Mridu Khullar Relph has written for magazines such as Time, the New York Times, Spirituality & Health, Ms. and is the contributing editor to Elle magazine in India. She shares with WOW! readers about life as a writer in India, her biggest success to date, and tips on what beginner and experienced writers can do to nab those assignments. You can read more about Mridu on her website at www.mridukhullar.com.
1.You’ve written for magazines like Elle, Caravan, Spirituality & Health, and Ms. What has been your most exciting writing assignment to date?
When I was getting my feet wet in journalism, I decided to travel around India, interviewing women, gathering their stories, and selling those pieces to Indian and Western publications. For a year, I concentrated solely on telling the stories of these women’s lives. They were published in a variety of ways—as issues, as trends, even as profiles—but at the center of each story was a woman. I was very inspired by these women who, because of their first steps and initially small efforts, were changing entire communities. There was the first UN-only peacekeeping mission from India that went to Liberia, there was a couple who started a woman-only newspaper, there’s the lady who started a marriage bureau for HIV positive people, and so many more.
I loved reporting and writing those stories, especially right at the beginning of my own journey, because it proved to me that you don’t have to take giant leaps to make big changes. That series of articles was definitely one of the most interesting and exciting for me.
2.What would you consider your biggest writing success?
On assignment for a trade magazine, I wrote a long feature story on wastepickers in the capital city of India, who pick trash for a living. I didn’t know what to expect going into the story; but the more I learned about the living and working conditions of the wastepickers, the more I started caring about them. I spent quite a bit of time researching that story, even after the initial assignment was over and done with, and sold it several times over. I would have sent that story out for free (and I did offer it to a couple of low-paying publications), but it’s actually been my most profitable story ever. Not only that, it won an award last year, and I just heard is the finalist for another one.
The funny thing is that I’m quite aware of my bottom line when it comes to assignments; but for this one, I didn’t care either for the money or the accolades. I wrote it because I knew it was something that needed to be discussed. Several national and international publications ran stories on the wastepickers, following my initial reporting; and I’m really grateful that people are responding to it and beginning to talk about what I believe to be a huge human rights and environmental problem.
“I loved reporting and writing those stories, especially right at the beginning of my own journey, because it proved to me that you don’t have to take giant leaps to make big changes.”
3.What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome when you were starting your freelance career?
My location probably put several editors off hiring me and understandably so. It’s harder to trust someone all the way across the globe when she’s asking for as much money as your current stable of writers, but she’s less accessible. The way I overcame it was by one, writing near-perfect query letters and proposals that would impress editors greatly (even if that meant I was putting in a lot more effort than my Western counterparts) and two, by focusing on stories in my own backyard. I pitched India-based stories that only I could because of my location and learned how to make them relevant to their readers.
4.Mridu, on your blog you mention living abroad. What made you decide to move to Ghana, and how did the experience help your freelance career?
Ever since I was a child, I’d wanted to travel to countries and places that I had only heard of. I’d always secretly hoped that my journalism would fund my travels abroad, so I kept my eye out for any opportunity that might look like a fit. In late 2007, I was getting a bit tired of the work I was doing and wanted to shift my focus from women’s issues to human rights issues. It’s around that time that an NGO in Ghana put out a call for independent media professionals to cover and document the work they were doing with child rights; and when they selected me, it was a no-brainer that I’d go.
The trip didn’t eventually work out as I’d hoped. The people running the NGO were very green and didn’t quite understand the concept of conflict of interest; but I learned so much from that experience that I’ve brought into my work, such as seeing a story from many different angles and not judging a country and its people solely by what you’ve read in newspaper articles.
5.And Berkley, how did you benefit from a year as a visiting scholar at University of California?
The Visiting Scholar program at the School of Journalism in Berkeley is designed so that you get to interact with journalists from around the world. I consider myself very well-informed on world affairs, and the international section is the first part of the newspaper I read each morning. But I realized how much of our backgrounds, upbringings, and cultures we bring to our understanding of global issues. In Berkeley, I got to view each week’s world events through a Frenchman’s eyes, through the lens of an Indonesian photojournalist, and from the viewpoint of a Chinese national. That’s really shaped the way I look at world events now, and I’ve come to understand that there is no one true story. Your truth may be different from mine.
Since I write for a largely U.S. audience, another benefit to being in Berkeley was that I was able to understand my American reader more intimately, and that helps me to understand what issues and topics appeal to readers of the publications I write for.
“That’s really shaped the way I look at world events now, and I’ve come to understand that there is no one true story. Your truth may be different from mine.”
6.Any plans for further travel?
Oh, absolutely! I cut down on travel a bit in the last year or so because I was getting tired of the “hotel lifestyle” and not being able to spend too much time in a place and really discovering it. When you’re on assignment, you spend all your waking hours chasing down sources, interviewing people, and generally discovering things only related to your story. So, you only see a tiny part of a place. I’m trying to balance that now with actually spending enough time in an area to get to know it better, starting from my own city!
