MIKE’S TEN COMMANDMENTS TO WRITING SUCCESS: A NO-FAIL APPROACH/Part 1
By Michael P. Geffner
These principles represent the best advice I can give anyone interested in making writing a career. Study them, learn them, and, most of all, do them. You'll be amazed by the results.
1) Be a letter writer, not a resume sender. Resumes get shoved into the bottomless pit of file cabinets or dumped into the black holes of wastebaskets. Learn instead to be an aggressive composer of letters, though not sending these so often to the same editor that you become increasingly annoying. There's a fine line between persistence and being a nuisance. Don't cross that line, lest you risk turning people off who control your fate in the industry. In your letters, sell yourself like a salesperson, with you, of course, being the valuable commodity: who you are, what makes you different and better, what passions you have, how eager you are to work hard, and why you-and not someone else--should be working for the publication. The stationery and envelope should be of the highest quality (first impressions count!) and smaller than standard letter size (the small size virtually guarantees you'll be put on the top of the pile by the secretary). The letter itself should be flawless and tightly constructed, and the envelope should always be marked "personal and confidential" (to pass the gatekeeper). Your singular theme should be this: I know I can make a difference at your publication. You need people like me. You must use me.
2) Come up with five solid ideas, things hopefully you're passionate about and expert in, and write a couple of paragraphs on each (exactly what the story is and how you'd be attacking it). Make sure these "pitch letters" are well written (the editor will be judging your writing talent every step of the way) and targeted at the appropriate publications, ones publishing similar type stories. Fitting your story to the right publication is key. It should be as natural as a hand slipping smoothly in a glove.
3) Timing is everything. Spot trends and hit publications quickly with story ideas based on these, before someone else beats you to the punch. The hot item of the day approached uniquely is always a great way to get into print. Believe me, a well-timed pitch is gold!
4) Establish as personal a contact as possible with editors. Try to establish a phone connection at the very least, but face time is infinitely better and should without question be your goal. It's harder to reject a real live breathing person than a faceless name at the top of another letter. In fact, in your letters to editors, write a sentence about how you'll be calling on a specific day to discuss your "wonderful" ideas. This opens the door for your phone call. It won't be easy. It's like telemarketing at this point. But remember: Every rejection puts you closer to a sale. Though you'll have to pass some gate keepers to get to the top editors, always be professional, polite but pleasantly forceful. And if anyone asks what your business is with this editor, say it's personal. I mean, let's face it, your career is personal. Also, as a way around secretaries and assistants, you can call before 9 AM and after 5 PM-when they aren't there. And be prepared what you'll say if the editor actually gets on the line. Don't ramble. Get to the point and get off. Less is better. Make contact and leave on a high note. You want editors liking you enough to take your phone calls, not dreading the next one.
5) Study and immerse yourself in the marketplace. You need to get in the game to win it. Read media columns and industry magazines, join writing clubs, scan the net for resource sites, buy market books, get insider newsletters. Know the business inside out. Talk the talk and walk the walk. Editor and peers will know a professional when they see one.
6) Read what the best writers in your particular genre are doing. If you're a magazine writer, get yourself a copy of the annual anthology Best American Magazine Writing. If you're a short story writer, pick up The Best American Short Stories. See how it's done at its best. It'll be a great guide for what YOU should be doing. And read not for enjoyment but to learn. Study the writer's art and craft, and even try to imitate it. In pop speak, this is called Modeling.
7) Networking is nearly as important as talent. This took me a long time to understand--and believe. I always felt that the talent alone would get me to where I wanted to go. Not true. I found that out the hard way. You need to know people. A lot of them. My advice: Write "networking letters" to major editors (at the top of the masthead), not asking for work (never do that in a networking letter!) but simply for advice on how to succeed as a writer. I mean, these are the industry leaders you'll be contacting. They know a ton of inside info you don't, as well as a ton of other influential people in the business. Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting, between 15 minutes to a half-hour long at THEIR convenience in their office. You'll not only likely get some wonderful advice but will also establish yourself with a power broker. If he or she likes you enough and believes in you, he or she will likely consider you for future or current work (without you ever asking), or might refer you to another power broker. In other words, it multiplies naturally. One contact could lead to six. And after every visit, write a thank you note for them both graciously giving you their precious time and imparting some great information. Networking can also include your friends and family, who may have contacts in the field. Don't be afraid to reach out for help. You'll be amazed how many people will reach right back.
8) Do something toward furthering your writing career every single day. Read a book on writing. Write a pitch letter. Apply for a writing job. Set up an interview for a writing job. Write a networking letter to an editor. Arrange a meeting with an editor. Read a book by a great writer (not so much for entertainment but analyzing what the author does to achieve a certain effect). Read magazines and newspaper articles about the industry in media/publishing sections (This is a wonderful way to find the names of top agents). The thing is, you need to be proactive and be it daily. Action breeds action! It also adds up: A single "positive" every day builds into 365 in a year!
