Monday, January 19, 2009
Spotlight Interview: Bill Minutaglio
Bill Minutaglio, Writer, Columnist, Author, Editor, Professor
Beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder, and to my beholding eye, Bill Minutaglio, as a stylist, is one of the most beautiful writers in America. His words are nothing less than dazzling. Currently a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, Minutaglio has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize and once for the National Book Award, and, as a longtime staff writer for The Dallas Morning News, won numerous awards for feature and column writing. He's published five books, including “City on Fire,” which has been optioned by Tom Cruise (as well as deemed in the July 2004 issue of Esquire as one the greatest tales of survival ever told), and “First Son,” an acclaimed biography about President George W. Bush. He's written for many elite publications, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Talk, Details, and Outside, been interviewed on both network and cable TV by, among others, Katie Couric, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Chris Matthews, and Bill O'Reilly, and is the former Texas bureau chief for People.
Please visit his Web site at:
The following is my exclusive newsletter interview with Mr. Minutaglio:
Mike: What, in your opinion, are the most common misconceptions writers have about editors?
Minutaglio: Well, most writers are probably like a writer I knew in Texas who once told me: "I hope that just once, before I die, I get to work with one good editor." You should enter the editing process knowing that there are truly very few great editors out there. You shouldn't automatically assume that an editor knows better than you about what constitutes a good story. You shouldn't automatically assume an editor has any clue about how difficult the reporting and writing process can be. YOU SHOULD NEVER BE INTIMIDATED BY AN EDITOR. You should break through the misconception that you can't engage in friendly discussions with an editor about the nature of an assignment, how a story should be put, reported and written, etc. Talk to editors, cajole them, debate with them. Editors will respect you for it--and it will empower you. That said, most writers seem to think that editors simply stop their whole world and focus on a writer when he/she calls or sends in a story. Most editors these days are overworked, hurried, harried. They don't have a lot of time. So, you should be responsive, be on your game, be ready, be smart and be informed.
Mike: What's the best advice you can give inexperienced writers trying to break through?
Minutaglio: I'm a great believer in the "message in the bottle" theory—you float out as many ideas to as many editors, publications, as possible. Putting together a clip package is a hassle—but you have to do it. You have to have a good-looking one ready at all times. Then, you have to screw up your courage and send out letters and make calls and shoot out e-mails to editors. You have to get on their radar. You have to suggest that your work is distinguished and invaluable-you have to, really, flatly state it when you send your query letter. You have to let an editor know that you bring a certain level of expertise, a quality that no one else can bring to a story. If you are starting out, don't be afraid to take on any assignment—I promise you, it won't be held against you later in life, later in your career. Be kind to your colleagues—that sounds trite, but it's gospel: if you develop friendships with other writers, you will be paid back with job tips, recommendations, reporting help, etc.
Mike: What can you tell writers about query letters?
Minutaglio: Most query letters are, well, ill conceived—starting with a basic problem...the story itself does not belong in the particular publication. It might be a good idea for another magazine...but not the one where it is being pitched. Think long and hard about whether your story is being aimed at the right magazine. Would that newspaper or magazine EVER run a story like this? Has it run anything even remotely similar—in content and tone–before?
I believe you should outline the story ASAP, mention your credentials and why you are the ONLY person who can do this, and then suggest you will follow up on the query letter in two weeks. Editors, I've found, seem to have a harder time rejecting letters that come in snail mail. E-mails are often quickly disposed of. They all LOOK the same. The electronic signature looks like all the others. They look uniform. And it makes it easy for an editor to give you a uniform kiss-off. I think snail mail works better for editors you don't know yet, editors you are trying to court. Don't get flashy, twitchy, in your query letter either—somebody in some journalism school is teaching people that they have to write these witty query letters or job applications that sounds like outtakes from SpongeBob Squarepants teleplays—don't get cute and clever in your query letter. Be enthusiastic, be serious, and be clear. Get to the point of the story.
Also, and this is a must, make a nod to the fact that you understand the mission of the publication you are trying to pitch your story to-mention that you think this story will appeal to the demographic, the readership, for X, Y and Z reasons. Suggest, if you can, some familiarity and admiration for the publication. If you saw a story that you liked in a previous issue—one that appeals to the same demographic your story will appeal to—then mention that story. Editors want to be loved and appreciated, and this will show them that you have taken the time to study their publication, their work.
You must read back issues—that's going to be the best way to see what the editors want. Go to a bookstore and read the magazines. Buy 'em if you can. Try to figure out, by studying the magazine, the right editor to pitch your story to—too often great ideas get sent to the wrong editor at the right magazine. The story gets dumped because an editor will not pass it along to the right person. Happens a lot, trust me.
Hottest topics: MONEY. Crime sagas never go out of fashion-maybe it's a commentary on our times, but people love to read stories about how the mighty have fallen. Forget politics. Triumph over tragedy stories, in any field, will almost always work. HEROES.
