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


NORFOLK, Va.– This is the second part of my Q&A with writer Will Harris, contributor to The AV Club pop culture Web site, among others. Harris also has his own blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link.

If you want to read part one first, click this link, and an earlier Belligerent Q&A is here.

This portion of the talk deal with making it work as a freelancer, as well as approaching Q&As by structuring questions and knowing how far to push.

Q: Can we talk about the nuts and bolts of being a freelancer? One of the things I always had to struggle with was getting the invoices out.

Yeah, my wife has been very helpful in giving me a wall calendar so I can monitor when my assignments are due for various publications, when I need to send the invoices out. I’m lucky a couple of them send emails automatically saying, ‘Please give me your invoice tomorrow.’ Otherwise, I’m keeping track as well.

Q: I have a client when I was in New York who was a good steady client, but, basically, they would forget to pay me. Have you been through that with various publications?

Well, with [one publisher] there were occasions when I was unable to cash a check. I had to wait. There was no money in the account. … I attempted to cash a check and was told there was insufficient funds in the account. For the most part, I haven’t had an issue with people not paying me in a timely fashion.

Q: When I was a freelancer, I basically had to do magazine stories to afford to do the newspaper stories I wanted to do. There’s a lot of working for clients you maybe would not [normally] work for.

For me, the only one I do is [writing about] real estate, which I didn’t love to begin with but have pretty much grown to live with. It’s not even difficult, it’s just so completely different from anything I’ve done previously or that I am doing, I just feel I have to change gears at the same time I’m getting all these emails from other people I am currently writing for – I’m literally shifting gears as I have to write the piece.

Q: You have to take this work sometimes.

It’s a steady check. I get it every two weeks. It’s hard to reject that kind of regular money.

Q: I’ve – more when I was at The Pilot – but I’ve talked to journalism students. One thing I loved doing at The Pilot was talking to the high school program they had at The Pilot at the time. And the one thing the kids talked about is how they were going to write this, and they’re going to write that, and that’s not the reality of what it is to write. Especially, I think, when you’re a freelancer.

The real reality is if you’re going to be a newspaper writer you have to basically surrender to whatever it takes to get on the paper and work your way to where you want to be. Freelancing, it’s a little bit easier to pick and choose, but you still have to have an amount of foresight as far as what’s going to pay the bills.

Q: You’ve got to make so much every month, no matter what you want to write.

Right. I was talking about this the other night. Jim Morrison, a freelance writer, when I went freelance I talked to him first because he’s one of the few people I know who have made a living at it. The first thing he told me was, ‘You can make it in freelancing if you can get five [clients you can count on] per month. You can build a budget based on that.’ I’ve fortunately been able to do that.

Q: In New York, I made enough to pay bills but I didn’t have insurance.

If my wife did not have insurance through Norfolk Public Schools, then I would be out of luck, and would probably not be working full time as a writer.

Q: I would never want to write for The AV Club because I would never want to be in the position of screwing up a site I read every day. [Laughter.] If that makes sense.

It makes sense.

Q: But one of the cool things is I read The AV Club – and you and I have talked about this before – but I read it pretty maniacally. I’m pretty sure I go there once, if not twice per day to see whatever Sean O’Neal is writing or whatever. It’s really cool to know somebody who writes there. I wonder if people come up and talk to you about that or just, ‘How do you do it?’

A lot of people around here don’t know I write for The AV Club, outside of Facebook, but I have several good friends who say, ‘How do you get in with The AV Club?‘ The best advice I can give you is what Noel [Murray, an AV Club contributor,] gave to me, which is you need to have an in, and even then there’s so many people who want to write for The AV Club that it doesn’t even get you that far.

Q: How much of the work is pitched to you? Or how much do you pitch?

I pitch a lot. I’ve built a pretty huge collection of publicist friends during the five years I was at Bullz-Eye, and the four years at Bullz-Eye while I was in the [Television Critics Association], and it’s incredible how far The AV Club name will get you in addition to the people I already knew. You just jump to a complete other echelon with The AV Club.

The biggest issue I find is a lot of the publicists don’t know what The AV Club is but they do know what The Onion is, and you have to sell it as being The Onion AV Club at the same time you’re clarifying, ‘It’s not the jokes. It’s for real and it’s serious.’ It’s kind of a delicate line sometimes.

Q: Could you talk about pitching? My pitches used to be letters.

It’s email. I get so many emails from publicists pitching me interviews. Some of them are not obviously huge names. One of the things I love doing at The AV Club is [a feature called] ‘Random Roles.’ You don’t have to be a big name. You just have to have a very long career. By virtue of that, whenever I even get remotely interested in a pitch for that, I send it off and it’s reached a point now where I’ll say 70 percent of the time they will be like, ‘Go for it.’ [Harris checks to ensure] nobody else has pitched it. I’m very sensitive about stepping on anyone’s toes.

It is literally a dream gig.

Q: The comments just go off the charts on that site, and they’re not always very kind to the writers.

They’re not, but there’s perpetual criticism about ‘Random Roles’ about, ‘Oh, how come you didn’t ask them abut this?’ I seem to have built some semblance of a fan base in the comments section.

Q: I think one of the reasons ‘Random Roles’ works so well is stories with big stars usually suck.

