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Writing for mags like The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, etc.

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by WaylonJennings, Oct 22, 2008.

  1. Inky_Wretch

    Inky_Wretch Well-Known Member

    Well, here's where the metaphor breaks down.

    You can keep working at writing longer than you can work at improving your pitching. You might not be Esquire-quality at 30, 40 or 50. But keep busting your ass and maybe you're doing that kind of work at 60.
  2. SixToe

    SixToe Well-Known Member

    I believe it is a craft and a God-given talent, and both can be developed by hard work, refining your skills and studying others. Nothing wrong with anything along those lines to improve.

    I also believe some people just don't have it and never will get past a certain point no matter how much study or craftwork they put into it. It doesn't mean they are bad writers. They just don't possess the skills or, possibly, the desire to advance.

    Still worse are the people who absolutely cannot write, believe they can and are enabled by family or friends as they toss things over the transom. Their work is horrid, typically too long and they believe Hemmingway has blessed every word.

    I once received an 8,000-word typewritten story and a note saying, "I am offering this before it is published by one of the larger magazines." I read about six or seven pages. It sucked and went in the trash.
  3. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    The best paying gig I ever got was for an in-flight magazine for one of the airlines. The editor was someone I knew as an undergrad, who frequently served as a guest editor at a bunch of different magazines. I never understood how someone would get a gig like that, but I know he was making six figures until the bastard moved into publishing and my freelance money train came to a screeching hault.

    They wanted a feature on the coach I was covering. They told me they wanted 1,500 words at a $3 a word. Before I filed, I asked them if it was OK if it was a little longer. They told me that was fine. (I didn't expect to be paid extra, although I never told them that).

    I turned in 2,000 words and six weeks later I got a check for $6K.

    That was in 1999. Good luck finding a similar freelance gig to that these days.

    From 1998-2000, I probably averaged $15-$20K a year in freelance. I think the most I've made in any year since is $10K (not counting radio and TV) and typically, it's about half that.
  4. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    My thanks to The Jones for his kind words and his friendship. And to 21 for her empathy and lavish praise. For those who hadn't noticed, she writes a very fine line herself.

    Waylon -- My early efforts were almost all on spec. I'd write something in full and submit it. Newspapers, magazines, journals; long, short, funny, not, fiction and non-. Over the course of several years, more and more of these pieces were published. Eventually more and more work came my way as a result; sometimes as an offer to take up a feature conceived by an editor; sometimes as an offer to come up with an idea for myself. As friend Ragu points out, a big part of your success over the long term has to do with reliability and repeatability. Once editors trust you to deliver, they'll come to you.

    There's a version of all this that will work for you too, but it's going to be your version, and it's going to take some time, effort, patience and experimentation to find it.

    Goldeaston - I believe in luck, and I never underestimate its power. For good and ill. But it's a thing over which I have no control. I can, however, create opportunity for myself. Or at least rise to meet it. As can we all. (In the same way Jonesy brazened his way into Esquire, and then backed up his ambitions with the quality of his work; or in my willingness to submit work to strangers, simply on the strength of my belief that it merited their attention.)

    While luck plays a daily role for us all - as does the equally ethereal notion of inspiration - the only thing over which I have absolute control is my work rate. My discipline. I'm in the chair every day. I write every day. When I get an assignment, I pursue it to the exclusion of everything else.

    I do this because talent - as you rightly point out - isn't the final arbiter of anything. There are plenty of writers in the world more talented than I. And who make more money, or sell more books, or occupy a higher station. But there aren't many who honor the work, or their life in the work, more earnestly than I do. Or get more out of doing so.

    And those you mention who rise high on hot air or good connections or witless employers? I don't worry about them. I've got my hands full hoeing my own row.
  5. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    The debate about talent is a tough one to wade into, because if you say certain things you come off like an arrogant SOB. But I also believe it's important to be honest, so please forgive me here.

    I think every writer has to take a good hard look at themselves and ask: Do I really have what it takes? Because, like BYH said, there are plenty of good writers out there trying to break in; there sure as hell isn't room for mediocre ones. So, that's first. Can I do this?

    Now, I believe in answering that question, there is a "gift" to writing really, really well. I will never be able to write the way Charlie Pierce writes -- or at least I won't be able to for a long time. I just don't know enough, for starters, and he has a knack for writing beautiful sentences that I don't possess.

