Archive for February, 2005

When Life Gets Tough

February 26, 2005

Have you ever lost touch with old friends and suddenly have them contact you? It happens often in the Writing Life and is a great experience to reconnect. It happened to me yesterday and brought back some fresh lessons about the life of a writer and editor.

Several years ago, one of the books I acquired at Cook was a little book called When Life Gets Tough, Finding Strength in Times of Trouble by Henry Gariepy. Normally in my role as acquisitions editor, I didn’t edit books but that book had some special circumstances attached to it. The Salvation Army ordered 15,000 copies of the book with the initial print run and needed to have the book out in late February for a special world-wide mailing.  The Salvation Army version of the book included a different back cover and their red shield logo. In publishing, we call this a special sale and publishers love these types of arrangements. It’s highly recommended to any author because most of these types of sales come from the author’s leads. It’s the topic for another post on the Writing Life.

As an editor, I learned about the sale in late November and spent a good chunk of my Christmas vacation that year working back and forth with the designer on the details of this book so it would go to the printer on time and be available for the Salvation Army’s use. I was the editor of this little 80–page book. In this case, the book was produced before it could be promoted or sold into the bookstores through the regular channels. It was produced in an unusual fashion but released later in the year into the bookstores.

This little book includes 30 days of devotions to use in times of difficulty. Whenever there is a crisis, often the Salvation Army is present to feed people, provide clothing and spiritual strength. This book was designed as a resource to give away in these circumstances.  It’s a special book because almost everyone knows someone in crisis who needs encouragement.  Because of the original mass distribution of this book, letters came in from around the world about how it was being used and touching lives.

Yesterday Henry wrote to say the book was going to be released in paperback with the Salvation Army printing another 25,000 copies. I was thrilled with the potential.

If you are needing a word of encouragement, I recommend you get a copy of When Life Gets Tough. Keep it in a place where you will regularly turn to it and read it. It might be just the word that you need for today’s experiences.

Put It Together — Part Eight

February 25, 2005

Editor’s Note: This post is the eighth and final in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five, Part Six, and Part Seven.

You are working hard on writing a magazine article which is targeted for a particular publication.  Some of the details of how you put together the specific article will depend on the particular audience. No matter which type of magazine article you are writing, you always need to keep in mind the reader. It’s a common mistake that many unpublished or even experienced writers make with their magazine writing.

You’ve accomplished your research and your interviews for the article.  What next? Do you transcribe your interview tape?  At one of the publications where I worked, we were required to transcribe any interview. Some times an assistant transcribed the tape and other times we transcribed the tape. It’s common for me to tape my interviews but I have learned not to take the time to transcribe the tape. For me, it’s a problem because it puts the words in stone—firmly fixed. Writing is more of a fluid process and you need to have the freedom to move around the quotations and information from another person to shape the best possible article. I use my tape to verify the quotations and make sure I have the details from the personal interview. I do not transcribe these tapes.

With the various pieces of information, I create a brief outline of the entire article. Will the article contain subheads (short headlines which divide the article)? These subheads break up the text and make it more inviting to today’s reader and the editor will appreciate your efforts in this area. How will your article begin? With a provocative question? With a stirring quotation? A startling fact? A riveting story? There are many possible beginnings. To make this decision is a key part of the writing process. Also how will your article end? What will be the takeaway message? Will it have a key point for the reader? It should have a key point for when the reader completes the article. There are full length articles written on beginnings, middles and endings of magazine articles. It’s also key chapters in magazine books. Here’s three books I recommend you locate and carefully read:

 The Magazine Article, How to Think It, Plan It, Write It by Peter Jacobi (Indiana University Press). Dr. Jacobi regularly teaches at Folio seminars which is where editors of the major magazines get additional training.

* Basic Magazine Writing by Barbara Kevles (Writer’s Digest Books). This book covers seven different types of articles.

* Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (Writer’s Digest Books). Here is a compilation of some of the best articles about magazine writing from past issues of Writer’s Digest magazine in one volume.

Through this series, I’ve only scratched the surface of the magazine article creation process. My hope is to have stirred some help for you in this area.


Last Resort Interview — Part Seven

February 24, 2005

Editor’s Note: This post is the seventh in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five, and Part Six.

