It’s Time to Publish — Session 3, AIW Going Freelance Seminar — I’m liveblogging the AIW Going Freelance! seminar today at Johns Hopkins University. Forgive the typos, as I’m trying to keep up. You can handle it. Trust me. -kk

Cathy Alter on pitching…

Figure out if your idea is even pitchable, then identify the right market. And test your pitch before you send it out. Cathy always goes for her “reach” option first and then works down from there. She recommends researching the market so you can match the style and tone of your query to that of the publication. And to find out who to send the pitch to, check the masthead. Avoid the general mailbox if you can. Putting a name on it essential. She recommends starting small. If you haven’t written for a publication before, pitch a front-of-book piece first rather than a feature to get yourself in the door and prove yourself.

Why now? What’s the news peg to hang your story on? Why is this a story. What’s timely and relevant? Make sure the publication hasn’t run anything similar in the last 3 years. Do homework, read the archives, and make sure.

Until you can say what your piece is about in just a few sentences, the pitch isn’t there and it’s not thought out enough for an editor to understand when you have in mind. When someone gets interested in what you have to say, you’re on the right track. Watch for when their eyes glaze over. Get to the point quickly and briefly and explain how you would write hte piece.

Pitches nowadays are much different. It used to be that she could just go out to lunch with and editor and talk a good game and she would get the assignment. Now, you need to show your style, why the subject is worthy, and what the idea really is. There is now a hierarchy that maybe didn’t exist so much before. An editor has to show it another editor and there are a lot of yeses to get through. The more you can show the editor what you can do, what you will do, and what you’re capable of. Make sure your pitch is complete — they shouldn’t have any questions at the end of your pitch. The only thing she hasn’t really pitched is personal essay, which she accompanies with a short e-mail stating what she has done in the essay and a brief overview of her background.

Make sure you’ve spelled everything correctly including the editor’s name. Editors move around, so don’t burn any bridges. You want to be on time. Fact check, spell check.

Cathy is still so appreciative to have an editor say yes to an idea, and it’s even better when an editor calls and gives you an assignment.

A lot of times writers have to steel themselves for disappointment from rejection or stories being killed, not because the idea is bad but because you just haven’t found the right market yet. Never take it personally. It can be a good pitch, a solid pitch. Stick with it.

If she doesn’t hear an answer back in a couple of weeks, she will follow up and let them know that she really likes this idea and wants to sell it elsewhere. She wants to give her first choice a reason to say yes or no, or she will take it elsewhere. Half the time, she’ll hear back almost immediately to that follow-up. Editors are busy.

Tom Shroder on pitching…

Tom asks the question, In the world of Twitter, is there really room for narrative? Anybody who tells a good story can command your attention. You know this just from talking to someone on the phone; if someone is telling you a really good story, you’ll tune out everything else. Narrative is how we understand the world, and it has been since the beginning of man. Our whol experience, the nature of our conscious, the nature of how we understand our lives and the world, is rooted in narrative. People who hear a story about something retain the information in a much more vibrant way than people who are just given information. The one way we make connections that last is through storytelling, and that is not going to go away. Jus tbecause there has been this economic shift in the media doesn’t mean people don’t still want it. Narrative didn’t have to be a part of newspapers. They were just moneymaking machines.

The publishing industry is still challenged, and ebooks are beginning to explode. The trouble with ebook is you can charge as much for them so it means less money for the writers. Now that people are sitting down in front of their computers, or whatever, publishers have decided that nobody wants to read 6,000 words on their computer screen. And so on with Twitter and handhelds etc. And that will go on, and people will begin to feel the gap that narrative is no longer filling. But since there’s no cost for printing and distribution, why not download a 6,000 word story?

The situation that we’re in now that seems to be shrinking the need for narrative is transient. The need for narrative is inherent in the human condition. To sell a narrative, it actually has to have value. You actually have to know something that is fascinating and be able to tell it in a way that is riveting, and you will find a market for it. It’s more about knowing what you’re doing and giving something of value. That means knowing something that other people don’t know, knowing something that really grabs people’s attention, and presenting it in a way that is fun, gripping, riveting, and won’t let people turn away from it.

The biggest thing in queries is to understand intimately the market you’re pitching to. Match the tone of your letter with the tone of the publication. He’s been amazed at the number of pitches he got that were clear that the sender had no clue what the magazine actually did.

It’s really about the quality of what you have. Editors make stupid decisions all the time. You really have to ask yourself, How good is this material, how good is the presentation, and if you believe this is really good, it’s really fascinating, I’m really learning something I didn’t know, that’s your indication that you need to stick with it. If someone responds to the specifics of your stories and tell you to try them again, they mean it. They have enough mail; they won’t encourage more if it’s not good. And mention in your next shot that they had asked you to try again. Once you start entering into a conversation with an editor, that’s a whole different ball game.

There’s an art to being persistent without being annoying.

If you’re unpublished, your idea has to be that much stronger, and your presentation has to be that much stronger.

Meg Guroff on pitching and publishing…

The important thing is what you have to say and how you have to say it. If you are saying something original and in a fresh way, tehre are people who will want to be a conduit to bring that to readers.

Meg’s provided 11 queries that come in in the last month. All of the examples she’s brought are from e-mail, and she no longer knows where the paper letters go, as they don’t come to her anymore. She only sees them if there’s something really, really otustanding. You really don’t want to send paper anymore; they go someplace. Emails ot specific editors go directly to the editors. Even though the instructions say to send it somewhere, e-mail it. She will always read querys from writiers because they have a sense of how to find her and the right person to contact and that it’s the best way to go.

The writer is going to be representing the editor to the public, so there’s no reason to pick a quirky stranger to do that. And don’t start your story with YOU; she doesn’t care who you are — come to her with the story. Don’t do multiple ideas in the same query; pick your best idea and run with it. A query is not a letter; it’s a marketing document. You need to grab them, and it should be about the story not about you and not about her. What can you do for her? That’s what she’s trying to get from these.

Queries should be specific enough that the editor knows what you’re talking about, but not so specific that there’s no flexibility for the editor to mold it how he or she wants it. You need to demonstrate in the letter that you’re working to make yourself an expert on the subject you’re pitching, because if you haven’t done the legwork, it shows in the letter.

Meg doesn’t want to click anything because it takes up her valuable time. Put it right in the e-mail. Make it easier for her.

Following up is crucial, both because the editor is busy and also because it shows a lot about them if they follow through, if they are where and when they said they would be.

Basically, you’re trying to make your best case. You can’t say you’ve been published in the New Yorker if you haven’t, but if you have specialized experience or knowledge, you should include that. Same as if you met at a conference or you’re from the same school or you were referred by a mutual friend or whatever.

Contents Copyright © 2006-2014 Kristen King

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