to understand and get a feel for how involved you are in each. The first thing that comes to mind, how do you keep going and not get burned out, from the sheer load of diversity?
As I mentioned above, it's not like I go full force with all of these different types of writing and teaching. They all ebb and flow, and in fact I actually work less than 40 hours per week on average. I do occasionally get burned out, but I try to take time off when that happens.
13.The foundation of all you do lies in how you are doing. Can you break down how you take care of yourself physically?
That's a great question because it's important to work on staying healthy, but we often ignore our health because (1) our health insurance is so darn expensive, and (2) many of us are too busy (or we think we are!).
In the winter of 2005, I went through a period of what I suspect was Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it really affected my work and the rest of my life. I vowed to not let it happen again the next year, so in the fall of 2006, I started going to the gym regularly for cardio workouts, eating more fruits and veggies, cutting out soda, and taking fish oil capsules (which are said to help boost your mood). In January, I started seeing a personal trainer once a week, and then I added a weekly yoga/Pilates or weights class (depending on what my trainer was offering that month). I also added meditation. Finally, I'm all about pampering yourself, so I try to get a massage, facial, or pedicure every once in a while.
14.Another element making up your career's foundation is your emotional well-being. What do you do to nurture your passion for life and career(s)?
I think that becoming physically healthier has really helped my emotional well-being; I feel calmer, which is saying a lot for someone who used to suffer from an anxiety disorder, and just all-around better. But to me, emotional well-being is also about making time to do things you love, whether it's relaxing on the couch watching Project Runway, getting a pedicure, taking a long bath, or pursuing a hobby.
15.For many writers, isolation is the name of the game until the work is completed. On the other hand, differing areas of your expertise pull you in the other direction. There is diversity in the interaction you have going; you may be a speaker, next you're mentoring a student, then you may turn around and communicate with corporate people. How do you make the necessary changes in your approach and keep your mind fresh and clear?
It goes back to the multitasking…I go through periods where I'm doing a hundred things at once, and when I feel on the edge of burnout (or further!), I take some time off. (Also, I never suffer from isolation as my husband works at home, too!)
16.I'm going to divert here for a moment to make a point, we see the multiplicity in your professional life and you've given us a peek into your private life and interests. With so many professional areas of activity, someone might think that you wouldn't have much time for anything else. But, we all know that ‘all business and no play’ is deadly in the creative world--because it's who we are that supports what we do.
That said, could you list some of your main personal interests, and pick one that shows the time and energy you've put into it over time? For instance, anyone can sink into the couch and watch TV, but loving, learning, and caring for cats involves much more time, energy, etc.
You mentioned caring for cats…did you know that about me or was it a coincidence? Caring for cats is a passion of mine. Eric and I volunteer at feral cat spay/neuter clinics, where Eric helps the person who administers the first injection to knock the cats out, and I weigh the knocked-out cats, put goop in their eyes so they don't dry out (their eyes stay open when they're out cold), give them a dose of pain killer on their gums, fill out a little chart about each cat, and carry them over to the waiting vet techs who prep the cats for surgery and tip their ears (cut off the tip of one ear so people can recognize that they've already been neutered). I love it!
When we lived in Massachusetts, we worked at a no-kill cat shelter once a week cleaning cages, feeding cats, and so on. Here in New Hampshire, we recently started volunteering for the animal shelter as educators; next week we'll be giving a talk at a local synagogue to kids about how the donations they collected will help the animals at the shelter. And last week, the local paper printed my editorial letter urging people to spay and neuter their pets.
I also read a lot. Many times I'm reading a few books at once, as I tend to read half a book, be really into it, and yet pick up another book and forget all about the first one. (Sometimes I get back to the first one, sometimes I don't.) Right now I'm finishing Atlas Shrugged and starting I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter.