When I discussed the types of interviews yesterday, I missed one possible option—the email interview. With this valuable question from a reader, I’m going tackle this type of interview in this post.

Last year, a magazine assigned me to write a story which was printed just before the release of Glorious Appearing in the Left Behind series (over 60 million books in the series). My editor wanted me to interview retailers along with some people from Tyndale House Publishers plus the authors. The last persons on the interview list proved to be my greatest challenge.  I’ve known Jerry B. Jenkins, the writer, for more than twenty years and he graciously gave some time for the short interview.  I could not wrangle an interview time with Tim LaHaye—despite years in this business and the fact that I’ve interviewed more than 150 bestselling authors over the years. My last resort was an email interview with Dr. LaHaye.  I submitted my questions ahead of time then waited for a response. Thankfully it came before my deadline and I was able to include some of material in my article. As a journalist, it’s an unsatisfactory experience to interview someone via email and only used as the last possible option. It’s not something I recommend writers use for several reasons:

  • The interview is totally outside of your control for what information you gather.
  • The person you are interviewing via email might never answer your email or send it late after your deadline.
  • There is no opportunity for follow-up questions or clarifications or immediate insight. Yes, you can send email follow-up but again you abdicate (yes strong word) your role as the writer to the person you are interviewing. You essentially lay down and put the volume and information in their hands. From my experience it leads to poorly crafted articles—because you must start with great material for a good magazine article.

Some of my best magazine articles came from a follow-up question when I was personally interviewing someone. The questions weren’t on my list of questions but they were asked and brought out some fascinating detail. It happens on the telephone (my least favorite medium) and it happens in person (my recommended choice for interviews if at all possible).

Also let’s examine this question from the role of the person being interviewed via email:

  • Yes, they can answer the questions at their own convenience.
  • I’ve been “interviewed” via email several times and I find the experience a lot of extra work—and I’m a writer. Imagine it for a person who doesn’t like to write. How do they handle it? Or skip it?

Yes, it takes time and energy to set up face-to-face interviews or telephone interviews. But the pay off is better information for your magazine article and the opportunity for give and take interaction. It’s also simpler for the person being interviewed (yes they have to think about who they are talking to and what information they are providing) but they simply talk (in person or on the phone), then hang up and go on with their activities.

Only use the email interview as your last possible resort. It will lead to better writing and more creative and revealing magazine work. Now tomorrow, we return to what you tackle after your information is collected. 


Don’t Panic, Interview — Part Six

February 23, 2005

Editor’s Note: This post is the sixth in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five.

For more than thirty years, I’ve been interviewing different people. Some of them are well-known celebrities and bestselling authors. Some of them are unknown people.  No matter who I’m interviewing, I get a touch of panic right before the interview happens. Maybe it’s the same sort of adrenaline rush that I’ve read about in figure skating. I’m hesitant to admit it but it still happens. Whether well-known or unknown, each of these people have graciously answered my questions and provided the story material that I’ve needed for my magazine articles.

Whether you interview on the telephone or in person, it’s an excellent skill for every writer to add to their skill set and highly recommended. For beginning writers, I recommend you begin with someone familiar—such as a family member or a friend. Prepare a list of questions, establish a time to interview them and turn on your tape recorder. I recommend taping the interview so you can capture the quotations and don’t always have to be tied to writing notes. I’ve never been able to write fast enough (even learning shorthand in high school—and haven’t used it since) to capture someone talking at a regular pace. It slows down the interview process to continually pause and for the person to wait as you complete your notes.  I record mostly to make sure I get my quotations right.

If you are recording on the telephone, I recommend you use the Radio Shack “Smart” Phone Recorder Control.  For legal reasons, you need to tell the other person that you are recording and secure their permission on the tape (the rules are different in every state but to make sure it’s the best procedure). This device makes recording easy because it’s directly connected from your telephone line into any tape recorder. Telephone interviews are some of the most difficult—because you can’t see the other person for the visuals to add to the article. Also it’s a situation much more out of your control. For example, the other person can have an interruption, such as another phone call, and suddenly end your conversation—and some times you are stuck not getting your required information.

Whether on the phone or in person, make sure you prepare with a list of questions and a plan. It’s not a firm plan because other questions will develop during the interview. Like many of the skills that I’m highlighting in this series, interviewing is something to practice repeatedly and you will improve your techniques.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed at the people who forget about my tape recorder and will say to me, “I’ve never told this to anyone but…” Often this story material becomes some of the best in my articles.

