When I first started writing over ten years ago, I learned many things about how to get article assignments and requests to see material. I then wrote the following article to help other fledgling writers out there. Much is still the same, although I've moved on to books and don't write for magazines anymore. I've tried to update where I could as many publications only use email these days, but the openers and how you write a query still apply. I hope this helps!
Six Things to Get You Started
About Cover Letters and Queries
This is one of the most important aspects of submitting a manuscript. I will go over a few items that are necessary in a good cover/query. But before I go into this, I want to really emphasize how important paying careful attention on how you address yourself to the editor. I don't know how many emails I've gotten with horrendous spelling and an absense of manners. I don't even like to respond to people who obviously aren't serious about this. I mean, why encourage them?? So if this is you, please reevaluate your motives on getting published. If you're a sloppy worker, don't bother trying.
1. Your intro: For a query, you must set the stage, pull the editor into your snare so that they MUST give you an assignment. For fiction, it is the teaser that will ignite their interest. The following are examples of teasers I used in covers that worked:
"Dear Mr. (Editor):
On February 8, 1999, The FAA held a conference which included top executives from the Space Travel industry that hope to launch the world's first, fully reusable, piloted commercial space vehicle. Already, companies like Zegrahm Space Voyages and Space Adventures are selling tickets for a space flight open to the public. The X-Prize Foundation is the enterprise who initially set this movement into motion on May 18, 1996, giving a million prize to the company who could achieve a reusable launch system, the key to space travel. I believe your readers will be thrilled to know what is happening in the space craft industry..."
You see how I pulled him in with all those facts? How could he refuse?
Here's another one:
"Dear Ms. (Editor):
Have you ever felt like you were being hunted by the U.S. Postal beast? Every day it seems like a new attack from rejection. I have found that writing for e-zines can be not only more profitable, but a boost to self esteem while I am waiting for the sluggish responses from print magazine editors. I believe your readers would like to know why they should try writing for e-zines."
Here is a fiction teaser that worked. Notice how I show that we've had a previous relationship. If I've ever met with the editor or if they've responded personally to me before, I'll usually highlight that in my opener:
"Dear Ms. (Editor):
Since you were so kind to respond to me personally with my novel when you were at (Publishing Company), I thought you might be interested in an old legend from the island that I recently moved from: Guam. Guam has a rich history that most U.S. citizens do not know, and yet, Guam is a part of the U.S.--a territory won after WWII from the Japanese. The Chamorros, the indigenous people of Guam, are such a sweet, good natured folk and this comes out in their tales."
2. Add anything else to grab the editor's attention like picture availability or sidebars.
A sidebar is a small piece that may outline a key topic within your article. It is like the extra sprinkles you put on top of a cake. Not necessary, but it looks better than one without. Many editors expect a surprise of this kind to go along with an article.
I proposed the Space article above for Odyssey, Adventures in Science, a national children's science magazine. I got the assignment with availability of all the space craft pictures and without mentioning any other sidebars, but when I gave my completed manuscript, I included a sidebar of interesting quotes from two CEO's of space craft companies that I interviewed with their encouragement to kids who want to get into that field. The small sidebar was worth , even though it was an afterthought (and tiny!). Editor's like it when you surprise them!
3. For books, you will need to include your market research. Is there any competition for your book? Look at Books in Print at the local library to see what is being published recently or go to Amazon.com and type in your subject.
For example, I wrote in the fiction proposal this:
" I have been studying Guam culture, history, and literature, so I've rewritten this particular legend, FUNNY LEGEND, as a picture book. I believe it is a good fit with (Publisher) since it is historical as well as lighthearted. Plus, a friend of mine and published author, Wendy Full Author, told me that when she was representing many books at a reading conference, several librarians came up to her and asked for more folktales. They are always in need and never go out of style. This tale, FUNNY LEGEND, is a very famous legend on the island. I have studied many different versions and I've tried to hold true to the character of the native people, animals, and culture. I've seen all the aspects of this tale as in (descriptions)... just to name a few. I believe this tale is interesting and historical for all children to read. It is a part of our multicultural nation--a taste of the US territory, Guam."
This query was accepted its first time out.
No matter your experience as a writer, one must always get another professional to go over your work to see if you've made any mistakes and to tell you how to make your piece stronger. Even if you have close to 50 pieces published, you still need someone else's eye because you are too close to your work. For example, one day I had my writing friend critique a folktale from Guam. I thought it was ready to send out but she found a horrendous mistake I had made in a crucial part of the story. If I had sent the piece out like that, it would boomerang fast. My writing friends are such an asset to me--I can't write without them!
How do you get writing friends? You can start by going to writer's message boards, friend people on your blog, join writer's groups on Facebook, join writer's listserves, or join a writer's group and meet them at a conference. One of my dearest writing friends, Katherine Rollins, asked me to critique one of her pieces one day because she knew I was a fellow author at a certain publishing company--we've been close ever since! Take chances and ask someone you know is a writer at your level or slightly higher to help. But please don't ask a strange author whom you've never met or had any contact with for help. They'll find this intrusive (and besides, they won't have time to help you anyway! They've got deadlines!)
Be your own judge. If the critique doesn't sound right--get another opinion. Don't accept it if is not your vision. After all, you are the author.
Read Examples BEFORE You Start Writing
When you are just starting out, flow and rhythm are hard to capture unless you are well read. For magazine writing, it is imperative to read several issues BEFORE you start writing. This way, you can get the voice of the magazine. I read over 200 stories in Highlights before one of my stories was accepted. I read over 200 picture books BEFORE my first one was accepted. Hard work does pay off.
