At the beginning of 2022, I decided I would write one blog post every week for the whole year. I set aside Friday mornings for this task, and around Wednesday, I start thinking about what this week’s blog post will be about. I play around with two, maybe three ideas, but I don’t make my decision until Friday morning when I sit down to write.
This week was no different. Next to me, I have a pile of books that I have read and that I want to discuss; it was only a matter of which book I would choose. But as I sat down, everything that has happened over the past weeks and months (years!) washed over me. All the ideas that I had been playing around with seemed futile and nonsensical. And why would anyone care about what I have to say, anyway?
It was the children of Uvalde, Texas. 19 children around the age of 10, their lives cut short for no reason, and those who can do something to stop it refuse to act. The small towns of Texas resonate with me on a different level than other small towns. When I was a child, my family traveled to Texas several times for family vacations. Because of my father’s job, these vacations were the few times when the whole family did something together.
On these vacations, we would spend two or three weeks driving around the hill countries, badlands, and deserts of Texas, stopping in the small towns that we passed along the way. I was too young to remember exactly where we went, but sometimes names of places resonate with me when I hear them, and the echo inside me always speaks back to me in my father’s voice. Eagle Pass, Laredo, Texas City, Luckenbach, Bandera, Langtrey, Uvalde.
And even though it feels futile to write a blog post this week, I sat down and did it anyway. Why? Because that is what I do. I write. As Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Arguably, this is her most famous quote, sometimes truncated, sometimes paraphrased, but I believe it is famous because it is true.
A writer writes, that is what makes a writer a writer. It is not the publishing contract or the byline that makes you a writer, nor is it the spinning rolls of paper at a printer’s plant or the code that creates a pdf file. No, it is the act of writing that makes a writer a writer.
Writers write for many reasons, but I think that at the core, we write for the same reasons that Didion wrote: We write to understand. And even though writers write about many different things, I believe that the thing we try and understand with all the things that we write is only one: Ourselves.
To be a writer is to be an observer. To be a writer is to be a person who reacts to their surroundings in such a way that it affects them emotionally.
A writer observes the world and reacts to what they see. This reaction triggers an emotional response and a desire to understand. The response and the desire create a need for release. The release manifests itself in the act of writing. Because, writing is an emotional act, an act that is all-consuming.
Gloria Anzaldúa calls writing “a sensuous act” that “produces anxiety” and “psychic unrest” before the act is committed and the writing complete. “To write, to be a writer,” she says, “I have to trust and believe in myself as a speaker, as a voice … .” A voice for whom? For ourselves.
Didion and Anzaldúa spoke about their personal reasons for writing, and in doing so, they put into words what the rest of us feel. Through the act of speaking in our own voice to express our need to understand, we end up speaking for others.
So, as I sat down to write this week’s blog post, I threw all my ideas to the side. Instead, I started typing in the blank box that my blog platform provides without knowing where I was going or what words would come out. I only knew I needed to say something, but I did not know what. The post that you have just read is what came out of my mind and my heart, through the movements of my fingertips, this Friday morning on May 27, 2022.
I wrote because I felt despair at the world. Too many people are dying for reasons that can be prevented. Mass shootings, war, pandemics and epidemics, climate change. I wrote because I needed to understand why today I felt this despair after nearly three years of sadness and chaos.
Now, I understand why I needed to write what I have written. It was the children of Uvalde. May their memories be a blessing, and may they be the last children to have their lives cut short in this way.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
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Hroznata was a powerful man in medieval Bohemia who also was very pious. On two occasions, he made a vow to go on a crusade but he broke them both. As penance, he founded a monastery. Used to having his way, he tried to interfere with the daily running of it, but the only thing he managed to do was to piss off the monks so that when he was captured and held for ransom, they stalled the payment and he died in prison.
