How to Properly Pitch to Magazines

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As an Associate Editor for a regional magazine publisher, I’m often tasked with working with freelance writers, as well as branching out to grow our network of writers. With my position as the director of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, one of the big things I talk about is submitting to our magazines, as many attendees are local writers searching for new opportunities. My publisher has several regional magazines as well as custom publications and inserts, and we’re always looking for writers to help create great content. For those writers interested in freelancing for a magazine, perhaps these 5 tips will help in your path to published.

  1. Do your research. This is perhaps the most important part of the process, because if you don’t know anything about the magazines you’re submitting to, then prepare for your emails to be instantly deleted. I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve gotten for bridebook from people all over the world offering to write articles – but it’s clearly an outlet for local weddings in our SWVA region. Blue Ridge Country is another great example – we get plenty of emails with story suggestions, but more often than not, they’re for places way outside of our region (it only covers the 7 states with Blue Ridge Mountains, and is quite clear in our website). If you pitch me a story about some neat piece of odd history that took place in the Blue Ridge, however, that’s right in our wheelhouse and something we might want to cover – and shows us you’ve at least flipped through an issue at some point.
  2. Address the correct person. Perhaps this one falls under “research” but nevertheless, it’s important. As someone who gets emailed with “Mr. Long” (nope, sorry) or “Leslie” (Liz…3 letters, guys), that’s an automatic disqualification, much like when a writer incorrectly queries an agent. I can almost hear you saying it: All these magazine websites only have generic contact forms, not specific names! Okay – then pick up an issue, or have a peek at the digital issue online. Within the first 3 pages will be a pub box, with publisher, editor and rest of staff listed. That’s where I’ll be, and you can get an actual name to go along with that website contact form email, which will ensure that email is forwarded to the correct person rather than tossed into the “file for later” pile. If you can’t take the time and care to get the right editor, how can I trust you to do the same with your articles?
  3. Have an angle. Unless a magazine has specifically requested suggestions for a particular piece, you should have an idea of what you’d like to pitch to an editor. This shows not only your care and thought, but motivation and, to some extent, imagination. I don’t want to hear the same old “Roanoke is great” article. I want to know specifics – is it about a business or restaurant, or the new brewery opening down the road? Tell me the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, why. Show me why you think this article would hit home with readers.
  4. Include writing samples. This one’s easy. Don’t just send me a resume. That tells me nothing, other than your career history. I want to know your writing style, if you’re any good or just throwing things together, if I’m going to have to edit the hell out of typos and grammatical issues. On the other hand, if it’s sparkling clean and interesting to read, I guarantee you’ll catch my interest – and probably a reply email.
  5. Understand timing. The Roanoker and Blue Ridge Country are both bimonthly publications, meaning they cover a span of 2 months. That means when you pitch me coverage for an event in May, you need to contact me in February or March (the sooner, the better, honestly). Many magazines are monthly, but all of us work way ahead of the calendar year (trust me; I’m working on Christmas themes in August each year). It’s important to remember that magazines want to write about what’s happening, not what’s happened. Don’t wait too long to pitch an idea, or you may have to wait until the following year.

Writing a Short Story Vs. a Novel

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I recently announced on my Facebook page that I’m part of an anthology releasing on April 1st. Based off UtopiaCon’s Step Write Up freak show theme, our 8 carnival setting short stories will be bound together in one book: The Peculiar Lives of Circus Freaks. (See our announcement video and join The Peculiars here.) My Donovan Circus readers will hopefully be excited to read a Ringmaster Sheffield Donovan prequel.

We’ve been plotting this since last summer, and each of us concocted our own short stories that take place in one place known as the Kipling Carnival. Each of them unique characters, each of them with a different job and problem, make up part of the carnival crew in some way. The only thing they had in common was that they all were part of the Kipling Carnival. When we set out to write our stories, however, I realized my big problem: we were writing short stories.