You've heard it before, but this is a tough business. You are not going to publish with your first submission. I've only heard of one person doing that--Paula Danziger--but it is not common. Therefore, you'll need to not give up at the first rejections. I've collected more than 160 rejections in my career! I've heard it said, "If you want to be more successful, double your failure rate." How true!
For fiction--Fiction is very hard to sell because there are too many fiction authors out there. It is more creative and fun to write fiction, in my opinion, and I think that's why more people like to do it. I usually will sell the piece before I quit on it. I will never give up on pieces I know are wonderful. How do I know they are wonderful? Because I'll get encouraging notes scribbled on my rejections from the editors telling me to keep trying. This doesn't happen to unworthy pieces and editors are not just being nice--they don't have time for pleasantries.
For nonfiction--Usually, if I've done my homework, the piece will sell pretty quickly. But you have to do intensive research and learn how to write a wonderful query so the editor CAN'T say no. Once you're established at a magazine, the editors will love to assign you pieces and it isn't as hard. The hard part is impressing them the first time. The first query you write for a magazine will be your most important. Do your research, interviews, and make a great proposal, and you'll sell.
Use Current Markets
Markets change almost monthly because the publishing world is volitile. And the volitility of the medium means that a writer must do intensive market research if she is going to sell her work. I would say 80% of all my sales were due to finding the right publication at the right time. And I never sold a piece where I closed my eyes, put my finger on a publisher, and shot it out. Writing doesn't work that way.
Editors are impressed when they see that you have taken the time to learn about their publication. This is true for both magazines and book publishers. When you take the time to find out an editor's name and send it directly to them, they will take notice.
How do you go about being "market savvy"?
Follow these tips:
1. Get a current market book. Read the instructions on how to use one carefully and do them! Or better yet, go to the publishers websites.
2. Send off for guidelines. This saves so much trouble. Usually, you can find out an editor's name from this! But if they are unusually shy about giving a name, go to their website. Sometimes you will find out who the editors are there. Ask fellow writers if they know an editor at a particular house. For magazines, this is easy! Look on the inside credits page and the editors are listed! But usually a magazine will name the editor. Also, they may list submission guidelines on their websites. Always look before you query.
3. Join a writer's group and go to conferences. I didn't join at first, but I should have--going to a writer's conference is the best way to get current tips. Editors love to have professional, hard working writers submit to them. Their desks are filled with people's work who have never bothered to find out how to write or submit proper manuscripts. People who attend conferences are serious about what they are doing. Editors know this. So they will sometimes open their doors exclusively for conference attendees.
4. Network with other writers. Many tips have come from my fellow writing friends who are doing their own research. We help each other with tips!
A Winning Bio!
A bio is a biography of your credentials that goes at the end of a cover or query letter. If you are a beginning writer, you won't have much to fill in here, but if you search, you might come up with a good bio that you didn't know you had.
Answer these questions:
1. Do you have any teaching experience that goes along with the subject you write?
2. Do you have any experience in the field you are writing about?
3. Do you have a degree? Or two? This helps!
4. Have you written any articles for a local newspaper? This counts!
5. Have you written for a statewide publication? This counts!
Now, if you don't have any of the above, let me say that it will be easier for you if you try a small magazine or a small press first because they are more accepting of new writers. I'd try e-zines as well -- getting paid for an e-article is still getting paid. If you are paid for your work, you are professional.
When I first started, I submitted to a readers' story section of a running magazine and got paid for each one! They didn't want an experienced writer, but I used those pieces as credits for my resume. I also was asked to write a column for a statewide running magazine. Each of those articles counted as well. I just needed to be a runner to write in these magazines.
Here is what my first bio looked like:
"I am a freelance writer for both adult and children magazines. My most recent work has been sold to Runner Triathlete News. I also co-created and wrote a women's column for Arkansas Runner magazine from August 1997 to January 1998. I have a BS in Biology and a teaching certificate in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and General Science. I now work with high school students for Tarrant Area Family Educators teaching science."
I included all my teaching experience because I was submitting a science article to a teaching magazine. Try to submit to publications where you have some sort of expertise to rack up writing credentials.
Look what happened to my bio in just a six months from that skinny bio:
"I am a freelance writer and a science teacher. I have been published in various adult and children's magazines. In March of this year, I wrote four articles about space tourism as a feature package for iAgora.com, a travel-culture online magazine. The articles are translated into four languages for a world wide audience. Recently, I have had articles/stories published by Nature Friend Magazine, Runner Triathlete News, and others. Currently, I am teaching advanced science to high school students."
I included the space tourism feature because I was querying on the same topic to a magazine. It was accepted.
Here's my bio today:
I have written books and stories for children for over ten years. My most recent book is in stores now entitled, Princess Peepers. Its sequel, Princess Peepers Picks a Pet, will be out in 2011. I have five other books published as well.
Look a little different?
Remember, the bio changes with the magazine or publisher. I put down the credits that I feel enhance my level of expertise for the article or story. If I'm writing for an adult e-zine, the e-zine credientials go back in and I take out the children part and put back in all the adult credits. For children's fiction, I highlight the fiction I've sold. For example, when I wrote a Guam folktale picture book, I put in my bio that I've sold a Guam folktale and Guam fiction to Highlights. This helps!