Friday, August 25, 2006

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." (Note to readers: Several posts ago, I specifically said not to do this for FOBs, but hey, it works for this editor, so it might work for others! I stand potentially corrected. Just goes to show you: what doesn't work for one editor might work for another!)

"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." (Another note to readers: I've never done this! So I learned something new here today.)

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, August 24, 2006

Weird Publishing Abbreviations; Source-Citing

a) Is a FOB the same as a filler? b) When submitting something that pertains to health, do you have cite the source under the written piece?

a) Hmmm, I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "filler," but I'll just do my best to define FOB, and hopefully, that will clear up all of the confusion.

Magazines are divided into several sections - among them, the FOB (front-of-book) section and the feature well. Take out a national consumer magazine. Any one will do. After the letters to the editor and table of contents, you'll come across a group of pages, anywhere from, say 10-50, that are made up of short "articles." I put articles in parenthesis because they're not really articles - they're closer to blurbs, in that they run about 100-400 words each. They're little nuggets that contain spurts of information but not enough to make up a longer story. Often times, they cover recent research reports or focus on new trends. Really - take a look at a magazine, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Does that help? A few other funny acronyms that mag folks use:

Lede: well, this isn't an acronym, but it means "lead" or "intro" of a story

TK: "to come," as in "TK Tips on Water Safety"

FC: fact check

Graf: short for paragraph

Round-up: type of article that is a "round up" of quotes and only quotes

Hed: headline of the article, ie, "Magical Weight Loss Secrets."

CQ: checked quote, as in, "this quote has been verified as correct" - often used if a name or word has an odd spelling or if a quote sounds slightly weird

Dek: the few sentences that are below a header. For example, the header might read, "Magical Weight Loss Secrets," and the dek will then say, "You don't have to be David Copperfield to shed pounds. We've whipped up our own pixie dust to help you cut the fat." Or whatever.

Have I missed any?

b) I always cite the source if it's a quote/study/etc that's unique to this person/university/association. It's sound journalism, and provides an expert voice for the story. Now, my editors don't always keep the source in - I assume, most often due to word count - but when I file my story, it will always read, for example, "recent research from the Journal of the American Medical Association states, blah, blah, blah." The only time I wouldn't do this is when I'd interviewed several experts and they all said the same thing. Then, in my mind, it's more common knowledge, and I don't necessarily need to attribute it to a source. Again, for example, I'm working on a story right now on toddlers and sleep. Nearly all of my experts said the same thing about the importance of establishing a routine. So...there's a sentence in the story about the importance of establishing a routine, but it's a paraphrase conglomeration of their advice and not attributed to anyone in particular.

Brad Pitt and I are BFF

What creative ways do you say you have an inside track with an interesting interviewee? I write about music and musicians. Always looking for graceful and effective ways to say that.

I usually just come right out and say it. I mean, you want the editor to be impressed with the fact that you have the inside edge, so why not just let her know that? So, I've said things like, "I have a relationship with Famous Celeb's publicist and am certain that landing an interview wouldn't be a problem." Or "I've been lucky enough to befriend Huge Movie Star and feel confident that I could grab the interview." Or whatever. I don't think you need to be particularly graceful about it - after all, this is a brag moment for you! A moment to distinguish yourself among the gajillion other writers who would die to interview Huge Movie Star, so just put it out there!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

How Many is Too Many?

a) When you were beginning your freelance career, how many queries would you send out on a daily basis? b) And did you shop the same query around to several different editors?

a) Ooh, I have no idea what the exact number would be (and that was two computers ago, so I really can't check my archived emails), but I can tell you that it was A LOT. I was incessant about pitching. That one didn't work? How about this? No? I got more. My husband would joke that I was a master hustler because I was always, always, always vying for more work.