Now, I write regular bite-sized magazine articles, but when it comes to fiction, I’m a novelist. I couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote a short story, much less had it out in the world to see (I’m guessing I’d have to go all the way back to Harry Potter fan fiction at 17). Each of my books are anywhere from 70k-110k words, which means 10k sounded downright impossible. Despite having my character, setting, and outline ready in my head, I had big ideas and grand scenes that simply wouldn’t work. There was no time for fight scenes or long discussions or themes. How did I prevent myself from diving into developing full backstories for each character?

My author friend BJ Sheldon, also in the anthology, described it in a way that really opened my eyes to breaking through the short story block.

You’re writing about a situation. Not a huge overall arc spanning an entire set of problems. Just one small situation that must be explained, understood and, in one way or another, resolved (not necessarily a happily ever after, simply an ending).

Because you only have so much space to cram in a story, chances are it can’t be a big, sprawling world with tons of characters and three huge action scenes that go on for four chapters (guilty). Not everyone’s life has to be in danger, and you probably won’t be able to follow many people (if in 3rd person omniscient) because it gets jumbled up in a short time frame.

This isn’t to say you can’t cover a long span of time day/week/month-wise, but because we each only had about a 2 week timeline in each of our stories, that made it much easier for us to maintain concise plots with only a few characters with specific motivations. I knew when my story started and ended, which gave me a nice time frame to work within. We each agreed to work in a few mentions of each other’s characters, simply for reference (meaning, someone else’s lion tamer shows up in my story, or the ringmaster in my short appears in their story even if it’s just in passing). So, I had plenty of foundation. But how did I build on it without creating an entire world behind the show?

I won’t lie, it was hard squeezing my story into 10k (in fact, my first draft ended up at about 11k). Turns out there’s a delicate balance to short stories, in how much you reveal and how to make an impact in a short bit of time. It was a brand new challenge. Rather then delve into everyone’s backstories, I focused on the one person my DC readers would recognize: Sheffield Donovan. I know the guy pretty darn well, but he’s plenty mysterious in the series. There are a couple new folks that are important to my story as well, but Sheffield Donovan is the heart and soul of the whole thing (possibly as he is in the DC series).

I hope readers learn more about Sheffield, his background and history, in this short story than in any of the series’ novels. (I know I did.) My story is a quiet one. There are no fight scenes, but I hope there’s tension and uncertainty. There is no romance, but I hope there’s a sense of love and family. There is no Lucy Sullivan and the gang, but there are Easter eggs and other tidbits that are important to Sheffield’s character and his interactions with the Kipling Carnival. This short story actually opened my writing up as I forced myself to try something different. It improved my writing as I learned what parts of the story were most important, and which were fluff.

And in all honesty? It made me even more excited to eventually write the short story prequels I’d like to do with more DC characters. Much like Harry Potter’s Marauders, I’d love to eventually write a few shorts featuring the old Donovan Circus crew, with Sheffield, Lucy’s father Lenny, and others you learn about but never meet in the current series. This was great practice to not only see if I could do it, but do it well and enjoy it.

I recommend giving your short story idea a shot. Even if it never sees the light of day, it’s good practice to learning a different writing style, deciding what stays and goes if within a word count limit, and gaining a better understanding of how you work. You might surprise yourself!

Why Authors Need GOALS Instead of Resolutions

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It’s everyone’s favorite time of year again, when we make big resolutions to change our lives and get our ish together for the next year. Speaking from personal experience, some resolutions might be as broad as “lose weight” or more specific, such as “write a book.”

Resolutions seem like such lofty things. There’s a lot of built-in pressure, typically followed by a bunch of disappointment when you realize halfway through the year that you’re no closer to completing said resolution than you were on January 3rd. And usually by that point, because I feel there’s no way I can achieve the resolution in that time period, I simply give up, cross it off my list, and move on to the Next Big Idea.

But that’s not right, is it? Because I’ve let myself down. Maybe I’ve even let someone else down because they were expecting that thing from me. And that’s where I don’t want to suck – I can live with letting myself down, but if I’m letting down someone else, it will eat away at me until I figure out a way to get it done. And then I’m miserable and annoyed and half-assing my way through it which is no better than not doing it at all.

