Thursday, January 8, 2009

Spotlight Interview: Michael Caruso, Magazine Editor/Writer, Web Site Owner

Michael Caruso, Magazine Editor/Writer, Web Site Owner

Michael Caruso is one of the true superstar editors in the world of magazine publishing. He has been the Editor-in-Chief of such major magazines as Men’s Journal, Details, Los Angeles, and the now-defunct Maximum Golf; the Senior Articles Editor at Vanity Fair, Executive Editor at The Village Voice, and Editor-at-Large at Condé Nast Portfolio.

He’s edited the brilliant likes of Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Frank Deford, Roger Rosenblatt, and Ron Rosenbaum, and written for a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Travel & Leisure.

Currently, he’s the Editor-in-Chief of the Web site he founded, The Daily Tube (

Here is my exclusive interview with Mr. Caruso:

Mike: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Caruso: Luckily, it happened very early in my career, when I was an intern at the Nation. A top editor from another magazine came in to speak to us one day, and he said the key to getting writing assignments was making an editor care about you. He went on to say that while you have to come across as talented, energetic, passionate, someone with a lot of good ideas, you need to make an editor your champion. Especially when you’re on the outside looking in. If you come across as arrogant, a know-it-all with the “best ideas,” or saying you’re better than the writers they’re using already, you’re going about things the wrong way. That attitude won’t work. The best way to break through is to come across as someone asking for the editor’s advice, their help, to get stories into print at their publication.

Mike: What’s the biggest mistake that writers make with their query letters?

Caruso: Number one, they seem like they’ve never read the magazine. Before you pitch some publication, read through back issues, at least 3-5. You’ve got to understand the difference between each publication. Each one of them sees itself very differently. You’ve got to understand what the difference is between Self and Men’s Journal and Glamour and so on. You can’t just come up with a great idea and pitch it to a bunch of places. You’ve got to really tailor your pitch by reading, studying the magazine thoroughly and having a clear understanding what they’re going after. So, please, know the publication thoroughly before you pitch them. Don’t just randomly pitch.

For instance, Men’s Journal is an adventure-travel magazine. It’s all about adrenaline, testosterone, daring, thrilling events. Yet I can’t tell you how many pitches I got about basically just travel, with no adventure. Or pitches about spas in exotic locales, or about some wine tour in Italy. The way I see that: It’s just something the writer came up with to get a free trip to someplace he really wanted to go.

Bottomline, if the writer doesn’t seem to know what my magazine is about, I won’t even look at the second sentence of the pitch.

Please, please, think precise, not generic. Think pitching the appropriate editor with an appropriate idea that’s appropriately crafted.

That approach will give you the best odds of getting your story into print.

Mike: What advice do you have about query letters?

Caruso: If it’s a writer I’m not familiar with, the letter better catch my attention in a big way and right from the start. Don’t waste any time on who you are and what you’ve done and where you’ve been. Not yet anyway. Get right into the juice. Editors are like anybody else. We have to be hooked right away. Otherwise you’re going to put it down. Take your cues from the leads of great stories you’ve read. Make the lead of your pitch as powerful as you can. Like the very best pieces, your letter should be exciting, dramatic, and compelling. If the letter is boring, then the story will likely be boring. And if somebody can’t write a good query letter, I doubt that they can write a good article.

The most important thing in both cases is your lead. If you can’t write a good lead, nobody will be interested in the rest of your letter OR your story.

For a feature story, I’d suggest two paragraphs of what you want to write. Keep the whole thing as short as possible. The whole query letter should be no more than one page.

Further down, after I’m into the pitch, I want to know who the writer is. I need to know qualifications. I need to know whether this is somebody who can pull this idea off.

And don’t bank entirely on one idea. Give me five ideas. You don’t know what I’m looking for unless you pitch more than one idea at a time.

I know a lot of writers are skittish about this. They think their ideas are going to be stolen. Believe me, at major publications, theft of ideas is not really a huge issue. So don’t be worried about losing an idea. And if you are, if you’re too attached to one thing or a couple of things, then you don’t have enough ideas. You have to become better at coming up with them. If you’re really having trouble coming up with more than one idea at a time, you need to work harder at that skill. The people who are the most successful at this are the least afraid of someone stealing from them. Their attitude is, “Okay, I dare you, steal this one. I have 20 more.”

If you think one of your ideas is so precious, you probably don’t have enough of them to make it in this business. You have to be a little more cavalier, and less attached to your ideas, just as you need to be less attached to your words during the editing process.

