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Inspiring fecklessness at the Salon

THE FREELANCE Salon on 13 July inspired journalists to be feckless and have fun, it seems. Our first speaker, David Quantick, said he started on this path early: "The school I went to has a mentor system. I was asked to go back and give a talk on 'having a dream'. I told them I believe strongly that you should not have a dream."

© Hazel Dunlop

David Quantick

Most people, he suggested, "really don't know what they want to do". They're forced to make decisions to pay for food and shelter. "When I was a student in the 1970s you could go to university and come out and do what you wanted - it didn't matter, you weren't paying." Now, of course, students are burdened with debt.

The result for David is that "I've done lots of things and the only thing they have in common is me doing them." He studied law and "discovered I had no aptitude. They had these 'moot courts' - simulated a court hearings - and all I remember is dressing up in a cape like Batman." He took a Civil Service exam "to please my parents" and nearly failed" - "which was a shock".

He wrote to the New Musical Express, "which was then a famous music paper". He had no contacts and no CV except for a short story published in City Limits (described by Duncan Campbell at the February meeting). But at the time music journalism "was like writing the whole internet every week - you had 60 editorial pages to fill, so sometimes we filled them with random stuff."

For example, "I started writing reviews in the form of comedy sketches." From that he got some work on Spitting Image, the hit satirical puppet show. Back at the NME David had the "Culture Vulture" column with Steven Wells. Now-noted writer Armando Iannucci "was convinced we were 17-year-old punks and he was quite disappointed to discover we were bitter men in our 30s". And where has this fortuitous network-building led? "I am lucky now being head writer on Dangermouse (a children's cartoon on the BBC, Your Honour).

"There are writers who have a vision as an auteur," David said: Ken Loach or Chris Morris. And then there are "people like me who get asked 'do you want to write about opera... about vegetables...' and say 'YES'." To celebrate his lack of direction David wrote a book: How to write everything.

"When I was in the music press," David said, "no-one knew what they were going to do when they were 30. Thirty-year-old music journalists were a ridiculous idea. Now lots are nearing 60 and writing on starvation pay." His friend Stuart Maconie "met a writer who thought 'freelance' meant you worked for free..." Some friends have a group called "Freelance Suicide Watch" - it's a drinking group - but "there's an edgy truth in that name".

Diversification helps: "if you have a talent for financial journalism, should you not ever do a crossword?" But David also knows of "things I'm really bad at. I had to edit a Time Out music festival guide. That was one of the worst experiences of their lives." He confessed to having "no organisational skills". He "deleted the entire guide - it came back, as if by magic, two days later..."

And: keep trying things. "I didn't know I had an aptitude for Twitter until I went on it. I almost lost the ability to deal with the modern world when they invented computer games - if it looks like a typewriter I can use it..."

A focus on faith and identity

Remona Aly is a journalist, commentator and broadcaster with a focus on faith, lifestyle and identity who is a presenter of BBC Radio 4's Something Understood. She said she felt "like Robin to David's Batman" after that.

© Hazel Dunlop

Remona Aly

"I had a dream," she announced - "to become a pharmacist". But she did some work experience and dropped her science studies and did literature. She wrote her first piece while a student, then "entered niche media" - she started freelancing for the British Muslim lifestyle magazine emel. Her work included profile interviews of musicians like hiphop group Outlandish, TV journalist Rageh Omaar and the musician Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens).

For three and a half years Remona was deputy editor of emel on shoestring budget: "necessity is the mother of all invention - I had to do everything - commissioning to proofreading. Emel is a glossy mag, launched nationwide two years after 9/11 with a mission to "articulate the achievements of the British Muslim community".

Then Remona had a bereavement and left. "Two days later I had a call from a company that wanted me to head PR for a faith-based campaign" - Exploring Islam Foundation, set up by young British Muslims from a range of backgrounds - "graphic designers, journalists and management consultants". She "had not done PR before but took it, because it was promoting universal values we all share - women's rights, caring for the environment, social justice." That too involved a bit of everything - from researching to writing to negotiating with the companies that put up posters on the Underground.

