Friday, April 27, 2007

Let's Rewind

I spoke at at conference last weekend and was asked a lot of questions afterward about magazine writing. I know that there are a lot of newbies to this blog, so I wanted to pull up an old post from December in which I interviewed a variety of my editors to glean their dos and don'ts. So sorry if you've already read these, but I think they're invaluable and wanted to repost 'em.

Here's that old post:

Editors Sound Off

I've gotten so many questions in about queries - how to write them, common mistakes, proper etiquette - that I decided to go right to the source, namely, some of my favorite editors. I promised them anonymity, but let's just say that these guys are the cream of the crop: every one of them works at a top tier magazine that you see front and center at a newsstand. They took the time to jot down their dos and don'ts. Take note. You won't often have the luxury of peering inside an editor's brain.

-Do Flesh Out Your Query. "My 2 cents is that freelancers worry so much about their queries, and they should worry about their ideas, which are generally lame. 95% of the ideas I get are generic, evergreen, lack sourcing and are too narrow. Make that 99%. So to be honest it doesn't matter how great the letter is -- the idea needs to be better developed." Says another editor: "If you have a genius idea, I don't care if you write it on a dirty cocktail napkin or leave it on my voicemail or send a three sentence e-mail...I just want it. In other words, if the idea ain't great, it doesn't matter how perfect the pitch is...."

-Do Read The Freakin' Magazine First! "My biggest pet peeve, whether I'm being queried by a writer or a publicist, is when it's obvious she doesn't read the magazine. For example, I get a million pitches about women starting their own businesses -- great, but a topic we simply don't cover and never have -- which the person would know if she read the magazine once or twice. Perhaps I'm the only one, but when I get a pitch like this I'll automatically disregard every bit of correspondence from the writer forever thereafter. It's my little way of protesting against people who waste my time." This editor isn't the only one to say this. Another echoes this same peeve: "When a writer who's pitching me isn't familiar with the magazine (i.e., pitches a story we'd never run, pitches a story we ran in the last issue, doesn't pitch to a specific department, pitches to a department we don't even have, etc.). If you're going to pitch, sit down with at least three past issues of the magazine and get to know it before you e-mail me." And finally, yet another one wants you to be even more thorough: "Go to the NY public library and read a year's worth of back issues before you pitch."

-"Do think about where in the magazine the story will go. Is it a department? An FOB short? If you can't find a home for it, I probably won't be able to either."

-"Do consider how you'll package it. Straight narrative? Bulleted list? Infographic? This is particularly important if you're pitching an FOB item. If it's a service story, give me a short list of possible sources. This will help me judge the likely quality of your research." Another editor agrees: "Do have specific examples/people lined up and have already talked to some key sources."

-"Do check in with editors periodically -- you never know when an editor might need your help!"

-"Do target a specific section or column and pitch the editor who handles it. Doing both of these things speeds up the process because you've already figured out for the editor where your story fits and why, and you're not waiting for your pitch to get passed along to the appropriate person."

-"Do send a few links to your nat'l clips at the bottom of your query. And if you don't have nat'l clips, don't pitch a feature. Despite how great a writer you are, it's just not likely you'll get the assignment before showing us you can handle it by writing shorts. So just pitch shorts. And you might want to write the short you're pitching--not just give me a graf--and wow me so much that I accept it on the spot. This will show me you've done your homework, know what we run, and can write the type of stuff we publish."

-"Do a Google search or a Nexis search and find out if your idea (or things like it) has been covered anywhere else, and let the editor know when and where. Just because something was covered doesn't necessarily mean we wouldn't do it to (each publication will put their own spin on it, of course), but if it's a trend item and it was a huge story in the NYTimes or God forbid, a competitors mag, that's bad. It just shows that you took an extra step."

-Don't Lob an Airball into a Random Editor. "A major pet peeve is when I get a note saying, 'If you're not the right person for this pitch, please pass it along to whomever is." 99 times out of 100 I pass it along all right -- into the trash. It's the pitcher's job to track down the right person, not mine. It's easy to call a magazine and ask, 'Who edits the travel pieces?'"

-Don't Be a Nag. "I hate it when a writer calls over and over to ask if i've gotten the pitch. Calling to check once or even twice is fine, but after that, it should be clear that the editor isn't interested. (And I apologize on behalf of all of us -- in a perfect world editors would have time to respond to every pitch, not just those she's interested in.)"