And just because you have one really great idea doesn’t make you a writer. Just like having one great idea for a movie doesn’t make you a filmmaker.

Mike: Should a writer email or snail mail queries?

Caruso: I don’t have a strong preference one way or the other. Either way can work. And there’s nothing wrong with doing both. Obviously, that improves your chances of getting through and having the pitch read.

Mike: Is there a way to get your letter to the top of the pile?

Caruso: Yeah, get a reference from one of the staff or from someone outside who knows someone inside.

Mike: Where in the masthead should the writer be pitching ideas?

Caruso: Well, in general, unless it’s a very small publication, don’t go to the editor in chief. Just don’t. He’s got so much stuff on his/her plate that it’s extremely rare for him/her to respond. Start anywhere but the editor in chief. The highest you should go is the executive editor, and even that may be too high. Your best bet is calling the magazine’s editorial department and asking which editor takes pitches on such and such. A simple two-minute phone call and you’ll increase your odds on getting your idea accepted by so much. Find out who’s in charge of the section that best fits your story idea. Once you reach the right editor, that’s half of the game, half the battle.

Mike: What if I send a query letter and don’t hear back for a month?

Caruso: For starters, keep balanced. Don’t take it personally. Don’t get upset. Don’t take any lag in response as a personal affront. Most of the time, the editor simply hasn’t had the time to get to it. Give that editor the benefit of the doubt. Assume he/she has had a tremendous amount of timely work to get to.

What you should do is wait a reasonable amount of time, around two weeks or so, then get in touch with the person you sent it to. Remember that you’re not pestering if you’re asking. Often, you’re reminding somebody of something they meant to get to anyway. In fact, I’m appreciative of the reminder. I’ve rarely felt annoyed by a writer reminding me about a pitch. I’ll usually say, “Thanks, now I’ll get to it.” But do things in the nicest way possible. Not, “What the hell is taking you so long? I sent this in two weeks ago.” Be mild-mannered, gently concerned, but not belligerent. Another example would be something like a brief email saying, “Hey, just wondered if you were able to get to my query letter. In case you need it, here it is again.” And re-copy it into the body of the email or attach it.

At some point, if you it’s gone on for too long, you may want to take the idea somewhere else. And you can send the publication a note to that effect, along the lines of: “Listen, I submitted this about a month ago, and I really wanted to do it for you guys. Please get back to me if you can with a yes or no. If you’re not interested, I’d like to take it somewhere else.” That’s perfectly reasonable and appropriate.

Mike: Any last words about queries?

Caruso: Well, at the beginning, while it’s not a bad idea to pitch to big publications, if that’s all you’re doing, you’re going to get very frustrated. Big publications, with rare exceptions, are looking for established writers. Obviously, it’s much easier to get accepted by smaller publications. And when you’re starting out, building clips, putting a portfolio together, is paramount.

Another thing is, don’t take rejections of queries personally. There are all kinds of reasons why an editor passes on a story idea. We might’ve done that story six months ago and you didn’t know it. Maybe a competitor of ours just did it. It could be a lot of things that have nothing to do with the quality of your idea and writing.

Mike: You’ve been a writer as well as an editor. Which is tougher?

Caruso: Oh, god, being a writer, by far. Being a writer can be an extremely difficult life, if not tortuous at times. It’s like being an actor going on audition after audition, living and dying on someone else’s opinion, judged all the time. Here you are, with work you’ve poured your sweat and inspiration into, and you need to wait on pins and needles for some sort of verdict.

Mike: What’s the best way to deal with that kind of life?

Caruso: To stay as emotionally detached as possible. I know that’s easy to say, hard to do. But you need to try to accomplish that for your own sanity. If you’re too emotionally attached to your work, you’ll drive yourself crazy until you hear back from the editor. And you’ll probably be offended if they find any fault with your story after that wait.

It’s like the actor showing up for an audition and somebody just looking at him/her saying, “You’re too fat,” or “Too tall,” or “You’re not good looking enough.” You need to develop an understanding that you’re merely work-for-hire, a person to help sell issues of the magazine, newspaper, or whatever to the public and pages to the advertisers. Your only purpose from the publication’s point of view is to express the company’s core identity. Nothing more. That’s not to say you can’t write inspired prose. You certainly can. Just keep a clear understanding of what the purpose of those prose is supposed to be.

Mike: What did you learn as a writer that has helped you as an editor?