A pawn in the political game played by her father, Princess Ingeborg of Norway married Duke Erik of Sweden when she was 11 years old and he was 30. At age 15, she gave birth to a son, Magnus, and a year later to a daughter, Eufemia. Duke Erik was a man of ambitions, who together with his brother Valdemar rebelled against their older brother Birger, the king of Sweden. A peace offering was made in the late fall of 1317 when King Birger invited Erik and Valdemar to a feast at Nyköping Castle. In the middle of the party, Erik and Valdemar were thrown into prison where they died–possibly of starvation–in early 1318. Now a seventeen-year old widow with two children alone in a hostile environment, Ingeborg joined her late husband’s allies and together they deposed King Birger and sent him into exile. They executed Birger’s son and heir to the throne, and made Ingeborg and Duke Erik’s son, Magnus, king instead. At the age of 19, Duchess Ingeborg was the legal guardian of her three-year old son and in his name, she ruled the largest kingdom in medieval Europe, reaching from Finland in the east to Greenland in the west.
The lives of Hroznata and Ingeborg are only two examples of why the Middle Ages are so fascinating. Both of these stories are true, and both of them would be good plots for historical fiction if they were not. Writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages is a big task. As an author, your imagination needs to be vivid enough to trump reality, and you also need to have the capacity to inhabit a cultural and psychological universe different from your own.
Two people who decided to tackle the Middle Ages through historical fiction are the siblings Boyd and Beth Morrison who have co-written the novel The Lawless Land (Head of Zeus 2022). Boyd is a New York Times bestselling author of thrillers and Beth is the Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
The Lawless Land is the story of Gerald Fox, a knight without a lord who is on a quest to restore his family name and ancestral estate. In his pursuit, he meets Isabel, a young maiden on the run from her own wedding and who harbors more than one secret.
The novel is set in 1351, at the very end of the first wave of the Bubonic plague across Europe, also known as the Black Death (1347–1351). The setting is England and France on both sides of the English Channel.
Even though the novel is set in the late Middle Ages, the only thing that makes it medieval is because it says so. Gerald Fox is a man who has lost faith in his faith after having seen one too many battles. By making Fox into a battle-weary atheist, the authors have given themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card because by removing religion from the mix, they didn’t have to wrap their heads around the one thing that made medieval Europe tick: Christianity.
Christianity, or Latin Christendom to be precise, was the umbrella under which everything took place in the Middle Ages. The agricultural year was organized around the saints’ feasts, politics and piety were so closely intertwined there is no point in trying to separate them, agnostics and atheists did not exist, relics were big business, and royalty and nobility secured their place in heaven by donating and founding chapels, monasteries, and churches. Latin Christendom drove inventions in science, art, literature, and fashion. Latin Christendom was the reason why there were two legal systems in medieval Europe: Canon Law, or the law of the Church, and secular law. Latin Christendom was the reason why Jews and Muslims were discriminated against and tolerated at the same time. Latin Christendom is what gave medieval culture a mystical bent.
The book’s idea of what is Europe is outdated. The map at the beginning of the book is called “Europe 1351” but shows only France, northeast Italy, and southern England, even though medieval Europe reached all the way east to Ukraine, north to the Arctic, and south to Spain and Greece. No borders are visible on this map, which robs the reader of the knowledge that half of what we think of as France at this time was English, the other half consisted of regions more or less under the French king’s sovereignty, and that Turin and Genoa were powerful city-state republics with large hinterlands. For reasons unknown, the detailed map of southeast England is called “Canterbury” even though what is shown is the county of Kent with Calais added on the other side of the English Channel.
The McGuffin of the story is an expensive manuscript that was “saved” from destruction during the sack of Constantinople in 1204; the story does not divulge that Constantinople was sacked as part of the Fourth Crusade, when Latin Christians turned on Greek Christians and wreaked such havoc on the city that it did not recover until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453 and breathed new life into it. In other words, the priceless manuscript was saved from being destroyed by the very people who saved it. Moreover, this manuscript is an heirloom of Isabel’s family because they didn’t want to give it up to a monastery, a logic that runs counter to how a medieval person would have thought. If there was an opportunity to donate a priceless manuscript to a monastery, they would have done so. Such donations were used as evidence of largess on behalf of the nobility and also as payment for prayers in the afterlife, an integral aspect of medieval culture and psychology.
