Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part One)

Chesapeake, Va., writer Will Harris sports a mashup tee combining his love of the United Transportation Union and Ram, Paul McCartney’s under-appreciated 1971 collaboration with his late wife. Oh, wait. I think that’s just a Futurama shirt with some letters obscured. So forget that first bit, though you might want to revisit Ram. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va.– Will Harris has a gig an awful lot of geeks like me wish we could pull off – TV criticism and interviews for the seriously fun The AV Club pop culture Web site.

Born effectively as the back pages to The Onion’s print and web operations, The AV Club of that has come out from under the shadow of its parodying parent to become a uniquely cool destination to read about the tube, flicks, music, and a strangely divisive substance called The Bieber.

Harris, a contributing writer at the site and for other publications, also has a nifty blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link, or check out his Twitter feed.

Harris, based in the Hampton Roads, Va., burb called Chesapeake, recently was the subject of a Belligerent Q&A here at the blog. You can read that at this link, but please let me apologize in advance for the whole Isabella Rossellini deal, and assure you I am keeping 1,000 yards away from her since I posted it. When the courts stipulate, I am compelled to stipule, which is to say I produce an outgrowth or two on the side of my petiole. Botany!

Harris met up with me a few weeks back at the Taphouse on 21st Street in Norfolk. Harris had a bourbon and diet Coke. To make up for his blatant carbs caution, I brushed some thick, refreshing Guinness onto my belly until I glistened like a dewy European hornbeam. Also botany!

Anyway, the interview went from there.

This portion of the talk focuses on how Harris got into music writing, the joy of freelancing, and then turning to TV criticism. It also includes me trying to make a foolishly hyper-local joke that makes up for with obviousness what it lacks in subtlety, unlike the awesome botany gags above.

Fortunately, we get through that quickly.

Q: You’ve got a neat story about coming to be a freelancer. Can you take me through the journey?

I really just wanted to write starting in about seventh grade. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that ability but I knew I was halfway decent at it. … Senior year of high school, I was actually on the newspaper staff, and I started to get more a feel for what I actually wanted to do. I went to a high school journalism convention in New York, and there was a guy there who was giving a speech about doing reviews for your high school paper. Basically, the thesis of his entire speech was ‘if you send a letter to record companies, they will give you free stuff.’ [Laughter.]

And that sounded really, really great to me. So I tried it, and sent a letter to I.R.S. Records [which represented acts such as R.E.M., The Cramps, and Fine Young Cannibals] and said, ‘I am a high schools journalist and would love to write a record review column. If you have any new releases you would like to send, I would love to review them.’ They sent me copies of Concrete Blonde’s first album, and the soundtrack to [the documentary film] Athens, GA: Inside/Out on vinyl.

What I really remember about that review is that it was the first and probably not the last but certainly the most egregious occasion where I totally wrote something inaccurate in a review. I referred to the version of ‘Swan Swan H,’ in reference to the original, as having intense orchestration, because I’d only actually heard it once and that’s what I remembered. It’s actually acoustic. That went into print and I still have a copy of it to keep me humble.

Q: What high school?

Great Bridge [in Chesapeake, Va.].

Q: What was the paper called?

The Bridge. [Laughter.]

Q: Makes sense. Did they change it to The New Bridge when they put the new bridge up?

I don’t think so but I can’t tell you that.

Q: What did you start out as?

At the time it was pretty much straight music reviews, because that’s what I was excited with. The idea of getting free stuff was a major impetus for that direction. … I’d just discovered alternative music – R.E.M., Morrissey, The Cure. I didn’t join the staff until my senior year. … And then when I graduated, my grades were not what you would call spectacular. I went to [Tidewater Community College] and I don’t know if they do now but they certainly didn’t at the time have a journalism program … I transferred to Averett [University], where I got my journalism degree.

I really didn’t do much actual writing until I got to Averett, and then essentially I’m writing for the newspaper on a regular basis.

Q: But you knew –

I knew that’s what I wanted to do, absolutely. I was writing for my own amusement. I wasn’t actually trying to send it off anywhere. There was really nowhere to send it, frankly.

Q: That’s kind of a thing, though. When you want to freelance, and you want to do a certain kind of thing, you want to be a music writer but you have to take a newspaper job. Did you find that right away that you couldn’t really write what you wanted?

