May 2011

Many writers will have an idea in mind for a magazine article then try to find a market for it. To me this would be like designing a wedding dress in a size 6 then trying to find just the right bride who likes everything about it and can perfectly fit into it! I think your chances for success are much greater if you study a particular magazine first, then tailor your article to it.

I realize that there are writers on both sides of this fence, and this post isn’t about changing your mind one way or the other. Whichever way you prefer, I believe the following tips will help you customize your article to match the style and needs of any magazine you choose.

The key to selling your article to a magazine–aside from great writing, of course–is to match the magazine’s style as perfectly as possible. You do this by studying the magazine’s back issues, paying close attention to the following:

1.  Word Count and Length–Editors will give word counts in their writers guidelines, which you must adhere to if you want your article to stand a chance in the slush pile. But aside from entire article word counts, also pay attention to paragraph or section word counts. These won’t be given in the guidelines, but after examining several articles of the type you wish to submit, you can get a good idea of how long or short the typical paragraph or section is. By section, I’m referring to each subtitled part of your article. This is an easy fix if you already have an article written. Simply lengthen or shorten your paragraphs or sections accordingly to better match the way the magazine’s articles are written.

2.  Type of Article-Determine what kind of articles the magazine seems to prefer: round-ups, expert interviews, folksy-style memoirs or anecdotes, factual/statistical information, etc. Most magazines will probably have some combination of these different styles, but you want to make sure that you’re not submitting something that is completely off-target.

3.  Tone–How are the articles written? Do most include some sort of humor? Do they tend to have more of a literary feel or are they written for the common folk? Tone is everything to a magazine. It’s what defines it. Compare The New Yorker with Time Magazine or Family Fun. It’s imperative that you’re able to match a magazine’s tone in order to sell your work to them. To help yourself determine the tone, think of it in terms of mood. What sense do you get from reading the articles? Do they leave you feeling more educated, light-hearted, or maybe with a call to action? Whatever feel you get from the tone of the article is what you’re going to have to capture and present in your own submission.

4. Interviewing Techniques–If you’re writing a non-fiction research piece that requires interviews, search the articles of the magazine to see how their interviews are handled. Who are being quoted as experts? Will you need to reach the company CEO, or will someone in Human Resources work just as well? Are several experts quoted for the same subject, or do the articles focus on only one or two? Also pay attention to how the quotes are woven throughout the text and if the magazine seems to prefer a round-up style of interviewing where the reader hears from each expert on each topic, or if the quotes are more randomly strewn throughout.

5. Openings and Closings--Pay attention to how the articles typically open. I used to write regularly for one family magazine whose editor wanted all the articles to open with an anecdote or a true story about a family. Some editors just want you to be creative with a great hook to pull the reader in. Others prefer more of a journalistic style where you get right to the point of your article. Not knowing a magazine’s usual article opening could kill off your chances of a sale within your first paragraph.

Equally as important are the closings. Take note to see if most of the article endings go full circle and touch on a point you made in your opening. Or, maybe the endings are to be written to leave the reader wanting more with some question still unanswered. Often, depending on the theme of the magazine, closings will drive the reader to a point of action, or at least give him something to think about.

6.  Readership Education Level–It’s important to match your vocabulary and sentence length to the magazine’s readership. Think about the difference in terms of type of reader, education level, and preferred writing style among Travel & Leisure readers and a local farming magazine in Iowa (please, no offense meant to farmers or Iowans!). You will notice a very different vocabulary and level of readership. Make sure that your writing reflects the level of reader you’re trying to reach. If you’re not sure about a particular magazine, pay attention to the ads, which will offer definite clues as to who the magazine is trying to reach: the college educated, worldly, vocational school graduate, business savvy, or the middle class family of four.

If anyone has other clues they look for when analyzing magazines for submission that they’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them! If you can master these techniques by matching your own article to the various points mentioned, you are well on your way to a magazine sale…and a huge step beyond most writers who are also submitting.