The medieval world that comes across in The Lawless Land is without the color, absurdity, religiosity, mysticism, and bawdy sense of humor that permeated the medieval world. The characters are stiff, the plot is predictable, the ideas of what is and was Europe are outdated, the ideas of what it meant to donate objects to a monastery and indeed join a monastery display Protestant prejudices against holy objects and religious institutions of what is today Catholicism. What matters in historical fiction is not only that the authors get the facts straight; they also need to capture the essence of the time period.
On its dust jacket, The Lawless Land is given an endorsement by Lee Child, which makes sense. The Lawless Land is written like a thriller, and it reads like one. Change the year from 1351 to 2022 and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. So, if you are looking for Jack Reacher in the fourteenth century, this is the book for you. If you are looking for historical fiction set in the medieval world, I suggest you move along.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Last week I wrote about the three different types of book reviews an academic needs to know about if they venture outside the field of academic publishing. This week I will be talking about how to publish articles as a freelance writer, for the same reasons that I talked about book reviews last week: institutions of higher education in the United States keep churning out more graduates and post-graduates than they can employ, and because of that more academics publish work in both mainstream media and academic publications. But mainstream media and academic publishing are not the same; this is as true for book reviews as it is for articles.
Most of the articles you read in a magazine, either print or online, are written by freelancers. A freelancer is a person who is hired by a publication to write a specific text. Freelancers are independent contractors and not part of the staff.
Being a freelancer is fun and exciting, but it is also hard and nerve-wracking. As academics we are taught how to submit articles to scientific journals. It is part of what we do as scholars, especially if we are on the tenure track.
When we submit articles to scientific journals, we submit them as finished pieces. If the journal is peer reviewed, the editor sends our article to other scholars to recommend it for publishing, or they will recommend that the journal not publish our piece. This process can take months, sometimes even years. When the results come back, we are either told that our article will be published as is, it will be published after revisions, or it will be rejected. Either way, we are always told whether or not our article will be published. We are also told the reasons why our article is either accepted or rejected.
Not so in mainstream media. When you want to publish an article in mainstream media, you pitch an idea. The turn around time on your pitch is quick. If you are rejected you will not be told why. Sometimes you are ghosted. You will be paid for your efforts.
But just like academic publishing, mainstream media publishing is built on power dynamics. If you are not aware of them, when you go from academic publishing into mainstream media, it might feel as if you are going from the fire into the frying pan.
American publishing is based on two types of power dynamics. The first power dynamic is that American publishing is built by and for white heterosexual men. This is a fact regardless of whether you write for magazines or newspapers, or if you write books. Anyone who is not part of that group, or whose writing doesn’t pander to that group, needs to work harder to get to where they want to go.
The second type of power dynamic is between editors (and agents, if you write a book) and writers. There are of course exceptions, but on a systemic level, the attitude in publishing is that writers exist for the benefit of the editors, that is to say, a writer is dependent on the goodwill of an editor because without them the writer wouldn’t be a writer. An editor (and an agent) can dictate the terms of the working relationship between them and a writer, even if those terms are based on something as flimsy as pet peeves.
But at closer scrutiny, the reverse is true. A writer doesn’t have to be published to be a writer. All a writer needs to do is write. Meanwhile, editors (and agents) wouldn’t have their jobs without writers. Crucial to remember when you start pitching your work is that the power lies with you, even when someone else is trying to make you believe that it does not.
Here are steps you can take to exercise your power as a freelancer when you pitch your work for publication.
Identify Your Deal Breakers. It might sound counterintuitive that the first step is to decide on what will break a deal rather than make a deal. But this is important, because by setting boundaries for what you accept and don’t accept in a business transaction, you enter into the negotiations on your own terms.
