- About Us
- Nicholas O’Connell
In my writing classes, I emphasize the need to bring people to life on the page. Strong characters are the heart and soul of every great story, whether fiction or nonfiction. To make your story compelling, you have to ensure that readers care about your characters, whether in an epic like Moby Dick or a nonfiction book like Basin and Range. Even a topic as seemingly dull and unpromising as Great Basin geology can enchant readers if the story comes through someone who cares deeply about it. This is exactly the strategy John McPhee employs in his book, Basin and Range. McPhee is a writer interested in everything: the Merchant Marine, Russian Art, the Swiss Army, the cultivation of oranges, the building of birch bark canoes, the collection and consumption of road kills. Yet he doesn’t assume a similar level of interest from his readers. Instead he courts them by seeking colorful individuals through whom he tells the story and so entices readers into the subject. In Basin and Range, he chose the geologist Kenneth Deffeyes.
“Deffeyes is a big man with a tenured waistline. His hair flies behind him like Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He lectures in sneakers. His voice is syllabic, elocutionary, operatic. He has been described by a colleague as ‘an intellectual roving shortstop, with more ideas per square meter than anyone else in the department–they just tumble out.'”
McPhee’s quick character sketch provides readers with a glimpse of the energetic, idiosyncratic geologist, the kind of man who should prove a worthy guide to the narrative. McPhee selected Deffeyes as the central character for his personality and familiarity with the Great Basin. The geologist serves as the entry point into the subject. Though him, general readers learn to care about such arcane subjects continental drift, subduction zones and seafloor spreading. They might never crack the cover of a geology textbook, but once they get to know Deffeyes, chances are, they’ll be hooked.
We’ll discuss how to create strong characters as part of my upcoming Seattle writing classes. There’s still room; let me know if you’d like to sign up!
In my Seattle writing classes, I emphasize that literary magazines occupy an important niche in the publishing world. They publish longer, more artistic stories that would make a tough sell in a commercial magazine. Many bestselling memoirs such as Kathleen Norris’ Dakota grew out of shorter stories published in literary magazines. They are one of the few markets that publish short fiction. They pay little or nothing other than extra copies but are prestigious and can serve as an important stepping stone in a literary career. In my Seattle writing classes and as the publisher/ editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review, which just published its twelfth edition, I read a lot of manuscripts and accept only a small percentage of them. Here’s some advice about how to win acceptance at a literary magazine.
FIND A THE RIGHT MAGAZINE: Duotrope’s Digest is an excellent place to start. For a small monthly fee you get access to a searchable database of over 2000 different literary magazines. You can peruse the magazine rack at a good bookstore like Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company to find a home for your story. Googling the term, literary magazines, will also turn up a lot of potential target publications. As I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes, read the magazine to make sure it’s an appropriate fit for your story. Half of all stories are rejected simply because they are not the right fit for the magazine.
FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES: The magazine will spell out when and how to submit manuscripts. Make sure to follow these guidelines. Your story may never reach the right editor if you don’t follow the guidelines.
FORMAT YOUR WORK: As recommended above, follow the magazine’s guidelines. Sometimes the magazine will want the story cut and pasted into an email message or attached to the email. Some of these magazines will want hard copies. As I say in my Seattle writing classes, make it easy for them.
COVER LETTER: A short cover letter accompanying the story or as part of the email message can help your cause. List previous publications, relevant degrees, etc. These shouldn’t make a difference to an editor but sometimes they do. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you have none of these, just send a strong story and it will find a home.
TRACK SUBMISSIONS: Keep a record of what stories are out and where you sent them. Celebrate acceptances. Don’t sweat the rejections; there are all kinds of reasons a magazine will reject a piece. It may be outstanding, but may not fit the publication. Pay attention if an editor takes the time to give you advice about how to improve your manuscript; the editor doesn’t do this casually and may be receptive to future stories from you.
If you want help with this, please consider signing up for one of my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes, or travel writing classes. I look forward to working with you!
Pitching story ideas is a critical skill for every freelance writer. Virginia Smyth, the executive editor of Seattle Magazine, recently spoke to my Seattle writing classes about how to make the perfect pitch.
“One of the most important questions in a pitch is, ‘Why now?’” she said. “We try to always have a timely angle for our stories.”
