Thursday, September 30, 2004


In Which I Have PMS...

Approximately once a month, every magazine--certainly every magazine I've ever worked for--goes through story pitch meetings. At one of my first jobs, we tracked all story pitches using a little DIY software program known as the Proposal Management System. Naturally, because of the nigh-menstrual cycle on which proposal meetings occur, it was automatic that we as a staff, men and women alike, should start referring to the software and, by association, the entire process as PMS.

Where I work now, there's a different name for the pitch process, but I still think of it occasionally as PMS. And tomorrow it's my turn to have it.

Since I got here, in addition to presenting my own meager ideas, I've been trying to cull story pitches from the massive slush pile of unsolicited queries and stories. I probably shouldn't reveal this fact, but there it is. I think that most working editors would rather not reveal that they ever glean ideas from the over-the-transom stuff that coms in. Why? Because, honestly, most of it is crap, and to even hint that one spends one's valuable time wading through crap would be to encourage the crap slingers to sling yet more crap our way.

Well, your humble editor is not afraid to admit it. Because I can remember a time long ago--but not long enough ago--when I was an unpublished writer, nary a clip to my name, just ulcerating to break into the business. the way to do this, all the guides and all my professors told me, was to pitch queries to magazines you wanted to write for. Before you did this, though, it was expected that you take some time to actually read the magazine you wanted to pitch to, get a sense of the kind of stories they publish (and also make sure they hadn't just published some variation on the topic you wanted to pitch. Nothing turns an editor off faster than getting a pitch for "7 Ways to Turn Your Kids into Happy Well Adjusted Young Persons--Without Medication!" when that is almost verbatim one of the cover lines of their last issue).

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what separates the contenders from the crap-mongers. Most people who pitch magazines--at least, most who pitch the magazines I've worked on--can't seem to be bothered to go to the simple expedient of actually reading your magazine before pitching an idea to you. I have never quite figured out why this is. Is it that everyone simply wants to get rejected, so when they finally break in, they can say they paid their dues and got their fair share of rejection slips? Often enough, I think it just boils down to a kind of weird-ass laziness. It takes too much time to read and retain two or three months worth of content from a magazine, even one you want to write for. It's much easier, somehow, to dash off your query and mail it in, often addressed to the wrong person, such as the guy who was here before me. It's been said that nothing is so sweet to a person's ears as the sound of his own name. I can confess here that it is true. I'm much more responsive to a query that is correctly addressed to me, gets my name spelled right, and shows at least a passing knowledge of what my department has covered recently.

Ah, but see, as you're reading this, you're probably starting to think, "gee, that all sounds like a lot of work for a query letter." That's exactly right. Hence the high level of sheer crap we get in.

Nevertheless, I keep sifting, looking for sapphires in the sewer. Maybe once every few months, I'll find a worthy, but often what happens is he or she has proposed an idea on the edge of something we have already assigned but not yet run. It's an ironic truth of the business that if you study your target magazine and successfully manage to develop ideas that are appropriate for us, of course you'll end up tapping into ideas that someone else will have already thought to propose. With these folks, I try to give them something beyond the usual form rejection letter, a form rejection letter that at least says "Not bad. You were on the right track. In fact, we already have a story like this in the works. Submit again." That way, I figure, it keeps that person from despairing they'll ever break in to the biz, and when the similar story finally does run, my note might prevent them from supposing that the Bad Old Editor simply ripped off their idea. The truth is, submitting an idea that we've already done is a really good sign. It means you actually are capable of proposing an idea that we would publish. Trust me when I say this: that puts you in the top 1 percent of folks who query us.

And every once in a while, the great satisfaction of wading through the slush pile comes when I find an idea or story that I actually have not seen before. This actually happened to me my first week on the job. I arrived in the middle of getting the issue out and we had a big gaping hole in one department. On a whim, I took the slush pile home with me in a big box and started wading through it. About 5 manila envelopes in, I found a peach of a story, written on spec. I couldn't believe it. It was almost perfect for the hole I needed to fill.

So it was that somewhere in Portland, Oregon, a phone rang around lunchtime, and a young housewife who had previously only ever written stories for her college classes, got a call from an Editor at a Really Big Magazine. I thought she was going to pass out, she was hyperventilating by the time she realized I was calling to buy her story. As a first-timer, I'm sure I could have rooked her and bought the story for a couple hundred bucks (still twice what I made on my first freelance sale, back in the Dark Ages). Instead, I paid her top dollar. She was so excited, she accidentally hung up on me. I called right back, though, and found her laughing through tears. The money I was paying would cover her mortgage payment and all of her utilities for a month. In other words, it was a real windfall to them and we hung up both feeling happy.

But that was a rarity indeed, and now on the eve of PMS, I find myself way short on story ideas for the next month, and not looking forward to facing the collective executive editorial brain trust of the magazine (who for the record are scary smart and just a wee bit intimidating, in a good way) and trying to sell each one of them on the merit of my ideas. In many ways, I feel just like I did back when I was trying to break into the biz and my stuff was sitting in slush piles in half the magazines in New York. The only difference is, I don't have any excuse not to know my magazine, and there's no hiding behind a manila envelope.

PMS is tough.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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