Claire Halliday's prolific approach to writing has helped her build an enviable portfolio. She took only 15 minutes to write back to me with these incredibly informative interview answers. For more info, check out her web site and blog.
Claire has previously published two books, Unsung Heroes and The World At Their Feet – both collections of interviews with important Australians. Her most recent book, Do You Want Sex with That?, is a very personal account of her own attitudes to sex and also explores the place of sex throughout Australian life: from the pervasive sexualisation of advertising and its approach to children, to the more minority pursuits of swinging and porn-films, as well as the rise of the abstinence movement.
She lives in Melbourne with her husband and four children and is currently working on her new book.
1. How did you discover you wanted to be a writer?
I can't remember a moment -- I just always thought I would be. I wrote a lot in primary school and had some great teachers who really praised my compositions, which probably planted the seed of possibility.
I used to write for enjoyment in my spare time -- Lassie-esque stories in which my own dog starred. I was also a voracious reader, growing up on Enid Blyton and followed on to writers like Judy Blume in upper primary age range. The books that really made a mark on me were S E Hinton's novels when I was becoming a teenager. I loved The Outsiders (read it so many times I can't remember...), plus That Was Then, This Is Now, Tex, Rumblefish... Ah, they were great. Have re-read them as I have become an adult and still can see the charm.
I remember being inspired by her writing her first book when she was 17 or something -- and such a big hit. I wanted to do that myself at the time and could still kick myself for allowing myself to be waylaid by other distractions for too many years before returning to it and still trying to chase it (the novel, I mean).
2. In which other fields have you worked? How did you transition into becoming a freelancer?
As I said, I thought I wanted to write. I guess I didn't know where to start. I was a pretty troubled teen for no particular reason and dropped out of high school at 15 before completing year 11. At the time I remember feeling I wanted to write and hating being bogged down in a curriculum that was rigidly forcing kids to do matriculation with a math subject, a science subject, etc. I hated all that and couldn't see past what I perceived at the time as the agony of working at those subjects to power ahead in the subjects I loved (art and English) and so just left.
I wasted a couple of years working a variety of jobs -- sales assistant in a collectable record shop being the best job and working in the meat department and as a checkout chick in a supermarket.
I went back to school for a year 12-level media course that had just started and halfway through got job at Channel 9 in Adelaide as a video operator. At the time I was entertaining the idea of being a film-maker -- something I still think about at times (documentary-making). Channel 9 was a very blokey world for young woman (I was 17) and again I threw my hands in air and left.
I wasted more years on stupid men and different cities and settled in Melbourne in my early 20s. I then went on an overseas trip when I was about 25 and had one of those overseas epiphanies -- the ones where you decide you need to do what you wanted to all along - and started writing fiction for myself. I still wanted to write that novel. I came back to Melbourne and started full-time Associate Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at local TAFE and also started part-time Grad Diploma in Screenwriting at RMIT at the same time.
Wanted to write short stories for a long time. Wanted to write scripts. Wanted to write documentaries.
3. What were your first goals as a writer? For which publications did you aim to write?
I aimed for the top (in my mind) with The Age/Sunday Age and because I was lucky, determined and incredibly hard-working and prolific... I just stuck there. Some weeks I had multiple stories in the paper. In the first few years I had so many stories on the go for them that I didn't need to target anywhere else.
That came later when I got a bit more clever and realised I had all my freelance eggs in just one basket.
4. What was your first paid (or breakthrough) article? How did it come about?
I never thought I'd do non-fiction articles (brother was journalist with ABC and it had never interested me) but, again, great teacher who saw something in me. I had been encouraged to do the non-fiction class in my second year of the course as a way to earn extra points to finish my course faster. Within a couple of months in class, he had encouraged me to submit the ideas behind some class assignments as pitches to some editors he knew. I had some discussions with the Sunday Herald Sun magazine about one piece and then took my big idea that had been done for class - a profile on a guy who cleaned up crime scenes for a living - to the quite new Sunday Life magazine with the Sunday Age. The mag was, at the time, produced in Melbourne and very different from the more girly, pappy mag it is today.
The story itself, although written about a fair bit since, hadn't been covered in Australian mags or newspapers. I got the idea one night sitting thinking abour death (as I have been known to) and Internet searching things around that topic. I found an article from the US about a woman who cleaned crime scenes, something I had never thought about, and the next day I rang Victoria Police to ask if there was a business who did that service locally. There was.