While I can't give you an exact number, I can say that the best way to get out as many queries as possible - and potentially land assignments - is to keep your eyes out for great stories. Brilliant advice, right? Well, guess what? It is! :) What I mean by this is that great story ideas aren't going to just fall in your lap. Part of my job is to read every last thing that I can: health research, new trends, medical reports, local papers, national news, pop culture blogs, etc, etc. These are the things that are going to generate ideas and nab you assignments. If you keep your fingers on the pulse of what's going on in the world, you're probably not going to lack for ideas. And once you have ideas, the number of queries that you send is limitless.

Why not try setting a goal for yourself? My writers group has a query challenge every couple of months, in which people see how many possible queries they can get out each week. I've seen people shoot off 20+. Remember that, especially as a new writer, very few of these are going to pan out. (Cold, harsh truth. Sorry.) So you're not going to be too swamped to handle the work. But you'll be getting your name in front of an editor, and ideally, making a great impression, and that will lead to future work. Freelancing is a constant work-in-process. Getting on the query wagon is a smart first step.

b) As far as simultaneous submissions, gulp, well, freelancers and editors have very different takes on this. These days, I'd never, ever do it because a) I know my editors personally, and I feel like I owe them something and b) because I do know them, I also know what they're looking for, so have a greater chance of landing a pitch. BUT, as I mentioned above, the reality of the situation is that as a newbie, it is very, very unlikely that you'll land a ton of initial assignments. So, the logic follows that you should cast your net as wide as possible. And many freelancers I know - including myself at one point - do. Not often. Not with every pitch. But yeah, occasionally. I'm not advocating this as a practice, but is it done? Yes. Freelancing is a business: why would you commit yourself to one editor (whom you don't know and who doesn't know you), when there are so many other possibilities out there? So yes, early in my career, I definitely submitted to multiple places. And let me tell you: never once did more than one editor beat down my door for a story. In fact, I hear of this situation very, very rarely.

Of course, there are ways to make everyone happy. The most obvious is to tweak the query so that it's slightly different for each magazine. For example, if I had a great metabolism-related idea, maybe I'd pitch a straight exercise angle to FITNESS, a diet/food angle to COOKING LIGHT, and something on kids and obesity to PARENTS. Do note that none of these magazines are competitors. These days, I'd never pitch the same idea to FITNESS, SELF and SHAPE, but again, that's because I have pre-established relationships with these editors. Plenty of other freelancers do indeed fire off the same query and see who bites (if at all) first. Note that should more than one editor want the idea, you most likely will find yourself in hot water (with the steaming mad snubbed editor) and might burn a bridge. I guess you have to decide upon the likelihood of more than one person vying for it, and if they do, if you'd care.

Another solution is to send in a query, wait a reasonable amount of time - a week or two - then send it elsewhere, all the while following up with the original magazine. This way, you know that you've given them first crack, but you're also covering all bases by pursing other options. This is usually how I handled things when I did occasionally simultaneously submit - I'd assume that if an editor were really salivating for an idea, she'd let me know pretty quickly, and if she were ho-hum, then she wouldn't balk if I sold it elsewhere.

A third solution is to send the query with a comment stating, "if I don't hear from you by October 1st, I'll assume you're not interested." I know several writers who do this, though I might wait until the follow-up email to set a deadline. Then, at the set date, you know that it's safe to move on, and should the editor eventually get back to you with a yes, it's not as if you haven't said, "hey, I'm not waiting around forever."

Look, the bottom line is that you have to do what's right for you. When I was just starting out, what was right for me was building my database of clips and landing assignments. And sometimes, that meant sending out simultaneous submissions. Not often, but when it was a really timely or hot idea. These days, what's important to me is honoring and preserving the relationships that I have. I adore my editors and wouldn't in any way want to tarnish those ties. Period.

