Writers, as a side effect of being creative folk, are masters at the art of the excuse. We create all kinds of psychological barriers for ourselves when it comes time to pitch a story or an idea.
I love writers—you’re my favorite kind of people—but I have to admit, you lot drive me batshit crazy sometimes. That’s because I routinely find the following gems in my Inbox:
“I had a really good story for the New York Times but I didn’t know who to pitch.”
“Would you be able to direct me to any publication that needs health content? The payment doesn’t matter as much. I’m not looking for very high-paying markets, just decent ones, but I do want to write about health. It really is my first love.”
“I sent an editor a letter of introduction like you suggested. She e-mailed me back asking for ideas, but the problem is that this is a very technical publication and I don’t really have any ideas for her. HELP!”
So, writer #1 has convinced herself that she doesn’t have the necessary “contacts” to get work from The New York Times. Writer #2 can’t seem to figure out which publications accept health content (um, ALL OF THEM. Seriously, literally every single publication on this planet will buy a targeted health story if it applies to its audience), and writer #3 is out of ideas. Ideas, the currency of our trade, the reason you want to quit your job and become a writer (or already did!)
Clearly, you know and I know that these are not real problems. These are psychological barriers that you’ve put in your path by convincing yourself that you’re not connected enough, creative enough, or smart enough to figure these things out.
My goal, over the next 30 days, is to tear down each and every single one of those barriers and take you from a place where you view these bottlenecks not as challenges but as pieces of the puzzle that you’re yet to snap into place.
One way we did this was by getting our systems organized yesterday. When you have the market and the idea, all that’s left to do is figure out who the editor is and send. I’m going to talk about all of those things in the coming days, but even after you have the market, the name of the editor, and the story idea you want to pitch, some of you will find that you’re still facing resistance. That despite having everything right in front of you, you hesitate to write that e-mail and hit send on that pitch.
The reasons are as varied as you are. Some combination of fear of rejection, not knowing how to start, feeling like you have no clips, feeling like you have no time, not knowing how to do it, thinking querying is too much work for no reward, finding fault with the publication, not liking the editor’s grumpy face, or any other random reason that you can think of. I’ve heard quite a few. I've come up with quite a few.
We talk ourselves out of pitching all the time and even the most experienced among us do it. I was thisclose to breaking into MIT Tech Review last year. The editor and I had an ongoing conversation and he’d asked me to revise my pitch about three times. The fourth time, when it was time for me to shine, to get my acceptance and my $2 a word assignment, I bailed. I couldn’t find the right twist to the idea, but more than that, I had simply lost the confidence. After three revisions of my pitch, I convinced myself that I wasn’t ever going to break in and so I didn’t.
That’s not all. In the same month, an editor at Parents loved an essay I wrote for the New York Times Motherlode blog and asked me to submit something for the magazine. I convinced myself that I didn’t have time and that I didn’t want to write on spec, but those are excuses. I would love to get published in Parents and essays are almost always written on spec. So why didn’t I? Hard to say, but I think I’m afraid I’m going to open the parent part of myself up and they’re going to reject it.
So yeah, we all do it.
How do we not? Read on.
“I know it’s stupid,” a writer wrote to me not long ago. “All I have to do is sit down and write up the idea that is in my head and send it. But I can’t. I sit there like an idiot and can’t find the nerve to send my query. I realize this is why I can’t succeed as a writer.”
I don’t need to point out all the judgment in that one short paragraph. We all do it. And I actually think being harsh on ourselves sometimes is not a bad thing. However, if it is constantly stopping you from achieving your goals, you need to calmly and rationally think about the reasons you don’t do certain things, such as querying regularly, and ask how you’re going to fix it. For instance, a few years ago, I found that I was constantly coming down to the wire on my deadlines. I would send in my stories with only minutes to go. A couple of times, I missed a deadline. It was no big deal to anyone but to me because until then, I had prided myself on never having missed a deadline, but suddenly, there I was frozen in front of the screen, unable to write anything.
