What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love the moment when I finally know what I’m writing about—the heart of the story—and I get this huge surge of energy. It’s almost worth the sensory depravation required to sit down and write in the first place. The sooner I “see” the story, the better. Sometimes I have to write the whole story or article first and I finally“get it” on the last line. Then I know I’m in for a big edit. So I’ve developed tools for “getting it” sooner, because magazine deadlines are unforgiving.
In order to edit, the same thing has to happen. You have to see the heart of the piece. It’s like striking a vein of gold. Once you find it, you can follow it and do good, honest work.
What do you look for most when hiring staff writers and freelancers?
I look for people who can put me, the reader, right into the story. It’s all about engaging the senses and bringing the page to life. Once I find someone who can do that, I look for structure and organization. I need someone who can build a story arc quickly and find the meaning in things that other people can’t see. But what really makes a writer is his or her ear. Good prose sings. It has pitch, timbre and rhythm.
What’s the best way to pitch a story, and what’s the most common mistake freelancers make?
Don’t pitch a story. Pitch four. Dedicate a couple of lines to each idea, and write them in the voice of the magazine. Trying to sell a story is like playing roulette. What are the odds your single pitch is going to hit me on a day when I need exactly that story? It’s much more effective to introduce yourself to the editor as someone with many great story ideas, someone reliable who gets the voice and intent of the magazine. Remember: an editor is always looking for people with solutions to her problems. I have a lot more to say about this at Crossroads!
In addition to your magazine work, what other sorts of writing do you do?
I write very short fiction. I’m working on making my pieces longer, but too many years of editing have made me terrified of the extraneous. I’m fascinated by characters who appear to be broken or trapped but attempt to escape using whatever they find lying around. I guess you could call it emotional “MacGyver-ing.” I think it’s interesting that a move from despair to anger is a move in the right direction, because it’s a step closer to empowerment. I’m also working on a novel that plays with the same themes.
What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you about writing?
At graduation for my MFA, novelist A.J. Verdelle was generous enough to take me aside and tell me, “Even if you think you don’t have time or energy to write every day, read every day. You can stay part of the writing world by reading. That way, you’ll find that you have to write, so you’ll make time.” As a single, working parent, I don’t know what I’d have done without that advice. Even though I write and edit consumer nonfiction all day, I have to make time to read (and hopefully write) literary fiction at night.