The first step towards identifying your deal breakers is to think about your writing goals. Why do you write? Why do you want to be published? What kind of writing do you want to do? Do you want to make money off your writing?
The answers to this type of questions will determine what your deal breakers are. The answers can be vague at first and crystallize as you start pitching and publishing, and that is okay. The answers, and the questions, might change over time, and that is okay too. Whenever I am in a situation where I need to decide on making or breaking a deal, I ask myself the question: Will this take me where I want to go? If the answer to that question is no, I don’t make the deal.
The Pitch. Setting your writing goals and identifying your deal breakers will determine what kind of publications you will send your pitches to. Do your research before you pitch so that you don’t waste anyone’s time.
A pitch is the email you send to an editor where you propose your idea for the text you want to write for their publication. Some publications, especially those who publish essays, may want you to send in a finished piece, but most newspapers and magazines want you to send them a pitch.
A pitch consists of three parts. The first part is where you introduce your idea and get the editor hooked. The second part is where you explain to the editor why your idea is right for their publication. The third part is where you introduce yourself and include any links to previous work (bylines). If you don’t have any previously published bylines, this might seem like a Catch 22, but it’s not. Just like in any other kind of business, we work our way up. Now, if you want to pitch the New Yorker right off the bat, I’m not going to tell you not to do it. After all, that’s how Anthony Bourdain got discovered, right? But wait, wasn’t he a…? Yup.
Oh, and one more thing. Look at the publication’s masthead to find the name of the editor you need to contact. Sometimes it’s confusing as to who does what, and sometimes there is only a generic email address. You need to work your best guess here, or lead with the name of the publication, because a pitch that starts with “To Whoever It May Concern” or “Dear Editors” will go nowhere.
Contracts, Rights, and Fees. So, you have identified your writing goals and your deal breakers, and you have sent out your pitch. You check your inbox and the editor likes your idea. Yay! This is when you need to make the tough decisions because this is when you need to talk about the messy stuff like contracts, copyright, and money. And remember: The power lies with you. As soon as you feel that something is off or you come up against one of your deal breakers: WALK AWAY. There is always another publication that will treat you better.
Before you send in any text to the editor, you need to agree on the following: payment, kill fee, and copyright. The payment is the fee you will be paid for your work. You negotiate this with the editor. Some publications don’t pay or pay minimally. If you are okay with this, you can continue the discussion. If you are not okay with this, WALK AWAY. The rule I go by is that I only work for free when I work for me. If you want me to work for you, you need to pay me. The kill fee is the fee paid if your article for some reason doesn’t make it to publication. Copyright is determined by the clauses in the contract.
Most of the time you will need to ask for the contract. The editor will say that they are surprised that you ask for one. This is not them necessarily playing games. Because of the power dynamic where writers are led to believe that they are the weaker party, few writers ask for contracts. When a publication says they will not send you a contract or they will not commit to an agreement in writing, even in an email: WALK AWAY.
Read through the contract. Contracts are important because regardless of whether an editor accepts a pitch from you, or if an editor reaches out with the intention of hiring you, they are commissioning work from you. Depending on what your contract says that work can be considered a work for hire, which means that your text, once published, does not belong to you.
The contract needs to contain clauses on who owns the work and who has the right to use it, where, how, and for how long. Most standard clauses say that the publication owns all rights in perpetuity throughout the universe in publication forms existing and not yet invented. If you are okay with that, sign the contract. If not, negotiate. Again, don’t be surprised if this catches the editor off guard; most writers don’t negotiate the contracts, and editors tend not to know the contents of their contracts at the top of their heads. If the editor doesn’t want to negotiate: WALK AWAY.
The contract also needs to contain how their payment to you will be made; what will happen if they don’t pay on time; and the kill fee if you don’t deliver or the publication decides they don’t want your work for whatever reason, which happens more often than you might think. If the publication does not pay you on time, you have the right to send them a reminder. Depending on what your contract says, you might be allowed to send a reminder and add a late fee. However, I know of writers who have been blacklisted by publications for doing this, so proceed with caution. Because you can’t trust when a payment will be made, make sure to have another more stable source of income until you are established enough to have money in the bank and a credit line that can take on added expenses.
