I’m on hiatus for a week… In the meantime, I invite you to browse the more than 70 articles on this site, covering subjects like freelancing, copyright, performing, teaching, writing, skills independent creatives must have, and other topics. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts, and I’ll be with you again next week.
Archive for October, 2008
Some unedited footage from the West Coast leg of the Fod Fest tour. Wish I could have been there!
All right, I know the answer to this: A deadline is when the person paying you says that it is.
I’m not sure how the time stamps work on this blog software if you’re in a different time zone than I, but let me just say that I am starting to write this at 8:20 p.m., eastern time. And I have just turned in an article that was due today – October 24.
Well, it’s still October 24. If lived in Hawaii, it would still be before COB (close of business) on October 24… However I live in Massachusetts. Interestingly, while I assumed that both my editor and I lived in the same state (the story is a Massachusetts travel article for a Massachusetts magazine), it turns out that she is actually based in Florida. Regardless, we’re in the same time zone; my living on the far western side of my state does not, alas, bump me into central time to buy an extra hour. Not even close.
But the salient question: Am I on time?
I think so, since my contract said nothing about getting it in by a particular TIME on October 24, but I also think I am reminding myself (in this case, not a good thing) of my youngest sister, whose college career involved driving around town at midnight (or, more precisely five minutes before midnight) to drop off not-quite-overdue papers at her college professors’ homes. (No surprise that she became a lawyer, huh? The devil is in the details.)
Back in the old days, we had to make sure our work was delivered by the deadline, and since Fed Ex doesn’t deliver after five, THAT meant that we actually had to finish the piece at least a day before it was due — or even longer in advance, if we wanted to use regular old mail. Today, with the Internet, we have instantaneous delivery. We can procrastinate until the very very very teeny last minute.
Justifying, here: I’m figuring that if the editor wanted an article by COB today, she would have told me. At the same time, I know this particular editor works nights and weekend, because that’s when I get mail from her. So I figure the due date, yes, because she’ll probably want to work on it over the weekend, but COB, no, not unless she said.
What say you? Did I get it in on time?
So let’s say, you have thought of a story idea about your field of work that seems like a good fit for a magazine or newspaper. How do you go about placing it?
A query letter is the traditional way thorugh the publisher’s door. (Actually, in the old days, submissions came in “over” the publisher’s door — they went over the “transom,” the little window above the door.)
Today, of course, there are no transoms, but the term still survives. A query letter sent over the (most probably electronic) transom is basically a short proposal telling the editor what your idea is, why it is a good fit for the magazine, and why you are the person to write it.
- What the idea is: Give a sparkly intriguing headline and start with a brief anecdote, an intriguing fact, or information from a new study. Then summarize the story.
- Why it’s right for the magazine: Connect the story to the magazine’s format and its readers. If the magazine runs a monthly column on “how to do something new” and your story talks about how to learn your craft, connect the dots for the editor. If there is a demographic connection, mention it: For instance, perhaps a certain study has just come out linking piano lessons to better gerontological brain activity. Mention it, if you’re pitching a piano lessons article to a magazine for seniors.
- Scope: Make sure the scope of the article is similar to the scope of what they publish: If they generally give 250 words to a how-to piece, they are not going publish your 5,000-word treatise.
- Timeliness: In terms of timeliness, editors divide stories in to “evergreens’ and “time sensitive.” Evergreens can run any time (“Walk Off the Weight,” which is appears monthly in practically every woman’s magazine, is an example of an ‘evergreen”). Time-sensitive stories tie in with something that is current. While evergreens are convenient, time-sensitive stories are often more immediately appealing because editors feel that they make the magazine appear “fresh.” Also readers respond to words like “new,” “today,” and “timely.” Make it clear which your article is, and what the time-sensitive hook is.
- Why you should be the author: This is where you trumpet your achievements. Keep them short and punchy: Your expertise, relevant education and work experience, and previous publishing credits are all important IF they advance the case as to why YOU should write the story. Your PhD in chemistry is not relevant if you are selling a music article!
- Spelling and grammar count. Big time. Don’t use cutesy Internet abbreviations, and keep your tone on the formal side.
