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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. 21

    21 Well-Known Member

    This is one of the most important messages on the thread.

    It's one thing to be able to write. It's quite another to know WHAT to write. Finding the one guy who takes your tale to another level, seeing the fine detail that screams out to you but sits silent to everyone else. It takes a relentless work ethic and an immersion so complete you can't even comprehend it until you're deep within and have no idea how to get out, alive or otherwise.

    Six months after the story has been in print, you're still waking up in the middle of the night thinking of one more interview you should have done? Congratulations, you're doing something right.
  2. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Ch. B:

    Rattlesnake. The mutha white meat.

    Well, shit. That's tough to trump.

    And you're right -- trying to imitate a good writer is the quickest way to sack yourself on a fencepost. When I started at Esquire, I was so conscious of occupying the space formerly occupied by Charlie Pierce that I tried to write like him. That lasted two or three stories until my editor called me up and said, Quit trying to write like Charlie Pierce. We hired you to write like you.

    It was good to get called on my bullshit like that. And while I think I'm still trying to find my "voice," one of the things I like best about writing for magazines is, getting the opportunity to look for it. A good magazine will want its readers to know who they're reading without looking at the byline. That should be every writer's goal, so long as it doesn't mean resorting to gimmicks and barf.

    That being said, I still believe that writers can learn a lot and can develop their own gifts by reading other writers -- the best of the best. It's a good exercise to try to unlock the secrets of another man's talent. How does he do it? Break down the pace, the rhythm, the language. Don't try to copy it, but maybe there's a hidden backbeat you can steal to prop up your own jazz.

    P.S.: Moddy and 21 are right. Material makes a story. There's no better feeling in the world than sitting down at your desk and knowing you could write 10,000 words without an ounce of fat in them.
  3. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    Couldn't agree more.

    Slight threadjack: I once corresponded with a well-established, well-respected writer about a throwaway column he had written in which I questioned the veracity of some of his (quite original) anecdotes. I wanted to use them in a piece I was writing, and ask him some questions about it. He politely declined to expand on the stories, but after a little more pushing on my part, he finally replied. "Sorry," he told me, "everything I know went into the piece. And all my sources are now deceased."

    I'm not very old, but I do know for just about everything good that I've written -- I've had about 10 more pages' worth of material that were left on the cutting room floor than what I used in the piece. It was a column that shouldn't have been written. He didn't have the material.

    Fantastic writer, who enjoyed a great career in newspapers twice as long as I've been alive. But if you don't have the material ... it doesn't matter how good a writer you are.

    Anyway, back to the regularly scheduled programming ...
  4. Piotr Rasputin

    Piotr Rasputin New Member

    Whenever these threads are started, people always say "Man, this is depressing. I could never be as good as (fill in the blank.)" And the responses come that if you work your tail off, learn constantly, position yourself, and yes, find or create an opportunity (often known as "being in the right place at the right time"), and perhaps make a connection with the right person, good things can happen for you. All true, as many of us have found. And as many will find.

    But these days, I find these threads depressing for other reasons, illustrated by these two back-to-back posts from page One:

    There are always so many great words written in these threads, so much great information and tales of people using hard work and an ability to greatly hone their own talent to rise to an impact position. But they often sound like veterans recalling a bygone - or soon to be bygone - era while the young and hopeful listen at their feet, feeling they will rise above the current realities of what we do. And maybe they will.

    I know, I know. I spoiled the party. Sorry.
  5. BYH

    BYH Active Member

    I had a similiar experience with a front-of-magazine piece for a mid-level title. It was supposed to be a feature and I filed a Q&A, or vice versa. The editor calls me up and says hey, sorry, I think we had a mix-up, you're supposed to do a Q&A instead, can you get it to me?

    I say sure, go to work on it and send it in an hour later. She calls me back and gushes about how quickly I'd sent it in and how good it was and how she didn't expect it anytime in the next couple days. To me, it was no big deal, but like you, I got a lot more work out of it.
  6. Smasher_Sloan

    Smasher_Sloan Active Member

    If you're going to pitch something to the elite magazines, make sure you have a great story, and the ability to convince the editors that you can tell it better than anyone else.
  7. SixToe

    SixToe Well-Known Member

    I have had similar experiences with editors who think their request will take three or four days, or maybe a week.

    When I tell them I'll have it later in the day or the next day, they get all giddy. The pieces aren't 10,000 words. They're 800 or 1,000 and don't require moving heaven and earth. It's not Pulitzer material but it fills their needs and they have it quickly.

    An editor called once and asked if I could turn around a 2,500-word piece in three weeks, sort of a capsule-type article that took a few phone calls. He apologized and said they would pay full rate plus half again for the short notice. That was wonderful. He got the copy with a week to spare, asked for a couple of clarifications and my check arrived a couple of weeks later.
  8. BYH

    BYH Active Member

    It's OK. I was tempted to ask/say the same thing in the post you quoted.

    I did want to ask In Exile and the other vets if they think the freelancing opportunities will ever come back...even a little. I don't expect to ever enjoy a period like I did in 1999-2000, when I freelanced full-time and made more than twice as much as I did at my previous F/T job. It's disappointing and depressing so I don't think about it.

    But even when things were going fairly well in the middle of this decade, I lost most of the freelance opps I had b/c the publications nuked sports, or went entirely in-house, or went in the proverbial different direction, or just stopped spending money. I don't think I did anything wrong and I lost chunks of change anyway.

