Saturday Evening Post Editor Steve Slon Tells You How to Get Published

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Ever wonder what kind of person has the audacity to take a well-known publication and completely flip the script on it in order to roll out something brand-spanking new to their national reader base? Steven Slon is just such a guy. He has a less pallid, Anderson-Cooper-thing about him, though he wears rectangular glasses and occasionally curses in casual conversation. He seems to ponder everything said to him as if there could be hidden importance behind each word and he always thinks very carefully, sometimes at length, before speaking—a quality that often takes a back seat nowadays to any potential for a teensy bit of micro-celebrity. And if you had told Steven Slon while he was a film student at NYU that he would one day be the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher of the longest-running magazine in the United States, he probably would have laughed in your face.

Slon was not only responsible for the 2013 redesign of the Saturday Evening Post; he also brought the magazine into the digital age with its first mobile app, helped launch Men’s Health Magazine, served as Editor-in-Chief under banners like AARP The Magazine and Success, and he won Media Industry News‘ Editor of the Year Award in 2010. At first, Slon says, he wanted to be a filmmaker—a director. But after serving on what he called “the lowest rung” of the movie business as a production assistant, he was  told that writing might be a way to break into the creative side of things. He started scribing for his local “Penny Saver”, making about ten bucks an article, and quickly placed stories with publications like his current employer, the Post, and TV Guide, which was still relevant at the time. From there, having learned how to tell a story literally by cutting and stitching reels of film for most of his young adult life, Slon carried those skills with him into his career as an editor. And yes, he actually used to cut and tape articles just like he did film to determine the shape of his stories.

Mr. Slon was kind enough to let me pick his brain earlier this week via phone about things like what makes an ideal article pitch, his editing pet peeves, and the future of journalism. Here are some highlights:

 

CB: As an editor, what does your dream query letter look like?

SS: That’s tough—it’s funny, because I’ve been on a number of panels for various editing and writers’ organizations on this very subject—everyone wants to know… It’s not a simple answer—I’m looking for really good writing… For a writer that doesn’t have very much experience, I’m more interested in the writing than just the ability to do journalism. It’s a dangerous approach, because some writers that are very fluent with language can’t do reporting for shit, but I’m looking for a flair because I like the publications I work on to be engaging. If you just want reporting you’ve got daily newspapers… I actually used to avoid J-school types in hiring for editorial jobs… Somebody who’s a real long-time daily newspaper reporter is not generally good at magazine-type pieces because a feature is not just a re-telling of something; it’s not just descriptive… It has to bring something to the table—some thinking—and not just be reporting on what’s going on. And I do feel that journalism school can breed that out of people.

 

CB: So, what should that letter look like?

SS: I’d like to see a clip—first of all, I want to be intrigued by the idea, then see what kind of writing you’ve done, but even that can be misleading. I mean, I’ve known writers who have a couple of great clips that have been completely re-written—and they don’t need to tell you that because it’s got their byline on it—and then you realize they can’t actually deliver that kind of quality. But it’s evident pretty quickly what a person can do.

 

CB: What are your editorial pet peeves—the things that will get a query letter sent straight to the trash possibly before you even finish reading it?

SS: Writing that reads like a press release, that’s overly flowery, you know—trying too hard. I mean, that’s the other thing—I want engaging writing but… you know. Let’s say it’s a story about a beach; we don’t need to hear about the ‘luxurious, verdant waves that lapped at your toes,’ you know what I mean? Overdone, purple prose.

Also, I can’t really describe it exactly, but there is some bad phrasing, poor syntax in writing that makes me feel that this person doesn’t have control of the language. Like if somebody says ‘I should’ve went’ or ‘I lay down on the bed’—it’s those kind of common language mistakes that people make all the time in conversation, but if you do it in writing it sort of says to me that you don’t know what you’re doing… If someone is awesome in other ways, I might let it slide, but it depends. But you should know the basic kind of Strunk & White stuff.

 

CB: What can you say about the future of journalism and publishing?