- Get the query to the right person: Sometimes this takes networking or a phone call: Always double check the name of yourcontact, because directory listings go out of date. There’s a lot of turn-over in publishing.
- “Clips” are examples of your previous published writing. If you have them, include them. If you don’t have clips, it can be difficult to break in. However, a website featuring your best writing can serve as a clip, especially if you have solid expertise.
- Queries today are usually done via e-mail, with clips sent as PDF links or links to active websites. However, SOME editors still prefer snail mail. Some writers send both an e-mail query and a snail-mail follow-up.
Here’s the bad news: Unfortunately, the supposedly gentlemanly business of publishing has long since lost its gentleman’s manners. Editors are busy, and at major publications, many of them receive hundred of query letters a week. Even the nicest, most responsive editor has trouble keeping up; I know I didn’t respond to off-target queries when I was an editor. I didn’t have time to educate people who sent me pitches completely unrelated to what I was publishing. And some editors don’t bother to respond at all unless they are interested: The result is that even the perfect query letter written by a professional writer with dozens of national magazine credit stands only a small chance of even getting a response. Worse, it’s not uncommon to not get a response from someone you know personally, have met with, or have worked with for years. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it’s rude. But that’s just the way it is. It’s not personal. Feel free to follow-up (E-mails often go astray). But if the lack of response persists, it probably means no. Take your story elsewhere.
Next up: What kinds of queries catch an editor’s attention?
Magazines and newspapers don’t only publish the work of professional writers; they also publish articles by specialists who have something valuable to say or teach. This means you. (Okay, backtrack there: It MIGHT mean you… more on that below…)
Meantime, Just consider how many people attempt to do what you do: Maybe they try it for recreation or for self-expression, or maybe they wish that they, too, could get paid for playing a musical instrument or taking an artistic photograph. No, a magazine article is not going to turn a casual reader into a skilled artist, but you CAN give readers useful information.
What’s in it for you? Well, first off, you get recognition of your expertise. If you write a lot of articles about how to do something, people will pretty much start figuring that you know how to do that thing. After a while, other magazines and reporters and writers will start calling on you to comment. So if you’re widely regarded as an expert harmonica player, when the first harmonica player makes it to the summit of Everest, reporters might call you for your expert opinion on his satellite-beamed performance from 29,000 feet. And then (at least this is supposed to be what happens: let me know if it works for you, okay?), folks will start thinking of you whenever they need a harmonica player, or an article about harmonicas, or a model to feature in their advertisements about harmonicas, and the leading harmonica makers will all start sending you instruments to review. You’ll get more gigs locally, and the newspaper feature writers will start writing about you, and then the local A-list band will call you to the stage to jam with them one night, and James Taylor, who just happens to be sitting in the audience and eating his dinner incognito will decide he needs your unique sound for his next tour, and you’ll be on Oprah, which will help you land a 6-figure book deal for the book of books on harmonicas….
Okay, uh, where were we? Oh yeah, back to earth…. You’re a harmonica player and you think you might be able to place a touching little story about playing harmonica with your kids.
Obviously, a magazine focusing on your craft or art is one market for articles about your work. I actually don’t happen to know if there are any harmonica magazines, so let’s change examples for a sec here: If you’re an acoustic guitar player, you might check out Acoustic Guitar. Or a photographer might think of writing something for Photography Today. Well, not so fast, because I can practically HEAR the poor editors of those magazine now, howling “NOOOO!!! Don’t tell them to come to us! We have 9,000,000 article submissions we haven’t even looked at backlogged from the year John McCain was born.” Okay. I take it back: Don’t check those out. Not yet anyway: The truth is, the bigger and better-known the magazine, the harder it is to break in, especially if you don’t have a writing track record. It’s much easier to get started on the local level.
So, local magazines. “How hard can THAT be?” you wonder. Well, maybe harder than you think. Those editors are busy — and a lot of people are trying to get their attention. Here are a few things to think about:
- CAN you write? Not everyone can. Writing is one of those things EVERYONE thinks they can do, but writing engaging prose to entertain and educate a reader is a craft just like any other. It’s true that lots of terrible writing DOES get into print — lots of readers, and even editors, can’t tell the difference. Nonetheless, yes, Virginia, spelling does count. It’s easier to break in with solid skills.
