The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #5 – Sandra Phinney

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.


1. Where are you when most of your story ideas come to you?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m usually on the scene. And what I mean by that is, because I do a fair amount of travel and I’m on location quite a bit for a story or I’m scouting a region for a story, it’s hard to shut my mind off. Story ideas seem to be jamming my mind all the time. For example, this past weekend I was with my daughter, we had a mother/daughter getaway we had planned for months. And it’s at a location here in Nova Scotia called White Point Lodge and the lodge burned, it was quite dramatic, about 12 months ago. And it’s a huge, inspirational, wonderful feel-good story: how they recreated, rebuilt the lodge. So even though I’m trying to relax and rest for three days with my daughter in this gorgeous place on the beach, my mind is going all the time and I’m looking for the story behind the story. I try to make a note of these story ideas as soon as I can. I always carry paper with me in the glove compartment of the car, I’ve got paper by my bed. If I hear something on the radio in the morning and it gives me a story idea, I will pull over and make two or three notes. It’s like my mind never stops.


2. What’s your biggest distraction and how do you resist it? 

I think I have two huge distractions. One is that right now I’m sitting looking out at the Tusket River. My husband and I built a little house on the edge of this river, it’s a wonderful river in Nova Scotia. And I can look through my windows upstream and downstream and there’s not another place in sight. We don’t even have curtains on our windows. So that is hugely distracting because I can get carried away looking at a squirrel or a bird or just daydream and wish I were on the river paddling. So what do I do about it? Occasionally I will say, okay, so get out and paddle. You can’t take three days to paddle but you can paddle for half an hour. So that is a concrete kind of way of dealing with that.

And the other thing, and I don’t know if it’s a distraction so much as just a real bad habit, is I am a huge procrastinator. I’m a procrastinator when I’m facing a deadline and a blank page. Otherwise I can get tons of stuff done. And I do, I’m extremely productive, I’m very disciplined. But when I’m looking at a blank page I can get up and leave my desk and do things like ironing, which I never do.  Thank God for deadlines, because at some point the fear factor kicks in and I get to work.


3. What non-writing activity do you do to recharge your batteries?

I have five! One is walking every day. [My husband] Barrie and I, we try to get in 5 k every day. There are periods of time where we’re more with it than others, but as a general rule of thumb, we try to walk every day.

The second thing is Tai Chi. I used to teach Tai Chi a few years ago, and then I had trouble with my hips, so I kind of got away from it. So I’m getting back into it and very excited about it. It helps me put my mind in neutral. When I’m doing Tai Chi I cannot be thinking about balancing my checkbook, dealing with an editor, a trouble spot in a story, or what to feed the dog. It helps me go into a state where I can just be in the moment.

The third thing is paddling. I love wilderness canoe paddling. Every year I take at least two major canoe trips and probably 8 or 9 day trips, which is great. No computer, no phone, no texting, no nothing! And that is just so healing, so nourishing.

The other thing I do is write poetry and fiction. And I don’t do enough of it. I should be more disciplined about doing it because when I do have time to write a piece of fiction or a little poem and take the time to revise it and edit it and try to get it published, that’s very satisfying.

And the other one: I’m trying to learn how to meditate. I’ve been reading about meditation and just trying to be in that now moment and to quiet my brain. And it’s so hard! I can focus on my breathing for about three breaths and then I’m downstream in a canoe or I’m dealing with an issue with a story or I’m thinking of who I have to interview. The reason I’m trying to do that is I’m trying to pay better attention. I think it’s so important when we’re interviewing people or on the scene of a story that we’re working with all senses at their highest form, that they’re really in tune and in gear. And I think over the last little while I’ve gotten a little lazy on those points. I’m not as sharp as I used to be, and I just want to be in tune. So I’m hoping if I learn how to meditate it’ll help my focus and concentration.


4. What’s your best strategy for getting over rejected pitches?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a strategy. So now I’m thinking maybe I should develop one! What do I do when I get a rejection? Usually I ignore it. I mean, I absorb it, I say okay, well, I’m really disappointed that story is not a go with this publication. And then I just move on because I have stuff to do, interviews, and I’m usually working on a story so I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on a rejection. At some point, if the story’s important enough, I will try to find a second market. My next best market. I may have to change the angle or the slant or whatnot. Sometimes I’m just really so busy that I don’t have time to do that, because that takes a lot of time. If I’m finding another market, I have to analyze that magazine, I have to understand the readership, I have to contact the editor, I have to start a new relationship, maybe, if it’s a new editor. All those things take a huge amount of time. And usually if I’m already writing stories and haven’t set a block of time out to resend or re-pitch that story, I don’t.

Something I do on a regular basis, though, is if you said ‘no Sandra, I’m not interested in this story about kite flying’ I would send you back another story and try to do that within two weeks. Especially if it’s a market that I love writing for… if I send a pitch and the editor doesn’t like it, I’ve got one right behind it.


• Sandra Phinney is a Canadian-based professional writer and photographer. She lives on the edge of the Tusket River in Nova Scotia. Her recent work includes The Dixon Road and Right on Track. She is also Managing Editor (Atlantic Canada) for You can follow her on Twitter at @SandraPhinney.


How do you recharge your writing batteries? Share your strategies with other freelancers in the comment section below.

Posted on December 14, 2012 at 9:30 am by Rachel · · Tagged with: , ,

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