During the interview, I always make sure to find out how to return to the person for possible follow-up questions or to give them a copy of the article. If you don’t, you will be shocked how you think of one important question as you write the article or you hang up the phone—and can’t get back to the person.  In general, the high profile the person, it’s more typical for them to call you—and not reveal their phone number—often for control purposes.

There is much more to say about interviewing. It’s an extensive topic but I’m going to pick up tomorrow on what to do after you have the information to write your magazine article as I continue this series.


Getting It Together — Part Five

February 22, 2005

Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

If you’ve never been published, then the road can be ladened with mines and throw you off at any juncture.  You’ve decided to write a magazine article which is focused on the reader (a key error many make) and you have one publication or several publications in mind to send your article. You’ve either determined to write the entire article and send it unsolicited or you’ve written a one page query letter and received an assignment.  With increased publishing experience, you can expect to write more on assignment and less on speculation (spec).  Even an assigned piece can some times not work out for a particular publication. Maybe the editor sees it and thought the query was a good idea—but the execution is wrong for their publication. I’ve not had this experience often but it does happen. In these cases, the magazine will often pay a “kill fee.” It’s a token payment for the writing work you poured into the article. Believe me, it’s better than nothing but pretty disappointing. 

Many years ago, I interviewed Dan Quayle on a magazine cover story. It was a challenge to reach the then-Vice President but the article was perfect—a November cover story during an election year. (This publication doesn’t exist any more—another common occurrence in the magazine world.) Unfortunately the Vice President was running late and crammed my 30 to 45 minute scheduled interview into about 15 minutes. My assigned format was a Q & A — which means the interview has to have something worthy of his actual words appearing as the main text of the article. I got nothing but cliches and pat answers in the crammed time frame. I wrote my article, turned it in—even turned in my transcribed interview. It resulted in a kill fee for vast amounts of time and energy.

Just remember, on the road to publication there are many possible junctures where it can fail.  Some are in your control and others are completely outside of your control. You control what you can and you work with the other details. It never gets published until you hold the finished magazine article or book in your hand.

You have your magazine idea and hopefully an assignment from your one page letter. What resources do you need to write this article? Will it involve research at the library or online? Yes, there are many resources still not online and the library is a valuable resource for any writer.

Will you need to interview someone for the article? How do you snag the interview with an expert? It’s easier than you would initially imagine. Has this “expert” written a book? Then your best course of action is to set up an interview through their publisher. Call the publisher and ask to speak to someone in publicity. It’s one of the few times I recommend people call the publisher. Tell the publicist about your assignment and ask for background materials (review copies of the books, other articles, etc.). Then ask the publicist to set up your interview and give the person the times when you are available. Wise authors who want to sell books take advantage of these interview possibilities.  You will quote this “expert” and mention their book in the article and get to tap their expertise and quotes for your article. It works as a package and everyone has something to gain from the experience—you, the expert and the publisher.

I’ve got much more information to say about the actual interview process but we’ll have to handle it tomorrow.

Crafting A Query — Part Four

February 21, 2005

Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

As a magazine editor (like book editors), I have many more responsibilities than simply reading unsolicited manuscripts.   Yes, I’m looking for new material yet as an editor, I’m also proactively pursuing material for my publication. Most of the higher paying magazines prefer to receive a single-page pitch letter called a query letter.  Within a few minutes, the editor can determine if the idea is appropriate or not for their publication. Because of the volume of submissions, many editors will never respond if the answer is “no thank you.” It’s one of those reality checks that writers need to hear about.

You aren’t looking for “no, thank you.” I’m not looking for this response I’m looking for an assignment or a “go ahead” or a “yes” response from the editor. One of the most important skills for writers to develop is this query letter.  It’s also something that requires repeated practice.  As you write these letters, you will refine and improve your technique.  Some times at writer’s conferences, I will teach an hour on this topic and give detailed examples and a checklist in my handouts. I continue to recommend Lisa Collier Cool’s excellent book, Irresistible Query Letters (Writer’s Digest Books). I have part of my personal technique in my magazine article basics.

Rather repeat this information here, I’d suggest you follow the links to learn more about this critical skill.