SS: I think the democratization of writing is good for the exchange of ideas, but it’s bad for being a professional. And what I mean by democratization is, anyone can publish a book on Kindle just by pushing a button; anyone can publish a blog—and everyone does—so everyone is writing madly just because they love to for an audience of usually their best friends… Then there’s one in a thousand—or fewer—that picks up a substantial following and maybe gets some advertising support, and so on. But I would tell young people in J-school to find someplace to make a living—I wouldn’t even say to go. It’s good to study it, but where are you gonna go?

Newspapers are dying and that was the biggest employer of journalists and magazines are thinning down. And I think for many years there will still be print magazines. I’m not sure about forever, but I think they’ll be here to stay for a long time, but there will be a very small, select group that enjoys the fruits of that… And I think there will be increased specialization. You know, people don’t just want a magazine about skiing, for example, but if you’re into powder skiing you want a magazine about powder skiing. And it used to be very general… But I think that where magazines are more successful, mainly for ad reasons, is where advertisers know they’re buying ad space for people who by skis to ski on powdered snow and not just skis in general, so they know their money is being well spent and they’re willing to pay for that.

 

CB: Is it important for a writer to specialize?

SS: I think you need a little bit of specialization… To be very specific, if you’re a women’s magazine and you have a hair column, you’re not going to just hire anyone to write that hair column. You’re going to hire someone who’s been working in beauty and hair and knows the subject. Otherwise, the mistakes people make when they just plunge into a new field are that they tackle the subject that all their readers know has been discussed ad nauseam and that really don’t need to have covered again. They need to be able to zero-in on a new twist on that subject and you can’t do that unless you’ve been following it for months or years. If you’re at Cosmo and you’re going to write a sex story, you better know what they’ve already written about for the last five to ten years… you’ve got to know how far they’ve dialed it in.

 

CB: How important do you think it is for writers to maintain a social media presence today?

SS: Well, I think it’s very important… you have to be up on it. A lot of people get their news from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, etcetera. That’s, in effect, framing the world for them. Even John Green, who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, he and his brother are YouTube stars and he’s all tapped-in to youth culture… He’s got this huge audience so, when he wrote a book, he suddenly had millions of people to whom he could market… It’s hard for a generalist… but I think the people who succeed at it are a little bit eccentric and wacky, and really narrow focused—you know every week or every day what they’re going to put out there and they’re just building a following as they go. But truly, for every one that succeeds there are probably a hundred that get no following. But if there is something you are passionate about and you are willing to post about it over and over, one day you just might get enough followers to where suddenly you can make a living.

 

Steve Slon recommended reading: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. Esquire, April 1966.

Suggested follow: Humans of New York

 

Sager Says—My Unlikely Conversation with a Best-Selling Author

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It was by design that I was at Mike Sager’s talk with Chuck Klosterman on the University of Arizona campus during last month’s book fair. It was also by design that I harassed ever single writer and editor at the event that I could get to bend an ear in my direction.

It was completely by chance, however, that I actually got one of them to not just hear me for a moment, but to actually talk to me in their free time. Woah.

Perhaps it was because I promised to buy one of his books (which I eventually did), but when I asked Mike Sager for advice or (yeah right) help with my writing career, I was stunned when he (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed to hear me out. I was knocked on my ass when he later agreed to talk with me on the phone. Imagine—little nobody freelancer Craig talking with a big-shot writer for Esquire Magazine. The guy has won awards. He was a peer of Hunter S. Thompson, for God’s sake, so as a writer, I am not fit to lick the mud off of this man’s boots. But, believe it or not, most writers, it turns out, were once nobody nothing freelancers just like me and they, too, had to put a little extra elbow grease into paying their dues in order to finally get noticed.

Mike, like a lot of other writers from the last generation of greats (Mike is known as the “American Beat Poet of Journalism), got his start young working for a newspaper. That mike sagerpaper just happened to be the Washington Post. Once he had proven himself indispensable there (and this is what he says you’ve got to do to keep getting the big stories), the door opened itself to bigger and better things.

But it was persistence, confidence, and perhaps even a little bit of measured arrogance that kept those doors open. Mike explained to me in his slow style of speaking that somehow melded both Californian and Brooklyn dialects that he used what charms he had to his advantage—being a small guy allowed him to approach men that would have perhaps been intimidated by guys bigger than he was. “Oh, girls love me too,” he said, largely because he made himself so deliberately approachable. The reason he ended up forming his own publishing group after years working as a journalist—“I just got tired of hearing no all of the time (from editors)”.