You must inure yourself to the possibility that you will NEVER hear back from an editor. It's almost a blessed day in paradise these days when you actually get a form letter or form e-mail rejecting your story. Brace yourself for it. But don't be afraid to follow up on it.
Mike: Tell us your most entertaining, and possibly illustrative, story about being an editor and/or writer.
Minutaglio: Well, I wrote a major profile for a major newspaper-updating the life and times of iconic John Connally (former Secretary of Treasury, etc.), who in 1963 was shot while riding in the doomed motorcade the day President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Two editors were going to work on the story. The first one looked at my 4,000-word piece and studied it for a long time and then finally said he had a "radical idea"—"I think we should move your first five paragraphs to the very end of the story and make that your ending." I was pissed, but as a young writer I didn't say much as the editor hit some computer keys and moved the paragraphs from the beginning to the end.
Later that day, the second editor called me into his office and said he was going to do the final editing now that the first editor was through with my piece. He looked at my piece and studied it for a long time and then finally said he had a "novel suggestion"—"I think we should move the last five paragraphs of your story to the very top and make that your lead."
What could I do?
I told the second editor it was one of the most brilliant editing suggestions I had ever heard and that I had to agree with him-he was a genius and we should go ahead and move those paragraphs.
When the story ran, the first editor accosted me: "How the hell did you move those damned paragraphs back to where you had them after I specifically had changed them?"
I simply told him: "I didn't touch 'em at all. An editor did."
The cautionary tale is that many editorial decisions are entirely subjective.
I could, of course, regale you with the tale of a great Wall Street Journal writer—someone widely recognized for his great writing skills—who happens to be one of my best pals. In his first job interview, he went to a newspaper managing editor's office with his clips. He sat in the editor's office and watched the editor actually fall asleep as he read the clips. My buddy sat there for 20 minutes, hoping the editor would wake up. Finally, he tiptoed out of the office—and he sheepishly told the secretary that he was in a job interview, the editor was reading his clips and somehow the editor went to sleep. The secretary laughed and said the editor had narcolepsy. My buddy wanted to believe her. Despite that awkward beginning, he went on to great things.
Mike: What should the relationship between writer and editor be at its best?
Minutaglio: Trusting, trusting, trusting. One of the best editors I ever had—who went to write several best-selling books—told me: "The reason I really like you as a writer, is that I know when you come back from a story it is going to be different than the one we envisioned." That is ultimate trust and ultimate understanding—he was an editor who knew NEVER to bring cemented preconceptions to a story. He TRUSTED me to bring back the right story, the best story—not the story he thought was out there, but the story I KNEW was out there. The best editors are encouraging, understanding, and laudatory. Writing is a lonely, lonely game-and the best editors know that the best writers are often insecure. How could they not be? They operate in an isolated environment, staring at a screen. Editors should be like big, boundlessly encouraging dogs. They should lay it on in terms of encouragement.
When I have done some editing, I am stunned at the reaction I get to some simple praise—praise that, really, is just the same kind of social nicety I might lay on the person giving me my coffee at Starbucks: "Thanks, this is great." Saying those simple four words to a writer—a writer who is usually starved for money and attention—is like manna.
When I worked at the biggest newspaper in Texas, one of my favorite editors said to me: "I don't like to see my writers. I like to know that they are out on the streets, talking to people."
I wound up respecting that editor—she earned my respect by her trust, her intelligence. There is a fine balance with editors—you want one who will give you a long leash, but who also has the ability to pull you back in when you stray too far. It is like finding a doctor with a good bedside manner—you want an editor who will heal your copy, make you feel better, encourage you...and who can do it in as painless a way as possible. But to get to that stage, you have to trust your doctor/editor. You have to really believe they know what they are doing, that what they are recommending is actually good for the story, for your career.
Look at it this simple way: At the end of the day, it is your name that's going on the story. Most readers—99.9 percent—won't have a clue who edited the story. And most of them won't care. You'll be judged, not the editor. Remind yourself of that fact in the editing process—and, if you must, remind the editor.
Mike: What's the best way for a novice writer to approach an editor and quickly get his/her attention?
Minutaglio: Don't play games and write some hokey cover letter that reads like bad advertising copy. One of the best ways to approach an editor is through another writer—I can't emphasize that enough. Write a fan letter to a writer who happens to be writing for the editor you want to work for. Most writers are enormously flattered to hear from anyone, and they are enormously flattered when you seek their advice. After praising their work, ask them, directly, about the editor—ask them how to break into the publication. Ask them if they'd like you buy 'em lunch. Ask them to put in a good word for you. Once you know the best way to approach the editor (e-mail, drop by the office, snail mail), do it ASAP, try to invoke the name of the writer who set you up—but only if you are sure that writer didn't get on the dark side of the editor. One of the best things to tell an editor is that you CAN MEET A DEADLINE. YOU WILL NOT SCREW UP THE DEADLINE. YOU ARE DEADLY SERIOUS ABOUT DEADLINES. You also want to convey to the editor that you are the consummate reporter—most editors like to think that they can take care of the writing at some level, that they will massage the prose into brilliant copy. They have, really, very little control over the reporting. So you have to be prepared to tell editors you are a bad-ass reporter. You are, in fact, the only reporter who can accomplish the particular story.