Most everyone would agree that a good fiction story should be sprinkled with interesting and true facts and details to help the story come alive and appear more realistic. Not long ago, however, I was reading a novel (I will not mention the name) that was inundated with so much factual information that I felt like I was trying to run through mud as I read. So, what’s the balance? How do you know when you’ve added too many factual tidbits to your story, and how do you know where to put them?

Let’s take a look at fact in fiction.

I love to research! I know not every writer feels that way, but I truly think it’s fun–especially when it’s a subject I’m really interested in. It’s OK if you’re like me and love to gather a ton of research for your story. In fact, you should. You need to become thoroughly versed in what you’re writing about so that your details are accurate and you’re able to draw your reader in because of the realism your writing creates. But…

That doesn’t mean you have to use all that research in your final manuscript! Oftentimes, it’s after you’ve written your story that you can go back in and carefully and inconspicuously sprinkle in those treasured details. It might be something subtle that comes out in a conversation between your characters, or it may surface as part of a vivid scene description. But the key is to not make it obvious. You don’t want a character to spew out all the research you’ve done in a monologue just so you can show your reader how knowledgeable you are. Keep those morsels tucked away for just the right time–and only reveal traces at a time.

One way you can tell if you’ve added too much is if your facts detract from your story in any way. Always keep in mind that your research should only compliment your plot and characters. It should be the icing on the cake and not the cake itself. If, when you read through your story, you find yourself getting caught up in all the information you’ve gathered (perhaps even trying to escape from it, as I was with that recent novel), then there’s too much. One good rule of thumb is that if the facts alter the pace of your story, you’ve gone too far.

Also be careful that your facts aren’t too complicated for your reader. You never want to talk down to your audience, but you can’t expect them all to be astrophysicists either. Always put yourself in your reader’s place. Sure, perhaps you could spend endless hours studying various hand-held weapons and comparing shooting techniques and ammunition, but how much of that does your reader really need to know to better understand your suspect and his crime? Always ask yourself: Although it’s interesting, is it necessary? If the answer’s no, then don’t hesitate to omit it from your story.

Finally, evaluate the quantity and quality of your research and its necessity in your story by determining if the research is an ends to a mean, or the mean itself. Your interesting facts should simply serve as stopover roadside stands along the journey through your story. If you find you’re spending too much time at any one of these stands, or if the roadside stand takes you on too great of a detour from your main path, then you’ve gone too deep with your research.

These were just a few ways to keep balance with your research. For more information on finding and using primary sources for research, check out my earlier posts on this topic.

Finding and Using Primary Sources (Part 1)

Finding and Using Primary Sources (Part 2)

Finding and Using Primary Sources (Part 3)

I’d love to hear your ideas of how you’ve managed the balance with research and fiction in your own writing.

I’m assuming that many of my readers have at one point been, if not currently are, part of a critique group. If not–join one! They are truly invaluable–as well as an excellent test of character and patience! This post, however, is not to espouse the virtues of critique groups, but rather to discuss what to do after your manuscript has been shredded–I mean properly and rigorously critiqued–by your group of writing experts. Your options are:

1) cry

2) retaliate

3) learn and grow  from the comments

Let’s move directly to #3, since you’ve probably already tried #1 and #2 and discovered they were both rather unproductive.

The first thing to do after receiving your well-commented on manuscript is to make sure that you actually understand everyone’s comments. Do this immediately. If you wait too long, the person may not fully remember why she wrote what she did and what was going through her mind at the time–which is the precise information you need to have. Don’t assume you know exactly what someone is talking about in regards to a suggestion that has been made. If you’re not 100% positive what the comment means, ask.

Similarly, if you’ve received comments suggesting that you do something differently, or don’t do certain things, but there are no examples of alternative ways of doing it, again, ask if you’re not sure. For example, if a critiquer writes “Dialogue not believable in this scene,” find out why it’s not believable and what the critiquer’s idea would be to change it into something more believable. If you don’t know how to make your work better based on a critique, then the critique is useless.

Once you know that you have total understanding of all the comments, start with the small stuff–the quick and easy fixes–like grammar, small plot or character inconsistencies, re-writing awkward sentences, and so forth. This will help remove some of the clutter of notes off your manuscript, and you won’t get bogged down with details while you’re working on the larger revisions.

