Pre-Research: Finding Facts to Back Up Your Brilliant Idea

You get an idea, whether for an article, story, poem or play and think, wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever thought of. I can’t wait to start writing. You grab your paper, your laptop or iPad and start spewing out words. Oh yeah, this is good. Your dinner gets cold, your dog is whining at the door, and your phone is ringing, but none of it matters because you are inspired. Isn’t this one of the greatest parts of being a writer?

My house is loaded with pieces of paper on which I wrote these brainstorms. But most of them haven’t gone anywhere because once the heat of inspiration cooled, I lost interest, or more likely, I realized I’d have to do a lot of research to make them fly.

Those of you who do only “creative” writing might be tempted to tune out here, but don’t. You need information, too. I’m still troubled by the poem which required me to search hard to find out whether that earth-moving tree-smashing thing I wrote about was a bulldozer, backhoe, tractor or what. In my not-yet-published novel, I did extensive research on earthquakes and tsunamis so I could make my fictional disaster as realistic as possible. I couldn’t just make it up.

When you’re pitching a nonfiction book or article, you need information for your query. That’s something I didn’t used to do. I would propose to find out all kinds of things if I got the assignment, but I didn’t realize no editor would go for the story unless I already had some information to share. For example, if I wanted to write a travel article about things to do in Newport, Oregon, I needed to know what they were and name them in my query. Because I live here, I already know, but what if I was writing about how to buy a timeshare in Newport. I don’t know anything about that except that lots of people do it? I cannot offer the editor a bunch of guesses and questions. I need facts.

Back in the olden days, I’d start with the phone book and make a list of people to interview. Now I’d probably do a Google search. When I search for “Timeshares Newport, OR,” most of what comes up is companies trying to sell timeshares. You can read what they have to offer, but know that they’re biased. They are not going to talk about problems, scams or hidden costs. Where do you get an unbiased view? Time to brainstorm again.

You can talk to somebody who owns one. Search for organizations or associations that focus on your topic. There are a lot of them for both users and sellers of timeshares. “Articles about timeshares” will bring you a list of articles that have already been written on the subject. Also look for books about timeshares. Amazon offers Timeshare Vacations For Dummies, among others. Don’t overlook the library, where they have actual books you can read for free. Many libraries even rent e-books now.

There’s more to the Internet than Google, of course. Click here for a list of search engines you might want to try. You’ll notice the list does not include Wikipedia, which can be a great source or a terrible one. The information is provided by readers who may or may not know what they’re talking about. Whatever you read, make sure it’s not just advertising or content spewed out by writers who haven’t done much research themselves.

I could write about research all day, but this post is getting too long. The important thing is to get your facts from a source that is as close to the beginning of the information chain as you can get. You can toss out a question on Facebook–I have–and read everything you can find online, but the best source is still a live human being. Your online search may give you enough information to take your original burst of inspiration to the next step, getting an assignment. Even if your research leads you to decide you don’t want to write this piece, look at the bright side. Now you know a lot about timeshares. Maybe someday, you’ll write a novel that takes place in one.

Happy hunting. Now go write.


Simultaneous submissions—yes or no?

One of the most common questions asked by new writers is whether or not they should submit their work to more than one publication, agent or editor at a time. This is known as simultaneous submissions. Is it allowed, is it legal, is it wise?

Back in the days when I was typing my poems on a manual typewriter and sending them out by snail mail, the answer was nearly always no. Bad form. Bad idea. Don’t do it. With all that typing and retyping, it was just too much work anyway.

Now, when one can submit everything from a poem to an entire book with the click of a couple computer keys, things have changed. A glance at Writer’s Market shows that most editors accept simultaneous submissions. They understand that it can take months to get a decision on a submission and expect that writers will be shopping their work to more than one place. It makes sense. If you were selling shoes, would you only allow one customer at a time to look at them, especially when that one customer probably won’t buy them?

So yes, you can submit your work to more than one place at a time. It’s allowed—unless their guidelines state otherwise. Some editors still bristle at simultaneous submissions. If they say no, don’t do it. But most editors just ask that you let them know if your work has been accepted elsewhere.

