Sunday, November 19, 2006

Black Diamond Writer's Network

It was great fun speaking to the Black Diamond Writer's Network in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, this weekend. Tamaqua is a great railroad town in Pennsylvania's coal region. Its name comes from an Indian word meaning "little beaver" and refers to the nearby Little Schuylkill River, which was apparently a popular place for beaver families.

Another kind of family has developed here: a writer's group that meets monthly at the Tamaqua Public Library, just a stone's throw from the town's historic railroad station. Our discussion was about query letters and the process of getting published in print magazines. Here's a recap:

* A query letter is a freelance writer's way of introducing an article idea and him- or herself to a magazine's editor (or a newspaper's, newsletter's, or other kind of editor). The goal is to sell your writing to the editor without having to write the whole article.

* Smart writers research their target markets and don't send out "shrapnel" queries. Research includes looking up the magazine's Web site, looking up the publication's writer's guidelines in resources such as the Writer's Market and at the Wooden Horse Publishing Web site, looking at the publication's content over the last year (you might be able to find back issues at your library), and of course by reading the publication. (You'd be surprised how many people query publications they've never even seen. If you've done it, you're not alone. I've done it, too, to my detriment. It's all part of the learning process.)

* Figure out where your article will best fit in with the publication, and especially if you're new to the editor, query with a short piece that could fit in a regular department of the publication. You can research where your best foot-in-the-door options are at different types of publications in books like Shirley Kawa-Jump's How to Publish Your Articles. Be careful about what rights you're willing to sell. (I'll cover that in another blog entry.)

* If you're not already in one, join a writer's group or critique group to get feedback on your query. It's always better to have another pair of eyes look at your work. And whatever you do, proofread everything. If an editor sees that you cannot spell correctly, your query will probably end up in the circular file.

* Include a couple samples of your best writing. These are called "clips." When possible, send examples of published work, especially if it relates to the article you're querying about. If you have no clips, consider writing for a newsletter or Web site (you'll probably get little or no pay, but sometimes it's worth it to get to the next level; sometimes it's not).

* Editors are usually fairly quick about getting back to writers when they want to buy an article, but they get bogged down just like the rest of us. If you don't hear back in the amount of time they promise (see their writer's guidelines), a short follow-up e-mail is appropriate. If you don't hear back after that, assume the editor is uninterested. If you're hungry to get published in that magazine, hit the editor with another query.

* Keep track of your queries and your success rate by using the electronic version of Writer's Market, or develop your own system. Having a system in place will help when you're ready to start marketing your published pieces as reprints.

* Remember that if you get rejections or no reply at all, remember that it's not personal. The editor may be slightly rude--especially if you included a SASE in your query and you never hear back--but they really do get inundated with mail and other responsibilities. These days editors in all areas of publishing have to justify their salaries like never before. They often have thick skin, are super-efficient, and keep their resumes updated at all times. Their jobs are never secure.

* If you hear nothing, return to your critique or writer's group to get feedback on what might've gone wrong. Remember, it may be that your writing style may not be a perfect fit, there might be a similar article in the works, or any number of reasons why your idea didn't work for that publication.

* Then keep going.

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