For the bigger issues, take each comment to heart, giving them serious consideration. We’re often too quick to dismiss good advice because we may not immediately agree with it. Think through how your story or nonfiction piece would change if you applied your group’s suggestions.

Don’t be too quick to revise after a critique, unless you are certain that the particular suggestion is 100% on target. Mull over the comments for a while and allow those parts of the manuscript to sit. Not only will this help you view the comments more objectively by distancing yourself from your emotional attachment to what you’ve written, but you may be able to see your manuscript from your critiquer’s perspective more clearly after you’ve been away from your manuscript for a while.

If you do decide to incorporate suggestions, but don’t know exactly how, ask your group for help. Have a brainstorming session with them to help generate ideas of how you can effectively make their comments work for you. That’s what they’re there for!

Remember that you are ultimately the one in control of your book. If a comment doesn’t set right with you and the direction your story is heading, simply toss it aside. Along those same lines, when you do send your manuscript back to your group for another read, don’t feel you must defend your position. Your group members will respect your decision, whether or not you’ve used their suggestions, because they know their turn is next!

Last week I promised to share some picture book writing tips. Here are a few I hope you will find helpful and be able to incorporate into your next picture book adventure.

1.  Repetition–Regardless of the structure of your picture book (See post on Organizing and Structuring Picture Books) or the type of story you’re writing, it will be more appealing to your reader and thus, more effective, if you weave repetition throughout. Repetition can take many forms. One way to use this technique is to repeat vowel or consonant sounds within sentences or lines, or to even have each line begin with the same sound. You can also repeat simple phrases throughout, perhaps altering them slightly as the story progresses–or keeping them exactly the same throughout but then changing the phrase at the very end for that element of surprise. Another form of repetition may be a repeated sound effect (“chugga-chugga” of a train or “splish splash” of the rain, for instance) or a particular expression spoken by a character. Kids love repetition as it helps them to anticipate the story and enables them to participate in it.

2.Don’t parent your reader: Kids love nothing more than to know that they were responsible for solving a problem. So whatever conflict or crisis situation you’ve set up in your picture book, allow the child character to be the one to figure out a solution. It’s OK to have parents in your picture book; this is a normal part of a child’s world, so they’d probably be expecting them. Just make sure the parents aren’t the problem solvers. And, be sure your reader can easily identify with how your character solves the problem–in other words, the child character’s solution to the problem shouldn’t be too “adult-like.”

3.  Use all five senses: Every reader wants to feel like he or she is part of the story and not simply watching from a distance. One of the best ways to capture your reader and pull him into your story is through sensory detail. Generously sprinkle moments of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and even tasting into your story. Don’t simply tell your reader there are chocolate chip cookies waiting for him on the table when he comes inside from playing. Make sure he smells them baking and sees the chocolate chips melting into the dough as he tears them apart. As the reader uses his senses to become engaged in your book, he will feel more a part of it and it will become a part of him.

4. Load your book with lots of fun words and sounds: For me, the absolute best part about writing a picture book is all the fun words I get to use. Unlike writing a book for adults, with picture books, I can even make up words–how cool is that? Don’t just randomly add these fun words and sounds anywhere though. Strategically weave them throughout your story. Look for opportunities to create a sense of rhythm with your words and use the sounds to help develop repetition. And, try to create words, phrases, and sounds that will be memorable to your reader. You know you’ve been effective in reaching your readers when they get one of your made-up words or crazy phrases stuck in their heads!

5.  Test market your manuscript: Don’t assume your manuscript is complete until you read it aloud to your target-age audience. As you read, pay attention to reactions. Did your attempts at humor get laughs? Were your repetitive phrases catchy enough to illicit anticipation and participation? When you’ve finished reading your manuscript, ask for feedback–kids are brutally honest, which is exactly what you want! Ask about the story, the characters, what they liked best and least. To gain an even more objective opinion, have someone else read to your “focus group” while you observe from a distance!

If you have other picture book tips that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you!