    But at the same time, I'd wager Charlie will tell you that he's a better writer today than he was five, ten, and twenty years ago. You can get better, too, with work and effort and care and understanding. Can a bad writer become great? Probably not. But I think a bad writer can become a passable writer, a passable writer can become a good writer, and a good writer can become great.

    To wit -- here's my first published story, from ten years ago next week:

    It's every mother's worst nightmare, but perhaps it is Clint Malarchuk who knows the story best.
    Dion Durdle, a speedy centre for Bell Island of the St. John's Junior Hockey League, was enjoying a memorable Saturday night.
    He had six points midway through the third period; his team was up 10-1 over visiting Trinity-Placentia.
    But the game will forever be recalled with cold sweats rather than thoughts of glory.
    A routine breakout play gone horribly wrong left two players in a heap, and Durdle with a skate blade sunk deep into his side.
    "In an instant, his jersey went from white to red," remembers Dave Brazil, Bell Island's coach.
    Within seconds Durdle had lost half his blood; his thoughts turned to his parents, his girlfriend, and yes, to Malarchuk.
    In March of 1989, the Buffalo Sabres goalie had his jugular slashed by an errant skate blade.
    Malarchuk survived and went on to play two more seasons in the NHL. But all Durdle could remember was the blood.
    "It was the same thing," says the 19-year-old, now recovering in hospital. "The way the blood was gushing out.
    "The more blood I was losing, the harder it got to breathe. I was really scared."
    It was then the phone rang at the home of Ken and Donna Durdle. Their son Curtis had been in the stands and was now relaying the bad news about his brother in a panicked stream.
    "I thought it was his neck. I just dropped the phone," says Mrs. Durdle.
    "It's my worst fear."
    Still conscious, Durdle was taken to hospital, where surgeons used a vein from his leg to repair the severed artery in an operation that lasted over three hours.
    "They said it's a good thing he's young and strong," says his coach. "A minute or two later, he could have been gone."

    In no way do I mean to suggest that I'm one of the great ones. I think I'm a good writer with a lot more work to do. But I hope reading the above story helps some of our younger friends who might be feeling a little down about themselves feel better about where they are today, and where they might be tomorrow.

    Life, like a story, starts with a lede, but I've preached on here enough that I think it's the ending that counts.
  6. Bullwinkle

    Bullwinkle Member

    There isn't a post of yours that I won't read.
  7. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Bullwinkle, too right.

    And on the subject of luck: Luck helps, but luck also runs out, and you'd better have something to take its place when it does.
  8. How did you get sources to talk to you if you didn't even have a publication to represent?
  9. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    I filed a couple team capsules once to one of the magazines I was freelancing for and a couple hours later the editor called me to verify a fact, at the end of the call he said.

    "Great job on the capsules."

    I laughed.

    "What's so funny?"

    "How do you do a great job on team capsules?"

    "You file on time, the copy is clean, and you didn't act like an asshole when I called you to verify something."

    I got a lot of work from that editor.
  10. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    Just tell 'em who you are, what you're working on and what you want to talk to them about. Be honest. Don't deceive.

    Sometimes it helps to have the power of a big publication as your trump card, and certainly some sources won't talk to you if you don't have that card to pull, but I think most people just don't care. They just don't want to be misrepresented, that's all.
  11. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    When I was just starting, Waylon, I was writing a lot of fiction. Short stories mostly. My early nonfiction work, and how I earned the rent back then, consisted largely of essays and short humor pieces along the lines of what The New Yorker calls 'casuals.' I wrote those for my little hometown paper's OpEd page and for its Arts section. And for magazines who publish such, if they'd have them. Given those forms, I rarely needed to contact an actual source. But, on the few occasions I did need a timely quote, I'd call the source and say "Hi, I'm jgmacg, and I'm at work on a piece for the [name of hometown newspaper or intended magazine here]. May I have a few minutes of your time?" Which was absolutely true, even if the newspaper or magazine hadn't yet bought the story. I was at work on it. And savvy sources out there in the world often enough ask "Staff or freelance?" To which I always replied very honestly, "freelance." This I did a time or two before being taken up officially enough that I could call and I say "Hi, I'm on assignment for Newspaper/Magazine X."

    Obviously it's tougher to do this on a hard news story, or a feature where you need deep cooperation from an entire family on a sensitive subject. Which is why you need to tailor your early spec efforts to the size and style of piece for which you'll have adequate access, be most comfortable in your writing and most likely to succeed.
  12. OwlWithVowel

    OwlWithVowel Member

    I don't post very much, but I'm on here a ton.

    This is the best thread ever.
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