Your Writing Niche: Does it Mix Well with Whiskey (and Chocolate)?

I made sure to close the drapes so the neighbors couldn’t see

Update: here’s the published piece: Whiskey and Chocolate: Collaborators, Colleagues,Comrades

Many freelance writers have written compellingly of how finding a writing niche—SEO, senior health care, inbound lead-generation for hiking sock companies—can provoke a steady stream of assignments and income. There are some persuasions: you understand your clients—and their audience—more clearly, your facility with the language and arguments of the narrow discipline becomes sharper and sharper, and as a specialist, you can often charge specialty fees.

I’ve mentioned this before, that because my brain has lobes that tingle over the oddest variety of subjects, I’ve never been inclined towards a niche or a specialty. In the past couple of months, I’ve written pieces about viral marketing techniques, Hawaii, rock and roll, house-sitting, the vulnerability of fictional characters, and issues facing independent contractors.

Thus, niche-less I am. But, that’s not to say I don’t have some distinct interests. One of them is spirits, meaning booze, hootch, firewater, grog—you know, the sauce. I enjoy looking at it in bottles, and out of bottles. I perk up to its piquant aromas. I like the mad-scientist aspect of mixing it with today’s wealth of natural infusions, bitters and botanicals that supply tang and lift to cocktails.

I even like to drink the stuff.

High-proof Publications

It took me a while (probably because of that drinking) to realize that there’s an audience for those interests, even for those subhumans that think Jaegermeister is something to drink, rather than a wood refinisher. So, in the last couple of years, I’ve sent out my share of queries to various publications on various intoxicant ideas, and I’ve published pieces in magazines like Whisky Life and Spirits (now defunct), Draft, and Wine Enthusiast.

One of the most recent tippling magazines I’ve worked with is Whiskey Wash, which is bathed in all things whiskey. After I wrote a few country-specific whiskey histories for them, they invited me to work up my own queries, one of which resulted in a fascinating interview with a professional “nose,” who works with distillers to refine their products in very exacting ways.

But my latest assignment was sweet. Literally. They accepted my pitch for what high-end chocolates might pair best with three kinds of whiskey (straight whiskey, bourbon and rye). So this past Friday night my pal-so-gal Alice and I nibbled, sipped, and nibbled and sipped again. My, was it fun. For hours, I forgot that our president-elect is a misognynist, racist, First-Amendment-mocking orange gasbag.

Pitch Until They Itch

Useless political commentary aside, my point in this is that some freelancers aren’t comfortable, or not interested in establishing a niche for their work. Some might take years of generalized commercial writing to find a niche, which they then lovingly settle into. And some, like me, might write about a whirling world of things, but might also find a way to take their special interests into their writing.

Oh, not to make it sound TOO easy: I’ve sent lots and lots of queries to lots of magazines on a crazy range of spirits pitches. The bulk have been turned down, but that’s freelancing. Enough have been accepted to keep me pitching anew, as any freelancer should do as a matter of course.

Oh, and I’ve tasted some interesting booze too. I’m not sure when the chocolate & sauce article will run, because I haven’t written it yet. That’s for the next day or so. But it will be up on Whiskey Wash soon, and there’s even some chocolate and whiskey left over.

And they pay me for this. Goodness.

[Oh, and a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kraazy Kwanzaa and Freaky Festivus to all!]

Writers All Start Out as Drooling Eeegits

twain-maui

The image above is from a four-page brochure, published by the Hawaii Promotion Committee in Honolulu. The Hawaii Promotion Committee was a tourism organization formed in 1902 and replaced by the Hawaii Tourist Bureau in 1919. So, the brochure stands a good chance of being over 100 years old, but Twain’s writing of the glories of Hawaii is much older than that.

Twain spent four months in the islands in 1866 as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, not long after his 31st birthday. This brochure excerpts one of Twain’s 25 “Letters from the Sandwich Islands” published in the Union, devoured by California readers hungry to read of such far-off, exotic lands.