At the same time Remona started freelancing for the Guardian She'd met its Head of Diversity "and he said, 'pitch me'. I did a bit on hijabi headbangers." Going from that niche to the Guardian was "interesting". And, yes, she gets "a lot of trolling" below the line: "that's part of the territory".

And her role on the Guardian leads to a "burden of representation" - standing in for an entire community, or communities. "Often, when there have been terrorist attacks I get asked to talk on the TV - at first I was frightened to death of that but now it's exciting."

You can get paid for your time appearing on TV - "if you ask; so many people don't, but you will get an appearance fee if you ask."

And then "somehow I got onto the radio - on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show." That happened through networking - "if people have met you and trust you, if you build relationships," it can lead to work. For example, "I went on an interfaith leadership course. My heart sank when I realised it was six days, unpaid. But I met a former head of Religion for BBC radio and he asked 'do you want to try out'. Remona started doing "prerecords that go out after midnight" - for Pause for Thought, sometimes known as "The Got Slot" - and it grew from there. Now she does a Radio 4 programme called Something Understood in the early mornings, looking at faith traditions: "Tomorrow I'm looking tomorrow at the divine feminine."

And "sometimes you forget what you do - I guest present podcasts, a series called called Things Unseen. I went to the shrine of Walsingham in Norfolk, dedicated to Mary, and talked about her from my own tradition... In all my work I want to celebrate faith and humanity in its diversity and celebrate the differences between us all."

The oddest work offer that Remona has had was possibly a matchmaking website asking her to ghostwrite "the Muslim hitch". She "wasn't even in a relationship but all the same started on 'dos and don'ts of your profile', and so on."

"What I love about my work is always exploring and learning and every time it's fresh and it keeps it alive and real and it's important to maintain my personal integrity and it's about communicating with people - and that's why I love journalism."

"Its exciting and unpredictable," she continued. Her advice to everyone else would be "network and build relationships."

© Hazel Dunlop

The audience has a question...


Q I work largely in mental health journalism and I've been approached by people wanting me to do PR work. I tend to resist because people will say you're writing that way because you've been paid." What do our speakers advise?

A Remona recalled having eight requests to write about the "burkini ban" in France in one day. "Then a European paper asked. I said 'I don't want to do that again'. They offered £300. 'I'll do it!' Sometimes you have to sell your soul... on a case by case basis."

David suggested that "the only area where you shouldn't do it is where your byline is seen as an endorsement of the product (and you don't endorse it)." Some gigs "can feel queasy - but we don't live in Narnia - which would be weird." In the end, though, "you have nothing but your integrity."

Q How do you get into writing books - or, rather, getting them published?

A David has a friend who's ghosted an awful lot of books: "it's all about being in the right place at the right time. I was lucky - a friend was doing photos of Eddie Izzard and asked me to do the captions and it grew to me interviewing Eddy and more of the book." So: network effectively: if you want to ghostwrite sports people, hanging about physics labs is not going to get you far."

Ghostwriting is, David said, "almost like a secret society. Only publishers will ever recognise you - no-one reads the credits" (even if there is a co-writer or 'as told to' credit).

Q David - if you left university now would things have been as good?

A "No. It's hard to know because I'm not 19 now. When I was 20 the papers were full of the children of famous people. But the death-grip of Oxbridge has loosened. The positive effort to push away racism and disablism with diversity policies is a wonderful thing - it may not always work but it's great that it exists."

One thing that David says is better nowadays is that "you can make a movie for £150k that would have cost £1M not long ago." But "the reason the NME is now free is new technology," too. "If you buy a how-to-be-a-journalist book from 1978 it'll be useless. You can't get away from the future, no matter how hard you try."