I prefer writing on assignment and you can snag magazine assignments as you learn how to write a riveting query letter. You want the editor to read your letter and be compelled to pick up the phone and call you for more information or an assignment. Or you want that editor to open an email and write you immediately asking when you can have the article ready for their magazine. I hope you can see the importance of this skill as a writer.

Because I’ve been published repeatedly in different magazines, many mistakenly believe I was born this way. Wrong. I garner my share of rejection in this process. There are many reasons for rejection and some of them relate to the pitch and some of them do not relate to the query letter.

Years ago in college I took a magazine writing course. We were required to write several ten-page magazine articles. My key mistake was a lack of understanding of the market or the audience for the publications. When you write your query letter, you have to focus on both of these aspects. You want the idea to be perfect for that particular publication and you want to think about the publication’s audience when you write the query. If you don’t handle these two basics, then I can almost guarantee rejection. My writing and my research for the college articles was right on target—yet these articles were never published because they had no market or audience in mind. Don’t make that same mistake.

Tomorrow, this series will continue. You have an assignment or an magazine article to write, how do you begin the execution of writing?


Two Good Choices For Your Idea — Part Three

February 20, 2005

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two.

Does the idea drive you wild? Does it drive you to begin researching or writing the article? The experience doesn’t always have to be so dramatic. Yet occasionally it is the case. You have to find a piece of paper or get to your computer and write this particular idea.  If you’ve not done much magazine writing (or even if you have done it), it’s perfectly OK to write the entire article—as long as you have several things in mind when you do it:

  • When you write, always keep the reader firmly in your mind. What will they take away from your article?
  • Who is the potential market for the article? Where will you try and get it published? Some publications read full manuscripts while others will only read query letters.
  • The most likely possibilities for magazines are ones that you often read and are intimately familiar with their contents and their readers (since you are one of these readers).
  • Keep in mind the standard length for these target publications. It will not help you to write 3,000 words if the longest article in the magazine is 1,000 words.  In general, magazines are using shorter articles.
  • In general, magazines are planning their content about four to six months ahead of their publication date. For example if you have a Valentine’s Day experience which you want to write, that’s OK. I’d encourage you to write it—but plan on it getting into print in some February 2006 publication.

There are several different basic types of magazine articles.  If you have decided to write the article, often one of the strongest types is the personal experience article. The story is written in first-person and you tell your personal experience—yet in a targeted way so you have a single key point or take-away from the reader. Other types of magazine articles include service articles (to promote or tell about a new consumer product or service), how-to articles (how to do some activity), personality profile article (often focused on some well-known person or someone who has an interesting life or life experience), “as told to” article (where you write in the first person tense of another person and write their story) and the celebrity interview (often done on assignment—more about this aspect in a future post).

And the two good choices? Your enthusiasm carries you to move ahead and write your idea. You get it on paper. It’s a good choice. The other good choice is to channel your enthusiasm about the idea into a one page letter called a query letter. I’m going to explain more about this choice—tomorrow.

Ideas Are Everywhere — Part Two

February 19, 2005

Editor’s Note: While the title is changing, this post is the second part of a series. I’m taking a detailed look at writing the magazine article with some specific insights for each aspect.

Ideas are one of the most fluid and free-wheeling part of the writing process. I love to have new ideas—and they come constantly. Some times the waves of what I want to write spring into my mind so fast, it’s like standing under a waterfall. You can’t possibly catch everything—and like a waterfall,  you can only stand the spray for a tiny bit—before you get washed away.

Conversations with people can stir ideas. You may be taking a break at work and listening to someone’s story and decide a much-changed version of the story could be part of a novel. Or possibly from the conversation, you see your friend struggling with a personal crisis and discovering a unique solution to this crisis or handling it in a different way. You decide that experience could be the beginnings of a how-to article.  I’ve given only two examples of how we can find ideas from our conversations with others.

Other times we read the newspaper and learn about a new product. Because we read magazines and other types of print or internet publications, the idea comes to write about this product. You take this idea and pitch a magazine (more about this aspect another day) and you snag an assignment to write about the product. Reading stimulates your idea process.  Can you take the idea and twist it in a different fashion and reveal the product or service to a new audience and a different publication?

