The logistics: publishing articles and essays

A couple of weeks ago I put in a plug for the writers’ podcast, Launch. Host and author John August walks listeners through his process of producing a middle-grade novel from start to finish and answers all sorts of logistical details about contracts, cover art, agents, editors, and even fonts.

This week I promised to share some of the lessons I’ve learned publishing articles and essays. I am by no means an expert, though I’ve had some success, publishing in places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, and The Christian Science Monitor. Probably my most important credential is that I’ve gotten quite comfortable with rejection–a necessary part of the process.

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After participating in a March for Our Lives event with my kids, I wrote this essay for Yes! Magazine.

So, let’s say you’re interested in selling some short-form writing. I can suggest these steps:

  • Read and seek out publications that highlight topics close to your heart. If you’re a yogi, check out Yoga Journal. A champion of the environment with a literary bent? Look into Orion. Also think about more generalist publications that might be keen to offer reporting on your specific interests. For example, after after participating in a gun control march with my kids, I wrote an essay for the progressive Yes! Magazine. While on a year-long family sabbatical, I reached out to a travel editor at The Los Angeles Times and published a couple of articles with her. 
  • Once you’ve identified a few publications you’d like to write for, do a search for their “writers’ guidelines” or “submission guidelines.” This information is gold. Here you’ll learn whether the publication accepts work from freelancers, what they’re looking for, and how to submit. Curious to see some examples? Here are the submission guidelines for Slate and for The Christian Science Monitor‘s Home Forum column. Other publications may not offer explicit submission guidelines (I didn’t find any for The New York Times “Ties” column), but you may be able to find clues on helpful sites like Beyond Your Blog where host Susan Maccarelli generously shares her interviews with editors.
  • Once you’ve read submission guidelines and confirmed that the column or publication you have in mind is open to freelance work, line up several issues of that publication and pick it apart. What kind of voice do they look for? Subject matter? Structure and length? This step is critical. For example, when I wrote travel stories for The Los Angeles Times, they had very specific style guidelines, which at the time prescribed the number of sections an article should be broken into, the word count for each, and formatting for the “If You Go” section, all of which was reflected in features they had already published.
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I recently published this travel feature, based on a family trip, in The Boston Globe.

  • Once you’ve completed this preparatory work, it’s time to come up with story ideas and to start pitching editors. There are whole blog posts out there about how to write a good pitch. It’s worth reading a couple. My few bits of advice: catch the editor’s attention (write a great subject line), tell her what your story angle is, why you’re the person to write it, and why this story is a good match for her specific column, then conclude with a couple-sentence bio, which includes links to your former publications or clips. Depending on the editor’s guidelines, you may include a draft of the piece you’re proposing pasted into the bottom of the pitch email. That bit aside, keep your pitch short! Editors are busy people.
  • Don’t have clips? Start by pitching smaller, lesser-known publications and build from there. And, most of all, get ready for rejection. I’ve sent out many a pitch that was never even acknowledged–most of the time you can assume this isn’t personal. As I said, editors are busy. After a week, if it feels appropriate, you might send out a one-sentence-email nudge, letting the editor know that you’ll be moving on if you don’t hear back from her in the next two days.
  • Finally, I recommend keeping a spreadsheet or two, documenting potential editors, columns and publications, their style guidelines, as well as where you’ve sent a pitch, when, and what kind of response (or lack thereof) you got. Persistence and organization pay off in this domain. As I grew my list of clips, I found that editors were increasingly likely to respond to me.

Good luck and leave comments below if you have any questions or links to successful publications for us to celebrate.

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A perfect podcast for publishing

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Have you ever committed to a regular writing practice, perhaps pulled together an essay or the first few chapters of a novel that felt pretty polished, but then wondered, “How on earth do I get this thing published?”

When I do school author visits or teach writing seminars, questions about the logistics of publishing routinely come up, and for good reason. Commercial publication requires not just honing your craft as a writer but often writing query letters, connecting with agents or editors, and more often than not getting very comfortable with rejection. In a couple of weeks, I’ll write about my experience with commercially publishing essays and articles.

But if your interest is in publishing books I want to put in a plug for a fabulous podcast called Launch. Host John August describes his experience from start to finish of proposing, selling, writing and publishing a middle-grade novel. Along the way he provides answers to important questions about all sorts of topics: Will I need an agent? How do I find one? Can I get a contract without a full manuscript?

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Because questions about the logistics of publishing have little to do with the creative process of writing, their answers can sometimes feel a bit boring: “Well, there’s this website called Publishers Marketplace, and what you do is….”And yet August manages to provide all of the answers I’ve ever heard about publishing fiction while still making his story fun to listen to. I binged on this podcast when I discovered it a couple of months ago!

Check back here in a couple of weeks for a post about my experience publishing articles and essays and the logistical lessons I’ve learned. In the meantime, download the first episode of Launch.

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Authoring America’s future

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Three cheers for the youth of America who are insisting that the U.S. engage in real conversations about gun violence. I hear and admire you!

