Friday, September 08, 2006

Breaking Up With An Editor, Part One

You had mentioned not wanting to burn bridges with editors when freelancing. Have you ever found yourself just not clicking with an editor? Do you try to win them over or just move on? Have you ever ended up in "hot water" or pissing off an editor? I know that there are many different personalities in magazines and sometimes egos can get a little bit big. Do you have any stories from the trenches?

A few caveats before I answer this question. :) First, I've mentioned this before, but I think that often times, writers take things far too personally, and many of us need to develop thicker skins. I definitely know writers who have issues with *a lot* of editors, and I think if you consistently run into problems or are constantly griping about editors, then you should probably do a little self-evaluation. After all, everyone can't be wrong but you. Right? Second, I'm a pretty easy-going person: it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers and chap my hide. A lot. Which I think is part of the reason that editors like working with me - you're not going to hear me complain about much, not because I'm a doormat but because most things really don't bother me to the point of complaining. SO. If I've put an editor on my black list, I probably have a pretty good reason to. And yes, I do have a black list. Third, I want to note that savvy editors - and I work with plenty of them - take your work and enhance it: they push you to be a better writer and a better reporter, and with their help, you can draw out a bang-up article. I have a lot respect for my editors, and I've learned even more from them over the years than they probably realize.

All of this said, certainly, there are both editors and magazines who are easier to work with than others. Many of the women's magazines edit by committee, which means that you get comments back from not just your direct editor, but three or four others as well. Which doesn't necessarily make it more complicated, but certainly CAN make it more complicated. But on the other hand, some of my women's mag editors are dolls, and I'd never give up writing for them.

These days, I'm in the very fortunate position of now being able to pick and choose whom I write for. Specifically, I've axed off all of the pain-in-the-ass editors or magazines who weren't worth my time (or money). But it wasn't always this way. For the first few years of my career, I pitched anyone and everyone and accepted everything that came into my inbox. Thus, yes, I have a few stories from the trenches. I'll post one today and one on next week. Both are good examples of knowing your limits and learning from your mistakes so you don't fall into the same traps the next time out.

Story Number Uno:
I was a very green freelancer and just landed one of my first national assignments. I was ELATED. Big time magazine that I also happened to subscribe to. Yahoo, right? Not so fast. I got the go-ahead call from the editor, only it wasn't quite a go-ahead call. What she wanted instead was for me to draft half of the story on spec, under the guise of "they've never seen me write anything like this before and wanted to make sure that I could do it." Now, what's spec, you ask? Spec is when you write a piece for no money, and then the editor gets to decide if she wants to pay you for it. (Sort of like if someone painted your house, and then you decided whether or not you felt like paying them for it. Seems fair, right? Only not.) I adamantly disagree with writing ANYTHING on spec, but back then, it seemed like a good idea. After all, I wanted to impress said editor more than anything in my life.

So I drafted about half of the piece for her - did a bunch of interviews and wrote it up just as I would have if I'd had a contract in hand. A few weeks later, I received the official go-ahead call. Yahoo, right? Not so fast. While on the phone, the editor proceeded to tell me how she wanted me to approach the piece and where to take the article, only she told me this in the most ambiguous terms possible, which means she didn't tell me anything about the approach or how to tackle the piece. She literally said at least three times, "I'm not really sure what I'm saying here or what I mean, but YOU know what I mean, right?" To which I replied, "of course I know what you mean," even though I had NO FREAKING IDEA what she meant. How in the hell could I have known what she meant or what she wanted when SHE didn't even know what she meant or what she wanted?? I'm an excellent freelancer; I am not, however, an excellent clairvoyant. When we hung up the phone, I was left with a feeling of total malaise - mostly because the editor had failed to give me any real direction on the story, and I, too intimidated or too stupid, had failed to squeeze anything out of her.

Whatever, I thought. I'm good at this! I'm smart! I don't fail! I'll just do this anyway! And so I did. I wrote what I thought was - and what I still believe to be - a kick-ass story. Cited numerous sources. Culled real life examples. Broke it down exactly as I proposed in my pitch letter. Triple-checked it for grammar. And sent it in.

A month later, said editor called me back. "We're killing your story," she said. "It just didn't work. I can't explain why." Really? Well, no shit! Between your incompetent direction and my cowardice to ask you to actually explain what you wanted, it's no wonder that you weren't pleased. Of course, I didn't say any of this to her. What I said instead was: "I'm mortified, sorry, apologetic, want to kill myself, etc," and then proceeded to never, EVER pitch her again. To this day, I avoid her.

A couple of lessons learned. 1) Always, ALWAYS ask for specific details when getting an assignment. It doesn't make you look dumb; it makes you look smart. Especially when you hand in a story that the editor is pleased with. 2) Learn what is and isn't a fair kill fee. Kill fees are written into your contract: they're a percentage of the total contracted fee that are doled out should the publication ax your story. However, magazines might try hand you a kill fee for terms that have nothing to do with your writing, which isn't kosher: the EIC changed her mind, the story now feels outdated, etc, etc, etc,. In this case, I should have been allowed a rewrite, but it was so clear that the editor had NO idea what she wanted from this piece (in retrospect, this was obvious from the get-go), that she didn't want to salvage it. 3) Snoop around about editors, if possible, before you pitch them. Talk to other writers. Find message boards or writers groups that share info. Turns out that my experience with this editor was not at all unique, and even today, I know plenty of writers who deem her too PIA (pain-in-the-ass) to work with her. And in that same vein, there are plenty of editors who receive good reviews from other writers as well. And trust me, editors are doing the same thing about us.