Smyth encourages potential freelancers to read the magazine carefully so they’ll know what it publishes. She says that every magazine has a formula, with columns, features, and other kinds of stories. For example, Seattle publishes a lot of stories on the food and dining scene in the city.
“When you pitch, I don’t care why you want to write the story,” she says. “Why is it right for the magazine? Make me think it has to be in my publication. I want to know why it’s right for Seattle. Do your homework. Be familiar with the publication, I get a lot of pitches where it’s obvious the writer has not read the publication.
“What’s the tone? What the demographic? Most publications have Writers guideline to help with this. Think of the elevator pitch: sum it up in three to five sentences. Make sure there’s a hook. What is great about the story? Use the pitch to demonstrate your writing style.”
Making the perfect pitch, also requires that you mention the research that you will do for the story.
“In another paragraph, tell what sources you will use. What are your sources? Why are you the right person to write the story? I’m working on a story with a writer about the Native American community. Why are you the right person to tell the story?”
Make sure to include examples of your previously published work, preferably as links, when you’re making your perfect pitch. “I want to have some confidence that you can tell the story for the magazine,” she says. “Then wait 30 days or so before getting in touch again. Be persistent but don’t stalk.”
In my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, I always teach students how to pitch, including the Ten Top Tips for Pitching, the first step in getting happily published. There are so newspapers and magazines that neophyte writers often become overwhelmed. Where do they start? How should they approach publications? What’s the best home for their story? These are some of the questions I answer in my Seattle writing classes, travel writing classes, and online writing classes I teach for The Writer’s Workshop. I treated the first five tips in a previous posts. I’ll include the second five of these suggestions in this post. Here’s a guide to getting happily published.
1) CONCENTRATE YOUR EFFORTS – Select a few publications and focus on them. Subscribe to them or read them regularly to understand the magazine’s style, content, history. This is one of the things I emphasize in my writing classes.
2) WRITE A PITCH LETTER – Your letter should reflect all of your research of a publication. It should interest the editor, provide evidence of professionalism, and convince editor you are ideal for job. As I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes, the letter should be short, about 250 words.
3) FOLLOW UP WITH EDITORS – Email the editor within a few weeks of sending letter and/or manuscript. Did he or she get the pitch? Will it work for the magazine? Try to get a response. Once you get a response from a publication, keep going back to the editor. If you publish one story in the magazine, it will be easier to publish more.
4) SPECIALIZATION – At least at first, zero in on a particular field, develop an expertise that will make you valuable to magazine editors. Specialize in areas you know from your job, hobby, interest or passion. As an amateur vintner, I use that expertise when writing about wine.
5) PAYMENT – The amount of money you’ll make from a given article is often proportional to the publication’s circulation, from $25 for a local or specialty publication to several thousand dollars or more for a feature in a national magazine.
TEN TOP TIPS FOR PITCHING STORIES FROM THE WRITER’S WORKSHOP
Copyright The Writer’s Workshop
There are so newspapers and magazines that neophyte writers often become overwhelmed. Where do they start? How should they approach publications? What’s the best home for their story? These are some of the questions I answer in my Seattle writing classes, travel writing classes, and online writing classes I teach for The Writer’s Workshop. I’ll include the first five of these suggestions in this post and will include the rest in my next post. Here’s a guide to getting happily published.
In my travel writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, I emphasize telling stories about a place through highlighting the key moments, feasts or special occasions. Thanksgiving is clearly such a feast in the U.S.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the advice about cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. Everyone has a favorite recipe, which is great, but sometimes the details become overwhelming, especially if you have to pick up relatives from the airport, buy food and drink before the stores get completely jammed, and make sure you have a chance to take in that great football game.
My advice is to focus on one thing: brining your turkey. This is simple, easy, and will make a huge difference in the success of your meal, yielding a juicy, full-flavored bird. Turkey meat is relatively lean, especially the white meat, which is prone to drying out. Like you, I’ve eaten way too many dry, overcooked turkeys in my life. I don’t need to eat any more.
Brining a turkey ensures the meat will be moist, tender and flavorful. A brine is a solution of water and salt, which allows the meat to absorb moisture as well as salt, which seasons the meat from the inside out. In addition, salt breaks down some of the turkey’s muscle proteins, which makes the meat juicy and tender. I put my turkey in a bucket with cold water and salt the night before. I’m doing this shortly.