Goals, however, are a little more solid. They’re straightforward, and you can take clear action steps to achieve the goals. There’s still some pressure, but even if you fall behind, you can readjust your action steps to still achieve at least part of your goal.

Let’s start with something we probably all are familiar with over the years. Rather than writing down “lose weight,” I’d suggest switching it to a specific goal: “Lose 50 pounds.” Once you make that goal, you can break it down into more specific actions that are tailored to your personality and/or schedule. HOW will you lose 50 lbs? Maybe it’s dropping soda and eating salad for lunch, or going to the gym 3x a week, or walking your dog everyday. See how those are a little more specific (i.e. realistic) than simply saying “lose weight?” And even if you haven’t lost weight by, say, June, you can again readjust those action steps – choose a smaller weight loss goal, or up your gym routines, eat only lettuce for 60 terrible days, etc.

Let’s go back into the writing side of things. Sure, you can say you want to write a book. It can be your first book, or your fiftieth, but there’s your goal. Then break it down – have you even started this book yet? Or are you still outlining? Maybe the specifics include writing at least 500 words a day, or taking one day a week to research your content and outline your world/plot. Every step you take is one step closer to reaching your goal.

Now, are you planning on having the first draft done within the 2017 calendar year, or do you want to get the first draft done within 6 months so that you can edit and query to agents, or self-publish by a particular date? (In which case, pick your date and do everything in your power to stick with it – trust me, there’s nothing like a pending deadline to light a fire under your ass and get it written.)

I know this method works because it’s how I got HoA done. If I’d simply said, “I want to release a trilogy,” I would’ve hemmed and hawed and found every excuse under the sun to put it off, because I am a champion procrastinator. However, by selecting “Summer 2017” with specific dates 30 days apart, and by announcing it to readers, that motivated me to get the work done. I made myself accountable, and couldn’t bear to disappoint not just readers, but myself. Now, it’s true I hardly came up for air for about a year, but by god, I did it, and the readers were thrilled I held up my end of the bargain. And so was I. I accomplished a hell of a goal, something I can look back on proudly and as a highlight of my writing career thus far. But it wouldn’t have happened had I not made goals and action steps in order to move forward.

So, let’s make some goals. I want to release Donovan Circus #5 in 2017, most likely during the summer. I’d also like to have a first draft of a YA dystopia novel I’m working on to be completed by February (as I’m nearly halfway through it). That gives me time to edit, possibly query (as I’m still on the fence), and possibly self-publish by fall (if I don’t query, or get no bites and decide to go ahead with it myself). I also have an anthology short story releasing in April. I’ve also just been accepted into a big YA boxed set for August. In addition, I’m either hosting or participating in signings and conferences in January (RRWC), February (Mysticon), April (RAI/RavenCon), and June (Utopia), with possible additions to be added for the fall.

You can plot your goals out however you’d like, whether it’s on a computer screen, written by hand and placed on a post-it right in front of your face, a vision board that stays up to motivate you when writing, a handy planner or bullet journal, etc. The options are endless, and can be whatever works for you. The important thing is that you make the goal and do everything in your power to achieve it. Believe me, once you’ve reached it, your chest will puff up with such pride that you might fall right outta your chair.

On Tropes and Stereotypes

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Can I make a confession?

It’s hard avoiding cliches in your writing. As someone who has seen a multitude of red lines through my work, I try hard to avoid the standards that make readers roll their eyes. Of course we keep at it, but sometimes, the cliches might be there for a reason. I love writing that can twist a trope. Give me the usual, the everyday, the things you’d expect – and then throw them out the window. It’s how many of the fairytales we know and love are still alive today, with interesting twists to bring them into the modern world or make us rethink what we know about the evil queen.