-Don't Take Things Personally. "The editor is working for the reader, not for you. The goal is for everyone to be happy but in this order: 1. Reader, 2. Editor-in-chief, 3. You." "Don't treat the assistant badly. Be nice to the little people." Before you know it, they'll be the ones assigning. (Note to readers: truer words have never been spoken. I can't tell you how many assistant editors I've befriended. We moved up in the ranks together, and they now feed me work.) So there you go. A few thoughts from the mouths of people whom really matter.

Does that help? Does that open up more questions?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Diving Back In

How do you get going again when you've have been away from a project too long?

The first - and only - way that I can dive back in after taking time away is to reread the entire WIP. Undoubtedly, I'd forgotten details or plot points (!!!), and if I don't reread, the next sections come across as very disjointed.

But just as importantly, rereading also really helps amp up my motivation. Just knowing that I've already started spinning this fictional world gets my juices flowing to keep going.

And when all else fails - as in, I've taken time off and really, really can't seem to find the motivation to dive back in, I schedule time in which I have to write. I force myself to sit in front of the computer for an hour and see what happens. It might be 300 words, it might be 1300. But by mandating that time, I'm at least getting started. And from there, within a week or so, I'm usually psyched to keep writing.

So readers, what works for you when you've taken too much time away?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Going National

If I'm pitching a big national women's magazine with a trend story, should I mention that I covered the general topic this year already. I did a local feature on an example of this trend for a local city magazine. So I have contacts and a general passion for the topic. Should I include this local story in my clips with the pitch or will this turn off national NYC editors...who I assume want something fresh and new? My pitch for the national magazine is broader but it touches on the same general trend I featured in the local story.

Ooh, this is a toughie, and I'm guessing that there are folks out there who have done this, so I'm hoping they'll weigh in, since I've never been in this position.

My instinct is to say that it's fine to mention the previous story IF it's not dated (i.e. older than six months) and IF you can make it "fresh" for the nationals. In fact, if you're going to take it from a local story to a national story, you'll have to put a different spin on it because editors at Vogue aren't going to care what's happening in Ohio unless it's part of a nationwide-trend. So you'll have to answer the question as to a) why is this still relevant six months later and b) what makes this trend applicable to country-wide readers, not just those in Ohio. If you can do this, then I'll argue that you're previous experience is your trump card. I've mentioned before that in your query, you need to convince the editor that you are the sole person who should write this story, and thus, in this pitch letter, I'd list the contacts and experts you'd use and mention that you already have established relationships with them. This gives you a leg up.

That said, I'm open to being swayed as to why you shouldn't mention the previous clip. Thoughts?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sorry Mailman! It's Not Personal.

Oops! So I was speaking at a conference this weekend, and they happened to have early copies of my book for sale!! I almost died of excitement. Anyhoo, the Barnes and Noble sales rep asks me to sign some, and I did...but he directed me to the title page, rather than the blank opening page. Turns out that I had no idea that aficionados like the signature to go there. (Why is it that everyone who has ever given me a book in the past has signed the opening page???) Anyway, the point of me telling you this is because for the ten of you who will be getting your copies in the mail today, you'll see that my signature is on the wrong page. Sorry!! I hope this doesn't lessen the value too much when you go to resell it on Ebay. :)

Question of the day: Do you think you get better results submitting queries by email or snail mail? My inclination is to save time and money by emailing, but I've heard of successful writers who swear by snail mail.

(ETA on 4/24: Btw, I took this question to mean querying magazines. Querying agents is different, and while I only queried via email, people do certainly still resort to snail when on the agent hunt.)

I know no one, repeat NO ONE, who still snail mails queries. Seriously, I've never even heard of it anymore! The only time I ever hear of writers using the actual mail is to drop requested clips in the mail to an editor.

Snail mailing queries is like microfiche: it worked at the time but now, there's just no need for it. And seriously, I could be wrong about this, but I feel like it will make you look a lot more amateurish. Especially if you read a magazine's guidelines and then send in to the generic address they request. This is just a filter with which to weed out newbie writers.

The best way to get your query read (and responded to) is to research the masthead, target the appropriate editor, and email them your pitch. There's certainly no guarantee that he or she will read it even then, but I suspect it's a lot likelier than if your query lands in their untouched - and mile-high- mail pile.

Writers out there...does anyone still query via snail mail? Or do you all stick to the electronic highway?