About fifteen years ago, I was reading the Orange County Register and living in Southern California. In the business section, a small news item announced Disney was printing Disney Dollars. I was fascinated with this bit of news and wanted to learn more.  As a part of the experience of being in Disneyland, they have Disney Dollars which are the same quality of regular currency. I pitched a numismatic magazine with the article idea and received an assignment.  In a matter of weeks, I was on the back lot of Disney — where no “guests” are allowed and interviewing one of the Vice Presidents about this new currency.  For me the process began with a small news item in the newspaper. You can find ideas in the same way.

Almost anything can stir ideas—family activities, walking through the mall,visiting a historic monument or _____ (you name it).  I’ve learned to always carry a piece of paper because ideas will strike me at odd times. I have to write it down or it will pass through my mind and be forgotten. (In general, I ignore the ones that come in the middle of the night).

OK, now you have an idea. What do you do with the idea? It will be key to whether you get it published or it disappears.  I’ve got more to say about this aspect—tomorrow.

Idea To Article — Part one

February 18, 2005

Over the last ten to fifteen years, books have been my passion and the bulk of my writing life. It’s not where I began and I write much more than books.  Please don’t misunderstand. I love books but I continue to believe many writers are missing golden opportunities by not practicing the short form—magazine writing.

In the article format, I’m able to practice many of the techniques I use in my books, yet in a more compressed form.  It’s a sharpening process for my writing life and important. If you’ve strayed into only writing books, then I recommend you return to writing magazine articles. It will build something into your books.

Over the next few posts (I’m unsure how many), I’m going to provide some specific insight into each step of the magazine writing process. Where do you get ideas? How do you pitch your ideas to the editor with a query letter? How do you find people to interview? How do you interview? After the interview what happens? How do you write the article?

I’ll be walking you through the specifics and hopefully providing some insight and tips for you—whether you are starting the process or have written hundreds of articles and several books. I’m eager to begin this series but it will have to wait until tomorrow. Hurry back.

The Fun of Rewriting

February 17, 2005

I’ve got a book-length nonfiction manuscript which I’ve worked over several times. It’s been carefully copy edited and now it’s in one of the final stages of typesetting. I’m carefully reading this typeset version of the manuscript and marking only the most important changes. It’s (likely) my final sweep through this particular book before it gets into print.

At the same time, my editor/ publisher was reading through the manuscript. He raised several important questions in the big picture of the manuscript. I ask myself a natural question, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

He called several things to my attention but the one worth mentioning involved the time line for the overall book. In this book, I include stories about a number of my personal experiences in publishing. Throughout the book, I used phrases like recently or last year or ???. My original intention was to show timely stories that are current. This type of sensitivity to time is important in nonfiction magazine writingMagazine writing is often tied to a time and place.  If you write for the newspaper, it’s even more tied to time and a place. It’s different in a book.  The addition of these words fail to account for the longevity of books. I want this book to stay in print for many years. Will the story with “recently” or “last year” be relevant or dated in five or six or sixteen years?  My editor’s question was an important one and I’ve been carefully rewriting each of these stories to make the stories timeless. Because this version will be the last one I see before it as a printed book.

That’s one of the advantages of an editor. These skilled professionals approach a manuscript with a new set of eyes and call your attention different situations. Don’t beat yourself up about what you missed in your initial submission—but press on and get the changes done. Editors are to be blessed and appreciated for their efforts. For some books I’m the editor and for other books I’m the writer. I’ll admit some times I feel like yelling at them and chaffing at the work and changes they are suggesting. Some writers resist the editorial process to the point they become known as someone “difficult.” I don’t want to fall into that category (written or unwritten) with the editor. I tend to have the resisting feelings, walk around my office alone, yell (if necessary), then return to my desk and do exactly what the editor has asked me to do. These types of writers are the professionals. They understand they have to pick and choose their battles in this rewriting process—and that the editor has new eyes and a different, valued perspective.

If you are perfectionistic about your writing, you have to learn to let go. If you are sloppy about your writing, you have to learn to be more professional. Balance is the key. Learning that right moment to let it go and move on through the process. It’s a learning experience for each of us. I’ve got a few more pages to check and rewrite, then the book will be ready to move into the next stage of the process.

I love the journey of this process—but I don’t have much fun rewriting.  At times, it’s tedious but I’m committed to quality and producing the best possible end product. As I rewrite, I’m focused on the reader and the end result. It’s worth the effort.