Q Has either speaker been in a position where you're freelance but offered a full-time job but you like the freedom but it's too good to turn down?

A Remona has been and "I would have to destroy part of my soul to do them. Even if the Guardian offered me a full-time job I don't think I'd take it. As a freelance you're more like a guest, with more freedom. I do know that British journalism as a whole is 0.4 per cent Muslim and 0.2 per cent of full-timers are Black - but still, if you're in there it's hard to be independent. Living at home with my mum has helped me a lot.

David has "only once been offered a job and I got a bit panicky. When I was growing up there were jobs for life and when that started to crumble I felt Schadenfreude. Now they've gone there is no reason to stay in the same job. Steven Wells used to remind us that when you come into the NME as a freelance they are not your employers, they're your clients - you're not married to them, you're not going out with them: you can go for a drink with them but nothing's going to happen." An office "is not a group of people protected by a corporation, it's a group of cost centres feeding a corporation's profits... Working for your self means you spend a lot of time talking to yourself, but it's worth it...

© Hazel Dunlop

Discussion continues...

Q My experience is of being employed full-time in financial journalism until a couple weeks ago. I'm interested in comedy, but all the contacts and all the work samples I have are in finance. I want to know - how do you tell people "I've written about finance but I'm funny"?

A David suggested that you have two options: to make a total break and start gigging as though you've never had a life before; or "do what I did with NME and do a crossover. There are columnists who exist halfway between journalism and standup" - Marina Hyde came to mind.

"Maybe write a book," David suggested: the great thing is books don't have to be true. Why not an entertaining book about finance? If you're funny, you're creative - and you have the advantage if you're funny about finance: no-one else is..."

Q How much time do the speakers spend writing and how much self-promoting and networking?

A Remona "can sometimes wake up and get commissioned to do a comment piece in two hours... I try to keep up with Twitter - I don't do it a lot but love it and have had work through it. On LinkedIn I've been offered full-time jobs. I launched my own website, which took a long time to do. I didn't want to be too egocentric, but I put a lot of work on there because friends asked where pieces were."

David spends "two to three hours a day writing: I get up and get into it and get tired and stop. I write a lot on trains because I live in Hastings. I'm a sprinter as a writer, not a marathon person, possibly because I started with short reviews that were needed to length and to time. So I spend 2 hours writing and 2 hours on the internet - well, probably 12."

He uses Twitter "as a showcase for jokes". On networking, he says "I'm lucky because I'm old and I have an agent. When I'm broke I go into a frenzy of emails - 'have you paid me, and have you any work?' People will give you work if you ask."

Networking "is great," David said, "but I've been to networking parties where I want to die - they were all people swapping cards when the person you should be carding isn't there."

Q What happens when you find you're writing about things you don't want to write about?

A Remona is "lucky I haven't really written anything I don't care about - except for some gardening stuff, when I was owned and had to do it." She was commissioned by the Guardian to do something on how awful it was for British Muslims - "I did do it, then I had a problem with them running it with a victimising headline. Of course I get attacked for the headline by people who don't know I had nothing to do with it. I told the editors it was really incendiary - and they changed it online."

David advises us "not to be precious". Most people "have jobs in which they do things they don't want to do". Turn things down "only when it ruins your brain... Once I was working for a show Jimmy's Food Factory and I had to write in funny captions - and had to put in accurate information at the same time. That broke my brain. But it wasn't something that I violently disagreed with or even felt queasy about. My attitude is: 'right, so today I've been asked to write about porcelain dolls. Let's see how that goes...' That's the happy-clappy answer, anyway.

Remona has "never been asked to do a diet piece". On the contrary, "I could get pigeonholed. It took me a few years for to get it into people's heads that I can write on other stuff, not just faith. They have to come to that realisation for themselves."

Q Do you make lists to keep track of every project you have? And how do you deal with stress when things aren't going well?

