This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To order presentation-ready copies for distribution to colleagues, clients or customers, use the Reprints tool at the top of any article or visit: www.mbreprints.com.

Back to Previous Page

 Mail    Print   Share Share

Ever Green

A freelance novice gets a cold look at the trials and tribulations that surround that first, lucky clip

By Scott Warren - April 13, 2005

If you are reading this, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Not just something, actually—a number of things. If you are reading this, the basic laws of the publishing universe have been contorted, and the rules of fairness to bona fide journalists have been twisted to my benefit.

You see, having previously published a feature in a national magazine implies a degree of credibility. But publishing this article without that clip—or any clip for that matter—might have been a bit trickier.

Or would it? You might think it's not possible to publish without any clips, but it is. I know because I proved it. I persuaded a national magazine to assign me a feature sight unseen. Of course the laws of karma say that if you bully the system, the system will bully you right back. My trial by fire into the world of publishing spanned 3,000 miles, 17 months, four issues, and two ledes. When the dust cleared, I was shaky but still standing. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Marlon Brando.

* * *

Let me back up a bit. After graduating from journalism school, I faced the inevitable prospect of making $22,000 a year to answer phones, cross someone else's Ts, and subsist on Ramen noodles. I chose to abandon ship, forget writing, and find a more lucrative profession. Four years later, I found myself unemployed, sitting in the editor's office of a film magazine where I'd once interned. Some of the staff had gathered to see if their old intern had made good—I was a particular curiosity because instead of choosing to write about the industry the magazine covered, I had been working in it.

Eventually, one editor mentioned that he had been running a series on the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film world. "Too bad we didn't keep in touch," he said. "You could have helped us on the stories."

"Yeah, too bad," I cracked later that night as I relayed the story to a friend, knowing that in my unemployed state, I could ill afford the soup I was crying in.

"You have his ear," she reminded me. "Why not go for it?"

She was right. I marched into the editor's office and laid out a pitch like an entrepreneur looking to finagle investment capital. "I'll write it. When I'm finished, take a look and I'll understand that you have no obligation to publish it. If you like it, maybe we can run it in your series; if you don't, there won't be any hard feelings."

My editor was thoughtful. "You mean on spec?" he said.

"On spec, sure." (That's how I found out what spec meant.) "All I need from you is to let to me say that I'm with the magazine when I call for interviews."

He said he'd think about it. About a week later he called. "Do you have any clips?"

I had to think quickly. "When I interned, I had a story published. It was the longest piece ever written by an intern here." I cringed. That wasn't going to wash. It was five years ago and I was asking for ten times as many words now.

"Nothing more recent?" He said he'd have to think on it.

But by Friday, he was done thinking and invited me into his office "Let's do it," he said.

Good thing, I thought, considering I had already spent two unemployed weeks researching the story. I calmly walked down the hallway to the men's room for a quick unbridled display of excitement in front of the mirror. With that out of the way, I could finally start making phone calls and setting up interviews. My list was a dozen deep but I started with the most ambitious, the undisputed top guy in the industry, the gold standard: Barry.

I had doubts that I could somehow get noticed by someone as renowned as Barry, but when I put in a call to his PR guys, the flack nearly jumped through the phone line. "That is so hot!" he bellowed. "When can you come out here?"

"Out where?"

"Just outside San Francisco."

San Francisco seemed so far from where I was calling from in my parent's windowless New Jersey basement.

"Uh, I would love to," I said, "but I don't have a travel budget. I'm going to have to check with my editor."

"Who's your editor?" he asked.

"Mitch."

"Oh, Mitch! We love Mitch. He was just here last month."

The noose was tightening. "Oh, great. You know Mitch. Let me give him a ca—uh, lemme go check with him and I'll give you a call back."

Even if the magazine wouldn't spring for it, I was willing to fly myself out there, but I figured the reimbursement was worth a try. I got Mitch on the phone to get the go-ahead and found myself in the predicament that every freelancer faces: "If the story gets picked up, will my expenses be reimbursed?"

Mitch had to check with the editor-in-chief. San Francisco! Editor-in-chief! Who the hell did I think I was? My little freelance experience was being approved by a man I'd only spoken to by the paper-towel dispenser in the men's room.

Mitch called back two long hours later. "Go for it," he said. And within four weeks of my pitch, I was somewhere over America, reading Tom Wolfe, preparing for my interview.

