Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Story Behind My Story

For some reason, I got a bunch of emails last week asking how I got my start as a writer, so I thought I'd give you my backstory which, I think, is a good example of how luck, persistence and truly hard work all came together fortuitously and granted me a career.

I was always a writer, but I didn't always intend to be a writer, if that makes sense. In college, people suggested that I pursue it, but it just sounded so dang impossible. I mean, who makes money writing??? It sounded insane. So I dipped my toe in a variety of other careers (PR, acting (to this day, I have my SAG card!), internet ventures), and finally, writing came to me, not vice versa.

About seven years ago, just after the bubble burst on the whole internet boom, I was toiling at a start-up which I co-ran, focusing on our pr and marketing, basically, creating press kits, writing web copy, establishing partnerships with other sites, etc. When we sold the site (for peanuts), a lot of our partners asked me to continue doing their web copy and press releases, and voila, my freelancing career was born. I wasn't quite sure about working full-time for myself, however, so I applied for a writing position at a well-known PR company, but by the time they called and eventually offered me the job, I'd realized that I'd be bananas NOT to attempt the freelancing thing. And somehow, by the grace of God, I got the PR firm to agree to also hire me on a freelance basis - paying me for three days of work per week. (There is a point to this background, hang in there.)

As luck would have it, part of my job at this PR firm was ghostwriting for celebrity clients. While the PR work paid my bills, I still felt unfulfilled, so, because I was getting married, I pitched The Knot a story idea for their website. I don't think this was my first query ever, but it was one of them, certainly. As further luck would have it, they were looking for someone with ghostwriting experience to pen a book for them, and though I still can't believe this, they hired me. (I did have to submit sample chapters and all of that.)

The experience itself was less than ideal, however, it opened all sorts of doors for me because my very next pitch was to Bride's, who assigned me a story immediately, and just like that, I'd landed my first national assignment. Wow! Who knew it was so easy? Right? Right???

Er, wrong. I landed another feature at another big magazine, and when I returned home from my honeymoon, was unceremoniously told that it was being killed. No offers for a rewrite, no second chances. And then, came a dry spell.

I can't remember how long this dry spell lasted, but I'd venture that it was another six months until I landed any other type of assignment (beyond my usual PR stuff). But I hung in there, despite the hundreds of rejections that dinged my inbox. I pitched story ideas like no one has ever pitched story ideas: juggling dozens of them at a time. One editor rejects it? I sent it right out to someone else. I kept on top of research and studies and trends, and if anything remotely pinged for me, off it went to an editor.

Eventually, I started breaking in with FOBs and at various websites, like women.com (now ivillage.com). I made myself invaluable to my editors and became genuine friends with many of them. But I never stopped working at 150 miles per hour. I turned in work early; I kept pitching; I let editors know that I was available to do just about anything for them, big or small, menial or not. (Er, that sounds dirty, but you know what I mean.) And now, seven years later, I have a career. Yes, it takes that long - okay, maybe I hit this about two years ago - to firmly entrench yourself.

I wish that I could promise that there were easier paths. I wish that I could say that there are secret handshakes to open hidden doors. But there aren't. I got lucky - The Knot needed someone, and I was in the right place and the right time, but from there, I earned it. There are thousands of aspiring writers out there, if not more. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep knocking on doors. If you do so, sooner or later, you'll likely distinguish yourself and one (or more) of these doors will open to greet you.


Patti said...

the law of averages baby!

BJ and Shalene said...

iVillage is on my list to pitch, but I've searched their site and can't find any contacts. Anyone know where I can find some editorial contacts?

Trish Ryan said...

How cool to hear the full story--good for you for keeping at it. Your diligence was rewarded again today by a nice mention of TDLF in MediaBistro.... congrats!

Marijke Vroomen-Durning said...

Always nice to read how people came into writing. Good post.

kate hopper said...

This is inspiring, Allison, and reinforces my belief in the power of persistence. Talent helps, of course, but persistence seems to be the key.

Anonymous said...

As a procrastinator, I am always looking for ways to actually get stuff done. All the advice I read about researching markets makes me think it should take a week to put together a proper query, which means I don't do it at all.

I know you've written about the importance of a great query, but from what you wrote about turning these queries around, though, it seems like you were not doing a ton of research on each market before sending them out. Is that right or did you condense a lot of effort into a little sentence?