Michael Ventuolo-Mantovani wanted to be a rockstar, even spending a number of years touring with his band, The Everymen. He took an ambling path there, one that made a full circle and brought him back to a career as a freelance journalist.
“I never set out to be a writer or a journalist. I got into the record industry and spent many years working in the record industry in New York City. My band got signed to a little label and we went on tour. We toured relentlessly for years,” he says.
Eventually, Ventuolo-Mantovani and his wife decided they wanted to start their family, so he hung up the instruments and returned to the music industry but found it lacking.
“I realized I was so burned out on the industry,” he says. “I’d been playing in some capacity or another for 15 years. I needed a break, but I had no idea what to do. I figured, while I try to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, let me try to sell a story here or there.”
They moved from New York to the considerably more budget-friendly city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Ventuolo-Mantovani started pitching stories. It wasn’t his first go at writing; he wrote for his high school and college newspapers and got a job out of college writing for a local paper in Jersey City.
His first successful pitch took a year but landed him a story in the New York Times’ Style section, “about things that were happening in the south.”
Admittedly, not all freelancers can or should set their initial sights so high, and Ventuolo-Mantovani is quick to say he did pitch countless others before this one was accepted.
“I had been contributing to local alt weeklies, glossy magazines where the ads for dentists outnumber copy 10 to 1. The Times piece was the first taste of actual money and the first time thinking this was a thing I could do,” he says. “I continued to pitch and hone my pitching craft, refining how to do it. I got a thousand no’s for every yes. I was contributing to the Times and landed a story in National Geographic. With the unending support of my life for the first few years, which were quite lean, and she was in grad school at the time so I’m not sure how we did it.”
Ventuolo-Mantovani’s diligent work in pursuing this career is not unlike the determination he had with his band. “As long as there was some kind of forward momentum, I knew something was happening. Every year for the first three years, I was doubling my income. That showed that progress was a thing that kept me going.”
Sometimes it takes finding the right outlet for the right story at the right time to make something big happen, so freelancers should toss out the idea of being an overnight success. Last year, Ventuolo-Mantovani had a big story in Wired on the one-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, but it took a year for the story to come together.
“A lot of editors were scared off. The evacuation was getting a lot of news coverage, but I’m not writing news, I’m trying to write a feature,” he says. “Eventually I reframe my approach. Let me make this about the one-year anniversary and what other elements can I focus on — the technology these people were using to get Afghan civilians to safety. Technology – Wired – boom. That’s the biggest story I’ve ever written, the biggest payday I’ve ever gotten and has led to a relationship with the editor there, which has led to other stories and other outlets.”
Ventuolo-Mantovani’s advice to freelance writers, in addition to building relationships with editors, is to think about the most impactful way to explain your story, in detail, as concisely as possible.
“Editors want good stories told well. … You have to tell the story in the pitch, as compellingly if not more so. The obituary is one of the most thrilling and difficult jobs in writing because you have to distill a person’s life into a small word count. I’m pitching two, three, four, eight, 10,000 word stories in three paragraphs. How do I tell you, the editor, this 10,000 word story is going to work when I only have one email to get your attention, and it had better be short and to the point.”