- If you need help, get it. You don’t need your writing to be English-teacher-perfect. Indeed, English-teacher-perfect writing generally sounds too stilted and formal for a casual reader. We’re aiming for presentable and basically correct here: If you aren’t sure that you can do that (and please please don’t assume that big words make you sound smart: if you are using big words to sound smart, you are probably in my “crimes against the English language” group and need to find someone right away who can help.) Look for someone who calls him or herself a ”book doctor,” “writing coach” or ” freelance editor.” Check at your local community college — and be prepared to pay. Asking someone to review your writing is asking for a professional service.
- Realize that at the local level, there is virtually no money in this. You may get paid a pittance for an article, but writing about the arts for local outlets is pretty much pizza money. (Note: I didn’t say “pizza and beer”money.) The payoff is in the exposure, and in new business.
- Which brings us to the counter-point fact that the magazine or newspaper doesn’t care about your exposure or your business. They care about what value you are bringing to their readers. So, even though you may be paid virtually nothing, and even though your entire reason for writing the piece has to do with bringing people to your studio, show, gallery, whatever — you HAVE to write a piece that brings something of value to the reader. It can’t just be self-serving.
- Do note that some local advertising papers consist of ads plus little stories that are basically written by the advertisers. In this case, you are basically writing an advertorial, a scaled-down version of the special sections you’ll find in many metropolitan newspapers. In an advertorial, you have more latitude (and can be more self-serving) — but remember that READERS will appreciate useful information, not just trumpet-blowing self-promotion.
All that said, here are some samples of the types of stories that might work.
- A music teacher could write an article about what parents should know about supporting their children in music lessons. Possible publishers might include a local parenting magazine or a newspaper education section.
- An artist could write about tips and techniques for painting outdoors; the article could be timed to coincide with an exhibit of plein-air paintings.
- A photographer could write about 10 ways to take great fall foliage pictures for a local travel magazine.
- A dancer/dance instructor could write about 10 stretching tips foir a health magazine or a newspapers health insert.
- Personal essays are tricky to place, but if you have a good story about something you learned through doing your craft, you might be able to place it in your town newspaper.
Stay tuned: Next up, we’ll cover how to approach editors about writing stories for them.
Let’s say you’ve got your event listed in all the newspaper calendars (which you learned how to do at http://createworklive.com/2008/10/15/getting-in-print-local-listings/). But now you think it deserves a bit more print than a teeny mention in 6-point type. You want an article about it. Maybe even a picture. After all, newspapers and magazines are full of articles about just such events as yours: You want a share of the page.
What you need is a press release. A press release is a short article (usually no more than 500 words) that you send out to editors and writers telling them the basics of what’s going on and giving them a reason why they should cover your event. Sometimes, they will publish the press release exactly as you wrote it. Sometimes they will revise it; they may expand it with additional research, or (more commonly) they might shorten it. And sometimes they’ll send a reporter to follow up and do a whole story on you.
The job of a press release is to get media coverage for your event.
As with community listings, you need to start with a list of media, contacts, and lead times, with specific addresses. Press releases MUST go to the appropriate person; otherwise they are usually deleted. (You’d think a reporter would just hit the forward button and send it off to the right editor, but usually they don’t. Everyone is too busy, and they get too many releases.) So check the paper to find out if they publish the right e-mail address for press releases, or call and ask. You can also network into this information; for example, a community college administrator once gave me her press contact list. However, double check your list with a phone call, since @ddresses change and go out of date. A press release that goes to the wrong e-mail address might as well have never been sent.
Timing is important, too. Some papers have a little burb buried somewhere that tells you to send material two weeks (or whatever) before the event. With magazines, you can pretty much assume at least a three to four month lead time, more if you want them to do a feature on you. (Magazine lead times for features can be up to a year in advance, and sometimes much more.)