Then there are the board games. Actually, Eric is the one who is really into them; he owns 900 board games and edits www.boardgameNews.com, one of the biggest board game sites on the web. But I got sucked in, and even though I don't play nearly as much as Eric, I play way more than the average American. It's gotten to the point where I recognize the names of board game designers and know which games they've developed!
I've always enjoyed drawing and painting, but hadn't done any in a long time. Then, a few months ago, I took a six-week course in Chinese brush painting. It was so nice to do something creative that wasn't writing, and I developed an ability that I can use to make paintings for myself and as gifts.
Finally, I'm a big fan of just chilling. Does that count as a personal interest? Luckily, I have a lot of friends with flexible schedules, so I'm often going out for lunch or dinner or to the bookstore with friends.
So it's not all about working and writing. The working and writing, though I usually enjoy them, go to supporting other interests. And the other interests keep my mind fresh for the writing.
17.Drawing on your background as teacher and mentor, what would you recommend aspiring writers do that will help them form a balanced life, career-wise?
Draw boundaries. I'm pretty bad at this myself (though I'm getting better), so I probably shouldn't be giving advice on it, but I know that you need to know when (and have the guts) to say no, and to be able to tell people when they're expecting too much of you. Also, do make time to take care of your physical and emotional self though exercise, yoga, meditation, martial arts -- whatever works for you.
18.We asked how you saw yourself now. We would like to know what you see for yourself in the future. Is there some secret dream (it will be safe here, most of us are women…) or goal that you'd love to achieve?
You know, I feel pretty content in terms of physical things…I love our big old house, I'm happy with our cars and furniture and so on. However, I would love to be able to travel more. We try to go somewhere every year: last year we spent two weeks in Germany and The Netherlands, and the year before we spent a month in Okinawa. But as much as that is, I want more!
A kind of crazy dream I have that goes completely counter to the desire to travel more is to start (1) a writers' workspace in New Hampshire, (2) a cat shelter, and/or (3) a cat shelter/bookstore/café/B&B. (I told you it was crazy!)
19.Who or what has been the biggest inspiration or stabilizing influence in your career?
Wow, there are so many inspirations and influences that it's hard to say that any one is the biggest. My husband Eric is very laid-back and brings me down from the edge when I'm going nuts over something work-related.
My co-author Diana Burrell gives great, hard-assed advice. My life coach friend Kristin Taliaferro convinced me to start my e-course, which has been so wonderful; when I did some market research on it several years ago, aspiring writers in online forums told me they would never pay for something they can find online for free, but Kristin talked me into trying anyway and I've had 200 students as of April 2007! My parents have always been very encouraging and proud of my freelance career; many writers get no support from their friends and family, so I appreciate it. And then there are the many writers who have shared market information with me or even recommended me to their editors and clients for assignments; they help me remember that it's not as cutthroat a business as people think.
20.What closing comments would you like to make to encourage aspiring to established colleagues in the writing industry?
The challenge that most of my students face is fear of failure. They're so afraid that they'll do something wrong that they hold off on, say, sending in that query until it's perfect. Which means, of course, that they do nothing at all. Well, there's no such thing as a perfect query letter since you can't read editors' minds and provide them with exactly what they dream of, so there's no point in holding off. It's better to get your best work out there and fail once in awhile than to wait until your work is perfect and get nothing out there at all. A personal development blogger I like calls it the ready-fire-aim approach: You'll have more success if you get ready, fire, miss, and re-aim than if you get ready and then aim forever.
Thanks so much for this opportunity! You can reach me at http://lindaformichelli.com and at http://www.writeformagazines.com
WOW's closing comments: Thank you for all the thought that you've put into these questions. It's obvious you count writing as a privilege. What a beautiful spirit you've added to the wisdom and energy you've given us.
And we do confess, we knew of your love of cats because we carefully research and choose the women we bring to WOW! Clearly, we made a right choice. Not only have you given most of us new information about caring for cats (animals); you've given great information for the aspiring writers among us, and terrific reminders for those who've been writing for years.
Keep in touch. Thanks again.