No. I guess I did in high school, at first, because then I was writing just very basic stuff. I mean, whatever they handed me, I wrote. You know, who had the best fast food burgers in the area, to violence at football games. A variety of stuff. I mean, I still enjoyed writing it. … But then when I wrote the review, despite the fact that I wrote it very poorly, it seemed I knew what I was talking about.

Q: So you’re writing for the college newspaper –

The Chanticleer.

Q: What is it?

The Chanticleer.

Q: Really?

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: That’s a sweet name for a school newspaper. [It is French for “sing clear,” according to Wikipedia, which is French for “probably accurate;” it often refers to a rooster.]

Me [and former reporters for The Virginian-Pilot] Jim Washington, John Warren were all alumni of The Chanticleer. …

Q: Was there anything that really stood out from your time as a college journalist?

I had a column. Having looked back on some of those in retrospect, they were pretty terrible, but it gave me a feeling for wanting to spotlight the obscure. I think I still do now.

Q: What do you mean?

Well, I was coming off working at a record store for a couple of years. I was listening to a whole lot of albums that were not getting a lot of promo or press. I enjoyed the opportunity in that column to spotlight something I really liked and I didn’t think anyone had heard of.

Q: So what were some bands you really enjoyed focusing on?

Back then I did spotlights on the Judybats, Material Issue … I think probably the favorite [one] I did was on The Replacements. I think that was the first time I really sat there and tried to take it seriously, not just as a listener but as a writer. I probably don’t want to look back on it now because I probably remember it a lot more fondly than it actually was.

Q: I started as a freelancer when I was in college for The Pilot, but I used to write music stories just for the money. You know, you write an album review, you get $25. I think there was a time where I looked at those reviews and I wanted to write about music I liked and also kind of placing whatever I was reviewing in the scheme of things. Not just saying, “Hey, this is a good record or a bad record.” Was there a time that you really developed an understanding of what you wanted to do with reviews?

Probably after I got out of college because of the fact that I wasn’t necessarily my own editor anymore. I had been able to edit my own stuff in the column and that showed. [Laughs.] Certainly in retrospect, anyway. It certainly didn’t bother anybody at the time. Once I was able to work under an actual editor that went a long way toward helping me hone.

I did my internship at [the former local music pub] Rock Flash.

Q: That’s kind of a great internship.

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: Well, if you want to write music –

Yeah. For what I wanted to do, it was perfect. Our office was at the Beach. We shared a parking lot with The Raven [restaurant at Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront]. It was really cool for what I was able to accomplish as far as building connections and getting the feel for dealing with publicists. It was a little hard dealing with the reality that not every editor and publisher cares as much about the actual writing as you would like them to. It was more about advertising.

Q: Yeah, you’ve got to fill that space around the ads. Did you write for any other local pubs?

Acrtually, you may have seen on Facebook, I still have the letter from when I applied [for an internship] at The Pilot … ‘We’ll let you know.’ [The Rock Flash internship was] cool. I don’t think it was paid. Totally unpaid. I might have gotten like $50 at the end of it. You know, ‘Thanks for working your ass off for nothing, basically.’ But I got it. That’s really what mattered in the long run. I started writing for them. I got freelance after I got back from college. That was the first recurring gig that actually paid any money at all.

Q: What were you doing while you were freelancing?

I was working at the Tracks at Loehmann’s Plaza the first year after college. Then I went over to Harris Publishing. I started on the phones there and was on the phones for about five years. I started getting ridiculously good interviews. In retrospect, I have no idea how Rock Flash actually pulled them. I interviewed Robin Gibb, Johnny Rotten, Jellyfish, the Posies, a laundry list of people who were either big at the time or went on to become very important. …

At some point it went from Rock Flash to Flash Magazine. Then it went from Flash Magazine to 9Volt. I can’t remember the exact series.

Q: So how did you go from that to [fulltime] freelancing? … There’s a lot of dues-paying in freelancing.

To say the least. Pretty much all I was doing was freelancing pretty much for 10 years, basically. Rock Flash to Flash to 9Volt. 9Volt to Port Folio Weekly for a little while, and then I was writing unpaid for a couple of pop music magazines. One called POPsided and one called Amplifier. …

So I was writing for them with my friend David Medsker. … We were both writing for PopMatters and he got a gig writing for Bullz-Eye and then bumped up to editor, and his first act of nepotism was … to bring me on. Six months after that, the publisher said you’re our most prolific freelancer by far, and as soon as we’ve got the budget, we’d like to bring you on fulltime. Six months later, they had the budget and brought me on as an associate editor fulltime. That’s where I was for five years.

