Friday, August 11, 2006

Perfecting the Magazine Query Letter

Can you show us a sample query letter that you used to pitch freelance articles?

Sure. I'll go one better: I'll show you two examples. Now, keep in mind that I already knew these editors, so I didn't have to list my credits and to be honest, I probably kept them a little more casual than if this were a first-time pitch. I tried to track down a really detailed query to give you a more introductory example but couldn't find one in my files. (I delete them after a while.) But I'll keep looking. These days, I don't send query letters that often - usually, I'm fortunate enough to be able to rattle off a few sentences and the editor will either ask me for more details or tell me that why it doesn't work for her - but when I DO draft query letters, especially to new-to-me editors, I try to include solid facts or quotes, give a clear sense of my writing style, as well as ensure that this writing style still meshes with the magazine's overall tone and vision.

So, here you go:

Parents Magazine Pitch:

Dear XX:

When my son was born eight weeks ago, he was blessed with my gorgeous mug (ahem), but not so blessed to have inherited his daddy's stomach. Namely, if I were to put it less delicately, his gas. Cam is a perfectly behaved angel (if I do say so myself) with the sole exception of when he scrunches up his legs and screams his face off...and then he makes up for all of his other good behavior as his temper tantrums and discomfort spiral downhill.

I'd like to propose a story for the 0-12 months column on how to help your little one combat these bubbly situations. I know that it might sound silly, but in the hospital, they literally hand you your babe and say, "be sure to burp him after you nurse." Well, okay. But I've never had a baby before, so other than swatting him on the back, just how the hell do I get him to belch?? And once I'd master the rub-and-pat, what are the other remedies to get him to, well, let's just put it out there, fart? And what can I do to prevent it to begin with, if anything? How much Mylacon is too much? What about Gripe Water or prune juice? And will I ever be able to eat broccoli or beans again?

I know that Cam isn't alone with this ailment, and I think it would be a "explosive," not to mention helpful story for new mommies! And one that you have to approach with a touch of good humor. :) Let me know if you have any interest.


The above pitch was assigned and became this story: The Gas Crisis. I've since written numerous articles for Parents - I'm working on one right now, just filed another, and have yet others in the Sept and Nov issues.

Prevention Magazine Pitch: How To Boost Your Dog's Brain Power

Dear XX:

Guess what? Just as humans prefer to exercise their most powerful muscle - namely, their brain - so too do animals. According to a recent study published in Science magazine, highly intelligent dogs have the mental aptitude of three-year old toddlers, and can understand well over 200 words.

But whether or not your dog was born a natural Einstein (really, whose wasn't?), there are definite ways to increase his intelligence, according to Dr. Stanley Coren, Ph.D, author of How Dogs Think. "There are two types of intelligence," he says. "'Fluid', which is native smarts, and 'crystallized,' which is the sum of everything you've learned. When you take an SAT test, there are measures of both, though most are the latter. They test how well you apply all of your knowledge. While you can’t change your dog’s fluid intelligence much, but you can effectively increase his crystallized intelligence by constantly teaching him new things."

In this story, we'll discuss ways - whether it is altering his daily walk route, finding new ways to communicate with him, or introducing new toys - to boost your pooch's brain power. And this doesn't just do your dog's ego good; it also helps his health. Studies show that dogs who are intellectually stimulated ward off the effects of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, also known as "doggie Alzheimer's." Finally, not all breeds thrive when stimulated, so we'll also discuss which techniques work best for which breeds.

Let me know if this is of interest. Looking forward to speaking with you soon!


This story, Brain Training, was one of three Pet columns that I wrote for Prevention in 2005.

So there you have it. Now who's got questions about the magazine query process?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

So...Just What Do you Do All Day?

Update: I'm so glad that we have some readers who are on board for a little fiction challenge Hey, all you lurkers, don't be shy! Join us! Whatever your goal: revisions, queries, WIPs, be prepared to post them every Monday. I'll do the same.

Question of the day: I've always wondered what it's like to be a freelancer - I suspect that I wouldn't have the discipline to get anything done. What's your typical day like? How do you actually get things done?

You know, my husband doesn't really understand how I do it either. He's one of those guys who needs the structure of going into an office every day - or else he'd be parked on our couch watching Food Network from dawn until dusk, with random baseball games thrown in when he's already seen the FN show. (Oh, how I haaaaaaaate baseball season. He'll watch ANY game on air EVER.)