My mini-history lesson has a literary point, which I’ll arrive at after a bit more throat-clearing. The letters were collected into a book called Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, and it’s a mongrel dog—not without a dog’s charm—of reading, with occasionally a mongrel scent.

Mark Twain, Hack
I almost feel like a traitor with this one: Twain is my favorite writer (and I think the greatest of American writers), but the jumbled, episodic nature of this work—something I so often love in Twain—didn’t sit that well with me. I had read some of these letters before, but never in a collection, and they way they jumped from wry anecdote to ledger-detail commercial appraisals of Hawaiian business opportunities for the US marred any continuity.

And there’s a bit too much of “the savages are restless” language too. Twain wrote these when he was in his early thirties, still making a name for himself, and his broad views on racial justice—which he expressed eloquently in many other later pieces—aren’t to be found here.

Some of his descriptions of Hawaiian vistas and charms are manna indeed, with inventive prose and perspective. But, being a travel writer myself, and having succumbed to the temptation to write about cloud-capped vistas and purple majesties more than once, I know the road-often-traveled mechanism of it. Sometimes you stitch in a lovely view here with a savory sandwich there and a glance from a fetching lass there and voila: a travel story!

Working Words with Multiple Coats of Polish
It’s not that Twain phoned it in (and not just because phone service was lousy then), but that he wasn’t inspired in the way that later travel works, like Innocents Abroad (published just three years later) demonstrated: a man in full command of his word-roping powers, who could ride backwards on a galloping horse of words, have his hat fall off and snare it with his literary lariat while with his other he lit a weedy cigar.

And now, that promised point: some of the Twain’s writing of this period was mundane, or unexceptional. The boon for writers here is to know that Twain, the pen behind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the pilot of Life on the Mississippi, was writing serviceable material, not deathless prose. The key is that Twain kept writing. He kept wrasslin’ words, no matter if they were wiggling in short stories, essays, lectures, speeches, travelogues or novels.

He kept pumping them out. His work got better and better. Even though I’m many burnt biscuits past Twain’s callow 31, and undoubtedly have more forgettable, throwaway lines in my future, I’m heartened to think that there’s fair evidence if you keep at it, keep writing, your writing will get better. (Of course, you might become an evil weasel too, but you’ll have good company among other writers.)

Damn, it’s almost worth it.

PS By the way, Twain was an unheralded surfer. Before many mainlanders had any sense that water-sprite Hawaiians were riding gigantic, impossibly heavy wooden boards on the waves, Twain saw it first-hand, and decided to try it himself. He set down his cigar long enough to paddle out to wait, as he had seen naked locals do, “for a particularly prodigious billow to come along,” upon which billow he prodigiously wiped out. “None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly,” he wrote.

Yeah, but Twain’s punctuation was better. Keep writing, my friends.

Writing Ideas Are Spring Flowers for the Plucking

North Flowery Trail

I’ve written before about how writing ideas are everywhere. It’s a commonplace that people ask writers how or where they get their ideas, as though there’s a shortage of the little buggers. Hugely the opposite: whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer, or both (like me), ideas will rain down on you like monsoon waters—you only need to stick out an empty glass to have it filled.

One of the keys to filled glasses is to Think Like a Writer, which is why I titled my latest book such. Thinking like a writer means that when you see an interesting snippet of news in a magazine article, instead of mumbling to the cat, “That’s interesting,” you go and write down a note to research it further. Writing it down is key, particularly if you’ve reached my state of age-induced somnolence. Ideas are everywhere, but they are like a puffed dandelion’s seeds, which will all blow away unless you capture them.

Wait—Was That a Falling Idea?

This past week is a perfect example of ideas falling on my noggin and me catching them while the bumps were still rising on my head. My sister-in-law was visiting, after having gone to a Mission Day event at Mission San Antonio de Padua. She casually mentioned that she saw an exhibit there from a company called Access Adventures, which provides outdoor recreational opportunities for disabled people.

