Letter from Masanjia [movie review]

Letter from Masanjia is a powerful documentary about an American who woman finds a letter from a prisoner in a Chinese labour camp in a package from a Halloween decoration. Her discovery sets off a chain reaction, which ends up shutting down the labour camp system in China.

Letter From Masanjia

Letter from Masanjia Social Justice Documentary

Growing up near the ocean, I often imagined discovering a washed-up message in a bottle. But I didn’t ever think the letter would be from someone imprisoned in a labour camp because of his religious beliefs.

The letter Julie Keith discovers in a Made-in-China tombstone decoration was from political prisoner Sun Yi. Held in China’s Masanjia labour camp, Sun Yi’s letter describes how he and the other prisoners are subjected to torture and brainwashing because of their belief in Falun Gong. After verifying the letter and the camp are legitimate, Julie Keith works to find someone who would listen. After several stalled attempts, Sun Yi’s story goes viral.

about falun gong

Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline consisting of meditation and gentle exercises. Its core values are truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. In 1999, when the Chinese Communist Party outlawed Falun Gong, the goal was to eradicate the religion. Human rights groups estimate, at minimum, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been sent to detention or worse. 

About the filming

Canadian filmmaker Leon Lee learned about Sun Yi when the letter went viral. Known as a Chinese dissident for his human rights work, Leon Lee reached out to his personal network of activists and dissidents in China to find the letter-writer. Three years into his search, the two connected. By this time, Sun Yi was released from the labour camp and eager for his story to reach a wider audience. The two formed a partnership and began filming.

Much of the documentary footage is taken by Sun Yi who learned how to use camera equipment over Skype from Leon Lee. For more than a year, Sun Yi films day-to-day life as a human rights defender in secret on a DSLR and iPhone. After shooting, he compressed and uploaded the footage to an encrypted site. Here, Leon Lee could retrieve the footage from across the Chinese firewall.

This is an incredible story of persecution, courage in the face of intense pressure and commitment to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.

Letter from Masanjia Synopsis

A woman in Oregon discovers an SOS note stashed in a box of Halloween decorations from Kmart. Her story goes viral and leads to the closure of China’s barbaric labour camps. News travels through China’s firewall and reaches the letter-writer, Sun Yi. A former Chinese prisoner who had been jailed for his beliefs, he now fears for his life and his family’s safety. Despite that, he’s determined to expose China’s human rights violations, whatever the cost.

In Letter from Masanjia, Sun Yi teams up with Peabody Award-winning director Leon Lee and takes you inside China’s terrifying police state through the eyes of a political prisoner. He uses hidden cameras to capture details of his torturous past while authorities remain hot on his heels. Letter from Masanjia reveals how the brave actions of a be-speckled engineer in China and a mom in the US led to major changes on the other side of the world.

OFFICIAL Trailer

On December 4, 2018, Letter from Masanjia was released by Gravitas Ventures and is available on iTunes, Amazon, Blu-Ray Disc, DVD, Tugg and Google Play.

Letter from Masanjia is a powerful documentary about an American woman who finds a letter from a prisoner in a Chinese labour camp in a Halloween decoration.

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How to Write for Magazines | 7 Tips to Get Started

Learning how to write for magazines is one of those things I didn’t understand until someone else taught me. So I thought I’d do the same for you today.

Write for Magazines

How to Write for Magazines

Maybe you’ve been a writer for a while and you feel like you should know how to do this and now you’re afraid to ask. Or maybe you’ve thought about writing for magazines but don’t know where to start. Or maybe you know what you want to pitch to a magazine but you don’t know how to do it, if they accept pitches or where to send it.

All good! I didn’t know either. A lot of magazines accept freelance pitches and pay for articles but figuring that out can seem a bit overwhelming until you understand how it works. Here are a few quick tips to get you started.

Tip 1: Figure out what magazines you want to write for

You should have a basic idea of the type of magazines you want to publish articles in, and even better if you have a few specifics in mind. If you don’t know, start by doing some research. Go to your local library and look through their magazine stacks—which magazines are you interested in reading? Which ones publish articles in the style you write? Which ones would you like to see your byline in? Make a list.

Tip 2: Brainstorm several article/story ideas

When you write for magazines, much of the time it’s you, the writer, pitching ideas to them, the editor and/or publisher. So you can’t go to a magazine and say, “I’d like to write for you, what are you looking for?” This approach outs you as an amateur and doesn’t get you far. You need solid story ideas when approaching a magazine and, in general, you want a few in your back pocket so when the opportunity arises, you’re ready with your pitch. So have a few ideas going before you need them and keep this list topped up.

Tip 3: Before you pitch, do your research

Cross-reference your list of target magazines with your list of story ideas. When you write for magazines, you want your pitch to stand out from the rest. The best way to do that is to ensure your idea fits with what the magazine publishes and that they haven’t done it before. Many magazines publish their upcoming themes on their website, which will also help you out.