I, on the other hand, would wither up and die if I had to go into an office every day. I did it early on in my career, post-college, and I felt the literal life being sucked from me. Which is my way of saying that freelancing is definitely not for everyone. Not only do you have to be incredibly self-motivated (the lure of the TV beckons in the background), but you have to be cool spending a lot of time by yourself. No Grey's Anatomy water-cooler discussions (though that's why I love Television Without Pity!), no grabbing lunch with your gal pal co-worker, no happy hour cocktails with your cube-mates.

So...what's my typical day like? Here's how it usually breaks down:

8:00 - Nanny arrives.
8:15 - I head out the door with our pooch, Pedro, for a romp in the park. (For him, not me.)
9:15-9:30 - Return home, chat with son, pour coffee (YES, I'M PREGNANT - I KNOW! It's only half-caffeinated, so don't send me admonishing emails. The world is dead to me without coffee.)
9:30-10:00 - Catch up on all of the websites and blogs I like to visit.
10:00 - Cereal! Yum!! (I've mentioned that before.)
10:15 - Start my work. I've found that I write my best at this point in the morning. I start every day with a "to do" list, and I love, love, love crossing things off. So by tackling the list right away, I'm ensured that I'll at least accomplish something in my day before lunch.
1:00ish - Take a break from my work - whether the work was drafting a story, interviewing experts, following up with editors, etc - and head to the gym for an hour, and run errands afterward.
2:30 - Back at my desk, where I surf around the web while eating lunch.
3:00 - Run pooch out to the dog run for his second romp of the day.
3:45 - Pick up work wherever I left off. This usually revolves around the straggling items on my to-do list. As I said, I think that I write my best earlier in the day, so this stuff might be more busy-work than real, actual writing. But if I'm coming up on a deadline, I'll write whenever I have to.
6:00 - Nanny leaves, and I make darling son dinner, most of which he then proceeds to throw to Pedro and giggle maniacally while doing so.
7:30 - Darling son conks out. (Or so I hope.)
Evening - If my husband is out, I'll head back to the computer for a little more work or deal with West Coast interviews/contacts. That's the problem with working from home - you never really get to leave the office.

So that's my typical day. The beauty of freelancing is that, quite obviously, you have the freedom to shift all of these elements as they best suit your schedule. The downside to all of this is that if you're not disciplined, you'll shift it to the point where you're entirely unproductive. Thus, the critical importance of really having a schedule and sticking to it. This is also why I really make my mornings work for me: if all crap hits the fan in the afternoon or my motivation takes a total nosedive, and I can't manage to get anything done, I've still accomplished a lot.

I imagine that these floating schedules are the reason freelance writers get a bad rap. Most people hear "freelance writer," and they raise their eyebrows, silently thinking to themselves that what this really means is a couch-loafing, pajama-wearing, unemployed, perhaps talentless, lazy ass, and to be fair, I'm sure that there are plenty of them out there. I can't tell you how many times people have asked what I do, and upon hearing that I'm a writer, say, "oh, whom do you write for," never expecting that I've actually been published or, gasp, really truly earn a good living at this. Which both pisses me off and brings me great vindictive joy.

Anyway, the point of this post wasn't for me to ramble on about other peoples' judgments, rather just to say that freelancing requires a lot of discipline - in some ways, it might be harder than going into an office because you don't have a boss breathing down your neck. You're your own boss, and if you screw up, fail or just end up with your ass on the couch the entire day, you can point the finger only at yourself.

Anyone else have good discipline or scheduling tips? Or just want to rant about the labels (and stereotypes) that go along with being a writer?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Show Me the Money

Whoo-hoo! That's me celebrating after diving back into my WIP. Per my stated goals, I logged in 1k words yesterday, and intend to do so every day (barring weekends or emergencies) until it's completed. The thing about writing fiction - at least for me - is that I dread doing it, but once I'm actually doing it, I find that I love it. So it's just a matter of forcing myself to sit down and write the damn thing. Sort of like going to the gym. Once you get in the habit of it, it merely becomes part of your routine.

Anyone else want to set some goals here? We can hold a weekly tally (on, say, Mondays) and fill each other in on how we did.