Press releases follow a traditional format; you want to stick with that. Anything that deviates too far off the expected track will usually get tossed.
- Headline: As any writer/reporter knows, our e-in-boxes are filled to the rim every day with press releases, most of which have nothing to do with what we write about. In fact, the first thing I do every day when I check e-mail is delete irrelevant press releases. I decide what’s relevant based on the headline: Unless the headline makes it clear that what I’m getting means something to me, I delete it. So headlines should include ANY information that shows how your press release targets that publication. For local and regional publications, two key ideas are “local” and “timely.” Tie ins with charity events, festivals, and seasonal tourist attractions are also eye-catching.
- Title: Inside the press release, there should be an informative title for the release. If you opt for cute and quirky, balance it with a sub-head that makes it clear what’s going on.
- Release date: The release date tells the reporter when the information may be published.
- Contact info: Make sure that whatever contact info you give is easy to find (right at the top of the page) and that it is “live.” If a deadline-stressed reporter calls (and what other kind of reporter is there?), he or she wants an answer, not a machine. Give both a reliable phone number (not your cell if you never answer it), and an e-mail address.
- First paragraph: You can get a away with ONE clever sentence or teaser in your first paragraph, but that’s it. The rest should be crystal clear: Who, what, when, where.
- Voice. Do NOT write in the first person. This is not a personal essay! It should sound like you hired a PR firm to write about you.
- Hook. The hook is where you get creative and show what’s unique and newsworthy about your event. Anything to do with timing is good (perhaps you’re playing a Mozart sonata on the anniversary of its permiere); perhaps this is the 10th annual jam concert your band holds. Awards, local connections (your novel is set in the region), seasonal tie-ins (Your poetry is Halloween-themed and you’re asking everyone to come in costume; your autumn pottery exhibit includes cups containing impressions of leaves that fell): Anything that makes a connection between you, your work, the reporter, the place, and the people who will be reading is a plus.
- Just the facts, ma’am. Skip the adjectives and adverbs. Don’t call your work ”beautiful,” “interesting,” “revolutionary,” or “ground-breaking.” That’s for others to say. Instead, describe in as few words as possible what MAKES it groundbreaking: Perhaps you were the first person to combine Japanese print-making techniques with collage, or you have figured out a way to write a blues songs using a 12-tone scale.
- Keep the jargon out of it. Using the example above, you can’t talk about a 12-tone scale unless you have reason to believe your reporter and his or her readers will know what it is. (Yes for a music magazine, no for the Podunk Gazette.) If you can explain it quickly, that’s fine. But no reporter wants a music theory lesson with his morning coffee.
- Endorsements. If your work really IS “astonishing,” “gorgeous,” “revolutionary,” and “cutting-edge,” chances are someone has said it. Feel free to quote them in your press release, but pick the quotes that contain the most informative content — not just the high-flying adjectives. Unless someone really famous said it; then go with it. (Celebrity trumps content.)
- Details: Include addresses, cost, parking info, and any other practicalities at the end.
One final suggestion: The Internet makes it easy to personalize your releases. Come up with a boilerplate — but then feel free to add a little something if you think it would be particularly relevant for a certain publication.
Let’s say you have a show coming up — concert, exhibit, poetry reading, whatever….
And you want an audience.
Let’s also say, you want more of an audience than your four most loyal students, your two best friends, and your mom…
You’ve go to get the word out — beyond your usual suspects.
Now, to be honest, here’s what most of us do: We get the show set up. We obsess about it. We practice, or we prepare, or we rehearse, or hang our paintings — and then two weeks before it starts, we start thinking about how we’re going to get people in the door.
That’s fine if the only thing you’re going to do is an e-blast. But it’s not fine for press. Newspapers and magazines have ”lead times” — the time it takes between when they get your announcement and when it can appear.
So job number one: Whether you’ve got something planned, or whether your next show is sitting somewhere on the backburner, you need to make a publications contact list. You don’t need to wait till show time to start thinking about this: Do it now, or whenever you have a moment. Go out and about in your neighborhood and collect (if they are free) or buy (if they are not) every publication that lists or runs stories on upcoming events like yours.