When it comes to the fee you will be paid, you decide what is equitable for you, and don’t let anyone shame you for it. Fee shaming is a tactic used in publishing where better paid and more established writers shame less established writers for taking lower-paying writing jobs. Fee shaming is often used by white writers against writers of color as a tactic to push writers of color out of writer networking groups and publishing altogether. Fee shaming is classist and racist. It is gatekeeping and violence.
At the same time, don’t let an editor low ball you. As I said at the top, publishing is based on a power dynamic with white men on top. In second place are white women. This means, that if you are not white, the system is set up to discriminate against you. Because the power dynamic is also in favor of the editors, few writers discuss the fees they are paid. One good place to get an idea of how much different publications pay is the anonymous crowdsourced website Who Pays Writers.
Choose Your Battles. When things get weird, we need to choose what battles to fight. Once you send in a text to an editor, you make yourself available for edits. And the editor will edit your text, whether you like it or not. That is part of the deal, and it is their job. The editor is a professional who works with texts all the time. The editor is the expert on what works for their publication. Some editors are very hands on; others make light changes; others make no changes at all. Either way, you need to be open for edits.
That is not to say that you need to accept all edits that are made. Here you need to go back to your deal breakers. If you accept the edits, will it change the meaning of your text? If yes, are you okay with that? If you are okay with that, go ahead and make the changes. If you are not okay with that, WALK AWAY. Again, these situations are why kill fees are important.
An editor I once worked with expressed surprise when I, in an article about the Viking Age, stated that white supremacist groups have appropriated viking culture. Here, I had a choice to make whether or not I should fight for this particular part of the text. Instead of making a big deal about it, I decided to delete that part. Why? Because the focus of the article was Viking Age women, not American white supremacy groups, and I had already published an article about that topic elsewhere. And even if I hadn’t already written about it, I knew I could pitch it as a second article to another publication.
You also need to remember that depending on the publication, you have limited say in your article’s headline and the images that illustrate your article.
Turning and Not Turning the Other Cheek Editors can be the most wonderful people in the world, they can also be jerks, and some might even be racists. Because the power dynamics are set up in favor of the editors, the editor can kill your work at any time as they see fit (once again, this is why kill fees are important). If an editor treats you badly for whatever reason, always remain professional, even when they are not. If an editor puts you in a bad situation: WALK AWAY. If you decide to see the situation through, never pitch them again. If their behavior is particularly egregious and you feel safe to say that directly to the editor, speak up. If you want to spread the word about the behavior of a particular publication, do so in whatever way works best for you. Either way, it’s the editor and the publication that end up losing.
How to Be Hired Again The easiest way to be hired again is not to roll over and accept everything the editor does to you. To be hired again, what matter the most is that you keep the word count and the deadline. The word count is set by the editor and is non-negotiable. The length of the texts is how a magazine or newspaper creates its own profile; flash prose, book reviews, essays, longreads, or longform reporting, to name a few.
The deadline is something you agree on together, but once set, you can’t break it unless under extreme circumstances. The times I have broken a deadline were when a hurricane destroyed my neighborhood and when a family member died. If you need to break a deadline, contact the editor and give them the heads up. Never put yourself in a situation where the editor needs to ask for the text.
Word counts and deadlines are crucial because each text that is published is part of a larger whole. If a text exceeds the word count or if a deadline is broken, there will be a domino effect that ripples through all aspects of either bringing an issue to print or updating the contents on the website.
And remember… Each situation is a negotiation between you and the editor, and also between you and yourself. You will need to weigh your options at several points during the time you are working on a text with an editor. And after a while, you will find the editors who work well with you, and you will develop a relationship with them. But always remember that no matter what anyone will have you believe, the power lies with you.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.