Tip 4: Write a query letter or letter of inquiry (LOI) when pitching

For the most part, you’re sending in queries about an article, not the full article itself. Your query letter is a quick pitch, trying to see if there’s any interest in your story. Your goal from this letter is to get the assignment so make sure it’s good!

Tip 5: Ask your network for introductions to magazine editors

I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again, your freelancer network is your strongest asset. Your freelance writing friends may already be writing for magazines. Ask them which ones they’re writing for. Or, if there’s a specific one you’re interested in, ask if your writing friends have any connections there. Then, ask for an introduction. Not only will a referral get your query past the gatekeepers and into the right person’s inbox, it improves your chances of your pitch being read and considered. One caveat: if you’re asking for a referral remember your friend is putting his/her reputation on the line for you. Be professional, be courteous and—above all—don’t be a flake.

Tip 6: Don’t know who to contact? Look in the front flap at the masthead

If you know which magazines you want to write for, look at the masthead and find the editor’s name for the section you want to pitch to. You’re looking for something like a departmental editor or features editor. If their email isn’t listed, look on the magazine’s website and see if you can find it. You may find a “write for us” area on the website where there will be more specific pitching instructions. Do your best to send your query to the editor rather than the general info email unless you’re instructed to.

Tip 7: Wondering which publications pay? Get a market guide

If you can’t learn anything from your research or network about whether or not your target magazine pays for article, you can purchase a market guide to help you. It will also give you a ton of magazine titles to consider, contact information for the editor you need to query and special instructions for pitching. This is a gold mine of information. Here are a couple I recommend.

I hope this helps you write for magazines! Let me know how you do.

Learning how to write for magazines is one of those things I didn't understand until someone else taught me. So I thought I'd do the same for you today. Here are seven tips for getting started.

Other helpful resources

Network with Freelancers to Grow Your Business

The best marketing you can do is network with freelancers. A bold claim, I know. But I stand behind it. Building a strong network will help you grow your freelance business.

Network with Freelancers

Why Building a Network with Freelancers will Help You Grow Your Business

If the idea of traditional networking fills you with fear and loathing, allow me to present a different way. Think of networking as making friends with like-minded freelancers and treating them well instead of attending awkward events with strangers and trying to pass out business cards.

Doesn’t my way sound better?

In order to network with freelancers you have to avoid thinking of other freelancers as your competition. It’s easy to slip into a scarcity mentality and view every gig as something another freelancer can steal but the truth is there’s more than enough work for everyone.

The freelance life is tough enough as it is, and isolated. Make friends with other freelancers and see what you can do to help and support them. It will make a huge difference to your own business.

But maybe this still doesn’t make sense. I understand. When you haven’t experienced the amazing give-and-take of a true network this approach seems counter-intuitive. I’ll give a couple examples from my last year of freelancing to help you understand.

Example One

I attended a webinar through one of my professional networks, Canadian Media Guild Freelance on how to price your work. As part of the training, the presenter asked if the attendees would share our hourly rate with each other. She said freelancers have to stick together and talk with each other about their rates, how they charge, how they put projects together…and more.

But we’re so afraid to share. Maybe we’re charging too much! Or maybe we’re not charging enough! Maybe we’ll reveal how much we don’t know if we say anything! Here’s the truth: you’re stronger when you ask questions and share with one another. Imagine how empowered you’d feel about your pricing if you knew what others charged and could stand behind your quotes with confidence!

Example Two

I have a friend who is just getting started in her freelance career. Earlier this year I taught a series of workshops and she came out in support, which I appreciated. A few months later we met up and she shared a bit more about what type of work she was thinking about pursuing. So you’d better believe when a colleague asked me if I knew anyone who was looking for work in exactly what my friend had said she was looking for I referred her first.

Now, this may seem like an obvious choice but think about it. I know lots of freelancers. I could have referred any number of equally talented, qualified, available people for the gig. So what made this friend stand out? Well, for one she supported me at one of my events without expecting anything in return. And for another we stayed in touch and she shared what she was looking for. So when the opportunity arose, she was at the top of my mind.

Helping others helps you

Get it? Helping each other benefits everyone. Share what you learn with each other and help each other out when you can. Referrals are the freelancer’s bread and butter so keep your freelance friends close. Listen to them, support them, ask them questions, and refer them when you have an opportunity. Introduce them to people you think they’d benefit from knowing and grow your network one by one. And, hopefully, they’ll do the same for you.

The best marketing you can do is network with freelancers. Building a strong network will help you grow your freelance business. A bold claim, I know.

Other networking tips for freelancers

5 Great Sites to Get Free Stock Photos

These days there are endless sites to get amazing free stock photos. There are so many sites offering royalty-free images there is no longer any reason to take any old image from the Internet and use it on your website.

Free Stock Photos

What are royalty-free images?