    If I was smart, I'd do something else.
  9. In Exile

    In Exile Member

    Of course opportunity returned, and I think it will again, perhaps in a different form. Just because the market dried up didn't mean I stopped writing, and I found other outlets. Were I a young writer today, I wouldn't take any of this as depressing. In many ways down times shake out those who need to be shaken out, and leave more opportunity after, forcing us all to be more flexible and more creative, and leaving some room for the next generation, those who burn to write against all odds and have bet everything on their nerve, who stay up all night like I did, for the better part of a week, writing that first story to the exclusion of everything else and lost two notches on my belt as a result. Then worked fulltime doing something else entirely yet still wrote damn near full time for most of a decade. Up at four a.m. to write for three or four hours before work, using lunch and break time to do interviews or research, then rewind and erase each night and start again in the morning. That was me, and I bet at various times it was jones and jmacg and charlie pierce and just about anyone recognizable you could cite. That's generally the difference, right there. Not the genealogy. Not the degree. Not the trust fund.

    When my magazine market dried up, I spent my energy writing book proposals. They didn't sell, and garnered those 100+ rejections as this stupid novice kept throwing up prayers through the transom. Did I waste my time? But I eventually did get a deal for a project, a work for hire partnering with someone else, and kept going. Ten years later I repackaged about three proposals into one, sold it, and have done several more books in the same vein. It sold, and ten years later is still selling, and built the house I live in.

    If you want a career, yeah, maybe do something else. But I wasn't looking for a career or for money when I started sitting at the keyboard. I was looking for a way to look at myself in the mirror and not think I was wasting my time doing stuff I hated for reasons I didn't respect. The career found me.

    All we have is our work.
  10. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Sirs, Madames,

    Outside the normal sports pubs I've written for the Canadian outfits that are the national analogues of the mags mentioned here, which would be like, say, Texas Monthly, South (I remember friom years back, is it still around) or other regional or city mags. What was true here was true of my sports gigs and a point alluded to a few posts ago: You get your best breaks with your best stories. I was lucky to walk in off the street with a story that ESPN The Mag liked and that I owned (nobody else was even close to knowing about). That was the start of a beautiful friendship more than five years ago. In contrast, sigh, 22 years ago I got an assignment from SI to do a 1500-word featute--I thought at the time it was pretty good but it ended up getting killed, so I was wrong. No second bite at the apple, though, the truth, I was too discouraged to really take much of a run at it. The bottom line: I don't believe that you should try to work your way into a mag by sending in ideas for the front of the book, small stuff, etc. If you start there, it's likely that you'll be typecast as exactly that and nothing more.

    Any success in Canada or at ESPN (and by that I mean a standing relationship with a publication) started with a strong story as an ice-breaker. Any ice-breaker was followed by the development of a working relationship with an editor and some very casual networking in the office. There are some difficulties in being off-site and out of town, some advantages to be able to drop into the office. The former is transcended by a strong story and the latter is worthless without one.

    YD&OHS, etc
  11. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    I'll ditto what IE has said this morning. The old institutions are crumbling as the ground falls away beneath us. But destruction means creation, and as many businesses and futures as the internet revolution might foreclose, it will create an equal - or greater - number of opportunities for those strong and determined enough to survive the transition. It's worth remembering that while the act of storytelling has been a constant in our species, writing for a living has always been a tough racket.

    That said, this is indeed a challenging age, and there's a palpable sadness in a lot of the posts here. These I take to be the regrets of younger writers who feel they've missed something.

    So here's a quick story about dreams and disappointments and the inexorable grinding motherfucker of time and change.

    It took me too many years to get to Paris. I was 50 before I walked through it. But that city and everything it stood for has been vivid in my heart and in my mind from the time I was a little kid. As it is for many of us, Paris was almost entirely a creation of my own imagination, a fantasy capital for the writers I most admired and the poets and artists of every generation.

    A few nights before my wife and I went there at last, we had dinner with some very old friends. One of whom is a writer now in his late 60s.

    Coming off his Stegner fellowship at Stanford forty-five years ago this friend and mentor, now a great gray-bearded American novelist, had moved to Paris. He and his wife, young and penniless, had lived in a single coldwater room above the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore on the Rue de la Bucherie while he wrestled his first novel. George Whitman, the owner, had invited them to stay there free as a gesture of literary generosity and good heartedness. Thus my friends slept and worked in a simple whitewashed room bounded by dark medieval beams on the third floor. Out their window was a view of Notre Dame and the Seine beyond the treetops. They scraped by on a few francs a week, enough to buy wine and bread and foul Turkish cigarettes. All of which seemed to me impossibly romantic and beautiful.

    At dinner that night, my friend asked us please to revisit that place when we got to Paris, to see how it had changed. We did so. It had changed not at all. But as I stood in that tiny room, I was overwhelmed by a wave of heartbreaking regret. I looked out the same window my friend had looked out of nearly half a century before and was reminded that I would never be a young novelist working and starving in a soft-focus, technicolor Paris. I had missed it. Overtaken by such powerful disappointment, I could have cried.

    When we came home, I told my friend as much.

    To my surprise, he told me he'd spent his year there feeling much the same way. That whenever he turned a corner, or took a sidewalk table at the Deux Magots, he was overcome by sick regret at having missed the Paris of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Stein. The Paris of nearly a half century before, of 1920, of the Lost Generation. Of his imagination. He had missed it.

    "You can never have the Paris you imagined for yourself," he said to me. "You can only mourn it. You have to learn to love the Paris under your feet."

    Seems to me this is true of our careers as well, that we can never have things as we imagine them to have been for those who came before us. We can only ever have our own work in our own moment, however flawed and hard and colorless that present moment seems to be.

    To regret too much an age long gone, to miss simpler times that never were, to pine for the days of Rice or Heinz or Liebling, of Sherrod and Laguerre, of the Saturday Evening Post or the New York Herald-Tribune, is to disregard the Paris beneath our feet.
  12. Inky_Wretch

    Inky_Wretch Well-Known Member

    Yet another sig-worthy bit on a thread full of them.
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