Recently I interviewed freelance writer Mark Cantrell. Mark has over 15 years’ experience as a full-time writer, coming to the profession after an unsatisfying stint in the IT field. Mark is also vice president of Triangle Area Freelancers (TAF), a North Carolina-based networking organization comprised of freelance writers. I met Mark through my membership with TAF, a wonderfully supportive group of professionals. Not only is Mark a super-nice guy, he is sharp and witty and holds an impressively vast knowledge of space and weather-related trivia.
Read on to learn more about Mark, his definition of success, and what it’s like being his own boss. Be sure to check out Mark’s bio at the end of this interview.
1) How did your writing career get started? How long have you been at it?
I worked at a hospital in south Florida for 25 years until it went bankrupt and closed. I briefly worked at an alcohol and drug rehab place after that, which was by far the worst job I ever had. In 1999, I got married and moved to North Carolina, immediately beginning a search for another IT job. Meanwhile, Don Vaughan kept trying to talk me into writing, but I had no experience and was reticent. My wife told me if I wanted to try it she’d support me, so with a great deal of trepidation, I walked off the cliff. It’s been more than 15 years now, and although it doesn’t pay nearly what my computer job did, it’s been very rewarding experientially and educationally.
2) What is your favorite aspect of being a freelance writer? What do you find challenging?
I like working from home. Many people have told me there’s no way they could do it, because they need that human companionship. I grew up as an only child, and for me, having others around has never been so much a need as an option I could avail myself of. (Good thing we can now end sentences in prepositions.) That’s a plus, but I think my favorite thing has been travelling for stories, meeting people I otherwise would never have been able to talk to, and finding that, to a person, the higher someone has risen in life, the nicer and more helpful they are.
For me, the challenge comes built-in, with the transcription process. If I could afford it, I’d hire someone to do all that so I could concentrate on research and writing. Another frustration is when sources don’t return messages or phone calls. In my experience, scientists and researchers are the best at getting back to you; doctors the worst.
3) You also have a background in art. Tell us about that. Have you ever had an opportunity to combine your talents as writer and artist?
My aunt was an artist and started teaching me to paint when I was about five. In high school, Florida wildlife artist Robert Butler took me under his wing and tutored me for a while, but I was a teenager and other things beckoned, like girls and cars. I next started cartooning, and sold several single-panel gag cartoons to various magazines, but it didn’t pay very well. I’ve never written and illustrated anything – yet.
4) How do you generate new writing ideas?
I constantly comb the web, more because of a mild case of OCD than anything else, and make a note of anything that might make a good story. But ideas can come from anywhere; an overheard conversation, a chance encounter with an old friend, or from friends and relatives. It’s a matter of keeping your feelers out.
5) What three pieces of advice would you give to someone who wants to become a freelance writer?
Don’t. Do. It.
Kidding! First thing: Don’t quit your day job. I was lucky in that I had a mentor (Don Vaughan) who showed me exactly what to do, and a wife that was willing to wait a while for the money to come in. Trying to go it alone from a standing start will probably not end well.
Second, become a rejection collector. Since rejection is inevitable, try to get as many as you can, because each one brings you closer to a sale, and you’re also inoculating yourself against the disappointment you feel so acutely when you’re starting out. I was no different, but these days, I see it as just another part of the process.
Third, don’t stop. As soon as you’ve penned a proposal, send it off and start on the next one. If you’re a fiction writer, start on the next book as soon as you finish one. There’s no better way to prepare to be a writer than to write, and the more you do it, the sharper your skills get and the more confidence you gain.
Bonus answer: Read. How-to books, lectures and conferences are great, but only reading others’ work will give you a visceral appreciation for how to craft a sentence. I wrote very much like Don when I started, because he was my teacher, but before long I developed my own voice and style.
6) If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
Seriously, I probably would have pushed a bit harder in the beginning. I used to send off a proposal and then sit back and wait for a response before starting the next one; hence answer three. I would have also tried to branch out into a wider range of markets. Once I got a few regular clients, I didn’t go out and pound the pavement as much as I might have. Of course, it’s never too late.
7) What have been some of your mistakes and what have you learned from them?
Aside from the above, I learned the hard way to never show your entire article to a source. The one time I did that, the person made a number of corrections and then turned them in…to my editor. That was a very awkward phone call. She was nice about it, but did suggest that I show a source only their own quotes, advice I’ve followed since.