These are the places where you’ll want to send your message. The trick is to get the right info to the right person’s desk at the right time. On your computer spreadsheet, make a chart with the following info:
- Name of the publication
- Part of the paper where the info will run. There may be more than one place, for example, the Sunday listings and the weekday listings may go to separate departments.
- Contact info (e-mail is usually fine), and its deadline (if you know it; for instance, if there is a “”Community Events Calendar,” there will usually be a note at the bottom about who to send listing to, and when they are due). If there is no contact info, call the publication and get the information.
- Finally, note any specific requirements. For example, some publications may require a “for more info” contact or a phone number.
Then organize your data by deadline: For example, Publication A needs your listing two weeks before the date of the event; Publication B needs that info two months in advance. (Many of the listing calendars will have instructions on how to submit an event buried somewhere at the bottom.)
Add to your list every time you see a new publication.
In my neck of the woods there are easily 10 or 20 publications that carry listings of local artistic events. They include a Woman’s Paper, a community newsletter published by the town, an Arts tabloid, two local advertising papers, the local weekly, the County paper, the Regional glossy magazine, and several other tabloids — and that’s just off the top of my head. Lead times range from two weeks for one of the ad papers, to three months for the glossy. Don’t forget to include the newsletters of any clubs or networking groups you might be in.
When you’ve got an event coming up, simply count back on yor calendar to figure out what to send to whom. And then go out and do it!
Next up: How to get broader print coverage by sending a press release: http://createworklive.com/2008/10/16/getting-in-print-public-relations/
The fourth annual FODFest is in full swing, and I wanted to describe what playing at opening night was like so anyone living near one of the 14 concert venues can get a feel for why this is something you shouldn’t miss.
The opening night concert had by far the biggest and most impressive venue on the schedule: The Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington, MA, is a beautifully restored 650-seat concert hall that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
As you know if you’ve been following the FodFest story, Daniel Pearl (known locally as “Danny”) started his journalism career in the Berkshires. He was also a talented musician who played in local bands. A new job at the Wall Street Journal took him to Atlanta, where he met and became good friends and band-mates with Todd Mack, a recording producer and a singer-songwriter, who you’ll read more about here when he gets back from the FodFest Tour and has time to answer some questions. In one of those simple twists of fate, Todd then moved to the Berkshires, and got to know and work with some of the musicians Danny had played with.
After Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered in Pakistan in 2002, Todd started FodFest to honor his memory. What began as a backyard jam in 2005 has now grown into a national 14-city 17-day tour. So when the call went out here in the Berkshires for local musicians who knew Danny or who felt they connected with him through his story, his music, his writing, and his ideals — well, a lot of people responded. More than 70 musicians volunteered to participate in the Mahaiwe Show and ultimately, Todd was able to accommodate about 30 musicians in two sets (not counting the entire Berkshire Batteria, a Brazilian drum ensemble that numbers about another 30 percussionists). More musicians will join in in other shows, and some of the musicians will be performing in several shows (or even more). David and I played in the second set as part of the “FOD-POD” — the back-up band that joins in when the people leading songs want musical support.
Each show is different, but here’s the basic idea: About 12 – 15 musicians sit on the stage at a time, and those who wish to lead a song take turns at the central microphone. They can either play solo, or they can ask the other musicians to join in. The trick is that a lot of them are playing original songs — and not only have most of the musicians never met each other before, let alone rehearsed – but a lot of the songs aren’t predictable in terms of their modulations and chord progressions. Some of the songs were easy to follow, some — not so much. Interesting feeling to be on stage in front of a pretty hefty audience — and not only not know what you’re doing, but KNOW that you don’t know what you’re doing — and that THAT is part of the whole point of it. I’m looking forward to hearing the tape; the concert was recorded for radio and taped for local cable access TV.