I have two international trips scheduled for this year—one for work, one for play—and I’m usually up for visiting new places even at a moment's notice. So yes, there’s definitely more travel on the cards.
7.What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve come across as a freelance journalist?
When you’re on the payroll of a company, there’s a certain ladder that you climb. You can always see the next step. I think the downside of having the freedom of freelancing is that the next step isn’t always clear. You get to make all the decisions from where you see yourself in the next five years, right down to what brand of printer ink to buy. The biggest obstacle for me, I think, is my lack of focus in a single area. I want to do it all—write fantastic articles, get six-figure book deals, have my work translated into several languages. And sometimes that means I get very confused about where I should be spending my time and energy.
8.Many writers are deterred from writing due to their location; do you think that living in India has made it more difficult to advance your freelance career or easier? How can writers use their location to their advantage?
I’m not sure it’s any easier or more difficult; it just has its own unique challenges. For one, it’s harder to prove to editors in the West that you can write to their standards and won’t pull a disappearing act. But once you gain that trust, you’re going to be more valuable because of your understanding of the culture of your country (or town or city), and you’re also going to be competing with fewer people. I’m sure editors at the New York Times or The New Yorker for that matter don’t get one-tenth as many pitches about India as they probably do about the U.S. Two, there are fewer pages in Western publications for foreign stories, but the positive side of that is that you probably have dozens of publications in your own country that you can write for.
And finally, while it’s harder to make money as someone from the developing world, it’s also a huge positive that the exchange rate works out well for us. I earn in dollars or euros, and I spend in rupees.
The only real disadvantage to being located in the developing world is the lack of resources for writers and the isolation that comes with being one of the very few people who take this career path. But the world is shrinking, and now I can get books on my phone and chat with people from around the world using Skype; so I’m not sure that’s a big disadvantage anymore either.
9.What do you love most about being a freelance journalist?
I love the independence—both in the physical sense of being where I want when I want, and also in the mental sense of being able to choose the stories I want to invest my time in. I remember meeting an editor a couple of years ago; and when she asked me if I’d consider working full time with her magazine, I laughed and said, “I would if I could ever get up before noon.” Now, I do get up before noon; but if I was having a particularly lazy day, darn right I’d be hitting the snooze button.
I like that I can work twenty-four hour stretches if I need to and then take two weeks off just because I feel like it. I love that if the words aren’t coming together, I’m not stuck at my desk because someone else decided I should be. I can call a friend, clear my head, or just plain give up. I love that there are no rules.
10.Writing is a very sedentary activity, how do you look after your health and fitness?
Um, what health and fitness? I have to admit that the last time I exercised was in 2005, and I’m not very fussy about the food that goes into my mouth. This is one of the areas I think I need to work on. My saving grace is that I don’t smoke and very rarely drink.
11.Have you any strange habits or writing rituals?
I have a thing about fonts. For instance, when I’m writing a newspaper piece, I’ll write it in Geneva, 8-point, boldface, with the page width at 190 percent (on my Macbook). If I’m writing something more creative, I might go for Georgia. I find that sometimes playing with the colors and the fonts of words makes me feel more creative, which is silly, I know, but there you go. I also have a small Buddha statue that I rub for good luck once in a while (when I can remember!).
I don’t have any rituals as such, but I do like to lock myself in a room when I’m writing. The less there is to distract me, the more productive I am.
12.Can you take us through a typical work day? Do you have set schedule or tend to go with the flow?
My alarm goes off at 8:00 a.m., and I somehow struggle out of bed by 8:30. My husband and I sit and have tea before he leaves for work; and then I just putter around the house, get breakfast, drink some coffee, read the paper, and try to make it to my desk around 10:00. I don’t typically schedule exactly what I’ll be doing, but I do make a to-do list each morning that I try to get through. I’ll usually start the day by responding to e-mails, reading other people’s blogs, etc., and then I really get into it by 11:00. I work until 6:00 p.m., taking a few breaks for tea/coffee, lunch, and to play with my cat; and I’m out of my office by 6:00 in the evening, after which it’s family time. If I have too much work on my plate a particular day or week, then I might work a few extra hours; but I think I’ve pretty much fallen into an office routine now and try to avoid working late into the evenings or over weekends.
This, you’ll remember, is very different from how I used to work. Even as recently as a year ago, I used to stay up all night writing and sleep through most of the day.
13.How do you deal with writer’s block and procrastination?
I have deadlines from editors, and I have self-imposed deadlines from me. I think it helps to have set hours for working as well because then you know there’s a limit to how much Facebook or Twitter you can get away with. I don’t like working weekends; but if I don’t meet my deadlines, I must. So, I try and get started on things when I can.
That said, I’m nowhere near as productive as I’d like to be. E-mail and social media are a huge distraction for me, and I’m still trying to figure out the best ways to combat that.