One thing about ‘Random Roles’ is it can be a big star. Like Mark Harmon, when I set that interview up, he was the number one most-loved TV celebrity, and yet I talked to him for an hour and asked him about all this stuff he never gets asked about anymore. And at the very tail end of it, I asked about NCIS, and prefaced it by saying, ‘This has got to be the longest interview you’ve done in years where you’ve barely been touching NCIS.’

Q: People who are character actors, those people tend to be, for me, more interesting, because they seem to be more forthright.

Yeah. I think they’re rightfully convinced they can get work even if they mouth off.

Q: One of the things I like about The AV Club, and your writing specifically, is an appreciation for the forms. Whatever you think about reviews, there’s an appreciation for an art. One of the greatest things I’ve heard in my life is the commentary by Roger Ebert for Dark City. It’s a great commentary, and I think one of the few film commentaries I’ve listened to more than once. There’s such an appreciation for film. I think you really get a sense that the people writing for The AV Club, too, they really care about the form and they find meaning in it. How does that work for you to get to write about pop culture?

I’ve been a trivia geek since I’ve been in single digits. … I was just eating this stuff up because I’d never heard of it and it sounded interesting to me. I’ve just been an obsessive about pop culture since then. The opportunity to write about pop culture for an audience that, as evidenced in the comments section, loves pop culture as much as I do, it’s an honor. And not one I thought I would ever see.

Q: Is it difficult to get people who have reached a certain level of success in the entertainment industry and get them to sit down and to ask them tough questions?

I’ve rarely been one to ask the hard-hitting questions. Not because I don’t think I could, but because I don’t think I have an interest in them. I’m never going to ask somebody a gossipy kind of question like you’d read in a publication like People or Us Weekly because I don’t have an interest in that.

If you send a reporter who actually enjoys talking to an interview subject or just is friendly with them, I think you get a better interview. At a certain point, if you are friendly with the person, they will open up about the stuff.

Q: Do you feel that’s what happened with the Larry the Cable Guy interview? You asked him some questions about a situation he had [with criticism from comedian David Cross].

Yeah, but I asked at the end of the interview and I didn’t ask in a confrontational way. I literally said, ‘I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you talk about this. I’m really just curious what you thought of it.’ As a result, I had another half-hour conversation with him. It was arguably a hard-hitting topic, but it was not a hard-hitting question. As a result, I got some really great answers. I don’t know if that tactic works for me all the time or some people any of the time.

Q: Do you feel like you have to ask questions like, ‘Do you hate gay people? Do you hate Arabs? When you make jokes like that?’ Do you feel that’s a responsibility for a critic?

I think it’s responsible to ask those questions. It’s just not something I would want to do. I’m very aware of the difference between a real person and an act. I’ve interviewed Andrew Dice Clay and I know that’s an act, but certainly it’s offensive to plenty of people.

Q: The thing that David Cross was kind of pointing out in Larry the Cable Guy’s act is that he goes for the easy joke.

You could argue that if you go back and read his responses, his response was a little disingenuous, you could say. Kind of avoiding the direct accusations in favor of being, ‘Why me? Why’s he picking on me?’ If I was a different kind of interviewer, I probably would have asked a harder hitting question, but I still got a better answer than a lot of people would have gotten. I just didn’t feel the need to go for it. That wasn’t why I asked the question in the first place. …

If it had been like a major headline story and I had an opportunity to ask him about it that would be one thing, but this was four years after the fact. It wasn’t like I was waiting with bated breath to find out what Larry the Cable Guy thought of David Cross’ letter.

Q: What I was going to ask about was actually structuring interviews.

When it comes to asking questions that could piss somebody off, I invariably wait until either the very end of the conversation or at a point in the conversation when I’ve developed enough of a rapport with the person that they know I’m not trying to be a dick by asking them. …

If you’ve got somebody on the phone where they’re in a position to hang up on you, you can probably wait until you have everything else you need first, and then ask the question.

Q: Have you ever had anybody just get pissed off and hang up the phone?

Ving Rhames, more or less. … Basically, it was for Death Race 2, the straight to DVD prequel to the remake of Death Race 2000.

Q: That’s the saddest line anyone’s ever said.

I’ve talked to a lot of people for straight to DVD sequels. I’m not going to lie to you.

Q: But no other film can claim that superlative.

No. So I think it was the day before or even that day and they said, ‘Oh, Ving Rhames is going to do some interviews.’ Well, I’ve got to get in with that. They forewarned me that they were not going to have copies of the video to screen in advance. So we talked for about five minutes, and we were supposed to have 15, and it’s going pretty well. I very casually and not trying to draw attention to it said, ‘I haven’t actually been able to see the film yet, but I understand you do such and such.’ Before I can even finish the statement, he goes, ‘What do you mean you haven’t seen the film?’ I said, ‘They haven’t sent me a copy of the film. It wasn’t available.’

[Rhames then quoted the Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski as saying] ‘if you do not take your job seriously, I will not work with you.’ [Laughter.] So I wait to see if he’s kidding. Apparently not, so go, ‘Then the interview is over? I hope not.’ He says, ‘No, that was Stanislavski. I will finish this interview, but I think you need to, as a journalist, take your job more seriously.’ [The interview lasted about two more minutes.] I do take my job seriously. If they had a copy available I would have watched the film.

Q: What’s the name of the film again?

Death Race 2.

Q: Why didn’t you take your job more seriously?

Ah, again, I really have no more of an answer for you than I did for Ving Rhames.

Q: It’s not just a race. It’s a race about death.

The second race about death.

Playing us out is a trailer Stanislavski undoubtedly would have loved.

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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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