Your words can speak volumes, but only if you write them…and write them well.

Interview: Freelance Writer Paul Lagasse

February 2nd, 2010 by Ami

For this week’s Write Out Loud interview we have a local-to-me writer. Paul Lagasse is a full-time freelance writer living in Baltimore, and the author of the YA historical novel Seeing Through Clouds: The Story of an Airship Apprentice (2006).

Write Out Loud: Welcome, Paul. Thank you for taking some time out from your writing to answer some questions for us. Let’s get started. You’re the current president of the Maryland Writers’ Association’s Baltimore Chapter. What do you feel are the benefits of being a member of a local writing association?

PL: I think writers need to find their tribe, however they define it. I may be a loner, but that doesn’t make me anti-social! I love hanging out with people who have the same affliction and who understand what it’s like to ache with a story or to spend days wrestling with a sentence. I like what Antoine de Saint-Exupery said about the mysterious power of companionship:

Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something moulded. These prison walls that this age of trade has built up round us, we can break down. We can still run free, call to our comrades, and marvel to hear once more, in response to our call, the pathetic chant of the human voice.

MWA is a neat way to meet writers of all different genres and levels of experience. I’m always amazed by the depth and breadth of knowledge of members, and by talking with them in person and via social media I’m always learning about new resources, events, funny cartoons, etc.

WOL: You have a degree in history and planned to become a professor. Why did you decide to become a freelance writer?

Paul Lagasse: The short answer is that I discovered that my temperament wasn’t suited for academia. I was lucky to find work in the private sector as an historian and then as an archivist and records manager, but what I loved most about those jobs was having the opportunity to write — everything from project reports to articles for the company newsletter. So I decided to focus on that and make the history a hobby, and not the other way around.

WOL: How has that history degree (or your process of getting it) contributed to your writing?

PL: William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, said that clear thinking is a prerequisite for clear writing. My grounding in historical methodology was essential for helping me to learn how to think clearly. At its best, historical methodology teaches you how to look at events with a critical and analytical eye, so you can separate meaningful patterns from background noise. After I graduated, I had the privilege of working at a historical research services company with some of the sharpest people I have ever met, and they taught me by example how to think clearly and how to write accordingly.

WOL: What types of writing and editing do you do?

PL: I am really a generalist, but over the years I have developed a couple of niches: writing about trends and practices in philanthropy, and editing government science and technology reports. If you’re a generalist, it’s inevitable that you’ll start developing grooves over time, and those have just happened to be mine. Unless you have a specific area of expertise that you’re marketing to, you never know what your grooves will end up being — I started out by writing plumbing manuals!

WOL: How do you find clients, market your services and sell your work?

PL: I’ve been very fortunate that most of my work has come through referrals, and one or two have found me through web searches. With the exception of one long-time client that I obtained by responding to a call on a discussion list, responding to job postings hasn’t worked for me — I get lost amid all the other, hungrier writers applying for the same job. I just scored a new assignment writing news items for a quarterly magazine through LinkedIn, thanks to a shared connection twice removed (a connection of mine had a connection who was, in turn, connected to the magazine’s editor!). I think LinkedIn is going to be a valuable source of freelance opportunities.

The closest I have been able to come to a success formula is: be lucky and be good. That means, position yourself in the path of opportunities and make a grab for them when they pass by, and when you get one, get the client to think of you as indispensable, or a bargain, or both.

When it comes to selling my fiction, I’m just beginning to get out there and collect rejection letters like everyone else, so I don’t know any tricks yet.

WOL: What portion of what you do is writing/editing and what portion would you say is other business related work (e.g., marketing, networking, querying, etc.)?

PL: I’d say it’s probably around 3/4 billable time and 1/4 overhead.

WOL: How do you schedule your day?

PL: I write freeform for ten minutes every weekday morning right after I get up — dreams, “dear diary” stuff, notes for the day, whatever. It helps my brain limber up and is good for discipline. Then I read websites and blogs for about an hour and a half and also take care of MWA volunteer tasks. Then if I have a lot of paying work on the to-do list I’ll jump straight into that, and if not then I’ll spend two hours on my own work before turning to client work.