But here’s the thing. Although most of the time you’ll be lucky if you get one acceptance, it is possible that more than one editor will say yes. And then you will have to withdraw your submission from one of them. That might piss them off or at least cause them not to trust you in the future. It’s awkward at best. Also the one who said yes first might not offer the best deal. It’s a gamble.

Each writer has to decide what works best in his or her own situation. What genre are you writing and to whom are you submitting? For example, I have no problem sending book queries to 10 agents at a time, but I’d rather send article queries to just one editor at a time because the odds for acceptance are so much higher with the latter. Plus article queries need to be carefully aimed at each market. I’d rather have 10 different queries out to 10 different editors.

Submitting work to several markets at a time obviously increases the likelihood and speed of publication. But it does have its risks. What do you think? Do you submit to more than one place at a time? Why or why not? Comment here and then . . .

Go write something.


Lesson from the Other Side of the Editor’s Desk: They Want What?

You spend 20 hours researching a great idea, e.g., why kids join gangs, and it’s rejected. Three months (or six months or a year) later, the editor calls: Will you write an article on how to plan the perfect wedding?

Despite the way writing publications constantly encourage us to query with our great ideas, most magazines are planned in-house. Editors and staff decide what stories they want to have written, then find writers to do it. They have annual special sections and departments to fill, and they always have to think about their advertisers. The wedding story fits into their bridal section and will help sell ads to every business that deals with weddings. The gangs article may be fantastic, but it doesn’t fit anywhere, and it doesn’t sell anything. There are publications that handle serious issues, but most of them are newspapers or journals with private funding, not the slick magazines sold at Safeway.

Why did they call you to write about weddings? Your query showed them you were a competent writer. They decided you were worth a try. Pat yourelf on the back and start calling wedding consultants. Once they know you, they’ll be open to your ideas and might even find a way to work that gangs story into a future issue.

One way to get inside the process is to look at magazines’ editorial calendars. These rough out the themes and featured topics for upcoming issues. They are routinely given to advertisers to encourage them to buy ads. Do a search for “editorial calendars” or, more specifically, your target magazine’s calendar and see where you can match your talents to their desires. For example, I just looked up the Horizon airline magazine’s calendar. It’s listed under its parent publication at http://alaskaairlinesmagazine.com/horizonedition/editorial. I see that they’re featuring Southern Oregon, the 2012 summer Olympics in England, and gourmet ice cream in July and doing a special section on Idaho in October. Hmmm.

If you really want to write for a specific magazine, study it so well that you know exactly what the editor is looking for and when, then offer to provide it. A good query may get your foot in the door, but the right query will have them inviting you in and offering you a chair.


Lessons from the Other Side of the Editor’s Desk: Response time

I thought I knew a lot about magazines. When I agreed to substitute as editor at a local regional magazine a while back, I figured my years of newspaper work and freelance writing made me an expert on how magazines were planned, put together and published. Wrong!

Writers who think editors are monsters who mangle their manuscripts and laugh at their frustrations have not yet learned the lessons I learned working as one of them. In the next few posts, I will share what I found out. You may be surprised.

1. Why is it taking so long?

You send out the query or manuscript, wait a month, and start to get antsy. Geez, they should have responded by now; what’s holding this up? Maybe they like my idea. No, maybe they hate it. No, maybe . . .

The truth? Maybe nobody has even looked at it yet. It could have gone to an editor who no longer works there and now it’s sitting in a pile of letters nobody knows what to do with. The editor might have opened it, read it, and set it aside to deal with after deadline or until the story meeting, at which the editor, publisher and various staff members discuss content for upcoming issues.

If your submission arrives in the wrong part of the cycle, it could be two months before anyone gives it any serious thought. Or, maybe the editor likes it, but someone else on the staff has to approve it and that someone is too busy to look at it. Or, they like it, but your article on the new sea otter farm doesn’t fit into the special issue they’re preparing on June weddings, so they want to “keep it on file” indefinitely.

Lesson: Be patient. It seems like a long time, and it is, but you can’t change the system by nagging the editor. You can only annoy her until she rejects you just to get you off her back. Wait under the response time stated in their guidelines has passed, then send an e-mail or make a polite phone call to see what’s happening. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer and you have a better place to sell your work, tell the editor and then do it. Meanwhile, take your mind off the delay by working on other writing projects.

Next week: Why would an editor ask me to write something completely different from what I proposed in my query letter?