Editors Will Pay for Articles that Play

Me, in the outfit I wear when I write first paragraphs

This writing life is serious stuff, with its cold deadlines, its fusty grammar rules and its dense packagings of data. But readers in most corners are showing less of an appetite for data density, and more for the conversational, the playful, the light touch that can still deliver information, but deliver it with some sweet sprinkles on top. Editors seem to have more appetite for sprinkles these days.

Obviously, some publications—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes to mind—don’t care much for sprinkles, and rightly so. But if you’re a freelancer like me, who writes for newspapers, magazines and online business publications, it’s heartening to know that editors are more enthusiastic than ever to accept pieces that weave in some humor with their copy threads.

To demonstrate that I’m not making this up, here are a few opening paragraphs from three pieces of mine for which some bewitched editor paid actual money. All establish a certain tone from the outset, and hopefully would make you want to read further.

5 High-Proof Truths That Whiskey Is the Key to a Better Life
There’s advice everywhere on how to be a better person. Meditate, be nice to children, pat puppies on the head, eat arugula. But those things are so superficial, and some are plain tedious. We have more practical advice: drink Whiskey.

Drinking Whiskey will make you a better person. And it’s much more fun than arugula. Here’s why:

 
That’s the beginning of a blog post for Flaviar, a spirits purveyor that writes about all things booze. Their style is irreverent and somewhat arch, which is fun to do. It gave me the chance to practice that writing trick of jab, jab, punch, with the setup lines and then the punch delivered in the last line of the first paragraph. This piece will come out on their blog sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Trail Mix: An Oahu Hike — Plus Margaritas
I can forgive you, if you’re on Oahu, all excited about taking a shoreline hike. You toss on the shorts, throw a small snack, some binoculars and sunblock into a backpack and — knowing that there are water bottles in the car — drive all the way up the westside toward Ka’ena Point where the road ends, and get out to begin your hike in the sizzling sun. And then you realize that one water bottle is empty and the other half-filled.
I can forgive you, because my girlfriend and I did just that.

 
This intro is a slight variant on the first trick, using the sustained second-person direct address to put the reader in the driver’s seat—and then pull the driver’s seat out from under the writer with the last line. This is from a short piece recently published in the San Jose Mercury News.

How to Properly Diagnose a Failed Email Campaign
As Mark Twain said after his latest marketing promotion, “The reports of the death of the email campaign are greatly exaggerated.” As any marketing maven knows, email lives, with a vengeance, and remains one of the biggest hammers in any marketer’s toolbox.

But as you know all too well, bad email promotions are death warmed over: email done wrong does your promos and your products a lethal turn.

 
This one has to take a more businesslike tack, since it was written for The Content Standard, an all-things-content-marketing publication. But still, anytime you can open a piece with a [fake] Mark Twain quote, you’re in good hands.

All of these writings establish a sportive, impish slant from the first lines, which works in the context of each piece. This isn’t writing for the ages, but it’s fun to do, and if someone will pay me for it, I’ll type it up.

If you can produce this kind of work without it seeming labored or too corny or shallow (and perhaps that’s how these ledes struck you), it could be a good approach to your freelance pieces. As I’ve said before, it’s often useful to pitch an editor with what you foresee as the actual first paragraph or two of a piece, so they can taste what they’d be getting.

Do any of you use this kind of breezy style in your work? (If you do, don’t pitch my editors—they’ll be on to you.)

Anatomy of A Failed Book Proposal

The deed to my deep holdings in the fabled Hollow

I’ve been copyediting the forthcoming Guide to Literary Agents 2012 book, and seeing all of the do’s and don’ts on sending your queries and proposals to agents reminded me that one of my big ideas for a book flamed out a little while back.

Since I was familiar with the fundamentals of writing a book proposal, I think I put together a reasonable effort, one that addressed the usual requisites of Synopsis, Chapter Outline, Sample Chapters, Market Overview, Platform, and Blithering On About My Background. If you Google “How to Write a Book Proposal” you’ll get results out of the yin-yang (wipe them carefully), but Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal (updated to its 4th edition) is considered a classic.

If you can no longer bear the act of reading words on a page (the horror!), you can listen to Ted Weinstein’s Book Proposal Bootcamp audio recording, which is quite good. He has other proposal-writing tips on his site as well.

It All Starts with a Drink. No, I Mean an Idea!
Of course, you need an idea for the book. Mine started with a callow, whiskey-drinking youth who, upon seeing a prompt on a Jack Daniel’s bottle urging fans to write the distillery, wrote something like this: “Why, not only do I enjoy consuming Jack’s finest in a conventional way, but I also brush my teeth with it, and keep a glass on my bedside table, at the ready to ward off night sweats and other less congenial spirits.”

Little did I know that would prompt a tide of strange letters and documents, and even stranger objects (a rabbit’s foot, rubbing stone, chewing tobacco, sippin’ glasses and more) sent from the distillery to me. My first return letter from them came 35 years ago. I received another a month ago and I’ve faithfully returned the favor back to them, quirky letter for quirky letter. Even when months would go by without receiving a letter, that’s a lot of correspondence, marketing gimmick or not. (A lot of whiskey too.)

Thus, my thought that were I to package up the correspondence, and scans and photos of the mailed oddments between us (sent through their sister organization, the Tennessee Squires), and include a kind running chronology/commentary of what was happening personally and socially over the course of the correspondence, that would make for a weird, whiskey-soaked memoir. Egads, a book!

Putting the Kibosh on the Korrespondence
Anyway, if you scan the proposal, you can see that it’s a fair amount of work to put one together. It was composed a while ago, so some of the info is out of date. But one issue that Little Tommy forgot (and which was pointed out only toward the end of sending it out to a number of agents): I don’t own the copyright to letters sent to me. And when I politely inquired of the Tennessee Squires (of which I am a bonafide landed-gentry member) if I could assemble all our correspondence in a book, they politely turned me down. I asked twice, but no go. They just weren’t interested in publicity about the Tennessee Squire organization. Or they didn’t like the smell of my breath, who knows?

Anyway, I still might publish a shorter recounting of all this high-proof business, because it’s amusing. The next proposal I write, about Hugh Hefner’s pajama collection, will have all copyright issues solved in advance.