Buy a free-range turkey if possible, for maximum flavor. I buy my turkey from B&E Meats in Seattle, which consistently sells flavorful birds. Avoid brining turkeys labeled kosher, enhanced or self-basting. You can brine a frozen or partially frozen bird but you need to allow additional time.
Thanksgiving morning you can take the bird out of the brine and begin cooking. I prefer to smoke my turkey, which adds an additional flavor, and produces a juicy, succulent bird. But you can also cook your turkey in the oven. Be prepared for a pleasant surprise if you’ve never tried brining. The resulting bird will be a big improvement over ones of the past.
In my travel writing classes, I have the pleasure of visiting places that have had centuries to find perfect pairings for food and wine. We Americans are newer to this, but we keep getting better. Practice makes perfect!
It’s hard to beat champagne as a classic wine for Thanksgiving as it goes well with everything: turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, even pumpkin pie. Widely available Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot Brut NV are excellent choices. They give dinner a celebratory, special occasion quality that I prize, if they cost a bit more. Thanksgiving is a day for giving thanks and celebrating our family and friends and country. Champagne is a great way to do this.
Closer to home, domestic sparkling wines offer great value. I especially enjoy the crisp, food-friendly wines from Washington’s Domaine Ste. Michelle, such as Brut or Brut Rosé from the Columbia Valley. These pair well with Thanksgiving fare. California’s Roederer Estate makes consistently dry, appealing sparkling wine. Check out the estate’s Anderson Valley Brut Sparkling Wine.
Rosé is often considered a summer patio wine, but it goes well with turkey. There are many great affordable rosés from southern France, including Campuget or Domaine Sorin. My favorite French rosé is Domaine de la Mordoree, which I had the pleasure of visiting as part of one of my travel writing classes in Provence. It’s more expensive, but has a beautiful blood-orange color and a deep, savory, satisfying flavor. In Washington, Barnard Griffin makes a lovely Rosé of Sangiovese that is delicious and affordable.
There are many red wines that make great pairings. I recommend pulling out a bottle from the cellar, or the closet, or the store room, wherever you keep that special bottle from an occasion some years ago. Uncork it on Thanksgiving. You never know how long wine will last and it’s a great sorrow to open a bottle that’s past its prime. Bottles like this will memorialize the occasion. I have many bottles like this, gathered from my travel writing classes in Europe. I plan to open at least one this Thursday.
Let me know if this has been helpful or if you have other suggestions.
Here are some additional suggestions from Eric Asimov:
Dramatic scene is an especially effective way of organizing stories, one of the techniques I teach in my Seattle writing classes. In my Seattle writing classes, I explain how to use dramatic scenes to give life and movement to stories, whether fiction on nonfiction. It’s a technique that also helps you as a writer organize the story. You don’t need to go into detail about everything, but rather just the key moments that made the trip memorable.
On a recent trip to England, I used dramatic scene to highlight some of the adventures of the trip. Although travel stories tend to highlight the pleasures of a trip, I also like to write about the challenges and inconveniences. One of the biggest challenges was driving on the LEFT side of the road, with a clutch in my left hand. The whole operation was widely counter intuitive, with lots of honking drivers, speeding motorcyclists and phone-distracted pedestrians thrown into the mix.
As I tell students in my Seattle writing classes, it’s a good idea to always take a notebook with you to record your adventures. I took a reporter’s notebook and filled it with impressions of the trip, especially those involving driving. The hardest part was rewiring my brain to go left, not right, at key moments. This wasn’t so hard on a straightaway, but devilishly difficult on a roundabout. I followed the car in front of me, said a prayer, and plunged through it, occasionally earning a honk or other gesture.
It was a great pleasure to return the rental car to Heathrow airport and have someone else drive into London. Once there, we took the Tube and buses around, very convenient, but not the great material I found through driving on the wrong side of the road.
For more on writing with dramatic scenes, please sign up for my winter Seattle Writing class, The Arc of the Story.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
The fall Seattle writing classes will also provide key insights into narrative writing, with an emphasis on research, interviewing, first person point of view and how to get your story happily published. The class takes place Wednesday evenings 7-9 p.m. Oct. 11 to Nov. 29 and one Monday Oct. 30. There’s still room in the class; let me know if you’d like to sign up!