Recently I signed up for an online course for magazine writers taught by prolific magazine writer and teacher extraordinaire, Linda Formichelli. Within an hour of signing up for the course, she emailed me. Turns out we live less than ten miles from each other. She invited me to meet for a conversation over coffee.
The parking lot at the coffeehouse was overflowing so we opted for conversation over Leonardo da Veggie sandwiches at the Brueggers Bagels down the street instead. I didn’t get my coffee, but I got to meet this renegade writer with a million megawatt smile and the dynamic personality to match. I couldn’t wait to introduce her to you.
Tell us three things about you most people would find surprising.
Good one! Here they are:
- I love reading manga, sci fi, and fantasy. Book-wise I’m a real geek!
- I have a Master’s degree in Slavic Linguistics, and have studied seven languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croatian.
- I’ve done a lot of volunteering for cat shelters and clinics, and one of my favorite volunteer positions was as a cat raker at feral cat spay and neuter clinics. You can’t touch the feral cats to give them anesthesia (because otherwise they would rip your hand off), so I would use a big metal fork (called a cat rake) to squash the cats to the side of their cage, and then my husband would give them the shot.
Bonus fact: Despite being the most unathletic person on Earth, I have a brown belt in shorin ryu karate and a personal trainer certification.
I know you love to travel. Tell us about your favorite destinations. What is your favorite travel memory?
Hmm…I like everywhere I’ve ever been! I think one of my favorites was the time my husband, a friend and I spent a month on Okinawa studying karate. The weather was great (even though it was March), the people were friendly, the vibe was laid-back, and I Iost 4 pounds because I’m no good at eating with chopsticks. Oh, and I got to do a ton of karate at traditional dojos and on the beach.
Now that we have a kid (he’s 3 1/2), we go on a lot of road trips to New York City, New England, DC, etc. My favorite memory was going on a Circle Line boat trip around the Statue of Liberty just a few weeks ago. To us it was just another touristy thing to do, but our son was so thrilled and had such a huge grin on his face that it created a wonderful memory for me.
We share a love of yoga. When did you first start practicing yoga? What benefits do you reap from it? What is your favorite pose?
I started practicing yoga around 1997, and started out with a Kundalini class that had a lot of chanting and funny poses like Lion, where you stick your tongue out. One day I drew a third eye on my forehead under my bangs with eyeliner, and in the middle of class I turned to my friend and lifted my bangs just enough for her to catch a glimpse of it. She had a hard time keeping a straight face in that class.
I have an anxiety disorder, and yoga keeps me grounded and calm. Also, lately I’ve been taking a challenging class that helps keep my body strong and fit.
Favorite poses? Savasana (corpse pose), of course. And I like Crow a lot because I’ve just gotten to the point where I can do it for a few seconds at a time and it feels great. And you know what pose I don’t like? Downward dog. So sue me!
Your family hosts exchange students. How did you get started doing this? How has the experienced enriched your family life and your perspective as a writer?
We started in 1999 when I happened to strike up a conversation with a woman whose sister was a coordinator for an exchange student program. We’ve had 12 students who have stayed with us anywhere from 4 weeks to one school year, from Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Spain, and Ukraine.
I’m not sure the experience has impacted my writing except that it takes me away from always thinking about and doing my job. When you have an exchange student you get out of the house and do all those fun things that you might not do otherwise, like go to the beach, visit local historic sites, etc.
We’ve also made some great friends — we’re still in touch with some of our students, have visited one a few times in Germany, and are about to go visit another German student.
You teach writers how to break into a writing career by breaking traditional rules. What three rules have you broken in your life that were absolutely the right decision for you?
- Well, I think that becoming a freelance writer is breaking a big rule right then! To some people, it would be crazy to opt out of the perceived safety of a 9-5 job for a career where you never know how much you’re going to make each month. But before freelancing I’d had 25 jobs (yes, 25!) and I hated the idea of working my butt off to line someone else’s pockets.
- We’ve decided to homeschool our son starting in September…and not only that, but we want to unschool him, meaning he learns what he’s interested in when he’s ready, and we make sure to present him with all kinds of learning opportunities and adventures. We’ve had a little pushback from friends who’s afraid our kid will turn out to be a weirdo, but homeschooling is so common these days that we don’t get too many negative comments. And what these other people think constitutes a weirdo — someone who doesn’t rely too much on other people’s opinions, who does what is right for him, who isn’t satisfied with the status quo — is what I would consider normal and healthy. I think what’s weird is spending 6 hours a day stuck in a seat in a room full of other people your age. I didn’t like it and I don’t know many kids who do.
- My husband and I purposely waited until we were close to 40 before having a kid, and we had our hearts set on adoption so that’s what we did. I’m so glad we resisted all the well-meaning moms and dads we know saying, “When are you going to have a kid? You don’t know what you’re missing!” Before age 40, I was absolutely, definitely not ready to have a kid.
