Interview with Mary-Lane Kamberg
PROFESSIONAL WRITER AND SPEAKER
By Margo L. Dill
Mary-Lane Kamberg is a professional writer and speaker whose freelance work includes articles in consumer and trade magazines, as well as corporate newsletters, scripts, and public relations materials. She is co-leader of the Kansas City Writers Group and belongs to the Missouri Writers’ Guild, the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc., and the Kansas Authors Club. She founded and facilitates the summer I Love To Write Camp for writers in grades 4th through 8th.
WOW: Mary-Lane, welcome to our Premium-Green Markets Newsletter! We're thrilled you've decided to share your experience on freelance writing. So, let's start at the beginning. How should a writer prepare herself to enter the freelance marketplace?
Mary-Lane: Marry well. And don't quit your day job. It takes a long time to develop enough freelance assignments to support yourself. Oh, or you could win the lottery first.
WOW: So, we could take your practical advice of sticking with our day job for a while unless we find our own Dr. McDreamy or play the lottery. Thanks for the laugh! We know that a writer's bio and resume is an important asset to a publication, but what if she doesn't have any published clips yet? What should she do to build her platform?
Mary-Lane: I started close to home for my hometown newspaper where I had a personal connection with the publisher. Our kids were in the same gymnastics program. I used clips from that publication to get assignments elsewhere. Another good place to start is with how-to articles about something the writer knows how to do—where she can be her own expert. My first national sale was to a magazine for teenagers about how to return merchandise or complain to a store manager—something I had frequently done myself. I then branched out to things people close to me knew how to do. My husband was in the car business, so I used his expertise for articles about buying tires and selling your own car out of your driveway. It's also a good idea to try to develop a specialty area or areas. I wrote a lot of articles about schools and education, and another bunch on automotive topics, so editors thought of me when they wanted an education or automotive article.
WOW: Write what you know and start with contacts you’ve already made. Those are terrific ideas we can get started with today. So, as we learn from example, what was the very first freelance publication you were accepted to? Was it the hometown newspaper? And what did your query letter entail?
Mary-Lane: I didn't send a query letter. I saw the publisher at a gymnastics meet and pitched him an article about kids flunking kindergarten. The women in my neighborhood had been talking about it out on the sidewalk while our kids played, and I thought it was interesting that so many kids were being held back from first grade.
WOW: That’s great how you took something happening close to home and turned it into an article. It also shows how we can make contacts ANYWHERE, so keep our eyes and ears open. In your opinion, when you write query letters, what do you find is the key ingredient that entices an editor?
Mary-Lane: Obviously, a great lead. Followed by a brief summary of the main points of the article and named sources you will quote.
WOW: Three important things to provide in a query: a great lead, a brief summary, and sources! After an editor accepts the query, what does a writer need to consider? (e.g., Should she create a contract? Or specify her terms?)
Mary-Lane: Especially when you're new, you pretty much need to accept whatever rights and money the publisher wants to buy/pay. You can ask for reprint rights after the publication publishes the article. Some will give them back, some won't. Certainly, you should ask for reimbursement for any expenses like faxes or car expense if applicable. A contract won't protect you from a deadbeat publisher that won't pay unless you want to go to small claims court (maybe there's another article in it for you). But if the publication is out of money, you're out of luck anyway. It's my understanding that you don't need a contract for an assignment that can be completed within one year. My attitude has always been that I want the editor to get the article he/she wants (or one even better than that!). So, I usually agree with whatever the editor wants as far as changes. And turn in your work early, or at worst, on time. It's the best way to get future assignments. If a problem arises during your research or writing, contact the editor immediately, not the night before deadline, for advice on how to proceed. I was once assigned a humor piece about women in the workplace having trouble using computers, new software, and new technology. After three or four interviews, it became apparent to me that this was not funny at all. Women were worried about losing their jobs! I called the editor, and we modified the assignment to reflect what my research was finding.
WOW: Great tip, Mary-Lane, about contacting the editor if you are running into trouble—thanks for sharing that specific example about your women and technology article. Have you ever been accepted to a publication only to have your project killed?