9) Write every single day, no matter what. Your mind is like a muscle. It needs a regular workout to stay strong and sharp. It's like the man who asks someone on the street, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" And the other man says, "Simple. Practice, practice, practice."
10) Don't give up. The secret to ultimate success of any kind, I'm convinced, is persevering in the face of repeated rejection. If a newspaper/magazine/publishing house/literary agency doesn't accept you at first glance, try them again six months later. Editors, people, and philosophies change frequently. If you're not the cup of tea for one, you might be for another. The trick to succeeding as a writer, I feel, is having the strength and conviction to jump hurdles. Never take "no" for a final answer. Simply consider it the start for coming up with a more effective approach. Bottom-line is, if you write well, have great ideas and are well connected, success is definitely yours!
1) Don’t forget that networking is just as important as your talent and computer. It’s a must-have tool in your writing existence. You need to seek out contacts, preferably the power brokers at the top of the masthead or high-level editors, and cultivate them as “allies.” If you ignore this aspect of the business, believe me, you’ll suffer the consequences. I hear all the time from writers, “But I don’t like to mingle. I’m too shy. I’m not a good talker.” My response is matter-of-fact: “This is the way the game is played. If you don’t want to play, don’t expect to win.” Which means: Don’t expect editors to come to you. They won’t. Like Mohammed, you need to go to the mountain. I don’t care how much talent you think you have. It’s not enough to “make your career” all by itself. And remember: If you’re not cultivating contacts, some other writer out there is.
2) Force yourself to work under deadline pressure. Deadlines are what separate the professional from the hobbyist. Pros can’t wait for inspiration, or an act from God, to propel their creativity. They write because they have to, because someone on the other end is waiting for their work. They write whether rain, sleet, or snow, and all hours of the day and night. I’ve tortured myself to hit deadlines over the years, from five-minute ones to monthlies. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s where the tough gets tougher. So, either get assigned to something with a due date or create an artificial one. If nothing else, it’s good practice to see how well you function in such a situation. You may actually find that you’re not cut out to write professionally, that in reality you’re merely a dabbler. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just good to know where you stand.
3) Build a portfolio before you start hitting the major newspapers/magazines/publishers. Mind you, I’m not even remotely suggesting that you work for free. I’m really not. In fact, I insist on writers ALWAYS getting paid at least something for their hard work. What I am saying is this: You can’t expect to be published in the New York Times or sell a book for a $400,000 advance or get a major assignment from Sports Illustrated or People Magazine with little or no experience. You must pay your dues, like any other profession. You won’t go from singing in the shower to headlining in Vegas. That’s not realistic and you’ll be hitting your head against a brick wall if you try. Instead, moving up the publishing ladder a step at a time, for more and more money, you should get at least 5-8 clips together, sizeable ones that show off your writing ability, before considering the “big boys.” Begin with local papers or small magazines or trade publications. Make your “bones” there, where the competition isn’t too stiff and where you’ll have the freedom—and opportunities—to develop your own voice. And consider each story you write an audition for something better and higher paying. In other words, write the heck out of it. Make it brilliant!
4) Read something every day. Magazines, newspapers, books. But try to be choosy. Read things written by great writers. And don’t be a passive reader, be an active one: analyze what the writer is doing, what the writer does to achieve a certain effect, what the writer does with plot, characters, dialogue, action, exposition, etc. Read, read, and read. The theory: Whatever goes into your brain is likely, in time, to find its way out. It’s called “filling your cup.” By mere osmosis, you’ll absorb the craft without even knowing it. Great writing will be in you, dying to get back out.
5) Write something every day. No matter what. Forget that you’re tired or don’t feel like it. You’re supposedly a writer. So write. Don’t be a pretender. And don’t even think about that dreaded of all things creative: writer’s block. If you’re convinced you have writer’s block, just write about it. Write about why you think you’re blocked. Trust me, this’ll snap you out of it in a hurry. Remember, all writers, from Tolstoy to Hemingway to Stephen King, have written badly before they wrote well.
6) Make friends with other artists, especially with happy, positive, and successful ones. It’ll inspire you to be around other wonderfully creative people and to be able to share ideas back and forth. Afterwards, your energy will fly off the chart.
7) Make sure you spell correctly and are grammatical in your dealings with editors. I can’t tell you how many letters/notes/e-mails I get from “writers” with grossly ungrammatical sentences and a slew of misspellings. I cringe. It turns me off immediately—as I’m sure it will with editors. These are the tools of your craft. Learn how to use them—or else. Buy a grammar/spelling book, for God’s sake. Get a good “spell/grammar check” program. There’s no excuse for sloppy English. One misstep will likely sink you with an editor you’re trying to sell a story to.