Question of the day: You've convinced me on the necessity of an agent. So let me ask a totally newbie question -- forgive me if you've addressed it. How does the $$ relationship work out? They get paid if your book sells? Or what?

First of all, there are no newbie questions here! That's the whole point of this blog!! No question is too dumb. (Well, that's not true. I'm sure that there are plenty of questions that are too dumb, but if you're reading this blog, you're already smart enough that I'm sure you've passed the point of being capable of asking truly moronic questions.)

Yes, the agent ONLY gets paid if she sells your book. Thus, it's in her best interest to work her tail off for you. It goes without saying that you should NEVER pay an "agent" an upfront fee - that's a blaring sign of a scam.

Here's how the whole money thing breaks down: most agents (in fact, I think nearly all of them), reap 15% of whatever you make from your book. So, for easy math, if you get a 10k advance, your agent pockets $1,500 from the advance, leaving you with $8,500. Whatever you get on top of your advance - if anything - she'll also get 15% of. But don't count on that money. Publishers calculate advances based on approximately what they expect your book to earn. Thus, if they think that you'll sell about 10k worth of books (this calculation includes all of the book-seller discounts and various things that I can't claim to understand), you'll get an offer for a 10k advance. And it's not until you've earned that money back that royalties kick in and you start seeing another dime.

Your agent can also earn you money by selling other rights, if she's held on to them. (In many cases, the publishing house might have bought them, but this is something that your agent can and will negotiate.) Rights such as foreign, audio, film, etc.

Keep in mind that your advance is paid out in increments: mine came (or is coming) in thirds, which is pretty standard, though if you have some leverage, I think you can get it paid in halves. I got the first third upon signing my contract, the next third upon handing in the revised and accepted manuscript, and I'll get the last third when the book comes year. If the average advance for a debut author is in the 10k ballpark, you can easily see how authors aren't exactly having Indecent Proposal moments, rolling around in the bed with gazillions of dollars. Divide 10k into three, take out 15% and taxes, and well...very few debut authors quit their day jobs.

So if you're toiling away at your ms because you think it's a path lined with gold, this post is a wake-up call. If you're toiling away at your ms because you're possessed like the devil to tell a f-ing great story, then keep at it.

And with that, I'm headed to the gym. That's been part of my routine since college...I'm hoping my writing habits become as ingrained as my exercise habits. Experts say that you need 4-6 weeks of repeatedly doing a new task before it becomes inate, so I'm counting on you guys to hold me accountable: in 4-6 weeks, I should be nearing the end of my WIP. We'll see how I do.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I Wanna Get Grouped

Body update: Still sore.

Blog Update: I've devoted most of my attention to book publishing, but I know that some readers are aspiring magazine writers too. So don't be shy: if you have magazine questions, send 'em my way. (Of course, book questions are still welcome too! Just wanted to remind you about the magazine angle.)

Question of the day:

You mentioned joining an online writers group while working to finish TDLF. Was that for support, critiques or both? And was the experience worthwhile?

Let me put it this way: without my writers' group, I wouldn't be a soon-to-be published author. So yep, you could say that the experience was worthwhile. :) The group I joined was more for support: it was a smaller subset of a magazine writers group that I'm part of. There were numerous aspiring, but stalled, fiction writers among us, so someone had the brilliant idea of forming a fiction group...and a fiction challenge, of sorts. Basically, each week, we reported back to each other on our progress. Not only did this light a fire under my butt, it also made me feel accountable. I mean, I told these people I wanted to finish my book, how embarrassing if I didn't! AND, even more embarrassing, as I saw them posting their word counts for the week, I wondered why I couldn't match - or even beat - them.

This was actually for my first book - the one that didn't sell and that I'm currently overhauling. I've mentioned here that it's stalled, and I'm thrilled that my writers group has started a new's just what I need to motivate. I'll probably aim for about 1k words a day once I dive back in. Every Monday, I'll post my progress for the other members of the group, and we all feed off each other's success and influence. I'll also post my progress here, and you guys are welcome to do the same.

I wasn't one for joining a critique group - that's just not my style, but these groups have definitely worked for other writers I know. As we've previously discussed on the blog, often times, you just need a set of fresh eyes to point out where you've gone wrong and help redirect both you and the ms. And critique groups can provide that. Two that I've recently seen recommended are:

I've never dealt with either of them, however. Just saw referrals to the sites from other writers.