On another note, I'll be dealing with queries again later this week. Only this time, I've surveyed a slew of my editors to garner their dos and don'ts. And guess what? They had a lot to say! So tune back in!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mucking Through the Writing Process

You mentioned that the plot of The Department of Lost and Found was easy to write because it was based on something you had experienced in life. a) How did you come up with the plot for what you are working on now? b) Did you run the idea by your agent and ask for her advice before you started writing it? c) What is the process for coming up with a book? Also, when you wrote DEPARTMENT, did you outline it first or just dive right in?

a) The plot of my current WIP also stems from some real life experiences, but only very tangentially. I touched on this in another post, but I really think it helps to have some personal or emotional connection with some aspect of your story idea: it gives your writing heft and believability. The WIP explores female friendships, and the concept of why we're drawn to various people in our lives...and why we stay attached to them long after the relationship has dwindled to an end, which are questions that I've long wondered about. I guess the idea took its roots from several friendships that I've had over the years, and what these relationships gave me: the incredible bonds, but also the complications that some of those bonds have brought.

b) As I've mentioned before, this was actually the first ms I completed, which never sold. I've completely gutted that ms, leaving only traces of what it once was and am rebuilding. So my agent, who had read that ms after she signed me for DEPARTMENT, already had an idea of what I was going to write about. I'm lucky: she trusts me. I think, for her, she loves my writing style and believes in me enough that she'll let me do my thing and only step in if I veer wildly off-course. (If say, I wanted to write a backpacking guide to Nepal, which really wouldn't address my strengths.) That doesn't mean, however, that I fully trust myself. Thus, I bounced the first 10k words off of her and am about to send her the first 40k words. Just to ensure that I'm on track.

c) This ms is much slower-going than DEPARTMENT. With both of them, however, my writing process is much the same. I tend to map out the next three or so chapters from where I am in my writing, and don't plan a big outline from the get-go. The books start with an overall concept or question or character - something or someone whom I can clearly see in my mind and that I know I want to explore - and I spin from there. For DEPARTMENT, I had a very clear vision of my heroine right away. I knew who she was, what drove her and where her faults could be found. I didn't know exactly where she was going to take me (or where the book was going to go), but by starting with a clear understand of her, I let her lead me.

Some authors definitely set up the entire story arc before they begin. But I know that I'd feel too constrained by this. I know that this sounds weird (and I say this b/c I've read similar things from other authors and always think that it sounds a little touchy-feely, but it's true!), but I really let my characters take over and dictate where they want to go. In DEPARTMENT, for example, one of the men who becomes a critical part of my heroine's life was never intended to be more than a bit player! But as soon as I started writing his scenes, it became obvious that he was a great potential match for her. If I'd established all of these preconceived notions about exactly who he was and the role he needed to play, the book would have taken on an entirely different angle. And, needless to say, wouldn't have been as good.

So basically, I keep a piece of paper beside me as I go, and when I'm done with a chapter or a chunk of the writing, I'll jot down the next few entanglements and scenes. It's worked pretty well for me so far. That's it. Nothing fancy at all.

So that's my process. What's yours?

I Don't Have the Slightest Clue

I know that published authors can declare all of their expenses (mailings, phone calls,
editing, copies of manuscripts, etc), but, can an unpublished author do the same? What I mean is, I have written a manuscript, unpublished, but can I still declare all of my expenses in my taxes?

Truly, I'm stumped. Part of me wants to say, of course, because there are a million waiters/aspiring actors out there who have yet to land a part, but who, I'm sure deduct their headshots, but part of me also thinks that this is a slippery-slope. I mean, what if I wanted to become a professional hang-glider? Can I deduct the purchase of said hang-glider? I doubt it.

So, really, I don't know. I went here:, but couldn't find any clear answers.

Thus, I'm putting this up on the board in case someone has a wise answer. My wisest advice? Speak with your accountant. Because God knows, you don't want the IRS chasing you down over the cost of a stapler when you should have just forked over the money in the first place.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Tally Ho! The Writing Challenge Continues...

So, how'd you do this week? List your progress here.

If you're just tuning in, please feel free to join us. Here's the deal: each week, we publicly commit to a writing goal for the next seven days. On Monday, we report.

I added another 5k - more or less - this week. My goal for the next week is to get to a break in the action (one that I already have mapped out in my mind), at which point, I'll be sending the ms to my agent for a quick review. I imagine this will take me less than 5k words, but I dunno. We'll see.