A David reports treating stress with "alcohol, food and bad temper." The worst thing about freelancing is the insecurity. Even now I don't know what I'll be doing in September. Asking a freelance about stress is a bit like asking a zookeeper 'so how do you deal with snakes'." On juggling work, he "writes the easy things first - that 200-word review; then the TV sketch; then the thinky article." But sometimes he has to "do what's most pressing... if you have a deadline for lunchtime you don't start work on your novel after breakfast."

Remona finds that "it gets overwhelming. I put a big poster on the wall with all the deadlines in different colours. Ticking them off is amazing. I do get very stressed, and that's part of working in media. How I cope is to watch Poldark and have a cup of tea. I cant' be at the laptop for 13 hours straight - I have done that and it's better to step away from an article to see it better."

Q In this world of stress - when you've jumped off the precipice into a new field and it's been a total failure. what do you do? Do you just do the "brush, brush, moving on" thing?

A David finds that "every day pertains to failure". He spent three years working on a TV show and got his hopes up. But "even though I received quite a lot of money" it wasn't nice that it came to nothing. "Most of your life as a freelance is rejection. Even when you're commissioned there's the chance that they'll say 'no, that's not what we meant' and spike it. If you take it very personally, either they're very perceptive and you are rubbish, or you shouldn't be taking it personally. If you run a potato shop and people say we want big potatoes and you give them grapes you've failed. What's annoying is when they ask for potatoes and you give them potatoes and they say 'no, we actually wanted grapes'."

One thing about writing, David says, is that "it's only finished when it's printed, and even then it's not finished. Six years later you might want to put it in a book and you then revise it."

Remona says "you have to accept that you can't always be consistently amazing. I've been doing Radio 2 for two years now and recently I listened to one show and thought 'I don't like this'. But it was two minutes, it was live, and it's gone."

Q Does either speaker have experience with crowdfunding? I've pitched through Byline.com [see the TK meeting] to ask for sponsors. I wasn't very successful - maybe it's the field I'm in...

A Remona finds that "sometimes you really want to write something and no-one wants it. Now I'm going to look into Byline - it's completely new to me." David says "It sounds a lot better than Quietus and The Canary where you put your stranger stuff up for free and other strange people read it."

Q How regularly do you each pitch ideas to newspapers and magazines and programmes?

A Remona replied that "because I'm involved with so many projects, not as much as I'd like to. I have a list of ideas to pitch, and I have to cross things off when I've missed the boat."

David said that in theory, he'd pitch to a monthly 12 times a year; in practice "when inspiration or poverty strikes. A lot of work I do is on spec. If I have no money I have a pitching frenzy. My best advice to others is to find out when editors want pitches to come in.

Q Say you have a niche and something happens on your patch - say the burkini ban. I presume you have one opinion on that. But you have 12 commissions to write about it. How do you make the pieces different?

A Remona recalls that a Swiss paper wanted the full background, whereas the Guardian didn't know what it wanted. "So I offered the Guardian humour. And off the back of that I had a radio interview and three on TV - I got a lot of mileage out of it. I'm always going out there with my own messages on TV. I always put my answer in when they've asked the wrong thing - I don't know to this day what Kirsty Wark asked me..."

Q When you're a weird eclectic person, what do you do about your public profile? Should I have separate CVs for every specialisation, or make a strength of "I can write about anything"? Should I worry about being cast as a dilettante?

A David notes that "it's difficult, because the world is full of boxes. One time a radio station asked 'can we call you a music writer?' and it suited me at the time to say 'no, I'm a comedy writer' and they were not happy." He recalled the example of the late novelist Iain Banks, who for science-fiction purposes was Iain M. Banks - "he could appear to be two people!"

"There's no reason why you can't do nine kinds of journalism," David says: if you do finance the travel editor likely doesn't know that.

"You just have to push more loudly get it into their heads that you can do more than one thing: 'I do lots of things and I do them really well'."