There’s a difference between free stock photos and royalty-free stock photos, although they can be one and the same. At times. A free stock image means you can use it free-of-charge. Royalty-free means you can use the image however you want but you may have to purchase it.

When you’re on a stock photo website, take a moment to review the terms and conditions. Sometimes you can download a free stock image but there are restrictions in how you can use it or you must credit the source and/or photographer. Some sites allow you to use an image once for free and require you to purchase a license to use it again or in another way. Some free stock image photo sites are also royalty-free and allow you to use the images for commercial use.

There are some great commercial use, royalty-free free stock photo websites out there. And that’s important to us because we’re writers, not photographers. We need the help! While I do purchase stock images and take my own photos from time to time, I mix in a good amount of free stock photos on my website and social media.

Places to Get Free Stock Photos

Pixabay

I’ve talked about Pixabay before and I still recommend it. It’s a great place to go for general images. The free stock photography site offers more than a million images and videos including illustrations and vector graphics. It’s worth checking out.

Unsplash

Unsplash is the hipster mecca of free stock photos. These beautiful, free photos are gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers, according to the website. All photos are licensed under Creative Commons Zero, meaning you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer or Unsplash.

Gratisography

These quirky, creative, always free photos are toted as the world’s quirkiest collection of free high-resolution pictures. According to the website, these free stock photos are comprised of the world’s best, most creative images and are free of copyright restrictions.

Styled Stock

Self-described as feminine stock photography, this site offers free stock photos focused on fashion, lifestyle, food, floral, entrepreneur and beauty. These images are available to adapt and use them for commercial purposes without attributing the original author or source.

New Old Stock

This site curates old photos for personal and non-commercial use, at minimum. Links to the original image location are provided for users to check the licensing details for themselves. Most or all of the images available on this site are in the public domain, which means no permission is required to use these free stock photos at all.

These are a few of my go-to sites for free stock images and I hope you find great images from them.

But if we’re taking free stock photos, how do photographers get paid?

I wanted to address this objection because this freelance lifestyle isn’t easy. And, if you’re like me, you’re friends with professional photographers and you want to support them whenever possible.

And you may be wondering if taking free stock photos is a bit hypocritical since many photographers are freelance and we work so hard to not work for free.

When you use free stock photos you’re not stealing from the photographer. Many of them are trying to make a name for themselves and are gifting their images to the community as part of their long-term strategy. Once they gain a larger following they’re able to make money from their photography through bookings, selling images to their follows and fans, and many other income streams. They’ve decided by offering some things for free it will help them reach their career goals.

Much like offering free advice on blogs, I might add.

Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t feel comfortable using free stock photos then don’t. Take your own or purchase them. There are upsides to not using free stock photos. Not only will your conscience be clear, you’re images will be unique and customized if you take them yourself. If you purchase stock photos your images will likely higher quality and less “all over the Internet.” So there are there’s that.

These days there are endless sites to get amazing free stock photos. There are so many sites offering royalty-free images there is no longer any reason to take any old image from the Internet and use it on your website.

Once you have great photos, here’s how to make them even better.

What is Prescriptive Non-Fiction?

The question, what is prescriptive non-fiction, isn’t the only question I received at a recent workshop I taught called Is It Time to Write Your Book. However, it’s one I have also asked so I thought it was an excellent topic to cover.

What is Prescriptive Non-Fiction

When I first started planning my book I thought there were two choices: fiction or non-fiction. But deciding on non-fiction is just the first step.

I outlined this a bit when I explained how word count changes based on book genre. Here is the TL;DR version.

Non-Fiction Genres

  • Devotional
  • Self-Help
  • Memoir
  • Narrative Non-Fiction
  • Biography
  • Prescriptive/How-To

And yes, there are more genres within non-fiction (personal development, practical non-fiction, general non-fiction). But that’s another topic for another day.

What is Prescriptive Non-Fiction?

Prescriptive non-fiction books are known as being strong topical guides or instructional how-to books. They help readers accomplish something or acquire a new skill.

Here are a few examples.

From these titles you know what you’re getting. First you’ll learn how to walk in high heels, then how to get great book reviews and finally how to write a first draft in 30 days.

What does it take to write prescriptive non-fiction?

In order to write a prescriptive non-fiction book the author has to know and understand the topic at a deep level. Deeper than the people who are learning the topic. An expert, if you will. Another option, if the author is not an expert, is to curate interviews with experts and compile the information into a book.

Writing prescriptive non-fiction is a good option if you’re looking to write something but you don’t have an idea yet. Because chances are you’re an expert about something. Think about what you know a lot about, what you have interest in and what you think you could spend a lot of time talking about without getting bored. The more specific you can get, the better.

Everyone is an expert in something so writing prescriptive non-fiction is a good option if you're looking to write something but you don't have an idea yet.

If you’re looking for a challenge, read Nina Amir’s How to Blog a Prescriptive Nonfiction Book in 30 Days. Of course you’ll need a tight writing schedule to accomplish that but I know you’re up for it.