Years later, I can look back on this and sort of giggle. Sort of. At the time, however, it was horrifying. Simply horrifying. But you know what? In the scheme of things, it didn't matter much. So what if one editor thought my story sucked? I happen to be one writer who thought that SHE sucked, so we were even. And hey, good lessons were learned along the way. Which I can now pass on to you. :)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hitting an Editorial Bulls-eye

I'd love to hear your advice on how best to track down and connect with the right magazine editors. Writers Market? Or searching on the publications website? Also do you always e-mail query? Do you ever snail mail?

The best way to track down the right editor is to look at the magazine's masthead. Or go to and pay a small fee for access. If you're unsure which editor handles which dept, simply call the magazine and ask. Sometimes, these things are self-explanatory (i.e., the beauty editor), and sometimes, they're not (i.e., senior editor). Now, I know, I know, what could be more intimidating than calling a magazine? Well, to be honest, a lot of things. Seriously, in the overall scheme of things, picking up the phone, heart beating through your chest and asking whom to contact, really isn't THAT big of a deal. So before you talk yourself out of it, have a little perspective: calling and asking won't make you look like an idiot. Who cares if the receptionist is a bitch? Who cares if she's a condescending snarkster? You need this info, so go get it. Chances are, she'll be plenty nice, and besides, it's not like she's taking names and reporting them to editors who then create a blackball list.

Anyway, moving on...I find Writers Market to be terribly outdated and really not that specific. As I've mentioned in the past, someone at the magazine is responsible for including a listing in Writers Market, and it's not like this person is interested in advertising specific names and email addresses so that these editors can be inundated with random emails from potential beginning writers. So they'll often lob in a generic email addy, or worse, a generic snail mail addy, and this automatically serves as a filter. After all, if a query is coming into that addy, they know that the person got the info from WM. It's much, MUCH better to make the extra effort and track down a specific name and address. I've emphasized this before, but part of being a successful journalist is having the skills and the energy to go the extra mile when it comes to researching, and trust me, by sending your query into the generic address, you're basically tossing your name (and idea) into the slush pile (read: garbage).

In case you haven't figured this out from the above comments, I only query via email. ONLY. And, in fact, unlike some book agents who are still on the anti-technology horse, magazine editors really rely on email. In fact, none of the successful journalists I know use anything BUT email for their queries. Snail mail is like the horse and buggy in our industry: outdated and pointless. Sure, some editors might ask for a few snailed clips once you've made initial contact, but that's it. Our industry is all about expediency, and snail mail certainly isn't expedient, right? Thus, the nickname, snail mail.

Anyone have any other brilliant ideas as to how to track down specific editors?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Sale: A Timeline

I was wondering how long it took to sell your book from the time your agent sent it out to when it sold. Also, how often were you talking to your agent during this process? Would you mind sharing?

Happy to share. Officially, it took ten days. Unofficially, it took a little longer. Why? Because my agent was savvy. The ms was ready to go toward mid-December, but she didn't want to send it out during the dead period of the holidays. So what she did instead was call all of the editors who were on her list a few days before they left for their vacation, telling them that it would land on their desks on Jan 3rd, the first day they were back. Her enthusiasm must have transfered over the telephone line because a few editors requested a sneak peek, which meant that they toted it home with them over the Christmas holiday. So by the time everyone got back to their offices and cracked open the ms, we already had a few requests for second reads and a lot of positive feedback. Which meant that all of the other editors, who might normally have tucked the ms at the bottom of their bags and gotten to it when they got to it, read it within a few days. Thus, we had four offers about a week later.

Keep in mind, however, that there really isn't a set timeline for how quickly a ms should or will sell. I remember reading that Meghan Daum's The Quality of Life Report sold in, like, a day (seriously!), and that James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (I know, I know) was rejected by 13 imprints before Nan Talese made an offer. Whatever you think of Frey and his book, it's still an example that it only takes ONE offer, and that offer might be the first or last one you get. Who cares, really? As long as it's an offer.

As far as how much contact I had with my agent during the submission process, well, I had a lot, which I think I've mentioned on the blog before. We emailed or spoke on the phone every day, even if it were only for her to calm my nerves. But again, this will vary. I chose my agent in part because I liked her collaborative approach: I'm a hands-on type of gal, so it was important to me that a) my agent knew this and b) she was cool with my involvement. She was and she still is. We still talk fairly often, whether it's about the cover art or film rights or whatever. If you're on the agent hunt and want to be more actively involved, ASK your agent HOW she feels about this. If you don't, and you find yourself shut out, you really can't complain much.

Any other authors out there want to share their own timelines? I really do think that each one is individual and will vary. So don't panic if your ms hasn't sold overnight!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Writing Challenge: Post Your Progress

Yep, I'm still on vacay, but I've logged on for the first time in five days - a record in our household! - to touch base with you guys on your progress.

Here's mine: I polished my WIP and sent it into my agent with 1000 caveats about how it might suck and how I'm happy to abandon it if she deems it suck-worthy. We had a long convo about how tough the second book is, especially when the first book has been deemed "special," (her word, not mine) by so many people. Hearing her say these things definitely made me feel a bit better, because that's the exact pressure I've been feeling while writing...which hasn't allowed me to enjoy the process so much. I read Happiness Sold Separately this weekend, Lolly Winston's second book, and I suspect she felt much of the same. (I say this because I think I read that she struggled with motivation on #2 as well.) Oh well, at least I'm in good company!

So...I met my goal. How did you do?

I'll be back in a day or so with more questions and answers. Until then, enjoy your Labor Day and any extra vacation time that you can squeeze in! I know that I will.