In lieu of the daily reporting jobs, Mike advises you find a way in to your alternative weeklies, your local lifestyle magazine, and whatever bylines you can get. Can’t find a place to publish? Put it online. The point is, he told me, (and I paraphrase here) that as a writer there are going to be a lot of times when it all feels too tough—like nobody cares about you or your work and that all of your hard work to date has been for naught.  But for the writers that find success, this can’t be a stopping point.

You have to get out there. Pursue the stories that mean something to you, assignment or not. Make connections, get out and do the leg work, send out queries, then send out more queries. You have to keep on working, even when it feels like the entire industry is working against you. “You know, it’s weird,” said Sager, “that these editors are so overloaded with queries and people that want to write for them that they can get overwhelmed—but they are always looking for good people—people they can trust to do the work and do it well.”

As a writer, you need to know that a ‘no’ is not always a no, but more often than not, it is more like a “try again.” If an editor didn’t want to give you the time of day, you wouldn’t even get a proper rejection. So save your ‘no’s’ in your contact list and put together a new query for those editors—do some research and make sure this one is better than the last. Knock that editors Goddamn socks off and take the nail polish with ‘em. Keep at it until you do and the ‘yes’s’ will come. Eventually.

Until that day, I can only follow (and, I suppose, share) the most poignant piece of advice given to me in my forty-minute conversation with Mr. Sager, and this one really is a direct quote. “You’ve gotta produce like a motherfucker,” he told me.

And so I am.

Check out Mike Sager’s website for some valuable tips for writers or read his latest book, The Someone You’re Not (available on Amazon) for insight into creating stellar pieces of “Journalistic Anthropology”, or just for a great read.

To Post or Not to Post– A Cry For Help to Fellow Writers

I have reached a dilemma.

To this point in my career, all of my published (and, therefore paid) work has been in magazines, plus a little bit of marketing to pay the bills. Though I love (and I really do love) writing journalism and everything that comes with it, I would say that I am equally passionate about works of fiction. For my writing at this stage, that means writing short stories. For free.

Now, I have written a number of short stories that have received mixed feedback. Most recently, I wrote a piece for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and was pleasantly surprised to find that it won an “Honorable Mention” for the contest. Here is my dilemma: I would really like to continue working on this piece and perhaps submit it to other publications (with the “accolade” and successive revisions, of course, noted on the cover letter). I would also like to share the piece with my friends and (few) fans and followers, though I am hesitant to post the piece on my blog as that would technically qualify as a “First Publication,” and would therefore make it harder to place the story in an actual, real-life journal or magazine later.

As a writer– professional, student, aspiring freelance, hobbyist, or otherwise– what would you do? Share the piece as-is to get help with revision? Share the piece and not worry about revising afterword (consider it published)? Keep the piece tucked away and revise privately to see if I can place it for pay down the line? I would like to share my work with the world and I love the concept of art for art’s sake, but what if it could actually be good– I mean a guy’s gotta eat right?

I am in a real pickle here– and let me tell you, the fact that using the word “pickle” in this blog post made my stomach rumble should serve as a solid indicator as to the state of my bank account at the moment.

To post, or not not to post. That is my question to you.

Thank you in advance for your help and guidance. I will await your response.

– CB

Click here to see the PDF that proves I am not lying (if you care).

JUST KEEP MOVING!– A Hiker’s Guide to Writing Fiction

Sometimes a bad day writing can feel like you are fighting against yourself, as in this Self-Portrait by Tucson artist Joe Brown. Click to see more of his work.
Sometimes a bad day writing can feel like you are fighting against yourself, as in this Self-Portrait by Tucson artist Joe Brown. Click to see more of his work.

I am lost.

I am in the middle of nowhere, wandering aimlessly, and I am almost out of water. What do I do?

My instinct– Bail. Curl up into a ball and weep for my misfortune. When hiking in the Arizona desert, this is the equivalent of death. But as a writer, I have to admit that for many years, this had always been my instinct. Frustrated, I would crumple up my fourth draft (which was by that point clearly just another garbage attempt at capturing a spattering of fractured thoughts), get a damn glass of water, and abandon the project to the kitchen wastebasket, from whence it could never be salvaged amongst the scraps of food and coffee grounds therein.