Also, don't adopt a tone of over-familiarity. Editors are sometimes perpetually wary—they serve several masters and they operate under the belief that they have to please the corporate gods above them, and they have to deal with high-maintenance egotistical writers on the other end of the spectrum. Editors sometimes tend to operate with a healthy dose of skepticism about you—until they get to know you. They view each new writer through this prism: What will he/she do for me? Will this new writer improve my standing at the magazine or newspaper? Will I win praise for finding this new writer? What's in it for me? Perhaps this is an unfortunate outgrowth of the media age in which we live, but many editors now simply want to know "what value will this writer bring to me and this publication?" And "value" often means several things—how will this writer boost readership, get my publication some buzz, sell some copies of my publications, etc.
Speaking of that kind of thinking, when you are composing your cover letter to editors, you absolutely should toot your horn now and then -- mention the awards you might have won, the big editors you worked with, the big publications you worked with. Editors need to know that you are "pre-approved"—that someone else out there once took a chance on publishing your work.
Mike: What did you do as bureau chief? And since you've done both writing and editing, what's the difference?
Minutaglio: I didn't do hands-on editing. I was more of an assignments editor, I guess, than anything else...I assigned people to do different bits of work, based on their expertise, etc. I think editing, in many ways, is less about ego-gratification—writers obviously get all the glory. There's greater stability, and often greater money, in editing. Editing, I think, used to be really valued—but these days so many editors are "acquisitions editors"—a term I heard when I began writing books. Editors these days—at newspapers, magazines, publishing houses—are frequently put in the position of, first and foremost, "acquiring" someone to write a piece or a book. They spend more time doing that—finding someone, cutting a deal, imposing deadlines, handling contracts—than actually sitting down and crafting and editing a story. I've been lucky to work with a handful of editors who are good at giving praise (most important ability in an editor, I think) and then really working with the usually, overly sensitive writer to craft and sculpt a story. I've always felt that editors and writers are really going to be 2 different personalities—one is the thoroughbred, the other is the jockey. It's a big ride, a big dance, and they bring different dimensions to the table. Most people remember the great horse—but not too many people remember who was aboard Secretariat. You now know Seabiscuit, but most people still probably can't remember the jockey (or the trainer—another kind of editor).
Mike: What are editors looking for from writers?
Minutaglio: Totally situational question. Depends on who the editor is and, especially, what publication he/she is working for. That said...all editors want someone reliable. No flakes allowed. The days of editors indulging someone's eccentricities, funky demands, etc., are over—nobody gets indulged, a la Hunter Thompson, other than, well, probably Hunter Thompson. YOU HAVE TO MEET YOUR DEADLINE. You have to project a sense of authority, discipline AND creativity all at once. You have to tell them that you are the best reporter, the most responsible reporter, and yet you can bring a new angle, a fresh view, to the story unlike anything ever seen. It's an art form, a tricky balance -- you want to be authoritative but creative. You don't want to seem like a dinosaur from Ye Olde Print Age—you want to be fresh, smart, intelligent. Editors are endlessly worried about what's in store for the future. Virtually every publication is consumed with "editorial meetings" to discuss The Digital Age, online journalism, the Web, etc.—editors, because they are inherently linked to the business-side of most publications, are afraid for their lives. They are moving in uncharted waters—and every day they read some new story about dwindling circulation at various publications. And they worry a lot. And frankly, you might be able to make that work to your advantage -- many editors simply aren't conversant with the New Media, with the Digital Media. And if you can suggest to them that your story will appeal to new readers, to New Media readers/consumers, that you have a handle on how to deliver news to this shifting demographic and readership...then editors will probably be receptive. They don't have the answers to the New Media conundrum—and if you suggest you do, then it should give you some leverage, some cachet, some interest.
Mike: How do you define great writing?
Minutaglio: Some writer friends and I used to operate from a simple premise: Try to think of writing as jazz....in the sense that there for many jazz musicians, the challenge each time they step up to play is how to do it in a completely original way. Improvisation lends itself to that technique. As writers, we would sit before the blank screen and say: How do I write this story, how do I tell this story, in a way that has never been told before?
In other words, great writing, by definition, is distinguished writing -- it is distinguished from other forms of writing, other stories on the subject you have tackled.