There was a lot of variety, a lot of improvisation, and a wonderful response from the audience, which I guessed at about 400 people. Most of the musicians were thoughtful and respectful in their selection of material, choosing songs that they felt honored Danny in some way. In addition to many guitars (including an unusual 10-string guitar), we had Tahitian ukelele (David) and resonator guitar (also David), violins, mandolins, banjo, upright bass, keyboards, drums, and miscellaneous percussion. One of the highlights was that Todd had invited four young musicians to perform as well, and all I have to say about that is this: If you don’t want to be out-staged, out-performed, and out-applauded, don’t share the stage with super-talented kids! Those fabulous young musicians got the biggest applause of the evening. And justifiably so. They were fantastic.
It was what would have been Daniel Pearl’s 45th birthday. And I think that together, in celebrating Danny’s life and spirit, we all spread the word that music is a way for people to communicate, to share, and to spread joy.
All the concerts are free. They’ll all be different — some are in clubs and bars, some in small halls. But they will all have this amazing connection between players, and between musicians and audience. Please check the schedule (www.Fodfest.org) and go if you can.
Read anything interesting lately?
Sure, the Internet — you’re here now. But where else?
The Internet has had a huge influence on the way we communicate, but it’s not the only way we take in and share knowledge about what’s going on. If you’ve been on a train or a plane lately, chances are you’ve seen people settling in with newspapers, books, and magazines. If you’ve been to a Barnes and Noble, there’s a wall of evidence that the Internet hasn’t killed off magazines — at least not yet. You’ll find publications on everything from playing the guitar to woodworking.
Business owners have long since known that telling your story in the media pays off big time. People trust articles more than they trust advertising. That’s what public relations is about: Getting someone to tell your story. Or, etablishing yuorself as an authority figure so that you can write about and talk about your field of knolwedge, and people will then seek you — and your product or service — out, because you are the expert.
You don’t have to have a big-bucks public relations firm behind you to start getting your name and story in print. While getting a cover story in the New York Times magazine is not in the cards for most of us, lots of media ARE looking for material. Here are some places to get started.
- Local weekly newsletters and free papers. This category contains a wide range, from obvious advertising to real papers with real reporting (along with lots of advertising: They are free, remember? They have to pay the bills somehow, so they’re chock full of ads. But some of them also contain editorial material, such as interviews with local business people (most oftenm asdvertisers)..
- Your local paper. Weeklies and dailies both need to fill the paper with material relevant to local audiences.
- Local radio, especially community supported radio.
- Community magazines focused on your field: For example, a local entertainment weekly, a “what’s happening” guide, a local arts paper, a paper focused on health and healing (if your art or teaching seems a good fit).
- A woman’s paper, a GLBT paper, or an ethnic paper (if any of those decriptions fit, or if your work is esepcially relevant to any of those commuities).
- Local community access cable TV. Local access TV is often staffed by volunteers who are looking for shows to make and events to cover.
- Your regional glossy magazine. This is a higher end magazine, and it’s usually got a higher barrier to entry — but successful placement will give you enromous cachet.
Later this week, I’ll cover how to match your message to the media and how to approach them. I’ll cover press releases and query letters, and we’ll talk about bigger media outlets, as well.
We did the first concert tonight, and I’m too exhausted to blog about it. But here’s (most of) the schedule:
10/10 – Mahaiwe Theater, Great Barrington, MA
10/11 –Narrows Arts Center, Fall River, MA
10/12 – Acoustic Café, Bridgeport, CT
10/13 – Sullivan Hall, NYC
10/14 – IOTA, Washington, DC
10/15 – The Grey Eagle, Asheville, NC
10/16 – The Handle Bar, Greenville, SC
10/17 – Local 506, Chapel Hill, NC
10/18 – Smith’s Olde Bar (Atlanta Room), Atlanta, GA
10/ 19 – The Basement, Nashville, TN
10/20 – Tractor Tavern, Seattle, WA
10/21 – White Eagle Pub, Portland, OR
10/22 – Axe and Fiddle, Cottage Grove, OR
10/23 – Somewhere in CA, TBA
10/24 – Starry Plough, Berkeley, CA
10/25 – Somewhere in CA, TBA
10/ 26 – Hotel Café, Los Angeles, CA
For updates, check www.fodfest.org.
And if you live in one of those cities, get yourself there! It’s free, and you won’t be wasting your time.