I’m obviously going to use #HoA as an example, because I fully admit there are some stereotypes. It’s a superhero storydon’t readers/viewers expect a few things they’ve seen before? Think to any of your comic book stories or even today’s heroes and how their stories progress. There are plots points or character details that we might know are coming, but still enjoy seeing. (The cackling villain, the bumbling bad guys, femme fatale, etc.) Check out any of the superhero shows on TV or in movies today – you’ll see a bevy of stereotypes, some flipped on their head, and others fully embraced for what they are.

I think it’s important to include things readers will expect from your book – not necessarily spelling it all out for them so they see it a mile away, but simply including a few familiar pieces to keep the reader engaged and grounded in what they expect. That way, right when they’re comfortable in seeing what they expect, you surprise the heck out of them with something unexpected. (Maybe the cackling villain is a terrible smoker, or the femme fatale is actually a pretty happy person outside of her job description, or those bumbling bad guys are actually quite good at riddles and puzzles, just not guns or fighting. It can be anything. You get the idea.)

Nova is your typical teenage girl. You know, except she’s super strong. I really enjoyed making the girl the one with all the strength. And even with all her strength, she’s still a scared teenager, at least at first as she learns how to become a superhero (and even then, she’s still scared, but it’s overcoming it with bravery that helps Nova become who she’s meant to be).

I’ve mentioned before that Cole is the romantic one of the duo. That happened organically, but turned out to be something I’m quite proud of. While Cole is a handsome teen hero, he’s actually more brains than brawn. He loves Nova’s strength and isn’t at all emasculated by the fact she can outlift him by a ton (maybe literally).

Because we’re used to seeing females in the typical reporter role (thus leading to the damsel in distress in some instances), Henry Wheeler was fun to write here instead. He’s a stubborn kid who’s determined to find the truth, no matter the cost, and even lands himself in a bit of trouble (very damsel in distress of him). But all in all, he has no problem with a girl saving his ass, as long as it gets saved! 

Dev Patel is an Indian man who owns a convenience store in town. Stereotypical, maybe, but he’s proud of his role in the community and makes an honest living for his family. He will continue to work hard everyday and bring honor to his name for owning his own business. And he’s not afraid to proudly speak up to reporters – and to Arcania in general – and tell them the HoA saved his way of living, at least for a night. In his own way, he’s standing up to violence in the city by supporting the HoA. 

I liked the idea of Huan, the Chinese man who is a wonderful friend to Cole, struggling with his words – that’s because he’s continues to work his ass off to improve his English. Cliched, maybe, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who works harder than him. Despite his broken English, he runs the local planetarium and knows all about the stars, so he’s intelligent. Brilliant, actually, and came to America for a better life. And he loves people, especially curious people, so he’s glad to be friends with Cole, a teen boy who treats him with respect. Even when he’s attacked by Fortune, he remains positive and will not run scared from the city that he loves. 

These characters, even the secondary ones or those who pop up for only a scene or two – exist in real life to some extent. In my head, they have backstories, but none of that makes it to the page, you know? But we know these people, at least in passing. If we are the heroes of our own stories, then these are the background characters you don’t notice very much. But that doesn’t make them any less important to the story.

Those last points, the bolded ones, are not necessarily pieces the reader might consider about the characters even after they’ve finished the books. I didn’t spell it all out for them on the page; instead it’s implied. So yes, there are stereotypes, but there are plenty of people in real life like this who exist. I bet you can name several people off the top of your head who fit stereotypical descriptions – and most of them might surprise you with insight or quirks or flaws you might otherwise not see due to those stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. 

It’s a writer’s job to bring that to the page without hitting the reader over the head over and over again. (Because in turn, I also think it’s part of the reader’s job to infer this stuff – and to pay attention to the details the writer leaves behind.) You see a lot of development with main characters when it comes to their growth, but even secondary characters can have depth. Even with tropes and stereotypes, you can make them individuals with something to lose or gain. That in turn will have readers more invested, unwilling to part with even the smallest of characters – which of course will make their circumstances (or deaths) even more vital to the story. And of course, the reader will not only have zero problems with the stereotypes, but they’ll be waiting for the next big twist, which is what writers want them to expect and love.