* * *

I would be writing a profile, not of an individual, but of an industry. I'd be observing the key players, tying their stories into a tale that wove together the history of a trade with descriptions of today's state-of-the-art technology. It was a big job.

When I arrived at the facility, they clearly assumed I was a hot young staff writer. I didn't do anything to dissuade them.

I was a big shot!

They were big shots!

We joked!

We kibitzed!

The interview went so well that the flack had to repeatedly remind Barry that it was time to get back to work. Eventually he did and before I could even decide if I had overstayed my welcome, the flack told me that another guy, Ted, wanted to talk to me. If Barry was number one in the industry right now, Ted was the industry godfather who'd started it all.

Back at my economy motel, I started transcribing my interviews and mulling over all the material I had. Then it hit me. The all-time greatest lede in the history of journalism. It was the lede that would define my career. This story was going to get published! Mitch simply could not miss its genius. He would beg to buy it.

I flew back home, did a few more phone interviews, locked myself away for a weekend to knock out a monster of a first draft, then slashed it in half to fit Mitch's 2,700-word cap. When it was ready, I sent it to an editor friend who smashed it to bits. He told me that I had good information but it read like a newspaper story and the style was all wrong for the magazine.

How could he be so blind? He didn't even mention the genius of the lede. Fool!

I put my pride on the shelf and reworked the style, taking it out of chronological order. It was shaping up. My friend gave it a thumbs-up, so I sent it in on deadline and waited.

And waited. Two excruciatingly long days without any feedback. Finally I got a call from Mitch, saying my article would be published in February 2003, but he couldn't get around to a full edit for at least a month. Six weeks later, he had fixes, questions, and problems with the length of the piece. I painstakingly chopped 300 words, spending countless hours plucking the poor bird, fashioning contractions, replacing ellipses with dashes.

I resubmitted it to Mitch, who presented it to the editor-in-chief. I received an email saying the piece was accepted. As a freshman writer, I would be paid a lump sum that included expenses. "I hope this is all good news," Mitch said.

I was blown away. I had pulled off a major coup that would forever help me justify my little career detour. If I'd taken an assistant job five years ago, I would have sweated, toiled, and clawed my way up the ranks to get this opportunity, but I was sliding back into journalism relatively unscathed. They'd even asked for a sidebar.

The next few months were a blur, right up to the point of getting kicked out of the issue where I'd been scheduled to run. A fact-checker friend heard about my plight and quipped, "That's the problem with an evergreen. It stays good forever so they can pull it out and replant it in another issue." (That's how I learned what an evergreen was.) A few weeks into the new year, I got a call the piece was now under discussion for March. Then I got another call that it wasn't.

What could I do? The piece was done, I was paid, and they owned it. They could do with it what they wanted. But I still longed to see my name in actual, glossy print.

Three months passed and I got a note from Mitch saying the piece would run in the distant November issue, making my lede too far out of date. He wanted me to rewrite the lede and close to make it more current.

But, but, but … my lede! My Pulitzer!

I researched, rewrote, and waited for fall.

* * *

The death of an American icon inevitably ends up on magazine covers across the country. When that icon is the greatest actor in the history of the silver screen, famous for revolutionizing the art form and equally infamous for refusing his Oscar and kissing Larry King on the mouth, you can be sure it will knock your piece right off the pages and into December.

Marlon Brando, minor setback. No big deal.

Two weeks later, another call, another page cut. I was out of another issue. I began to despair.

A month later I received another email: "It turns out we're running your story this month!"

I've heard that one before, I thought.

But then odd things started happening. Fact checkers called, asking questions and looking for sources. Mitch asked me what my bio should read. I opened my email one day to find a PDF of the entire feature. There were photos! And graphics! And someone else's name in the byline! I knew it was too much uninterrupted good news.

But the byline was corrected and during the months of December and January (I'd even made it into a double!) I could walk up to any newsstand in the country and find my name right next to a very expensive cigarette advertisement.

So, reader, let this be a lesson to you. Sure, you can play by the rules and work your way up to the rank of an established writer. But if you just go out and write your story, who's to argue that you're not one already?

Scott Warren is at sswarren@verizon.net. He no longer writes from his parent's basement.



> Send a letter to the editor
> Read more in our archives