How to Sell a Story (Dress It in a Miniskirt)

Have you ever noticed that the way certain things are packaged or presented instantly influences your feelings about them? In this age of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink or the myriad of studies about marketing preferences or tastes, savvy shoppers are aware that a rice package that has an artfully designed classic “homey,” or retro or “Miz Maybelle’s Cajun Rice Paddie” look might contain nothing better inside than old-school Rice-a-Roni (which was never really embraced by San Francisco for its alleged treatness to begin with).

Yet, even if we know that the packaging is pointedly positioned to persuade, it’s hard to be objective. The photo above shows the packaging for a pair of bath soaps, sandwiching a box of individually wrapped chocolates. Indeed, the soaps were quite nice, and the chocolates delightful, but their artful and expensive packaging immediately disposed me favorably toward them, psychically relieving me of at least a smidgen of critical objectivity.

Apple does this very well with their packaging, everything done just so, from the typography to the way the electronic components rest snugly in their recessed cubbies. The “Tiles” box above is indicative: these weren’t mere chocolate squares, but “tiles.” This told you they were special little chocolates, with a bit of architectural snootiness. The packaging, of course, tells a story. Here’s an interesting take from Seth Godin on putting a worldview in your packaging.

And WTF Does This Have to Do with Writing?
Glad you asked. One of the chunky nuggets of advice you’ll get about sending a query to a magazine editor is that you lead your query with your article lead. Write the actual first paragraph of the article you intend to write and that’s what your editor-in-waiting looks at when they open your cleverly crafted email. Your product’s packaging is immediately in their face, so that they know your article is “Dreadnought Dave’s Eye-Searing Hot Sauce” or “Winsome Winnie’s Willow Bark Soap.” They can taste your writing immediately, not having to wade through “Dear Editor Toadstool: I’d like to write a piece for Amalgamated Amalgams on surfactants that subside, and rarely surface. I’d cover these fascinating points…”

Here’s a query lead I used about a proposed article on bathtub distilling that did grab an editor and that indeed did begin the published article itself:

Maybe it’s the down economy, maybe it’s a renewal of that do-it-yourself ethic that characterizes this country, or maybe it’s because it’s a closed- door, wink-wink, just-the-other-side-of-legal enterprise, but there’s a resurgence of home and hobby spirits distillers. Your neighbor might not make home-brewed hooch, but there’s a fair chance he knows how to get a hold of a bottle or two.

This “in media res” style of querying has worked for me a number of times. However, I’ve lately been shopping an article on roller derby gals for which the query begins thusly:

What’s got a raucous crowd, a heart-pounding pace requiring strength, stamina and mad skills, an undertone of potential violence, a flash of spandexed sexuality and enough tattoos to open a carney parlor? Why, roller derby, of course—and Santa Cruz, California roller derby in particular. Roller derby has speed-skated its way to tremendous popularity in the US over the past decade, returning from what was represented as a sort of underclass—though popular—theatrical spectacle in the 50s and 60s. There are leagues all over the country, and national organizations such as the Women’s Fast Track Derby Association, which counts nearly 100 leagues under its skates.

Disclaimer: All You Editors Out There About to Receive Queries: I Don’t Mean You
That is how I’d like to start the actual article, because I think it’s vivid, particular and expressive. But, I’ve sent that query out to 12 separate relevant publications, and only received a single reply. (The fact that many magazines or papers often don’t even send out a polite—or even impolite—”no” these days should be the topic of another post.) Though I do like the feeling of the query lead, and think it tells an editor what the article would feel like, perhaps something is lacking. Or perhaps it simply doesn’t fit the editor’s calendar, the magazine’s style, or any of a number of reasons, quality of expression notwithstanding, for which a piece doesn’t flutter the hearts (assuming editors have them) of your magazinish recipients.

I have a small collection of liquor flasks, most of which are very nice pieces of metal tooling. Many of them are quite old, with beautiful engraving or filigree, delightful in their heavy feeling in the hand. But I have a couple that also look quite nice, but there’s something off: the base metal is cheaper and lighter, the metalwork not finished with flair or with that quiet competence that indicates quality. So maybe there’s something cheesy about the roller derby lead I’m not seeing.

Keep sending those queries out and keep tailoring their packaging with your writer’s eye.