I had to figure out where I was stumbling and why, so the next time I got an assignment, I just casually noted how and where the resistance started appearing. I got my research done in time, got the interviews, and typed up the notes. Then, it was time to write and I froze up. I procrastinated on the assignment for days and sure enough, the day of the deadline arrived and I hadn’t yet written the story.
But I had figured it out! When it came to stories I was passionate about, the words in my head were much better than the words I put on paper and that fear of not meeting my own very high expectations made me block up on the page. I thought it strange at the time, but psychologically it makes perfect sense that this happened almost immediately after I had won an award for my journalism work. My very own Harper Lee moment!
Anyway, now that I knew the problem, I needed to meet the resistance in my head and I did so by making very detailed outlines of the stories I worked on. I told myself that I could have ten, fifteen, twenty tries to get it right. There were a few times when I wrote about four different opening paragraphs for stories because I didn’t need the pressure of THE perfect opening.
Over the last three days, many of you have told me that you want to make marketing a part of your routine but that you’ve struggled with that in the past. So think about why that is. What is it about querying that puts you off? Is it the part where you have to search for information? The part where you have to write the query? Or the parts where you hear back? Try and narrow down which parts of the process make you uncomfortable. And then see if you can find ways to counter that discomfort.
If you’re facing a fear of rejection, for instance, my telling you that it happens to everyone is probably not very helpful. I’d recommend that you flip it around to make rejection an almost positive thing. Angela Giles Klocke, a friend and participant in the e-course started a group many years ago in which she encouraged writers to aim for 100 rejections in a year. If you fear failure, this is exactly what you should do. Make the rejections a positive. Collect them. Compete with someone to see who can get more first.
Your first assignment of the day, then, is this: Think about the parts of querying that you resist the most and find ways to tackle that resistance. If you have trouble with this step, let’s talk about it on the Facebook group and let’s see if we can find ways to get rid of our psychological barriers.
When I went full-time with my writing again after my son was born, I spent the first two weeks sending out queries to publications that had, so far, seemed out of my league. I pitched several magazines that pay $2 a word or more; I even queried an editor who assigns at $3 a word. Two weeks later, I had heard back from none of those publications (not even rejections), which while completely normal and expected, can make a writer feel defeated.
When I told my husband that I was all but ready to give up, he said something that every writer should tape up on the wall.
“Give yourself a few easy wins,” he said.
What he meant was that since my confidence was shaky, I needed to regain it by doing something that would take minimum effort on my part but would achieve the result I was after, even if it was in a small degree. What I needed to do was send ideas to editors who love me and always buy my work or to lower-paying magazines that were eager for good writers and where I might have a higher shot at acceptance. I sent out two queries almost immediately. One gave me a new assignment right away and another not only gave me an article to write but also the schedule for the next few months so that I could start looking for stories that could fit into future issues. Small, comfortable wins, but wins nonetheless that made me feel like I had achieved something, taken a small step forward.
Over the last three days, I’ve repeatedly seen the word “confidence” in my e-mail and on the Facebook group. “I’d like to have more confidence” many of you have written. You know what’s going to give you a big boost in confidence? Sending a query. (We don’t care about landing assignments right at this very minute. We just care about sending queries and feeling positive about having sent them.)
I want you to go after an easy win today because I want you to start the month with a positive feeling about querying. I want you to feel like you’re going to get this acceptance, that this was truly easy. I want you to feel a buzz after you’ve sent your first pitch. So, pick the easiest market off your list and send them a query letter. You want to finish up this exercise in less than half an hour, so go for a market where you don’t have to do a lot of research on your idea or digging around for hours for the name of an editor.
From tomorrow, we’re going to start scaling up and hitting bigger targets. So today, let’s give ourselves a bit of a boost in confidence and get ready for the hard work ahead.
If you're looking for inspiration, the next pdf file has 21 of my own query letters that have sold to major publications.