I find that I work most efficiently if I break tasks up into 90 minute chunks, with a quick break in between. With the phone and e-mail off, I can usually get a day’s work done in three or four hours. I try to wrap up by 5:30 or 6:00, when my wife comes home and the cats need to be fed. I have a little office-closing ritual (a shut-down checklist) that helps me mentally walk away from work every night.

One of the reasons I got into freelancing was because I didn’t want to work 50-60 hour weeks and weekends anymore, and with very rare exceptions I’ve been able to hold to that. In order to manage profitable four-hour days even on deadline requires some solid up-front planning, which I’ve gotten comfortable doing.

WOL: What are your favorite tools for making your work easier?

PL: My old Mac PowerBook G4. I seem to keep finding new excuses to put off getting a new computer. My PB has become an extension of my brain, maybe even my personality.

I use Nisus Writer Pro for most of my writing. I avoid MS Word whenever I can. If the client insists on a Word document, then I’ll do everything in Nisus and then save it as a Word document as the last step. They’ll never know, and we’re both happy!

WOL: What resources do you regularly use or have been useful to you in the past?

PL: There are two writing books that pretty much live on my bedside table that I re-read at least yearly: On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Writing to Deadline by Donald Murray. I have a list of writing-related blogs that I read daily, which is on my blog’s Links page, under “Essential Reading”.

WOL: What skills would you say are most important to your success as a writer/freelancer?

PL: Definitely my ability to recognize patterns. When writing or editing, I can see the direction that a piece needs to go and figure out where the pieces need to go to make it get there.

I also don’t believe in the need to silence your “inner editor” when writing, regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. I don’t perceive of an editor persona as some little demon who sits on my shoulder nagging me. It’s more like there’s a writer and an editor sitting at a table passing pages back and forth and having a thoughtful conversation. My writing skills and my editing skills are equal partners in my writing process. There are times that one takes the lead, certainly, but that whole “good/bad” dichotomy just doesn’t capture my experiencing of writing.

WOL: That’s an interesting insight. We don’t have to hate that “inner editor” or lock it in a closet. It can be useful to us if we let it. What strategies do you use to stay on top of deadlines and manage multiple projects?

PL: I start with the goal and work backwards from there to identify the steps and the timeline. If I have to have X words by Y date, what are the individual things that must be done along the way and in what order? That helps me establish a rough timeline that I can adjust along the way.

I set priorities based on the amount of time required for a task. Writing takes more time than editing for me because I have to build in time for the mental run-up to get into the groove, and then the wind-down at the end. Editing I find is more of an on-off activity. But it’s hard for me to slip from one to the other without a break in between.

WOL: What one piece of advice would you give to other writers who are hoping to build a freelance business?

PL: You have to know going into freelancing that you’re working in an environment where if anything goes wrong there’s no one to blame but yourself, and if anything goes right there’s no one to praise you but yourself. If you thrive in that kind of environment, then you probably have a chance at long-term success. If you need praise and attention, you’ll starve for it.

So first be honest with yourself about who and what you are, and why you want to go freelance. That’s the prerequisite for doing it in a way that’s meaningful to you, which in turn is the prerequisite for loving your job. And don’t just do that assessment up front; do it every day in some form or another.

WOL: And finally, my favorite question: Writers are often known for their vices. What’s your biggest vice?

PL: That’s a hard one — narrowing it down, I mean. I’m not sure if it’s a vice so much as a crutch, but I have an insatiable need for background music while I write. I just can’t write in total silence; I need a soundtrack going quietly in the background. When I write fiction, it tends to be film scores because they’re already geared toward storytelling. For my freelance writing, I listen to streaming audio channels that play ambient music. There, I said it. I actually listen to ambient music by choice and preference, and I don’t care who knows it!

WOL: We all have our quirks, Paul! Thanks for your thoughtful answers. It’s been great getting to know you better!

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