Post 500: How I Went To China and Became a Writer

Five hundred posts! How the hell did that happen? 

Five hundred posts couldn't happen without all of you - a blog is nothing without readers and I'm enormously grateful to you wonderful food lovers and adventurers for dropping by, reading, sending emails, posting comments and continuing to drop by, making it all worthwhile. It's been a great joy to get to know so many of you in person too.

So please drop in for dumplings anytime you're in Shanghai - it would be a pleasure and an honour.

To be honest though I've been struggling with this post in my head for quite some time. The 500th post should be deep and meaningful, reflective and insightful, right? Needless to say it's been sitting here half written for some weeks and now it's down to the wire. It has to be posted, because otherwise it will be Post 501 or Post 504. Not as punchy. 

Three years ago, almost to the day, I started Life on Nanchang Lu - ostensibly as a way to document Shanghai life around me, but in reality and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it was because China was completely overwhelming me and I subconsciously needed to make some sense of it.

While outwardly I claimed to be loving my new life in China, inwardly I was struggling with the loss of identity that comes with leaving a well-established career in medicine to relocate to a country where you know no one, can't work and don't speak the language. The combination of frigid wet weather and the frustration of being functionally illiterate and friendless in a society I found extraordinarily confusing (how can a country of 1.3 billion people function if nobody queues??) was tough, at least for those first months.

A blog seemed a good place to start to clear through the confusion and frustration I was feeling. Lord knows intensive Chinese classes and therapy sessions might have done the same job but there it is. A blog was born.

Who would have thought that three years, five hundred posts and a lot of late nights later, I would be a food and travel writer with more than sixty published articles under my belt? I honestly didn't see it coming and I didn't set out to become a writer, but I love writing and telling stories about food and places. And if I hadn't come to China (a country which I now dearly love, even with all its faults) this would never have happened, so for that I will always be thankful.

So here goes Post 500, about how I came to China and inadvertently became a writer, dedicated to all the many talented but as yet unpublished writers out there.

I Started Small

Two years ago, just as I began to think it might be possible to write outside of my blog, I was introduced to the editor of Parents and Kids Magazine - a monthly magazine for Shanghai's expat families. We got chatting about a recent holiday and I was asked to write a travel piece for the magazine. It would be unpaid because I was an unpublished and untested writer, but it seemed like a great place to start because if I was going to write I wanted to write about travel and food, the two topics close to my heart.

It turned out to be a good decision - Parents and Kids belonged to a group of publications under the same owner, so after that first article was published I was asked to write a series of blog posts for their main website, City Weekend Shanghai, on new things to try in Shanghai followed by a blog series called Try Everything Once.

As is common with many print magazines, online blog content is essentially unpaid, written largely by either staff writers or by bloggers like me. Part of me baulked at doing so much work for nothing week after week for several months, but I felt confident it would lead eventually, one way or another, to paid writing commissions.

Soon after, City Weekend's family columnist resigned and I took her place writing Family Matters: a fortnightly column about family life in China, and this time a paid gig in their high-circulation print magazine. I was overjoyed! That column became my regular for well over a year until I resigned after leaving for the Great China Roadtrip.

Now you might say writing about family life wasn't ever going to lead to writing about what I really wanted to - food and travel - but it got me a byline and an audience and gave me a valuable grounding in the way magazines work and what makes an editor happy. I considered it my magazine apprenticeship.

This regular published work led to my becoming the Food Feature writer for Shanghai Family Magazine, then travel writer for That's Shanghai and That's Beijing Magazines, which led to work with the Sunday Times, CNNGo, and Oryx magazine. I would never have had a chance with any of those bigger publications if I hadn't started small and built up experience.

I Found a Mentor

Negotiating the tricky world of freelancer contracts, editorial decisions and pitching stories would have been unimaginable for someone like me without a journalism degree. I needed the help of those wiser and more experienced than myself.