Q: I freelanced twice in my career. I could never figure out a way to make a living at it.

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was going to make a living as a freelancer. I didn’t know anybody else who was freelancing full time. Everyone I knew was using it as kind of for fun and on the side. The full time thing with Bullz-Eye was really out of the blue. It’s not so much that it doesn’t really have to do with what your abilities are, but it certainly does absolutely have to do with who you know.

Q: The big thing about stringing is you have to get people to trust you can do the work. So how do you do that? How important is that first assignment for a new client?

It’s very important. Certainly, with The AV Club it was invaluable. I was Facebook friends with [The AV Club contributing writer] Noel Murray for a year and he would occasionally hit ‘like’ on something I posted, so I felt he at least was aware of who I was. At some point he’d responded to something I’d written, so I sent him a direct message saying, ‘Out of curiosity, how do you get a foot in the door at The AV Club?’ Basically, he said someone had to foster an introduction to [The AV Club‘s editor] Keith [Phipps] and ‘I’ll do that if you like.’ Because I had a pitch. I pitched it and Keith said, ‘Would you be willing to collaborate with Noel, just because we’ve never worked with you before?’

Unfortunately, at the time I still was fulltime with Bullz-Eye. … Because I was so swamped for Bullz-Eye, I kept setting the piece for The AV Club aside in favor of something I had absolutely hard deadlines on, whereas I did not have one for The AV Club. It sat there and sat there and then I got the news at Bullz-Eye that I was going to be shifting to freelance whether I wanted to or not. That night, I sent an email to Noel and said, ‘Look, you have every right to not want to collaborate with me on this piece because I’ve been dormant for so long, but I had this pile and just kept shifting it because it wasn’t something I had a deadline for. I had to maintain.’ He wrote back, “I’ve got a pile like that. If you’re ready to start working on it, let’s do it.’ Within two days, I’d finished the piece and I’d worked harder on that than I’ve worked on any piece in my life. [Laughter.]

And then turned it in. I sent it to Noel first. Noel sent it back and said, ‘All right, normally I would send you my edits, but they were so negligible I don’t have anything to do but tell you you did great.’

Q: What was the piece?

It was an inventory on TV characters on real game shows. Like plots of episodes, Barney on How I Met Your Mother going on The Price is Right.

Q: That’s a really obsessive list.

[Laughs.] Yes. Extremely.

Q: That’s kind of The AV Club’s –

Yeah, I’d been an obsessive reader of the site, anyway. In fact, I had their book on inventory lists. I knew what I was getting into, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t aping it poorly.

Noel … sent it to Keith, and Keith wrote me the praise that ‘I really wasn’t sure which ones were Noel’s and which were yours.

That was invaluable in getting me a major foot in the door as a regular contributor. It’s a lot of relationships. You never know what’s going to turn into a relationship in the world of social media. It may be a very casual situation. They don’t know who you are. They just accepted your friend request. Versus them actually latching onto you because they like what they see. Virtual friends or whatever. Certainly, I’ve learned that social media is invaluable.

Q: How so?

A combination of self marketing, but also just meeting likeminded peers. I’ve certainly proceeded to bond with a lot of writers who I would not have ever had any way of crossing paths with were it not for Facebook or Twitter or stuff like that.

Q: When did TV coverage work its way into the mix?

Two-thousand seven. When I started writing for [Bullz-Eye] and realized how many promos they were getting, I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Once I started doing more reviews, I found out about the Television Critics Association. I found you could apply, and they were accepting online writers. I sent them an application. They wrote back and said, ‘You need to tighten up the site a bit.’ [A certain percentage of Harris’ writing needed to be on TV.] … So I started bulking up the site. I started doing regular news briefs. I started reviewing more DVDs whenever possible. … The time came when I applied in 2007 again and they accepted me.

In the next post, we talk about the nuts and bolts of freelancing, some of the stories Harris has covered, and finding the right balance of questions to make an interview click.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part One)

  1. […] you want to read part one first, click this link, and an earlier Belligerent Q&A is […]

  2. […] I’m a fan of The AV Club, a pop culture site with great reviews, features and interviews. Even interviewed contributor Will Harris here at the blog not so long ago. But I stay out of the comments there. I can’t […]

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