Part of what inspired me to write A Girl Called Problem–a novel about courageous young people standing up to adultswas watching students in Tanzania challenge corruption at the university where I taught. These students wrote letters, petitions, and newspaper editorials. At first the university threatened to take away their scholarships or even to kick them out, but these young people could not be deterred. Eventually the administration was forced to own up to its own corruption and to change.

This week my kids and I made drawings to put on posters advertising our town’s Youth March for Our Lives event happening on the 24th of March as part of the larger national gun-control movement (find your local march). Here are a few of our drawings:

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Liam, age 10, challenges us to consider whether the Founding Fathers would approve of common citizens carrying automatic weapons.

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Reid, age 8, believes no child should risk death by a gun, and though he’s young, he’s not naive. Many countries have greatly reduced gun deaths by introducing strict gun laws.

Young activists, keep up the good fight! Facts are on your side–higher rates of gun ownership lead to higher rates of homicide and suicide–but right now gun-lobby money and politics are getting in the way of legal reform. This isn’t the first time cynical adults have claimed change isn’t possible, but it is another opportunity for youth to stand on the side of justice and to prove us wrong. Thanks for all you are doing!

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Joining the ranks of team “fake news”

My essay about building a sleep machine for my infant son, Liam, was published today in The New York Times.

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I hope the full essay (found here) provides you with a few good laughs. You might also get a kick out of the video I posted at the end of the previous post. It depicts the baby sleep machine–pulleys, ax handle, and all–in action.

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Pulleys and infant insomnia

I’m working on two books at the moment: Kurinji, a young-adult novel set at a boarding school in the mountains of South India; and Sari Swinging: One Mom Opts out of the American Work-Family Grind, a parenting memoir about raising my son for the first two years of his life in India

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The New York Times will soon be publishing an essay excerpted from the memoir. It’s about a sleep machine my husband, Tim, and I rigged up for our son, Liam, back when he was an infant in India. For the first three months of his life, Liam had colic and the only way we could get him to sleep was on one of our chests with an adult thumb plugging his mouth. When the colicky crying finally ended, we should have sleep trained Liam, but instead we dug ourselves into progressively deeper holes, eventually building Liam a sleep machine out of pulleys, an ax handle, an old sari, and a spring.

Apologies for the poor video quality–it was 2010 and we were poor graduate students with a cheap camera. Regardless the video will give you a sense of what we were up to: no good, at least on the firm parenting front, though, boy, did we ever look smug. I’ll share the essay when it publishes.

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Reporting from Nicaragua

A year ago, my family and I were in Granada, Nicaragua, riding on chicken buses, swimming in geothermally-warmed waters, peeking into a caldera flowing with molten lava, and generally enjoying la vida nicaragüense. As we settle into the latter part of winter (at least where I am now in North America), I thought you might enjoy reading this article I wrote for The Los Angeles Times about our visit to this old Spanish colonial capital.

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My family’s trip to Granada was part of a larger year we spent in Central America. I blogged about our time abroad at Warmer Than Canada, my website about family gap years abroad. Soon I’ll be wrapping up my reports from our year abroad with a final post about our return and readjustment to life stateside, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this glimpse of Nicaragua.

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YA–why the genre distinction?

An interview done by Scott Simon on NPR with author Claire Messud about her novel, The Burning Girl, recently caught my attention.

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The novel is a story of adolescent friendship, but it’s not labeled as YA. This distinction had me thinking of other novels I’ve enjoyed in the last few years in which the protagonists are not grown ups, but the readership is generally intended to be adult: books like Tell the Wolves I’m Home and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Simon asked Messud if anyone gave her trouble about her intended audience and how the book should be labeled. Her response:

When I was growing up, and maybe when you were growing up, too, YA was not a category that existed. There were books about young people. There were books about older people. And there were children’s books that were frankly written for children. But, otherwise, books were just for people. This is a book that is as much for a parent as a child, is as much for a teenager as a grandmother or a grandfather.

It’s a book about what it’s like to be alive and be human, I hope. For me, at least, and for the people – everyone around me that I know – these years are so formative and so central to who we become and how we interact with other people as adults in the world – that to see them as something only of interest to teenagers or adolescents themselves – I think that’s just missing so much of reality.

People often ask me what my target audience is for A Girl Called Problem, perhaps because the premise piques adults’ interest (a girl looking to challenge gender roles in rural, 1960s, post-independence Tanzania), but the protagonist is a kid. My simple answer: the publisher labels the readership as 9-13-year olds, but many of the readers I hear from are adults.

I’m delighted the young-adult and middle-grade genres have exploded since I was a child. There are so many books out there now that have the potential to feel truly relevant to a whole spectrum of young readers: nerds, cool kids, outcasts, struggling readers, action lovers, unusually mature (or immature) kids, poets, artists, city kids, hicks. But I also believe that really quality literature, whether it’s written for kids or adults, transcends age, as Messud suggests.

I’m revising a young adult novel right now, one set in the mountains of South India, and as I rework the dialogue or my descriptions of the feelings of the protagonist teenager and of her friends, I’m aiming to depict what feels like an authentic teen experience, but ideally also one that will feel interesting and fully human for adult readers. That’s a tricky balance. I encourage you to listen to the interview with Messud and to consider what you think makes young-adult and middle-grade fiction unique.

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