Don was trying to turn me into a writer long before I made the leap. Because I collect old model kits and used to read Toy Shop magazine, he suggested I pitch an article about a Miami ad agency that had a toy museum in their offices. It sold, so he and I went down there and I took a lot of pictures of the collection. At one point I turned the camera sideways to capture a vertical shot, and the flash broke off. I was using 100 ISO film and couldn’t shoot without the flash, but fortunately Don had brought his camera and saved the day. Lesson: Bring two of everything to an in-person interview. I now carry my DSLR and my point-and-shoot, along with two digital recorders, when I travel for a story.
8) Tell me about one particularly satisfying or memorable event in your career.
I’m an aviation and space geek, and sold a story to Military Officer magazine about aerial demonstration teams. As it happened, the Blue Angels were coming to an air show at Cherry Point, and I was able to snag a press pass. The day before the show, they took us out to the airstrip and we watched the formation land, then were able to interview the pilots while standing beside their jets. The next day, we had a special press area with bleachers where we could watch the show. Doesn’t get much better than that.
I also interviewed Eileen Collins, the first female Space Shuttle pilot (and later, commander) for a profile. They gave me a number to call at the Johnson Space Center, but no one answered. She finally called me about ten minutes later, explaining that she’d gone to the wrong conference room. We chatted for a few minutes, and then she had another interview, but asked me if I’d like her to call me back afterward. Well, yeah. Without time constraints, we talked for the better part of an hour about all kinds of things, including the time her shuttle lost an engine on the way to orbit and they nearly had to abort the ascent. I was geeking out big-time.
9) How do you define success? To what do you most attribute your success?
Success is being able to do what you want, when you want to do it, and having the resources to make it happen. One of the best things about freelancing is getting to be your own boss, but it comes with a responsibility to get the job done without constant prompting. I had a problem with that in the beginning because I was so used to an office environment, but at this point I would have a serious problem with going back to a regular job.
I have Don, Maryanne [my wife], and my grandmother to thank for whatever success I’ve experienced. My grandma was a former English teacher, and after high school I went to Alabama and lived with her and my grandfather for a couple of years. She corrected me constantly, and although I was often peeved at the time, it turned out to be good preparation for my eventual writing career.
10) Where do you see yourself, career-wise, five years from now?
Is this a job interview? Crap – I should have practiced more. 🙂
One of the things I’ve had on a back burner for a long time is a kids’ book about the weather. I came up with the idea after writing The Everything Weather Book, which was my first book sale. I finally realized I was procrastinating because it was a completely unfamiliar genre, but hearing David Morrell speak at the [Triangle Area Freelancers] conference (“Writers write; it’s as simple as that.”) lit a fire under me. So five years from now, I hope that I’ve completed “Walter Windchill and the Amazing Weather Machine,” and a couple more books to boot.
11) Tell us about what you are working on now.
I’m just starting an article called Eyes in the Sky, about aerial surveillance, so I’ll be talking to the main service branches about how they conduct their missions. I’m also preparing a presentation for WonderFest, a modeling convention in Louisville that Don and I have been going to for years. I’ll be talking about my book “A Weird-Oh World: The Art of Bill Campbell,” and showing illustrations of his work. In the wings I have a piece called The Art of War, about Vietnam-era soldier/artists and their work for the Army Art Program. I’m making notes for the kids’ book as I think of plot points, and planning a few pitches to markets I haven’t sold to yet. Then there’s laundry, cooking…the usual.
12) If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask?
Why do you write?
I will even answer it. From what I’ve seen, writing is a vocation that very few retire from. Don has a friend in south Florida from the tabloids who must be pushing 90, but he’s still going like the Energizer bunny. Whatever the impetus is – and I don’t pretend to understand it – it’s a strong one. But the answer seems to be that writers write because they have no other choice. I think David Morrell said something similar last weekend, which only shows I steal from the best.
Mark Cantrell is the author of several books, including The Everything Weather Book for Adams Media, Sixteen Minutes From Home, a study of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, for AMI Books, and A Weird-Oh World: The Art of Bill Campbell for Schiffer Books. He has been a full-time professional writer since 1999, has written hundreds of articles for publications as diverse as Air & Space Smithsonian and Mad Magazine, and has received three Communicator Awards for various articles. Cantrell lives with his wife and three cats in rural Wake Forest, North Carolina. His hobbies are building models and chasing varmints out of his garden. You can read more about Mark by visiting his website: www.markcantrell.com. You can also follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/markcantrell or on Twitter: @maccanwrite. Connect with him on LinkedIn at: www.linkedin.com/pub/mark-cantrell/0/86a/6b4/.