You’ve been a successful magazine writer for many years now. How did you break into the business and what has helped you remain successful despite the rapid changes happening in the print magazine industry?
I had actually been accepted into the Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley and had finished one semester when I realized that although I loved Slavic Linguistics, it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. As I considered different careers, publishing came to mind. I set up informational interviews with several publishers to see if this was the career for me. It wasn’t, but I thought that my experiences with informational interviewing could be the makings of a great article. (I had always been interested in writing, so it’s not like this was an unexpected revelation.) I read a book about query writing, wrote up a query, sent it to several career magazines I found listed in Writer’s Market — and landed an assignment from EEO Bimonthly, a career magazine for women and minorities, for $500!
As for what has kept me successful, I’d say it’s changing with the times. Lots of magazine writers spend all their time complaining about how tough things have become in the industry, instead of being excited about all the new opportunities out there like writing for the Web, teaching e-courses, earning money through blogging, etc. Thanks to all these opportunities I’m highly diversified, so only a portion of my income depends on magazines.
What magazines have you written for during your career? What are some of your favorite topics?
I’ve written for some biggies like Redbook, USA Weekend, WebMD, Inc., and Family Circle — and also for magazines no one’s ever heard of like The Federal Credit Union, Independent Joe (for Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees), Pizza Today, and In-Plant Graphics.
My favorite topics to write about are health and marketing, but I’m curious about everything and can find something I enjoy about any topic. For example, I’m now working on an article on improving customer service for the restaurant industry, and just had a great interview with a manager at a popular restaurant chain. It was so interesting to learn about all the customer service improvements they’ve made that I couldn’t stop asking questions!
You’re one half of the wonder duo known as the Renegade Writers. How did you and Diana Burrell meet? What prompted you to start the Renegade Writer revolution? What projects have come out of your collaboration?
Diana and I met on a now-defunct writers’ mailing list and realized that we lived about 45 minutes apart. We started meeting for coffee and became great friends.
An editor actually gave me the idea for “The Renegade Writer” when I told him how stupid I thought some of the rules of freelancing were. I said I should write an article on it and he said, “You should write a book!” I roped Diana into the project, we wrote a proposal…and it went nowhere. But a while later, an editor at a trade mag I’d written for e-mailed me to let me know he was now a publisher of writing books — and did I have any ideas for him? Hell, yes!
It was Diana’s idea to start the Renegade Writer blog in 2006, and it’s grown to be a major part of my career. We also each teach an e-course through the site. And we wrote a follow-up to “The Renegade Writer” called “The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock.”
Partnerships offer great opportunities for writers and entrepreneurs, but they can be tricky. What makes your partnership with Diana work so well? How would you say your strengths and weaknesses balance each other out?
I think we work well together because neither of us is all about the money. Money can really affect a relationship, but for us, it’s more about creating value and dealing fairly with people. I have no trouble sending a potential student to Diana’s class instead of mine if it’s the best fit, and she does the same for me.
As for strengths and weaknesses, my strength is that I’m a go-getter and very productive, so when we get an idea I like to make it happen right away. Diana’s strength is in coming up with those great ideas like the blog, turning our books into e-books (“Renegade Writer” is still in the works), and so on.
I’m taking your Write for Magazines e-course and I love your no BS approach to helping writers get past the fear that often holds us back. What three pieces of advice would you give to someone who is still spinning her wheels, afraid to make that first query?
- Stop it! Stop learning about the industry, stop reading about writing, stop thinking about writing. Just write. That will put you ahead of the multitude of aspiring freelancers who have trouble actually applying ass to chair.
- Develop a thick skin. Rejection isn’t about you as a person. If an editor rejected your idea, it could be that they already have it in production, the magazine is changing direction, they’re all full up with ideas for the next year, the editor didn’t get her Frappuccino that morning…don’t take it personally.
- Stop being a perfectionist. The imperfect pitch that you send to an editor is infinitely more likely to be accepted than the pitch you never finish because you’re having trouble making it perfect.
What’s on the horizon for Linda Formichelli and for Renegade Writers?
I’ve been doing more guest posting to try to boost my blog’s readership — right now we get about 12k unique visitors monthly — and have started paying for guest posts, which also brings more people to the blog as guest posters tweet and Facebook their posts.
I plan to cut my hours down even more in September when we start to homeschool. Right now I work 9-5 Monday – Thursday, but in the fall I’ll be working 1-5, four or five days per week. That’s going to be tough for me as I find it hard to turn off “work mode” for very long. And in that time I need to fit my regular writing assignments plus my e-courses and mentoring.
And Diana and I are working on turning “The Renegade Writer” into an e-book. Stay tuned!
Tell readers how they can connect with you online.
Thanks for this opportunity!
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