So how'd you do?

Query Virgins

When you query an editor for the first time, how much information do you give about yourself? I have heard that you are selling yourself. What is the right approach without coming across too strong, or tacky? And any other tips for first time contact with magazine editors?

First of all, you're on the right track from the get-go: I love that you already realize that you're selling yourself. I can't tell you how many writers lose track of this and don't understand that they're marketing themselves and that they are a commodity. It would be lovely and fine and dandy to think that writers can simply wile the way away smoking hash pipes and scribbling down prose whenever the mood strikes them, but let me tell you, if that's your attitude, you ain't making any money in this business.

The last word in the previous paragraph is a good lead-in to answering your questions. Business. Conduct your writing career as you would a business. To that end, I promote myself as I would a product. I try to be approachable and warm, yet still smart and professional. And I do this in a few ways:

1) The tone of my writing. I've already posted several examples of old query letters, and I think that you can see that none of the writing comes off as stiff or overly formal, but I also don't cross the line into assuming that I'm IM-ing with my best friend.

2) My queries are mistake free. I can't tell you how simplistic this sounds, and yet I have so many editor friends who complain that they receive emails littered with poor grammar, poor spelling, poor writing. So for the love of God, proof read your emails and spell-check them too!

3) Explain why YOU are the one who should write this article. I write a lot of parenting articles these days, and one of the reasons why is because I'm living and breathing the research and ideas behind my pieces. So, maybe I'll start out a query saying, "this past week, my son became a fashion diva: no more allowing mommy to pick out his clothes for him. While I was thrilled at this sign of independence, the allure quickly faded when he insisted on wearing his (dirty) fire-truck shirt three days in a row. So how do parents cope with the burgeoning independence that comes along with toddler-hood? This article would explore how...blah, blah, blah." I just made that up, but you get the point: I'm giving an editor a reason to hire ME over some schmo who hasn't dealt with this personally. Another example: I've been actively pursuing several stories on breast cancer. My link to it - via my late friend - has really expanded my interest in the subject, and when I tell editors why I'm so invested, they're much more invested in ME, and in me writing it. Or maybe you have an inside-edge with an interesting interviewee or hot tickets to a sold-out concert that you want to cover. I don't know - the point is, sell the editor on why YOU should write this piece.

4) Don't threaten, beg, or brag. Again? This is a business. Any query letter that says something along the lines of, "your magazine is really going to miss out without me," "please, people keep saying 'no,' and I'm desperate to break in," or "you'll never find a better writer than me," is just asinine. No editor wants to work with a narcissist or whiner, so don't present yourself as one from the get-go. Again, you'd be amazed at what people include in their queries. (This goes for book queries too!)

5) Do list your credits and list them proudly! If this is a new-to-you editor, you might try listing them in the opening paragraph. Not a necessity, and everyone has his or her own preferences, but part of me thinks that an editor is more likely to keep reading if she's impressed by what you've done than if she's not yet aware of what you've done (and thus might only skim your email and glance at your credentials at the bottom of the query). So you might say, "Dear Fabu Editor, I'm a freelance writer and have written for XX, XY, XZ. Did you know that recent research shows that the world is set to implode in approximately 423 days? Here's why. Etc, etc, etc."

6) Follow up! Writers are waaaay to intimidated by editors. They're people just like us! And if you're new-to-them, they might not give your query top priority. So for God's sake, follow up!! You're not being pushy, you're running your business. Period. You have every right to check in with an editor if you haven't heard back. I'd wait two weeks from when you sent your initial email, then send a quick note (I usually just forward the original query) saying, "I just wanted to follow up to the below email. Please let me know if you're interested." Or whatever. True story: I landed my first assignment at SELF after three follow-ups. If I'd been more shy or more lazy, I'd never have broken in. I'm still writing for them today and have a piece coming out in the November issue.

Whew! I think I've listed most of the nitty-gritty here. Any questions? Anyone want to add his or her own advice?