The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #23 — Josiah Neufeld
In this regular feature, Story Board asks Canadian writers to share a few details about their work habits and their strategies for navigating the ups and downs of freelance life.
Josiah Neufeld is the winner of the 2014 Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award for social justice writing. The Winnipeg writer has been published in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Utne Reader and Geez magazine. His Dave Greber award-winning story “A Quiet Slaughter” was published in Hazlitt and tells the story of Erick, a young man who escaped war and genocide in Burundi. Neufeld took the time to speak with Story Board this week about the elements of a good story, balancing work with family life, and finding inspiration in rejection.
You write about some fascinating people in your work. Many of them seem to be old friends and acquaintances. Are your story ideas always inspired by people you meet by chance, or do you sometimes seek out characters to illustrate a topic that you want to write about?
No I certainly seek out characters to illustrate a topic that I’m interested in. A piece I did last fall for a magazine called Geez, I did quite a bit of work to find the main characters of that story. It took me quite a bit of emailing contacts I know and poking around to find them.
I knew what I was looking for — the kind of person I was looking for, their outlook on climate change and where we are going next. So I had sort of an attitude I was looking for. But I didn’t know someone like that. So through a bunch of contacts and people giving me ideas I was put in touch with this couple, Ruben and Carmen, and I spent a weekend with them and they turned out to be the perfect couple to feature for this story.
They were really nice people, and really thoughtful people and really articulate people. And those are the kind who make fantastic characters for a good story.
How do you know if you have a good story idea? Are there elements of an idea that tell you that it’s a winner?
There’s a couple of things I look for in a good story. I look for character, a personality at the centre of the story who can make it come alive. And a person who can speak about their own motives because otherwise it’s really hard to find out what’s going on inside people’s heads.
I remember a workshop I once went to with a writer, an American magazine writer, writes for The Believer and a bunch of other magazines. And he said he approaches it like a novel. Like he’s writing fiction. Desire is the engine that drives fiction, it’s what motivates characters. And so every time he interviews someone, the question in the back of his mind is “what is this person’s fundamental desire here, what it is that they want?” And I really found that fascinating. So that’s what I try to look for is a character and some way to access what’s going on at a deeper level for them and the desire that’s driving them.
I also look for some connection to a bigger story. There’s always a small story that illustrates a bigger story. So in the case of Ruben and Carmen the small story is how they’re living their lives and the bigger story is a story of climate change and our cultural fixation with the apocalypse and wondering if things as we know them are about to drastically change.
What advice can you offer about pitching story ideas to editors?
I spend a lot of time on my pitches. That’s something I learned from Deborah Campbell, who’s a fantastic journalist. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at UBC. I did an MFA there and I took her journalism class on longform nonfiction writing. And that was one of the most important things I learned about in that class was how to write a good pitch letter.
If you’re writing to an editor who you don’t have a good relationship with already, you basically have to do a third or half your research toward your story if you want to really convince them and sell the story in a pitch. In order to write my pitch I start doing interviews already. If I’m pitching an editor I don’t know, I have to really believe in the story and I have to know that I’ve got a story and it’s a lot of work to write a pitch that detailed.
But those pitches, editors read them and they pay attention to them, and even if they don’t go with the story it’s an open door, potentially, in the future. That’s how I made a connection at The Walrus. I sent a very detailed pitch that I’d worked on a lot and the editor read the pitch and took it to a story meeting and ultimately they didn’t go with the story, but the pitch was convincing enough that she said “send me more story ideas.” So I had an open door there, I had an editor who I knew would read my pitch letters.
So do you always rework pitches and send them elsewhere if they’re rejected?
Yes I do. If it’s a story that I believe in. The story I did that won the Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award, the one about the young man named Erick who was from Burundi and escaped across Congo, I pitched that to probably three or four magazines and they all said no for whatever reason. Either it wasn’t Canadian enough or they didn’t have room for something that long. And then I sold it to Hazlitt and it turned out to be a really powerful story. I knew I had a good story, it was just a matter of finding a magazine that wanted to publish it.
I don’t let rejections get me down too much. Especially if I feel I’ve got a good story and it’s well-pitched I get the kind of rejections where the editor says “this is a great story idea, I wish we could run it. This is why we can’t.” Those kind of rejections just give me a boost of energy, they don’t discourage me.
What are your thoughts on the value of social media for a writer?
I’ve taken a fairly low-key approach. I’m on Facebook and I have a website. I think the key is to have a way for people to get ahold of you and find out about you. That’s the important thing. If there’s no way for editors to potentially contact you then you’re missing some opportunities.
I haven’t put a lot of energy into social media just because I find it drains my creative energy. But it depends what kind of writer you are. I’m the kind of writer who prefers to spend a longer time on longer pieces and work more slowly. If I was a different kind of writer who was doing a lot more current news and had to be on top of what was going on then it would probably be worthwhile for me to spend a lot more time on social media.
I know writers who are always on Twitter on Facebook and it really works for them. They get lots of story ideas. But there’s other writers who like to ruminate and think and leave room for creative energies to come up with something complex and slow. For people like us, too much social media can be a drain on our creativity.
I read that you’re a full-time stay-at-home father and writer. How do you balance your writing work with parenting?
There are definitely pluses and minuses to parenting while being a independent writer. I have a partner who works, as well, so the advantage is that there’s another income stream in the family so I don’t have to be on the hook to pay the rent all by myself, which is a huge relief to me.
On the flipside it means that I’m not as free to just drop everything and go travel for a story because I have two kids, a four-year-old and an eight-month-old. I love being home with my kids. I love working from home. I love the fact that my freelance schedule gives me the flexibility to change my schedule when I need to but, you know, I get up early in the morning and write for an hour or two before anyone else in the family is awake. That’s what I do to carve out that time.
Having kids has actually made me more efficient with my work time, I think. Because when you’re looking after a two-year-old and they go down for a nap and you know you’ve got one hour before they wake up again… I’m not going to waste any of that time watching YouTube videos, I’m going to write. Because that time is gold.
In addition to winning the Dave Greber Award, Josiah Neufeld’s work has been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award, a Western Magazine Award and the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. You can find links to some of his writing on his website at www.josiahneufeld.com.