They provide free “therapeutic driving events” and other special opportunities to people with restricted mobility. The company was founded by Michael Muir, great-grandson of John Muir, and a person who has lived with MS since he was an adolescent. There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

My Name Is 409 (and I Don’t Do Windows)

My galpal Alice and I had a little dinner party the other night. One of our guests is an old car enthusiast, as am I. He was describing how he is having the 409 engine for a ’64 Chevy Impala SS rebuilt. The guy who is rebuilding it has worked on 409s for thirty years, and nothing but. His name is Jack, but they call him “409.” There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

Last, I was skimming through the annual typography issue of Communication Arts magazine. It’s a beautiful design magazine, and I’ve had a mild interest in typography for years. But combine that interest with the one I have for distilled spirits and you have a story knocking: there’s an article in the issue on a design firm (with wonderful images) that designs labels for craft spirits bottles. I write about spirits now and then, and love the labels shown in the article. That’s another potential article I can drink to.

Writing Ideas Not Acted Upon = Dead Ideas

Of course, these are just article ideas. I still have to research a good publication that would be a good fit and that would pay. I have to write the query letter and get it out there. And probably get several query letters out there. Then I have to be on the lookout for new ideas. But as I’m trying to make clear: you don’t have to look that hard, as long as you keep your writer’s eyes open.

This same mechanism of idea and story association works for fiction too. Seeing a face might trigger a story idea (or perhaps more often, a story scene), or seeing a dark doorway, reading an article or having a simple conversation. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it often provides the match to light the way of a story.

So get out there and look—and don’t get any paper cuts from picking up all those fallen ideas.

Writing Small, Thinking Big

Tiny pencil

Tiny but mighty: stand back—this is a sharpened word sword!

I had a tiny piece about the Las Vegas Hangover Heaven bus published in Draft magazine the other day. Draft is highest-circulating craft-beer magazine, with a frothy lineup of stories about breweries, industry personalities and innovations in the brewing world. My little article is just a whisper of words, but I’m still happy to have it published, for a number of writing reasons.

Many magazines today, from Smithsonian to Seventeen, have lots of small articles and light pieces in their brightly designed front (and sometimes back) pages. It speaks to the reading tastes of the Internet age: colorful and chunky. For writers, and especially ones trying to break in to a magazine, these areas (called “front of book” or FOB) can be a quick keyboarding to good money and wider opportunities.

Many magazine editors don’t have the time or patience to try out an unknown writer on a feature piece, but query them on a 200- or 300-word filler article, and they will more often acquiesce. And those appetizer articles are often a way to set the table for a full-meal article later.

In the case of Draft, I’d written a long feature piece on moonshining for them a while back, so I know the editor. I pitched the Hangover Heaven piece as a feature, but was still happy when the editor came back with the offer to make it a short FOB article. Happy because those articles often pay .50 to $1 a word (the case here), and more so because it kept me fresh in the mind of the editor. I’m about to query her with another feature pitch this week because I’m fresh in the magazine and fresh in her mind.

Short Articles Can Pay the Long Green

Short is also sweet in terms of demonstrating that you can consistently carry a certain kind of article to completion. I just wrote my fourth FOB piece for The American Scholar, for a section called Works in Progress. These articles have all been 250-word pieces, which again pay well. Better, after having written a few of these, the editor now inquires if I have any ideas for the next quarterly issue. I’m in good stead with that editor for stories to come—possibly longer stories to come—and potentially with editors of other good magazines, because the Scholar is a national magazine of high caliber, focusing on public affairs, literature, culture and more.

One other consideration on short pieces: you can often use the research done for a longer piece as the basis for another short article. I just wrote an article for Airstream Life magazine on Edward Tufte, the professor who is famous for his work in rendering complex information into a comprehensible whole. He also is a designer of very fanciful sculptures, among them one that uses an Airstream in a most improbable way. After I wrote the Airstream Life piece, I realized that some unused info and quotes from the interview could be shaped into a short piece for The American Scholar. Bingo, a twofer! (And I’m grateful that the editor of Airstream Life now brings potential stories to my attention as well, since I’ve written for him for years.)

So, don’t think writing small pieces for magazines diminishes their stature. If they are big enough for a byline, they are big enough to stand on their own. And they can lead to bigger things down the road.

