In this regular feature, We ask Canadian writers to share a few details about their work habits and their strategies for navigating the ups and downs of freelance life.
J.B. MacKinnon is an independent journalist whose books include The 100-Mile Diet and The Once and Future World. He has written for such magazines as The New Yorker and The Walrus. He was the writer on the award-winning National Film Board interactive documentary Bear 71.
He has won more than a dozen national and international awards for his writing. Most recently his Hakai Magazine piece The Whale Dying on the Mountain won Best Feature Story at the 2016 Jack Webster Awards.
He took the time to speak with Story Board recently to offer some advice on creating feature stories, staying alert while working, and navigating the current state of freelance writing.
Q: How do you structure your workday?
A: I get up early. I’ve found over time that I do my best creative work in the morning so I get up at 6 and I work usually on writing from 6 until noon most days. And then I spend the afternoon administrating and just keeping track of emails and all that kind of stuff and doing research.
Q: Are you one of those people who don’t check their email first thing in the morning?
A: I do. I check my email first thing, I check email periodically through the day. But I block out that period for the kind of work that I need to bring in the most mental energy to. And usually that’s writing. If I don’t have writing to do then that might also be for deeper research or more editing or big revisions or whatever I need to bring the most energy to.
Q: If you’re working on more than one big project at a time how much time do you devote to each?
A: I make a lot of fiddly little lists where I try to identify what the key priorities are for each of those projects. And then I try to identify what is the greatest priority of those projects and I go to work on that. And then I also just kind of go with what’s flowing as well. If I feel like I’ve got a lot of inspiration to work on a book proposal then I’ll set other things aside to do that.
I do find overall that it’s better for me to try to do one of those things in a day than it is for me to do two or three of them. And even better is one of them for three days in a row if I can get away with it. But often I’ll be writing on one project and researching on a different one in a single day and that’s fine.
Q: What’s your biggest distraction?
A: I’m pretty good at not being distracted. But I would say the place that I get most lost is just in periods where I’m developing story ideas. I can sometimes just get lost in that and it’s not that I’m not working at it. It just takes me a while to find the traction sometimes even when I’ve got the material. It takes me a while to realize that I have that material. If I spin my wheels that’s where they’re spinning — finding the germ that I’m going to work with within the topic area.
I don’t have any problems with sitting down and writing or editing or any of those sorts of things. I’m starting to accept that some spinning of the wheels is part of my process. If you’re trying to bridge what you’re working on to some deeper set of ideas, that takes time and thought. That can feel like the spinning of wheels but it’s actually doing the job.
Q: How do you know when you’ve found that germ?
A: That’s really kind of structural or logical at one point and it’s also sort of intuitive. I can look at ideas at this point and say “what boxes does it tick.” Will it work for editors, will it engage readers, is there a really interesting character, is there a clear strong narrative arc, all of those sorts of things.
But on another level I just have to gut check and say “am I excited about it.” If I’m excited about it then it’s probably going to work. At least that’s the indication to me that I’m going to be able to telegraph to the reader some excitement and if I can’t do that then it’s not going to work no matter how good the story is.
Q: There’s another thing I’ve heard about your work habits — you like to sit in an uncomfortable chair, is that right?
A: Yes, I think a lot about process and I’m always asking other writers about the specifics of their writing process. Not so much like how they break down their day, but what do they eat, do they ever write drunk, these kinds of things. It’s it’s really interesting.
And what I’m finding over time is that for probably 95 percent of writers, they like to write clearheaded when they’re feeling healthy and fresh and good and well-rested and well-nutrified and all of those kinds of things. I pay attention to all that kind of lifestyle stuff to a certain extent.
And I’ve also paid attention to just what keeps me alert. And I’ve found that it’s best to keep my room kind of cold, so I’ve got my window open a crack even in winter. And I’ve got this hard old wooden chair. It’s just your classic hard old wooden chair that I found beside a dumpster a long time ago. And I’ve written four books in that now. It’s not like I’m noticing that I’m uncomfortable, but I’m not at ease and sinking down in a plushy chair that’s going to take me out of the alertness. It’s not offering me any opportunity to go soft.
Q: What do you do when you have a pitch rejected by a publisher?
A: I try another publisher. I have a pretty good record with pitch acceptance. I go through enough process in the development of a pitch that usually by that time I’m pitching them I’m pretty confident that they’re going to stick with somebody. By the time I’m pitching I’ve done half the work, at least, on the story.
I actually can’t remember the last time that a pitch just sank into the tar pit. But I’ve certainly had pitches rejected by the publications. I mean there’s so many reasons for publications to reject pitches. It’s really useful to have worked as an editor at some point because you really realize that it’s often nothing to do with the quality of the pitch. It’s just that you’ve got a story like it or the pitch isn’t exactly what you’re looking for for your upcoming three issues or whatever.
So I’d just go out pitch and pitch again and usually eventually they stick. And often in fact they find the right home. Often in reflection I’ll think that that publication I wanted to publish this piece originally wouldn’t have been as good as the place that I eventually end up in.
Q: You’re currently teaching a feature writing course at the UBC School of Journalism… what’s the most important thing that you’re hoping your students will take away from the class?
A: I think the most important thing is that you can use a process to help yourself make the right kinds of decisions around your stories. I think a lot of writers particularly if they don’t go through journalism school, or even if they do, I think they they often just feel their way forward rather than using a structured approach to help make their decisions.
There is no approach that makes those decisions easy, but there are techniques that people can use to give themselves some direction at any stage rather than just sort of wandering the wilderness and doing your research and writing by intuitive forces alone.
Q: And what’s the key to that process?
A: The key is recognizing that there are steps along the way. One is that you move from an issue to a specific story that you then analyze what specific kinds of information you need in order to report that specific story and then understanding that there are different tasks that have to be performed in different sections of feature writing.
If you understand all of those things you might end up with a very stilted, over-structured end product but at least it will be great stuff to work with with an editor. If you don’t work through that kind of process then you often will end up with a piece that’s all over the map and editors will just look at it and say “oh my god I don’t know where to latch onto this to take the next step.”
A poorly-written, well-structured piece is always going to be easier to edit than a well-written, poorly-structured piece.
Q: It’s a hard time to be a freelance journalist…
A: You know it’s never been an easy time, actually. I think that each generation thinks that there was a golden era. And I think there were better times. But I think it’s more useful to say what’s easy and what’s harder at any given time.
Right now, for example, there hasn’t been a better time, probably, to be able to get your byline out there. But to get paid well for it? There probably has never been a harder time. When I first was starting as a freelancer it was not quite the opposite. But certainly the biggest challenge at that time was to find somebody who would publish your work. There were very few opportunities to do that. But once you did, the pay was was not great but not as bad as it is today.
So it’s I think it’s more useful to look at it in that sense. And you can work off those strengths and weaknesses in the system. The fact that it’s possible to get bylines gives you the opportunity to try to do your very, very best work for very, very poor pay for places that might allow you to launch to the next step, to the next step, to the next step and you’re kind of investing in yourself along the way. And with the clearheaded understanding that the weakness in the system is that you’re not going to be paid well along along that path until you reach a certain point.
I think if we understand those kinds of strengths and weaknesses in the freelance system we’re dealing with then it makes it easier to to progress.