My action– Breathe. Now, after eons of practice and self-guided anger management exercises, I have learned to (first) put the pen down calmly and (second) get off the couch to get myself a glass of water. I then (third) put on some music (something that invokes in me the feeling I am striving to attain in my piece) and (fourth) sit down in front of that horrible garbage-draft once again. Maybe I strike-through every word on the page, maybe I don’t. That is not important. But what is important is that I keep on moving, lest I find myself stranded in a desert of my own thoughts, lost and wandering like a child ill-prepared for an adventure of his own design. Prepare yourself to be lost and at least you will never find yourself hopeless.

I keep all of those horrible drafts now. I store them somewhere, usually, out of sight and (mostly) out of mind, but I know they are always there when I need something to get me moving on a story that is struggling to gain traction. Twenty pages of horrible drafting may one day reveal one gem-of-a-line amongst a field of verbal debris, but it may be that one line that saves my story’s (or my main character’s) life, so to speak. Or even better, perhaps that one line becomes the line that injects my story with life for the first time, makes it so my readers can not only feel my prose, they can smell and taste it too– reading that is less like a kitchen sponge, and more like a roasted chicken.

If you find yourself lost in your own story, keep moving. Feel free to wander and do not be afraid of getting too far off the beaten path. The important point is to get the ideas down on paper while you have them– save your frustrations and let them out in red ink during the editing process rather than letting them dominate the writing process altogether.

Always remind yourself (as I often need to do) that you really like– check that– you absolutely love the act of writing. It is the process, the journey you appreciate as much, if not more than the by lines and the finished products themselves. Never forget that many of your favorite writers were  never published in their own lifetimes, and many of those that were are long forgotten by history.

So write. Write for you. Write for your life, and always keep crawling forward in your craft. Dwell not in wasted words or on the roughness of your drafts, but rather rejoice in your surroundings once in a while along the way. Stop and take it in every now and then; have a coffee or a cigarette, take a walk or do whatever it is that you do to calm your nerves, and then get back to work.

I mean, when it gets down to it, fighting against that frustration is what makes a good writer great, and as bad as it may seem at any given point, it’s not like it’s gonna kill you.

How long should it take to write an article or blog post from scratch?

I read a lot of posts on how long it should take to write an article or blog post, and as I sit here considering a particular 1000-word piece for a local magazine that is taking me way too long on the research end, I realized something– though maybe my hourly rate for this piece is going to drop a little bit, the time spent in research is in no way time wasted.

I have found that the more research I do on a subject, the more sources tend to reveal themselves. As a result, I have taken to a “research-until-I-feel-overwhelmed” approach, at which point I break, organize, and compile the mess I have created during the research frenzy. With respect to the actual writing, if you can get a (very) rough draft pounded out in an hour for a piece that size, amazing. But you can expect to have to edit several times when done. I have learned a neat trick from another post that I appreciate– type TK for “to come” where you do not remember a resource, quote, or reference rather than stress yourself out looking for the note or whatever (chances are, if you can’t remember it, you may well end up cutting it by your final edit and the glaring misspelling makes the note easy to find in your document). But this still only takes me so far. I can generally agree that, because of the freedom inherent in the format, that a blog post should never take more than 30 minutes to an hour. If you find yourself pushing that 45 minute mark with no end in sight, shorten it, put it aside, or scrap it altogether– blogs are generally enjoyed for quick reading, not in-depth reporting.

But still, I realize that I have not answered my own question yet: How long should it take to write an article from scratch? The only answer I can come up with is:

“…as long as it takes.”

I know. It’s lame. But it’s true. If you are trying to save yourself time on a piece or stressed out that it is taking too long, maybe you are not yet ready to write that piece. As you get better at writing and learn more about your areas of specialization, your writing time for those great pieces will decrease, but until then great work is going to have to be a labor of love, and one which you should pursue to completion or deadline– which ever comes first.