Turkey Tales and Turkey Tails: An Island Christmas

I’ve been spending time on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera for the past 7 weeks or so. “Spending time”—such a peculiar expression, as though time could be counted like pennies or pomegranates. Time is much more like taffy, in that in some instances it can seem to stretch and stretch, and in others, break off or shatter. My time here has had many shattered moments, some where the blindingly sharp sun and brilliant blues of the ocean have been more like make-believe metaphors than the cloth that clothes my days.

Let’s skip past wrestling with the quirks and questions of time and move more toward its standard December measure: Christmas. Alice and I will not be on Eleuthera at Christmas, instead stealing away from here just a few days before the date. At some level, I regret that, because Christmas in a foreign country, especially on an island, is just that: foreign. And that foreignness is a good reminder that customs and traditions are just arbitrary, where cultures that might share a holiday like Christmas, don’t share it in quite the same way.

In that spirit, I recently wrote a piece on an island Christmas I did experience some years ago, when we lived on a little stretch of land in Micronesia. Courtesy of Squidoo; look for the Santa wearing flip-flops.

How to Unsuccessfully Try to Convince Readers That You’re Suffering

Digging the local brew at Tippy's, a fine institution of learning and scholarship

They do say travel is broadening. I’ve found it can also be narrowing. I lost 15 pounds in my first six weeks of my year in Micronesia, mostly because we didn’t understand how to shop on our island, with its scattered roadside stands, few stores (none of which resembled the supermarkets my suburban upbringing inured me to), the oddity of some of the local foods (i.e., dog), and gastro-tremblings from the water.

If you know me, my losing 15 pounds meant that I then weighed about as much as a pair of socks. I do have big feet, but still …. But once we adjusted, and learned how to island-shop, there were wonders at the table, mostly from succulent lobster at $2.00 a pound, and yellowfin tuna at fifty cents a pound. (I never inquired about the price of dog.) And when I say “adjusted,” I meant we learned to relax and go with the weirdness of things, and in many quarters, to truly appreciate the weirdness.

That suburban upbringing I alluded to—that was the condition that needed broadening, and broaden it did. Though I might thin out again here: a half-gallon of milk is $6.00, a box of cereal is $7. Maybe I’ll be eating my socks, since I don’t really need them here.

“Here” is the island of Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, where Alice and I are house-sitting for a couple of months. Eleuthera is one of the Bahamas’ “out islands,” meaning it’s not one of the glitzy resort islands, like Nassau. Even though it’s 110 miles long, there are less than 8,000 people here, which is about the number that lived on Kosrae, the Micronesian island where we lived a few years ago.

No, Really, I’ll Be Working
Eleuthera bears some tropical kinship to Kosrae, in that they share warm, azure waters, hot sun, warm, damp air, coral reefs, and that certain languor that seems native to islands. This isn’t a vacation for us: we’re going to be toiling at the keyboard as usual, though more sweatily; however, being able to take a mid-afternoon dip in the nearby shimmering waters will remind us that this world isn’t like our own. It is amazing to be sleeping so close to the sea again, with that big, blue womb’s encyclopedia of sounds—whispering, churning, crashing, slurping, whooshing—rolling over us in the night, since there isn’t any reason to close a window here.

Except for the gigantic insects. And the mosquitoes. And the snake we saw on the walkway yesterday. All those hermit crabs. And those crazy, charming curly-tailed lizards that are everywhere. The profusion of local wildlife also reminds me of Micronesia, detailed in a “travel surprises” piece I wrote for the L.A. Times: surprise, there’s a spider bigger than a spaniel in the living room! (One does adjust: one never goes in the living room again.)

So, my intention is to write a number of travel pieces while I’m here, and soak up some local culture. (That means rum.) I’m going to write some more about the travel-writing process in times to come. In the meantime, I’ll try to see where that beetle dragged off my briefcase…

Free Your Stories—Put Them in Cages

I futzed away on a tiny short story today for the Esquire Short Short Fiction contest, which honors the magazine’s 78th birthday with a contest for stories of 78 words. Mandated word counts are an interesting exercise: they are both constrained and liberating. Constrained, because if you go 79 words here, you’re out. Also because they force you to examine every branch of your story’s tree, and to see that a careful pruning can open up the air and the light in a tale (as well as a tree).