Caruso: I think I understand how writers think. Writers are in a difficult position, and I really sympathize with them. They are on the outside of an organization looking in, and they don’t really understand the inner workings of a publication—the identity changes, the changes in personnel, and the such. They feel like outsiders just guessing what the publication wants. And when things don’t turn out well, when they have an idea or story rejected, they can’t figure out why. They painfully go over and over in their head: Why did they not like that?

One of the things I try to do, as a result of being a writer, is be really clear about why something worked or didn’t, what I liked or didn’t, to give as much insight into the editorial process as possible. What we’re thinking. How better to do stories that work for us, and ones that will ultimately work for them.

When I was a writer, I absolutely hated the idea of waiting for that phone call. Especially after I handed in a story. You just sit there afterwards staring at the phone, hoping desperately for it to ring. It’s agonizing. Every day that goes by without hearing back from a publication you start thinking about worse and worse scenarios: Should I call them first? Am I being a pest if I call? Oh, my god, they probably hate my story. They’re not going to publish it. What should I do when they call saying they hate it? Or maybe they’ll never call.

It’s horrible. And it’s the reason why during my career as an editor I’ve tried calling writers back as quickly as possible. But I can tell you as an insider that, 95 percent of the time, the editor has had so much work they haven’t even looked at the story yet. Which means you’ve worried for nothing. My advice is: If you haven’t heard back from an editor for a couple of weeks, you’re not being inappropriate by gently emailing, not calling, asking if the story had been read yet. The editor may even appreciate the reminder.

It’s just a mystery for a writer about how editors spend their days. What the heck are these people doing all this time? The truth is, they’re crammed with meetings, negotiations, paperwork, pressing deadlines, art and copy and fact-checking departments, lawyers. We’re not sitting around having lunch all day waiting for stories to be filed.

Writers are infuriated when their calls aren’t returned. They imagine we’re just goofing off and deliberately not getting back to them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mike: Do you have a way of comforting writers when you want them to re-write a piece, an ice-breaking opening line, if you will?

Caruso: Yes. Assuming the piece is workable but still needs some work, I tell them first off, “This is really great, but this is how we’re going to make it better.” I came up with that on my own. What it does immediately is relieve all the stress about failure. Most writers live in such dread of editors hating their work that they just want to hear that everything’s good okay. Before they hear that, they’re imagining in their heads: “This sucks. This is never going to be published. What am I going to do when I get rejected?” So once he/she gets the good news, that it’s fine, he/she will be more receptive to the bad news: that there’s additional work to be done.

Frankly, if it’s a story that’s going to be killed, I won’t sugarcoat it too much. I’ll be honest, saying, “This doesn’t work for us.” If it’s in the middle, I’ll say, “This is fairly good, but not great. And we need to do some really good work to it to get it in the publication.” And I give very, very specific instructions on how to make it better.

The editor needs to say whatever will get the writer to be enthusiastic enough about the work to put in the hours to make it better. The last thing you want is to make the writer defensive or angry, or be offended.

Mike: What does a person need to make it as a professional writer?

Caruso: You have to have the desire and willpower and enthusiasm, as well as a strong stomach. It’s a tough business. Especially freelancing. If you don’t have the stomach to handle rejection and erratic pay and hustling around to sell stories, you probably should go into another profession. Being a freelance writer is an extremely tough way to make a living. You have to really want it. Better take a gut check before you embark on this life. You have a rough road ahead of you. You must have a burning passion for it or else it’ll never happen. Like being an actor again, you need to go to a 100 auditions hoping to land that one part—and expecting to be rejected by 99.

Mike: Any advice about going either staff or freelance?

Caruso: Oh, always go staff if you can. It’s much more difficult to land, but there’s nothing like getting a regular paycheck.

Mike: What’s the best strategy for becoming a full-time professional writer starting out?

Caruso: Make as many contacts as you can. The more the better. The higher up the food chain the better. And you can never have enough. And I’m talking not just about getting to know professional editors but professional writers as well. Build a network. Be a part of the community. And do everything at once and all the time: Networking, pitching, applying for jobs, writing, coming up constantly with new and original ideas.

Mike: What’s one thing a writer should always understand to keep perspective?

Caruso: That, like the line in the Godfather, it’s business, not personal. The best, most successful writers understand this. They know that, ultimately, they and their words aren’t precious gems, but something serving the publication’s purpose. That you’re working purely to help somebody sell that publication. If you want to write precious gems and not have anybody mess around with it, if you want to maintain a voice that goes directly to the reader, I suggest that you write poetry or a novel but don’t write journalism, don’t write for newspapers or magazines.

