Thursday, July 20, 2006
Renegade Writer Q&A: Deb Carpenter
Deb Carpenter agreed to speak with me this morning at a local coffeeshop (Starbucks, if you must know). I’ve known Deb for a little over a year, and she’s an incredibly smart and talented writer – the kind of writer who we’re proud to claim as a Renegade Writer fan. Her credits include Parenting, Woman's Day, ADDitude, Publishers Weekly, and Child.com. She lives in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children, ages 6 and 3. Here’s our interview:
Why did you start freelancing?
My work background before having my two children was in child development and psychology. For five years, I was a stay-at-home mom who read a lot of magazines. I’d read articles and say to myself, “I could have written that!” so I started thinking it might be something fun for me to try. I had a ton of story ideas, and with my background, it felt like a good fit. As you know, I took your class after reading The Renegade Writer [I teach a class on getting started as a freelance writer through our local adult education center, and it’s true – Deb actually brought our book to the first class. An instant A+! – Diana], and an online query writing class.
Honestly, I never thought I’d succeed. Sending those first few queries out was just an exercise in something I thought could be fun. I was interested to see what would happen, and I never really thought through “what next” if I actually got an assignment. My personality is “start at the top and see what happens.” It was pure curiosity.
So, you must have been stunned that you sold something to a major magazine fairly quickly.
I was floored. Scared out of my mind. It was one thing to make a sale, and an entirely different thing to actually have an editor counting on me.
It was my sixth query to Parenting that sold, a short piece on how to use reverse psychology to get kids to do what you want (ran February 2006). Up till that point, I was getting nos, but I’d just send something else, using the editor’s comments to help me focus on developing just the right idea.
During the writing process, I worked really hard to make a good impression. I spent way more time than I probably needed writing the piece, and I was nothing but accommodating during the revision process or when the editor had questions. I tried to be a writer she’d want to work with again. When the job was complete, I sent her a thank you note – nothing fancy, just something to let her know I appreciated the assignment. It’s something I now do with every magazine I write for. I also give them something a little extra: for example, for a story I did on ways to leave your children behind, I wrote up an additional seven or eight tips. On another story, I wrote up a little sidebar.
The interesting thing is that Parenting bought the seventh idea I pitched, as well as some of the earlier ones they’d rejected once I turned in my first piece. With Woman’s Day, the editor bought from my first pitch. She didn’t want the whole story, just part of it. So you never know how things are going to work out!
Deb, what are the three things that have surprised you since you’ve started freelancing?
First, that the work is there, especially if you have a niche or specialty. Some writers scatter buckshot, but that strategy hasn’t worked for me. I’ve done some assignments beyond my skill-set, and I spend three times as long on them as I do on the child development and psychology pieces. For me, specializing is the best use of my time.
Second, organization is key to working effectively. I’ve made most of my sales on follow-ups with editors, so I keep careful track of who I pitch and when I should follow up. I create folders for each assignment, keep my computer files organized, and make sure my contacts are in order. Super professionalism means super organizational skills – I don’t want to look like a schmuck. And especially because I have kids, it’s doubly important for me to stay organized because it’s so easy to lose track of what’s going on when you’ve got to switch gears back and forth.
And third, you can have a family and a career, but you have to know your limits. I make sure I don’t have too many assignments on my plate at once because everyone loses if I can’t keep up. It’s okay to turn down assignments – I’ve done it and my career hasn’t suffered at all. Better to be honest than to disappoint.
No problem. Now where’s that $20 you promised me?
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