Word cages are liberating because knowing a story’s boundaries allows you to map it all the more clearly. You chop that subordinate clause there because it droops too heavily with verbiage. You might even have to chop out a subordinate character for the very same reason. (Note: you cannot do this with your relatives.)

Shaping Stories by Word-Slicing
Thus, being told by a child “Tell me a story” can be so much more challenging than “tell me a story with a princess who bets on the horses and ends up becoming a big-wave rider in Hawaii.” Riding the waves is easier when you can see their definition. Also, there is an almost surgical sense of control when it’s evident that you can change a sentence’s flavor just by excising some sagging skin. Even the whisking away of a “that” or an “a” can put more pepper in a phrase.

Which reminds me of the Twain quote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

War AND Peace? Please Choose
Sometimes writing to a theme and a word count is just plain fun. I have a piece coming out in the Nov/Dec issue of Writer’s Digest, for their “Reject a Hit” page. The challenge is to act as though you were the cruel, benighted editor that turned away a literary classic, and you must do such in 300 words. Like for that handicapping, wave-sailing princess, the theme constrains and liberates. Here’s mine:

Mr. Tolstoy: Re: your “War and Peace” query—my God man, one word: editing! Readers today are busy counting the serfs, polishing their mazurkas and dusting their Pushkin collections. They haven’t the stomach to digest a twelve-room dacha of a work. Think a brightly lit (but slight) tea garden of literature for today’s busy readers, or at most an airy drawing room. And let’s be reasonable—War AND Peace? Confine it to one, and save 350 pages.



Now, some specifics: Instead of the original Petersburg setting, it’s best to confine the whole thing in a tiny village, eschewing all those dreary travel scenes. If I had to read again about the boorish behaviors of a panoply of grubby roadside characters, I’ll scream! Keeping it to a village makes it more like a tidy play. In fact, perhaps this WOULD make a fine play—study your Chekov for pointers.

And let’s avoid all that violence and mayhem; we can’t found literary works on sensationalism, you know. And any drinking scenes have to go—that’s a fusty Russian stereotype that could use refreshing. Perhaps all the villains could be low-level clerks? Everyone hates a clerk. 

You do show some promise with character, though must you go on so? No more interminable sighs for the women, or long-winded hortatory oaths from the men; think clean, declarative, adjective-free sentences. It should go without saying that no women should die in childbirth, ugh! And really—including the French, even if the portrait is unflattering, in a popular novel? No. No French.



In summary, the work shows no small promise—but it’s TOO LARGE! Tighten its belt, shave its unshorn soldiers, pare 10 peasants for every one saved, remove all those fluffy word-curtains and showy emotive splashes and you might have something here. In fact, this might make a perfect piece of flash-fiction. Cut it down to 500 words and re-submit.

You can see it how it will be printed in the magazine here. And if you really want to put some tight wraps on your writing, hie on over to Smith Magazine, home of the Six-Word Memoir project. Every day lots of folks work on putting their words on a diet by posting six-word stories. (Dirty trick: use hyphenated compounds and cheat!) The editors even collect some of the entry categories for publication in books. So get cracking, but remember: six words is a story, seven is a stultifying bore.

How Being a Weirdo Writer Benefits Society

Isseta with Trailer

I was at a vintage auto concours yesterday, where there was an eyeball-scorching field of gleaming chariots, where the “oohs and ahhs” were many and involuntary. But then I saw this rig pictured above, a BMW Isetta with a teardrop trailer behind. The Isetta took more than 30 seconds to reach 31 mph, topping out at around 50. That the owner of this one had the peculiar cant of mind to hook up a tiny—but usable—trailer behind struck me with its whimsicality.