Mary-Lane: Yes, one that broke my heart. It was one of my first national magazine sales, and the magazine went out of business before my article was published. The editor sent me the laid out article with the photos in place and everything. That's how close it got. I have since outlasted many, many magazines.
WOW: I can’t even imagine seeing the layout and never seeing it in print. How disappointing. It shows, though, that you have a successful career! You haven’t let this get you down AND you are even outlasting magazines. When working contract jobs, how do you determine your hourly or per-word rate? (Is there a formula you use?)
Mary-Lane: Whatever the market will bear. I often use the guide in the Writer’s Market. I count one hour per each finished double-spaced page, including research, rough draft, edits, approvals, etc. I prefer to charge by the project, because I hate keeping track of the time I spend on something.
WOW: That makes sense to make sure to include all the research and rewrites when figuring your price. Where can freelance writers go to get help on business aspects? (Such as taxes, health insurance, contracts, and websites that provide resources etc.)
Mary-Lane: My husband carries me on his health insurance at his work. We have a tax professional do our taxes, including my "small business." That's as much as I want to care about business stuff.
WOW: It seems your expertise is definitely in the writing world, and leaving the business to others works for you! In recent years, big print magazines have moved to online publishing only. What do you think about this move? And, in your opinion, how does this affect the freelance marketplace?
Mary-Lane: I don't think it's as much fun to see my work online as in a print form. However, it's the wave of the future, and if young people are going to read anything in the future, they'll likely be reading it online. I'm afraid—although I don't know this for sure—that publishing online might reduce the number of places you can re-sell an article, but I haven’t experienced trouble with that (yet).
WOW: Reselling articles is a great point. Thanks for mentioning that. It is important to make sure you know your rights, especially if your work appears online. Electronic rights have caused a huge controversy these days. Do you have any motivational/inspirational tips you can share with our freelancers?
Mary-Lane: Consider rejection an opportunity to contact a different publication. Keep track of how many rejections you get, and when you have collected 100 of them, you can consider yourself a "real" writer. Pay your dues. Then pay it forward by helping less experienced writers along the way.
WOW: We love the idea of helping less experienced writers. That’s definitely what this column is all about. Since this column is called, "Meet Your Mentor," we have to ask, do you have a mentor? And, what does being a mentor mean to you?
Mary-Lane: Oh my, yes. I have lots of them. The first one was Lois Daniel who taught a continuing education class in magazine writing at a community college near me. She assigned an article as homework, and I sent it out and sold it. Lois was the first person who convinced me writing for publication was something I could do. Since then, there have been dozens of writers I have met through my writer’s group, writer’s conferences, and statewide writer’s organizations. Since I ask questions for a living, it wasn't too difficult for me to ask for advice from writers who were more experienced than I was. Today, I mentor other writers (some as young as fourth grade!) by sharing my experience with them or by connecting them with other writers I know who might have the answers they're looking for. I consider it paying back (or paying forward) to others the way others helped me.
WOW: You have such a positive attitude, which seems absolutely necessary as a freelancer! As freelancers, we know it's all about promotion. So, feel free to tout your flair! What are you up to?
Mary-Lane: I wrote four books last year along with planning two weddings for my daughters and chairing a writer’s conference. So, I'm up to relaxing and regrouping. I'd love to write some poetry, but I need some quiet time first, and that doesn't look likely. This summer I'll be promoting Homegrownin the Ozarks: Mountain Meals and Memories (Goldminds Publishing), a cookbook with nostalgia essays by my co-author Rolland Love, and The I Love To Write Book for Young Writers (Crick Hollow Press), a how-to book for 4th through 8th graders. I'm also starting work on an as-told-to memoir by one of the Lost Boys of The Sudan.
WOW: Yes, you are keeping busy! Those projects sound great, and we’ll need to check out the books. Any closing words of wisdom for our readers?
Mary-Lane: Do what you love, and the money will follow. You might need to take some corporate work along the way to pay the bills, but always leave yourself time to work on articles or books on topics that are close to your heart.
WOW: Writing what you love is very important, and we are glad we were able to talk with someone who loves writing and helping other writers as much as you do. Thank you for taking time out to chat with our Premium-Green subscribers! We appreciate the wisdom you've imparted with us today. I'm sure our readers will want to check out all you have in store!