8) Know as much as you can about the editor and the publication/publishing house before firing off a proposal. The more you know, the more you can “target” your approach. It’ll likely also give you a step up on the competition, since most writers don’t do this extra homework (at least, they didn’t until they read it here). A great example of someone going that extra yard for success is the great golfer Jack Nicklaus. Before playing in tournaments, The Golden Bear would arrive in town a few days early just to scout out the course. Taking a golf cart, he’d ride around jotting down in a small notebook observations and ideas on how to play certain holes. No wonder he won more major tournaments than anyone else did. One time, playing in the Masters, another golfer noticed that Nicklaus look decidedly perplexed. “What’s wrong, Jack?” To which Nicklaus responded, “There’s supposed to be a telephone pole there.” The pole had been removed a day earlier. Jack knew it was there!
9) Find a mentor. Someone who’s a successful writer who can teach you the ropes and keep you from making the same mistakes he/she did. A tour guide, in a way, who can lead you down this dark, mysterious tunnel called the writing business. It’ll not only save you a ton of time reaching your goals as a writer but will also keep you from climbing the wall with frustration. A mentor can be your answer man (or woman) on all problems.
10) Stay on the case. Don’t be a lazy slug even for a moment. Be relentless in your writing and your search for work. Do everything to improve yourself as a writer and never stop sending letters and making phone calls to editors. Aggressiveness, without being annoyingly so, is the key. That is, don’t stalk your editors. You’ll force them to run for the hills and never look back! Just show editors that you want it. They’ll likely be swept up in your passion, and may ultimately even admire you. Bottomline, fight for your writing dreams with everything you have and never let go!
1) Pitch stories that you absolutely own. The best way to get an editor’s attention, especially if you’re relatively new to the game or not very high up on the “publishing credits” ladder, is to offer an idea that no one else can do—but YOU! Is it an exclusive interview with someone who’s turning down everybody else? Is it a story that only you know about? Are you the sole expert in this subject? Own a story up and down and you’ll have a huge advantage like you never had before.
2) Always push for more work. Once you’ve made headway with a publication—which means you’ve built up a mutual trust and respect with an editor or editors—keep asking for more assignments or keep pitching ideas. Writing can often be a momentum business. Don’t stop the flow. Also, if you have a published story on the stands, it’s the best time to pitch editors at other places. You’ll seem like the hot commodity of the moment.
3) Rejection should only be the beginning, not the end. Two things to consider here: A. Just because a publication nixes your story idea—or you in particular—doesn’t mean the next place will do the same. If you believe in yourself and your idea, never give up on it. B. Just because a publication rejects you outright doesn’t mean the same place won’t accept you six months later. At most places, there’s high turnover. Editors, as well as mission statements, change quickly.
4) Don’t hang all your hopes on resumes, clip packages, and query letters. Go into any high-level editor’s office and you’ll see stacks of unopened envelopes that nearly reach the ceiling. You’re annoyed, or depressed, that an editor hasn’t gotten back to you? Don’t be. He or she likely hasn’t even seen the contents of your envelope yet—and may never. Make phone calls (without being a stalker). Make meetings (without being demanding). In the writing game, as in most businesses, relationships matter more than anything in an envelope.
5) Learn to negotiate for more money. No matter what a publication offers, it’s often way less than it can afford. Always express mild disappointment at the first number, then pleasantly, professionally, ask for a little more. Understand that I don’t suggest this method for rank beginners. You’ll risk losing the assignment. It’s also running before learning to crawl. But for anyone with decent experience, you’ll gain greater respect by not jumping at the first number thrown at you. Also, if in the end a place refuses to budge on the story fee, ask for something else that doesn’t cost them money, such as your byline bigger or your name—and story teased—on the front cover. Or simply agree to do the story at their price for now (make it seem like you’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart) but, if they love the final product, that the next one will have to pay more. Always have a strategic plan when negotiating a story deal (have an answer ready for anything that might come up) and always get it in writing.
6) Whatever writing you do, try your best to be utterly unique and way above average. You want to put yourself in position where a publication or publisher can’t get what you do from any other writer. This is what gets the big jobs and the big dollars and the big careers.
7) Don’t beg. Always act as if you’re confident in your work and yourself, exuding an attitude that says, “I’d love to do this story for you, I really would, but if you’re not sure that you want it, I’m certain that some other publication will.” In other words, never show weakness, because editors will pick up on that and run away from it.
8) Don’t be a pest or a complainer or unprofessional. Editors will always choose the path of least resistance, wanting to work with writers that carry the least amount of baggage and write the cleanest, most thorough copy. Maybe if you win the Pulitzer, you’ll gain some extra rope. But until then, you best be a writer that editors love to work with.
9) Keep making baby steps upward. Don’t get too comfortable at a certain level. Keep challenging yourself. This will force you to make the work better and better, as well as help you make more and more money.
10) Don’t worry so much about people stealing your ideas. At the major publications, it hardly, if ever, happens. Plus, assuming you’re hitting a smaller, less trustworthy market, you should have so many ideas that if someone steals one that it wouldn’t matter in the least, because you have dozens upon dozens of them. The writing business is an idea business. If you don’t have ideas gushing out of your brain on a daily basis, you might want to try some other work.
Note: I plan to keep adding to this list as long as I live.