The Sunday Life editors LOVED the idea for a cover story for the mag and commissioned 3,500 words although they were really dubious about who I was and only had some class assignment plus I think one or two pieces I had published in Australian Women's Forum and a children's magazine (opposite ends, right there!!!) as examples of my stuff to see if I could write. It was all about the idea.
It was my first major commission and I got paid for it but in the end it never ran (my first kill fee!), as a senior editor felt the story was too sad and gory for people to read over their Cornflakes. I found out later, though, the story had been passed around among senior editors and other journos at The Age and I had attracted a fair bit of interest (I still feel it is possibly one of the best things I have written because I was fresh and new and so keen) . So, instantly, people who mattered knew my name and The Sunday Life people were apologetic and felt a bit bad about it all and so put up with me pitching ideas at them left, right and centre until some stuck. I started working for them really regularly (as a freelancer). Mostly my ideas, but as time went on it evolved into them giving me ideas too.
So I am unusual in that I have never studied journalism - don't know all the rules and protocols around it (libel - huh?) and came from a creative writing background. I am also unusual in that I have only ever freelanced as a writer. Never had an office writing job (bar one part-time job that came along later - 2 days per week writing for a start-up Internet women's mag called thelounge.com.au).
5. What is the most enjoyable article you have written?
See above. Enjoyable may be wrong word as I was seeing the aftermath of suicide and murder, but I have not often had that absolute enthusiasm for it again. Also -- same feeling -- writing a story about a children's mental health unit at the Austin Hospital in about 2003 or so, but lots of fun things along the way too, such as hanging out with Jet at the Big Day Out. All sorts...
6. How can a beginner writer compose a winning query letter?
This is not my area of expertise, honestly. I fell into this sideways and so bypassed some of that stuff.
I think keeping it simple is key. It sounds obvious, but check for spelling, punctuation and grammar. You can't sell yourself as a writer if you spell the person's name wrong, use other bad typos, etc. Check and check it again. Introduce yourself in a sentence and briefly give them an idea of what you've done. "I am a freelance writer who has had over 1,000 articles published in a variety of magazines and newspapers, including... blah blah blah..."
Then tell them the idea you have for them now -- short and punchy and engaging. Sign off with your assertion that you would love to write for their publication (name the publication) and that you look forward to their reply.
7. What prompted you to write your first book?
Again - sideways. My first non-fiction book came about after an editor at Lothian Books contacted me through The Age because they had read some of my work and thought that it would be good for me to do a book about significant Australians talking about their lives (Unsung Heroes). I then pitched the second book (The World At Their Feet) containing interviews with successful people under age 30 a couple years later and with my third, again, sideways! Ben Ball, publisher at Penguin, approached me after reading some of my work in The Age and asked if I would write book about Australian's attitudes to sex. I came up with title -- Do You Want Sex With That?.
8. What's your best tip for beginner freelance writers?
Come up with ideas other people don't have. Get access to things other people can't get. You can re-hash other people's ideas too. Things get turned around every few years (a copy of Cosmopolitan from five years ago probably has exactly the same articles in it as the one on the stands this month). Just add a fresh slant and new intereviewees saying same thing. Read, read, READ. See which mags are doing what and come up with ideas that will suit that publication and really suit that readership. Get that right and you're halfway there. There's no sense pitching an idea about jazzing up your sex life with a threesome to Australian Women's Weekly.
Oh, also... for practise when I was doing my course I used to read the major women's mags (Cosmo, Cleo, etc) and really study their "Letter of the Week" winners. Really study them. What type of letter won that Waterman pen each month or that $400 skincare pack?
I set myself writing goals of seeing how many letters of the week I could win. Under my name and the names of various friends who let me use their names and addresses, I won just about every one I entered for about 8 months straight. I had so many Waterman pens I took them all to a pawn shop and made a few hundred dollars! (I should have kept them all but was poor at the time.) It sounds silly but it was so valuable. It showed me that if I wanted to, I could write to formula, simply by figuring out what that formula is. Could I guess what an editor would like? Yes. Every single letter I wrote was published. As I said, I think all, or most, won the prize.
It is what has enabled me to write across so many different titles. My real writing style fits The Sunday Age better, but by reading what is published in other mags (the tone used, the language used, etc), I have written for Notebook, Girlfriend, Cosmo Bride, Women's Weekly, Inside Sport (I hate sport!), The Australian, Sunday Life, Rolling Stone, Australian House and Garden, Bride, Australia Today, Sunday Herald Sun, The Advertiser, Insite (an interior design mag), Marie Claire, GQ, Australian Men's Style, Penthouse, Virgin Blue's Voyeur magazine, etc.