Writer’s block, I think, is always a symptom of a bigger problem, at least for me. I typically get blocked when I fear something or am tackling a subject that’s completely new to me. I’m not even sure you can call it writer’s block, really, because I’ve never been blocked without having a specific cause for it. Once I know what’s causing my reluctance to write, I try and deal with that issue. Or just get on with it. I think sometimes we go into the artiste mode and give ourselves too many excuses for the way we’re acting. The best cure for writer’s block I know is to open up a blank document and write one thousand words of crap.
“The best cure for writer’s block I know is to open up a blank document and write one thousand words of crap.”
14.What do you consider your most essential writers’ tools?
My trusty Macbook (which I have named Max), Dictionary.com/Thesaurus.com, my well-worn copy of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell, and in the winters, my fingerless gloves, which a former landlady knitted for me.
15.You’ve mentioned on your blog that you had more than one hundred articles published in your first year of freelancing. How did you accomplish this, and how did you make your first sale?
I had no social life, and I mean I had NO social life. I spent days in front of the computer doing nothing but marketing and writing. I was also working at a magazine at the time, and they kept me fairly busy as well!
When I first started freelancing, I had just failed my first year in college, so I was determined to prove to others (but mostly myself) that I wasn’t worthless. I spent hours on writing websites, soaking up as much information as I could, and sent out dozens of pitches each week. One of the first that sold was a story for CollegeBound magazine on how to survive failure in college. I went on to do more work for them, and around the same time, wrote a piece for a national technology magazine in India, based on which they offered me a job. It was while working for that magazine that I continued freelancing and accumulated all those credits.
16.Your e-book, Query Letters that Sell, available on your blog [for free], offers some fantastic advice for new and advanced writers. Do you still have to spend a lot of time writing query letters to get assignments? What would you recommend writers do to make their query letters stand out?
I can’t actually remember the last time I wrote up a full-fledged query, actually. Most of my pitches now, including to new-to-me magazines, are a paragraph at most—sometimes just a sentence or two. Editors take many factors into consideration, and my list of credits ensures them that I can actually pull off a story, so I don’t have to try too hard. Where I would need to pitch would be if I were trying to break into The New Yorker or Rolling Stone, for instance. Those are magazines that run longer features that run several thousand words, and so they require that proposals give them a bulk of the story or at least, a good look into how a writer would handle the project.
My top tip to new writers would be to pitch the stories that they feel passionate about. Passion shines through and covers up for any lack of credits or perfection that you may have in the beginning. When you try and sell stories that you actually care about, the editor wants to hire you over someone who’s been there done that because you bring a hunger to the project. I think that’s very important and something that’s very understated.
For writers with a few published credits under their belt who are looking to break into higher-paying or more prestigious markets, I’d recommend showing your familiarization with a publication by writing in the publication’s style. I’ve also been known to Google editors I’m pitching to get an idea of what they’re like and maybe find topics or subjects that appeal to them on a personal or professional level—say charities they’ve worked with or issues they’ve spoken publicly about.
“My top tip to new writers would be to pitch the stories that they feel passionate about. Passion shines through and covers up for any lack of credits or perfection that you may have in the beginning.”
17.You have clips ranging from Time, the New York Times, Global Post, and International Herald Tribune. What can writers do to get published in national magazines?
Learn to recognize a good story. Writers place a lot of focus on getting the query letter right, and I do agree that presentation is important. But if there’s no meat to the story, it doesn’t matter how fabulously you write it. It’s still a dull story. Interesting stories pretty much write their own queries. You have to make an editor think, “Wow, I didn’t know that;” because working in those newspapers and magazines, they’ve pretty much heard it all.
18.What are you reading at the moment?
Love in a Torn Land by Jean Sasson, which is “the true story of a young woman caught up in Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attacks on the Kurdish people of Iraq.”
19.You’ve achieved a lot in the past six years. Where do you see your career heading next?
Thank you. I think I’m now working up toward a career in books. I don’t think I’ll ever give up journalism completely, but I’d like to have a nice balance between both longer and shorter works.
20.Mridu, thank you for taking the time to share your experience and knowledge. Is there any other writer wisdom you’d like to offer WOW! readers?
Thank you, Katarzyna.
I’ll just add that while I think it’s important to understand the market and cater to it, it’s also really important that writers and journalists enjoy what they’re doing. If we can’t have fun with our writing, then why go through the hassles of quitting our jobs or changing career directions as most of us have done? Personally, the most success I’ve found has been in following my instincts and my interests. I reinvent myself every few years, and I think it’s important to keep doing that to stay happy and fulfilled on the paths of our lives.
Katarzyna Radzka is a freelance writer and TEFL teacher, currently based in Poland. She loves traveling, writing, meeting new people, and being active, especially by running. Her writing has appeared in Real Travel, YoungMoney.com, and The Australian Writer among others. Check out her running adventures at www.runningcandid.blogspot.com. She can be contacted at katarzynaradzka[at]gmail[dot]com.
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