SIDE NOTE: YOU ARE A FOOL IF YOU DON'T ACCUMULATE EVERY FAIRLY DEFINITIVE, FAIRLY GOOD, STORY EVER WRITTEN ABOUT THE SUBJECT YOU ARE GOING TO REPORT AND WRITE ON. IN OTHER WORDS, IF YOU ARE DOING A PROFILE OF KANYE WEST, PEDRO MARTINEZ, JOHN KERRY—ANYBODY—THEN YOU BETTER READ ALL THE GOOD STORIES THAT HAVE ALREADY BEEN DONE. IT'S NOT JUST TO FIND OUT SOME NECESSARY BACKGROUND INFORMATION—NOT ONLY TO LEND ACUTELY INTIMATE DETAILS TO YOUR STORY BUT TO SEE HOW YOU CAN DISTINGUISH YOUR STORY FROM ALL THOSE STORIES BEFORE IT.
To me, it's very rare to find newspaper and magazine stories that are brilliant from the first word to the last word. I define great writing as a serious of flourishes that add up to some sort of sense of fulfillment—at the end of the story, you feel something. Sadness. Triumph. Tragedy. Some emotional dimension is sated. I happen to like stories that almost sail across a bittersweet sea—and might even end with a few more questions raised than answered. I happen to be wary of writing that is so bold and declarative and intense that it shouts out that the world is best viewed in black-and-white—that this story contains the whole, complete, unfettered truth…that this story answers all the questions. The simple fact is that writers will never capture reality perfectly. We can try to come close to it. Some come closer than others. But great writing is still ultimately going to be an attempt to faithfully describe—as opposed to perfectly depict. It's a subtle but important difference.
I like writing that suggests there is always something you can't quite grasp, that life is bittersweet, that there are eternal mysteries, that life is defined by things we know...and by things we don't know. It's hard to get this across, but I think great writing has an air of mystery in it, an air of humility, a sense that the writer is confident in all of the facts and all of the reporting...but is aware, at the same time, that life takes unexpected twists and turns, that interview subjects sometimes say what they think a reporter wants to hear as opposed to the nitty-gritty, often mundane, reality.
I like writing that can capture the evanescent way life moves, the way life is uncertain, the way you have to constantly have some form of faith...in yourself, in your craft, your family. I like a bittersweet ending to a story. Life, despite what some politicians and editors think, is not written in black-and-white—life is lived in the gray zone, filled with ups and down, a damned rollercoaster really. And I think great writing somehow always reflects that in some way. If you find me one person who says he is perfectly, eternally blissful then I will tell you they aren't really truthful—I think great writing reflects a bit of the uncertainty in life.
This reminds me of a scene in a Woody Allen movie where he's walking down the street and being, as usual, a schleppy New York Neurotic...and he's wondering why he can't be happy, why other people seem to be happy, etc. He spots an unbelievably attractive, bright, sunny-looking young couple walking across the street—and he decides to go up to them and say something like:
"Excuse me, I hate to bother you, but you both seem so happy, can you tell me how you do it?"
The happy-smiling couple looks at him and the woman replies:
"I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say."
The guy she's with then says: "And I'm exactly the same way. Well, we have absolutely no opinions on anything."
Mike: How do print magazine editors view online clips and/or self-published book authors?
Minutaglio: I guess my answer is that online clips are now as good as old-fashioned hard-copy clips. I have seen some online clips that, when printed out and put in a clip book, seem to resonate better with editors. If you are in an e-mail exchange with editors, then you can send them links to your stories. Things have changed so fast that this method is pursued all the time. As for self-published books, I think the sense that these are just vanity projects is beginning to wear off. As the publishing world becomes more self-directed and anyone can publish a webzine, a blog, a book—I think younger editors are more at ease with work that has been created AND published by the same person. And, I think that sense of ease is quickly spreading into the upper reaches of mainstream publications.
Mike: What does an editor really do?
Minutaglio: Send out rejection notices.
[He laughs] Just kidding.
More and more, many editors are turning into "acquisition editors"—in other words, they are bound up with budgets, buying stories, etc., as opposed to sitting down with writers and crafting stories to perfection. An editor wears several hats. Some editors are good at finding story ideas. Some editors are "assignments editors"—I used to do this, wherein I would try to find writers around the country that could do particular stories. Some editors are "line editors"—editors who simply go over a story, line by line, and fix the language. Some editors, and I have only worked with a handful of these, have some sort of cosmic, almost intuitive, ability to artfully mold and sculpt your work. They have a big picture sense—they get where you are trying to go. They understand what you are trying to accomplish. They hear your voice—even though the words on the page might not yet reflect what you want to say. They know you well enough to cajole changes out of you—or to generate good work from you.
Having a good editor is like having a good relationship. It takes time. It's completely frustrating and sometimes, when it works, completely exhilarating.