What do you guys think? Are critique/support groups worthwhile? If so, where can a newbie writer sniff out a reputable group?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Editors and Agents: A Necessary Evil?

Hope everyone had a fabu weekend! We had a wonderful getaway - thanks to all for the fun wishes - but of course, I'm already exhausted again after chasing around the maniac son for the afternoon... It's not helping matters that my husband and I took a hike yesterday that the hotel claimed was 4.5 miles, but, in fact, must have been more like 7, and we both woke up today with ass muscles tighter than Guantanamo Bay security. We're hobbling around like we're 117, and every time one of us shuffles into the room, we completely lose it. I mean, we're in really good shape (or so we thought!)...who are the people who survive this supposed leisurely hike completely intact???

The good news is that I reread my stalled WIP (while soaking in the tub last night in an effort to thwart the oncoming ass soreness), and I actually really like it. I'm letting it gestate for a few days, then will gear back up with my 1k word a day goal. I'll let you know when I start writing again, in case other folks want to join me in setting their own writing goals.

Ok, on with the questions:

a) What advice do you have for unpublished novelists regarding editors and agents? b) Which should an author pursue first? c) Is it necessary to have an agent? Do editors work with authors without agents? Is it better to have an agent?

a) The most basic advice that I have is that you should have one. Simple as that. Without an agent, you're not only flying blind in many situations, you're also limiting your options. But more on that later.

b) Get an agent first. Editors are too busy to read through the slush, and frankly, finding that diamond in the slush isn't part of their job. Well, at least not at the major publishing houses. Very few of them take unsolicited manuscripts and with good reason: agents act as a filter. Here's why: when an agent has a ms that's ready to send out, she'll call up the list of targeted editors and explain the project (at least she will if she's good at her job). This is the beginning of the wooing process. The agent crafts a pitch, she musters up gobs of enthusiasm, and she sells, sells, sells. The editor right there and then tells the agent whether or not it sounds like a good fit, and if it is
a good fit, the editor is frothing at the mouth by the time your ms hits her desk. Sort of like if you were in the market for a new car, and car salesmen rang you up whenever something crossed their lot that might work for you.

Beyond this, the editor also knows and trusts the agent (or at least she trusts the reputable ones), who should have a good idea of what the editor is looking for (that's why they all "do lunch,") and where her tastes tend to run. So, in essence, why would the editor even bother with the slush pile when she already has such a fine system working on her behalf?

There is also the assumption - whether this is fair or not - that the cream rises to the top. Namely, that the best mss will get snapped up by agents, and thus if you're submitting without one, yours ain't the cream. (Hey, I'm not saying I agree, I'm just telling you the perception. And the truth of the matter is, that there are gajillions of terrible mss out there which definitely DON'T deserve to be repped. For all of the good ones that slip through the cracks, there are many more which truly blow.)

That said, there are exceptions to what I said above. Many small presses accept submissions, as do certain lines at Harlequin and Red Dress. (I'm working from my knowledge of commercial fiction - feel free to chime in with other places that accept them without agent representation.) I know plenty of published authors who are thrilled with the treatment and attention they've received at smaller presses (though most of these authors were indeed repped by agents). The major houses: Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, St. Martin's, Warner, Simon and Schuster, etc, however, really won't glance in your direction without an agent. (Unless, I dunno, Tom Clancy referred you personally, and if you know Tom Clancy, you should really have him refer you to his agent. Lucky dog, you.)

And of course, there's always the self-publishing route, which I know a few readers of this blog have done. Nothing wrong with it, but I think that most self-published authors take this route after fruitlessly hunting for an agent, and many of them will tell you it's a lot of work. They're an army of one, whereas authors with houses behind them have an army of many. But self-publishing is definitely an option, and there really have been some great self-published novels. Check out POD-dy Mouth for proof.

c) I've pretty much answered these questions, but one other note about the benefit to having an agent. A good agent does more than just sell your book. She negotiates your contract; she's your ally if things go awry with your editor - whether you hate your cover art or your editor is fired or you totally disagree with the revision notes. Whatever, she should be there to back you up. She also champions not just your book, but your career. Mine called me a few months ago with an glimmer of an idea for a novel that she thought I might be able to spin into something more. In an ideal situation, it's a true partnership, and just like in a healthy, thriving marriage, that's something that can't be underestimated. Or necessarily replaced.