Growing up, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was my literary idol—not because of his rampant drug and alcohol use (pronounced abuse), but simply for his wacky, wayyyyyyyyyy outside-the-box approach to the events he covered. Rather than just report the story (ho-hum), he often took part in the story, in many cases actually became the story. In doing so, he uncovered previously hidden (or previously unthought of) story components that never would have seen the light of day. These zany antics almost always shed new light on the story’s primary players, unlocking the very heart of the story, exposing it to the world for all to see.
For a burgeoning scribe like myself I was fascinated by Hunter’s approach to journalism—and to writing, in general—so I made it my mission to follow in his footsteps, all the while forging my own path. This was during the pre-Internet technological Stone Age, thus all my editorial queries—the vast majority to hip men’s lifestyle publications like Maxim, Stuff, and Razor—relied on snail mail to reach their intended destination. The wait was excruciating, but exciting just the same. I likened it to shark fishing; every query I sent was akin to another ladle of chum, with a baited hook dangling amid the bloody froth. I came up with some of the most outlandish story ideas possible, willingly putting myself in harm’s way many times over in an effort to make a splash with editors who didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. Swimming with great white sharks sans cage, jumping out of a plane sans parachute, volunteering to be water-boarded (long before “enhanced interrogation” became mainstream lingo), playing poker with Juarez cartel kingpins, hanging out with Miami’s “Voodoo Squad”….
Before long, the going joke among men’s lifestyle magazine editors was that if they had a story idea that had even the slightest potential of getting a journalist maimed or killed, send Adam. He was too stupid to turn it down. Not only that, he’d work cheap!
These days, while many print publications have gone the way of the Dodo, there are more literary markets than ever. E-zines, websites, blogs, desktop-published journals…. If you have an idea for a story—no matter how outlandish the subject, or how bizarre your angle, chances are good there’s a publication out there ideally suited to host it. And for writers looking to break into the literary biz, articles represent a fantastic first step in that endeavor. Granted, you’re probably not going to get rich (if that’s even a hope or consideration), however I’ve optioned more than a few of my articles for TV/feature film consideration, so there is a legit possibility of turning a story you penned for a few hundred dollars into a five-figure payday. It’s rare—but it does happen.
First step, decide what you want to write about. It helps tremendously if you’re knowledgeable on the subject. Expertise is worth its weight in platinum. Of equal importance is your ability to convey that material to non-experts in a manner that’s both entertaining and easily understandable by as wide an audience as possible. Accomplish that and you’re likely to find editors that want to work with you again and again and again.
Once you’ve chosen your subject matter, find a publication (better yet, publications) that your article would be appropriate for. Many print publications have a set editorial calendar, with the subject matter they’re seeking already laid out many months (or even a year) in advance. Other publications, especially those in the electronic arena, rely on a one-, two- or three-month lead time to source their content.
Courtesy of the Internet, finding the appropriate editorial point of contact for any publication is incredibly easy. You needn’t be Sherlock Holmes to deduce where to send your queries. Depending on your desire to work, you could have dozens of queries in play at any given time.
Personally, I never like to pitch more than two stories to the same editor/publication at one time. Just a couple lines about the gist of the story—and why you’re the right scribe to pen it—is all you need. If you’re sending multi-page queries, don’t be surprised if you’re receiving rejections, if you’re even getting responses. Remember, when it comes to queries, less is more. Elevator pitch. And be sure to have researched the publication you’re querying so you’re not pitching a story (or even an angle on a story) that’s already been done.
Assuming your query strikes pay dirt, now comes the fun part: author rights and payment. I never like to give up anything beyond First North American Serial Rights, often abbreviated as FNASR. In layman’s terms, this gives a publication the right to be the first in North America to publish your work one time. After publication, copyright reverts back to you and you’re free to do whatever you want with it. Unless someone is paying you appropriately, never ever EVER sell all rights to your story. Even if you’re never going to explore that story’s intellectual property (IP) potential, the word “free” should be stricken from every writer’s vocabulary. Your time, effort and creativity has real value. Don’t sell yourself short!
Which brings us to that all important question: How much should you charge for your story?
Oftentimes, that decision isn’t yours to make. The overwhelming majority of publications use a set pay scale—usually a specific per-word rate, anywhere from .05 to $2—and if you’re not interested in what they’re offering, oh well, don’t let the door hit you in the ass, there are plenty of writers out there willing to work for the pittance they’re paying.
Naturally, the more credits you amass, and the greater the following you develop, the more you can charge for your work. Maybe you can negotiate expenses (if applicable), or structure some sort of multi-story deal. There isn’t a limitation on what you can ask for, and the more reasonable you are with your asks, the better your chances of coming to terms.
But no matter what the word count, no matter what you get paid, and no matter what publication you write for, just remember that every writer is only as successful as the quality of their last piece. What I’m saying is, don’t mail it in. Even if you’re writing on the cheap for a publication that scant few people read, your words are immortal. Your stories aren’t just your livelihood, they’re your legacy. Take pride in everything you pen.
Until next time, happy writing!