Mike: What does an editor know that the writer doesn’t?

Caruso: I know what the publication wants, needs. Secondly, in a more objective way, I’m supposed to know what is interesting for our reader. The editor is the stand-in for the reader.

Writers often feel: “The editor just doesn’t understand the value of this story…The editor is dumber than I am…The editor has poor taste…What does he/she know?”

The writer gets so wrapped up in his work he becomes a little corrupt, like an undercover cop getting too close to his criminal sources.

Mike: How can you spot a special writer?

Caruso: I look for how the writer turns a sentence. Is there an interesting little surprise, something unusual?

Mike: At its best, what should the writer look for in an editor?

Caruso: You want a combination father figure, psychologist, and best friend. You want somebody who’s a real partner in the process. Because there you are, all alone in your room, banging on your computer, doing the work in a sort of vacuum. And your editor is your lifeline to the outside world. And the very best editors are just that. That’s one thing I learned as a writer that I hope helps me as an editor. Of course, editors have a lot more to do than being the lifelines to writers. Often, we have more pressing responsibilities, so you need to be patient.

Mike: What’s your most memorable editing experience?

Caruso: My most memorable—and scariest—was handing a story back to Norman Mailer and asking for a re-write. I hyperventilated for about 10 minutes before the meeting with him. When I told him what I thought was wrong with his manuscript, he furrowed his huge brow. I thought I was a dead man. Luckily, he agreed with my points and handed it back with a smile a few days later.

Mike: How about the other famous writers you worked with, such as Joyce Carol Oates and Frank Deford?

Caruso: Ms. Oates was the first big name author I ever worked with. She wrote a piece for me on Mike Tyson—back when he was the young and unstoppable Iron Mike—that eventually became part of her book-length essay On Boxing. We worked over the phone for hours at a time. What I remember most was she had a small voice—careful and polite, which was an interesting contrast to the savagery of Tyson—but a strong sense of what she wanted to say.

Frank became a good friend in the course of our work together. Funny thing about him is, I expected the most famous sportswriter in America to also be the biggest fan. But he doesn’t really follow sports and isn’t interested on that level. He thinks of himself as a writer who just happened to start writing about sports.

Mike: When you were at Vanity Fair, you worked with one of the most famous women editors of all time, Tina Brown (who later went on to be the Editor in Chief of The New Yorker and Talk). What was that experience like?

Caruso: Working with Tina was definitely one of the highlights of my career. She's a whirlwind, a Tasmanian Devil of information and access. Hurricane Tina. She’s able to work her way through a cocktail party and absorb the best bit of news every single person there has to offer.

Mike: What’s the life of an editor-in-chief, the big boss, the No. 1 cheese, like?

Caruso: You’d be amazed how little real editing an editor-in-chief does. Hands-on editing, you do very little. It would have to be a major piece by a major writer for you to get seriously involved in the line editing. And you read manuscripts only in my spare time and during the evening. You almost never read a manuscript until you get home.

Most of the days are nothing but non-stop meetings— with the advertisers, with the money people going over budgets, with the editorial staff discussing future issues and revisions, with the art director going over layout designs constantly.

On an hourly basis some days, all you’re really doing is putting out one fire after the other.

Mike: Lastly, tell us a little about your new venture, The Daily Tube.

Caruso: Well, it’s sort of like a smarter, more sophisticated, adult version of You Tube. We don’t just slap everything up there. So instead of you wasting time watching a lot of bad videos, my service finds the best ones out there and delivers them to your in-box.

Mike: How is writing for the Web different than writing for print?

Caruso: Writing for the Web is all about fast, faster and fastest. The opening line—really the first few words—is crucial. It should be short, punchy and as dramatic as possible. You have to assume every reader has a severe case of ADD. Save your Henry Jamesian sentences for your novel.

Mike: What made you do this thing in the first place?

Caruso: I just thought there had to be a better way of showing videos online than what was already out there. I mean, it’s not going to change the world, but it’s a fun project.

1 comment:

Rachel Rose said...

What a great, substantive interview, Mike--jam-packed with honest, useful stuff! And so great to hear from someone who's worked on both sides of the desk (writer and editor. For the worry-wart writers out there, this inside scoop from Michael Caruso definitely calms some nerves.

Thanks for this!