Friday, June 19, 2009
Spotlight Interview from the Archive: Elfrieda Abbe/Part 1
Elfrieda Abbe, Publisher/Editor/Writer
Elfrieda M. Abbe served as Editor-in-Chief of The Writer magazine for six years before being promoted to Publisher of both The Writer and Bead & Button, the world's leading magazine for the beading hobby.
Abbe began her career as a freelance writer, working for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun Times, Chicago Magazine and an assortment of business and trade journals. She later wrote features for Milwaukee Magazine and became the Editor of the award-winning Arts & Entertainment section for the Milwaukee Sentinel (now known as the Journal-Sentinel)
After working as a publications editor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she assumed the top editorial position at The Writer in 2000 and won four Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Awards during her tenure.
Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Abbe:
Mike: What’s the best piece of writing advice you can offer?
Abbe: One that always applies is, you have to sit down and write and write and write. It seems simple, but it’s really not. It takes a lot of discipline to do it every day and to do it no matter how you feel that day or how freely the words are coming. You need to write even if it looks terrible. Just turn the editor in your head off and write. And then, once you get something done, when the words are down on the page, you can revise it, edit it, play with it as much as you want and make it better. Remember that this takes discipline, so practice it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Mike: Anything else?
Abbe: Yes, one of the best ways to improve your writing, in my opinion, is to have other eyes read your work, especially as it’s being done. Jonathan Franz is one author who doesn’t believe in this at all. He won’t show anything to anyone until he’s completely done. But if you do show your work to someone, it should, of course, be someone you trust: a writing partner, a spouse, or a person in a writing group. Since writers work in such a vacuum, it’s a great thing to have an outside point of view.
Mike: You’ve interviewed some of the most successful writers of our time, such as Scott Turow, Sue Miller, Oliver Sacks, Sarah Peretzsky, and Mary Higgins Clark. What interesting things have you discovered?
Abbe: One thing that has struck me more than anything is, whatever level of achievement they are, they suffer from what all writers suffer from: a mighty struggle with the writing process. Of course, it’s not holding them back in any way. It shows you that writing well is not a magical thing. You may have talent, even a ton of talent, but you still have to work through writing problems like everybody else. And I can’t tell you how fascinating it is to get these great writers to talk about that. It’s so good for our readers to know that they’re in the same boat. It gives them hope.
I haven’t met any writer yet who says they never have trouble. The difference between the great ones and all the others, they know by now, they have the confidence that they can—and will—work through whatever trouble they run into.
Mike: Do they suffer from doubts about their work as well?
Abbe: Oh, my, yes. Mary Higgins Clark once told how when she was working on a book her husband would say to their daughter: “I’m really worried about Mary, because she thinks the book is really terrible, that it’s the worst thing she ever did.” And her daughter would say: “Oh, don’t worry, that happens every time.”
Mike: What’s your best advice to beginning or relative new writers about publishing stories in magazines or newspapers?
Abbe: First off, you should learn how publishing works, how publications are actually put together. You also need to learn the players and what they do. Not necessarily the names of people so much as what the different titles in a masthead represent. You need to know the difference between an editor in chief and an executive editor and a managing editor, an articles editor from a features editor.
Mike: What’s the best way for a writer to pitch you?
Abbe: I prefer one idea at a time. Some writers will send 10 at once and I have to pick. I don’t like that. I just want one good idea well developed. Give me your best idea and a little synopsis of what’s going to happen in the article and how you’re going to do it.
In the first graph, you better provide some kind of a hook. It’s doesn’t have to be clever, but it has to make me interested in the subject matter immediately.
In the second graph, tell me how you’re going to do the story. Will you be doing interviews and if so with whom? How else are you planning on putting this story together?
I love it when a writer presents his or her idea well. It makes me want to work with that person.
In the third graph, I need something about your credentials. I need to know: Is this a writer who can work for us? Is this a writer who’s qualified to do this piece? Even if the idea doesn’t work for us, I might be so impressed by the credentials that I’ll call that writer saying, “Sorry, this doesn’t work but do you have another?” And they should have another idea ready.
Some last things: If a competing magazine just ran a story/article/column similar to the one you’re pitching, I wouldn’t be interested in it. I like to give our readers as fresh an angle as possible. So be aware of the rest of the market, not just the magazine you’re pitching.
And be original. I get so many proposals about doing stories about rejection, how to write query letters, how to find ideas. These stories have been done over and over. To death. So if you really want to do something on those topics, you have to make sure to package it differently, with an exciting, new angle on it.
One such story I went for was how to write a query letter to an agent. The twist: an actual agent wrote it! And what the agent did was so useful and unusual: He numbered 10 things needed in a query letter matching exactly what’s in a “sell sheet,” which is what the publisher uses to sell a book. In other words, if you have these points, you have a way for your agent to sell the book. It was a great approach.