I don’t know where the quote “Normality is what cuts off your sixth finger and your tail” comes from (I’m sure it’s not Michele Bachmann), but the Isetta is an exemplar of the quote’s creed. So this post is rather a coda to the Katherine Hepburn one that preceded it—sometimes that sixth finger is the only one that can get a grip on an unusual idea, so it’s a shame to cut it off.

I recently read an article in an April 2011 New Yorker about David Eagleman, a professor of neuroscience and his work on how the brain conceives, interprets, and filters its sense of time. The article is wholly fascinating, but one of the tangents discussed in the piece was the “oddball effect,” which at its essence posits that the brain reacts with great focus and avidity to things that are outside the standard pattern, pushing the norm or subverting it, so much so that time itself seems to be dilated as a result of the brain’s attention.

Here’s to the Oddballs
Though I don’t even play a scientist on TV, I can’t address the measures or implications of that phenomenon, so I’ll just turn it to my purpose: The oddball effect is often a sensation of incredulity, mixed with delight. It’s when you pull up next to a car at a stoplight and the driver is wearing a gorilla mask. Good God!

So, like the Apple ad that saluted the crazy ones and the misfits, I want to salute the eccentric writers, who stroke and poke our brains. People like Tom Robbins, who never met a metaphor he couldn’t bend around a shooting comet, or Oscar Wilde, who while studying at Oxford University, would walk through the streets with a lobster on a leash. Or Lord Byron, who when told at Cambridge he couldn’t keep a dog in his room, discovered that there were no rules against bears. So he got one. (Note: Can we draw any conclusions about prestigious English academies and lunacy?)

Bertrand Russell said, “Orthodoxy is the death of intelligence.” Here’s to the guy that owned a truly oddball car, an Isetta, and thought, “A little trailer to go with it, that’s the thing!” He probably would have put a bear in there too, if he’d thought about it long enough.

Chopping the Copywriting and Creative Writing Salad

Copywriters that have a clearly defined niche—”I write sales letters for mid-tier businesses selling nuclear-powered rabbits”—are both constrained by their choices and freed by them. They are constrained in that they may have always dreamed of writing sales letters for nuclear-powered goat companies, but instead they are known as the rabbit guy, and thus they don’t want to dilute their focused offering, and potentially blur the boundaries of their defined space.

However, they are freed from casting their “I-need-new-work” lines in the thistle-tangled fields of businesses small, medium and large, who might peddle soap made from recycled comic books, or tongue scrapers for denture wearers. Generalist copywriters tend to a casual work garden of mingled (and sometimes flopping) stalks, colors and scents, while the specialist might have a sturdy monocrop of clients and cutoff dates.

You might guess that I’m a generalist.

The 360-degree Rotating Exorcist Head
I’ve thought about trying to restrain my 360-degree rotating Exorcist head (minus green spewings) of writing endeavors, but it’s just not my nature. While I can admire the ferocity of focus some copywriters employ, I can’t join their ranks—I don’t think I could breathe. And, genial bigot that I am, I have to sing the praises of the generalist’s keys, because polymath writing pursuits are inherently interesting for their variety. This month alone, to wit:

  • I finished an article for Fine Books and Collections magazine on the makers of exquisite and zany handmade books, touring the U.S. in their gypsy wagon.
  • Finished editing a book on social media for nonprofits.
  • Edited the first in a series of short books on Nonverbal Communication in Dentistry.
  • Wrote logo taglines suggestions for a home design and remodel company, and begin writing their brochure copy.
  • Discussed writing “replies” for a company that’s developed an advanced virtual personal assistant chatbox app; the replies will cover the branching potentials for suggested questions that users might want answered.
  • In discussion with a company that needs someone to update the documentation for the new version of its novel-writing software.
  • Am writing my two monthly articles (a recurring gig) for the Airstreamer, Airstream’s email newsletter.
  • Sending out queries for a variety of articles, many of them travel-related (though a few are about whiskey and one about old cars).
  • Sending out short older short stories of mine to some lit magazines.
  • Berating myself for pausing in what had been a steady (and productive!) half-hour of writing per day on my novel, having used Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then my father’s death for an excuse for not doing the work. Get after it, man!