Luckily blogging helped put me in touch with just the people whose advice I needed. It turns out a lot of food journalists, writers and editors come to Shanghai at one point or another for stories, and they often look to local bloggers as a source of information and referrals.

Whenever I met a writer or editor I asked questions, lots of them, and learned from their years of experience. They were all, without exception, delightful people and happy to pass on their knowledge and expertise to someone way below them. Some became firm friends and continue to be mentors to me, some became my editors. Which leads me to the next point.....

I Tried to Keep My Editors Happy

I was in terrified awe of some of the editors I met, but once I got to know them I realized they all wanted one thing from their freelancers: to make their busy and stressful lives easier, not more difficult. 

All editors want articles that are on time, come close to the specified word count, and have been edited for spelling and grammatical errors. It sounds basic, but I heard editors so often complain about freelancers who turned in 3000 words for a 750 word piece they 'couldn't trim', or had to be chased for weeks past deadline and then turned in nothing publishable.

As The Grumpy Traveller (freelance travel journalist David Whitley) notes, editors will take reliability over brilliance almost every time.

I Kept My Day Job
Let's be perfectly frank here - writing is possibly one of the most difficult ways on the planet to make a living. If you break it down to an hourly pay scale, you'd be fiscally better off working in a supermarket - so if your day job pays better than supermarket wages, keep it. At least until your fifth novel goes gangbusters and makes you super, super rich.

As a day job it's hard to better working in Emergency Medicine - if you happen to have done six years of medical school and six years of specialist training that is. The hours are flexible, it pays pretty well and you're often free when everyone else is at work - perfect conditions for getting a lot of writing done.

I Learnt Another Skill
I took up photography for the creative enjoyment when I arrived in Shanghai, but it gradually became a marketable skill I could offer editors.

Before print publishing was decimated by online media, magazines would rarely dream of hiring the same person to write and photograph a feature. But in these days of tight budgets and major online competition, being able to offer editors a package of writing and photography means I can command a higher fee than for the writing alone, and may mean the difference between an editor choosing my pitch over someone else's.

Obviously I'm not talking about National Geographic, but about magazines who need good quality photography to illustrate a story. I have always provided my own images for the stories I write, which means I also have more input into which images are chosen. It must be frustrating to write something amazing only to have it illustrated with a stock photography beach shot.

I Kept Writing

Week in, week out, whether I had a deadline or not I kept writing - blog posts, ideas and pitches. I blogged because I love to share stories, and I'll continue blogging as long as all of you wonderful people keep reading.

Blogging keeps up the habit and practice of writing until it becomes an ingrained part of life. Blogging isn't my job and I make absolutely no money from it, but it has given me the freedom and space to develop my own writing style and voice, and at the same time has become my online business card and CV rolled into one, a place where potential employers can see what I do for themselves, and contact me easily.

The Future

I hope to be able to continue writing about China for a long time yet - there's certainly a bottomless pit of stories from my last three years here, most of which are untold.  Life on Nanchang Lu will continue to be around whether I'm in Shanghai or back home in Australia and just dreaming about Shanghai.

And once our travels are over I'm planning to sit down in a quiet place to write a book about them - my biggest writing project yet. I'm terrified and excited by the prospect all at once, but can't wait to get cracking. I'll keep you updated with how it's progressing.

Helpful Resources:

Dianne Jacob's practical, sensible and extraordinarily helpful book Will Write For Food is like a road map for carving out a food writing career. Although written specifically for food writers her solid advice applies equally to budding writers in any field.

Pitching Errors: How Not to Pitch - from website The Open Notebook  offers valuable advice on what  not to do when pitching a magazine story. They also keep an interesting Pitching Database of successful pitches.

The Single Most Important Piece of Advice for Freelance Writers by The Grumpy Traveller is well written advice that should give all freelancers heart. He also has a useful section on Writing and Media

If you have a story to tell or a tip to share about writing, I'd love to hear it!