Building Expertise, by the Paragraph and by the Project
Now, I have varying degrees of expertise in the areas above, but having written and edited nonfiction books, having written question-and-response dialog for software products, having written a novel (unpublished), having written travel pieces, having written brochures, heck, having written lots of grocery lists, I’m confident I can deliver what each organization needs, granting the many iterations of review and rewrite that some projects necessitate. For many writers like me, once you write website copy for a company, they may call you later to write headlines for an ad.

You might not have written headlines for ads before, but the good generalist will always pipe up with a merry “Yes!” when asked about their ability to write a heady headline. Many fundamental writing skills translate across boundaries—cross-writing is often more comfortable than cross-dressing. (High-heeled pumps just don’t work well with my size 13s.) So, if you are breaking in to the copywriter’s fold, and you’re thinking that you could write sales letters not only for the nuked goats and rabbits, but perhaps for radium-isotope gerbils too—go for it. Next thing you know, you’re a reptiles-with-battery packs specialist too.

Magazine Editors (Gasp!) Are Actually Human Beings

I know, I know, all of those editors who have rejected your queries or articles are obvious emissaries of Baal, troglodytes, fresh steaming cat poop or much worse. Over the submission years, I have declared them among the seven princes of Hell (or at least in the league of incompetent cable installers). But I recant my earlier denunciations, and with good reason.

For all of the queries flatly unanswered, or for those receiving the peremptory “We can’t use this,” there are editors who take the calculated moment from the lunacy of today’s publishing world and offer a statement of encouragement to the anxious author. Or better yet, a response that leads said author to explore another editorial opportunity with the publication, if the initial submission doesn’t cut it.

Here’s an example, using two magazine editors who both exhibit those alarming traits of decency. I’ve written for Airstream Life magazine for years. The editor, Rich Luhr, originally solicited me to write for his then-new magazine after he’d seen a piece of mine on Airstreams on the Net. Now, having an editor ask you for a piece out of the blue is gift enough, but over time Rich has grown to know my work, and often assigns a piece that’s tuned to my sensibilities. Props to the man.

Recently, he was working on a new specialty magazine for Mercedes owners. I put in some time on a few articles, but Rich couldn’t find the advertising base to support the publication. He had the grace to offer me a kill fee above the price I’d requested, because he knew I’d done a lot of research time. Above and beyond.

Do the Article Two-Step
That ties in well with an editor I just started corresponding with. She runs a Mercedes magazine in the UK, and I sent her one of the articles written for the lost US mag. We went back and forth a bit, and finally she decided that it wasn’t right for her. But I mentioned VERY casually at the end of my “thanks for listening” that I could write a piece about my chariot, an aged-but-stalwart 1981 SL 380.

Bingo! I have an assignment that I initially hadn’t conceived of, just because an editor took the time to explore the potential of other article ideas—or because they simply opened a conversation. There are a few lessons here, but the main ones are that once you are actually having a conversation with an editor, be conversant: recognize that they are open to you as a writer, even if they’re not immediately buying what you’re writing.

And once the conversational door is open, you can walk in so much more freely than if you are sending out your first (and oftentimes) stiff query. I recently had a series of email exchanges with the editor of an in-flight magazine. She didn’t go for my initial query, but took the time (in just a few sentences) to go over what the magazine was looking for. I sent her another query, which was discussed, and which prompted another. Now, none of these ideas actually worked for the magazine, but I know from the quality of our exchanges that I can approach this editor on a comfortable, conversant basis in the future.

Second Dates
And if you’ve published even one piece for a magazine, think to approach those editors again, if you have a quality idea. I have written pieces for a couple of editors who publish wine-and-spirits world magazines, and now I don’t have to write a formal query with my publishing credits and other tedium; I can start right in with “Hi Tim. I had an idea for a piece…”

Obviously, you don’t want to badger editors with lame queries so that they wonder why they ever published you in the first place, but once you have an editor’s ear, you’re miles ahead of the game. (If you try to get their other ear, though, they might press charges.)