Getting to Know Your Characters– Exercises for Your Mind

Someone much more talented and wiser than I can ever hope to be (I think it was Paulo Coelho) once said that all writers must write from experience. After all, it is all we know (I crudely paraphrase, of course). As such, when working on a bit of fiction from a perspective that is any way alien to me—the enhanced gender, for instance, or that of a character from another race, or even, say, an alien—I often find my own opinions and thoughts creeping into those of my characters. My stories thus become corrupted, polluted. They lose some of their honesty when I, as the writer, am unable to objectively consider how they would react to a scenario, and opt instead to simply replace what would be their unique reaction with my own knee-jerk response. It is a difficult thing to stretch outside your comfort zone when attempting to familiarize yourself with a novel character, and at times, I think we all find ourselves stuck. Here are a few exercises that I have found help me to better understand my characters when they seem exceptionally foreign:

1)      Make lists.

Lists are amazing little devices in literature—even in the news, presented objectively they can evoke a dramatic response. Consider the following: police found a duffel bag containing a large knife, several plastic garbage bags, rope, duct tape, and a Polaroid camera. See what I mean? Make a list of what is in your character’s fridge, what is on their coffee table, in their pantry, medicine cabinet, shower, bathroom, or whatever. Are these items clean or filthy; organized meticulously or in utter disarray? Each of these details will offer insight to and describe a different type of person, and they may even shine a light on the personality quirks of your less-developed characters.

2)      Journal

Follow your character for a week, independent of the framework of your preexisting storyline, and see what life is like for them. Where would your character like to vacation? What sort of challenges do they face on a daily basis? How do people react to them at first glance? Would this character even bother to journal, or would they just rant on a napkin and throw it away? Maybe they are the blogging type. You can amend this to be a meal log, an online chat log, or any other relevant form of self-expression that your character may utilize, or even a journal made by a third party about your character.

3)      Write a back story

Even if it is not directly relevant to your storyline, your character’s history (real or imagined) is what made them who they are today. To have a more complete understanding of their bio can lead to more informed and more natural sounding writing, even if the back story never finds its way into the final draft.

4)      Write a piece of Mini-Fiction.

You aren’t going to share this with anyone, so feel free to go crazy on it. Send your character to the grocery store, the bank, or to the neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of milk and see what ensues. It may contribute to your original story idea or even evolve into something completely different, perhaps better.

Any one of these exercises can be manipulated an infinite number of ways to accommodate the changing landscape of a character in development. Try them out and let me know how they work—if they work—for you . Do you have any special technique that you use to more completely develop your characters? I would love to hear from you.

Until next time.

–          Craig Baker

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I used to shudder when I heard the word—WEBSITE. Ugh. I knew I needed one. I knew they were expensive. And I knew that there was no way in hell that I would be able to build a decent site myself. People pay thousands of dollars for those things, after all, right?

WRONG! I mean, yes, people used to pay oodles and oodles of money to have a decent website made, hosted, and managed, and at the time it was worth it. Having your own website meant that you were ahead of the curve. It showed that you were professional, you paid attention to your image, and frankly, that you had some disposable income which allowed you to afford said site—an indicator of success.

A good website with a strong domain name (like YOURNAME.com) still looks more professional than a social media page or blog. And it still shows that you care about your image. Web design has become so accessible and easy, though, that having a website no longer puts you ahead of the professional writing curve—now it simply means that you’ve caught up.

Having a good-looking website is essential for driving potential clients to your portfolio. Really, I would go so far as to say that a good website is even more important than a business card—at least your website can’t be thrown away. And if anything, that business card is going get a lead to your site to look over your portfolio long before they attempt to contact, or for that matter, hire you.

Now, with respect to design, don’t start sweating yet. A number of web hosting companies (like GoDaddy.com) have made it easy and now offer simple drag-and-drop website builders with a large selection of customizable templates. Don’t tell anyone, but this was how I made my site (www.CraigSBaker.com). Check it out and let me know what you think. Also, if you have any questions about how I went about making my site, please feel free to ask. I will respond directly to you myself within a couple of days.

There are a million marketing professionals and coaches out there telling you that you can build a home business nowadays without spending any money out of pocket.       Where this may be true if you are a computer genius with loads and loads of excess memory from which you can host your own website, this is, in general, a misleading concept.

Everything costs money, and this is still true of websites. But fortunately, over the last several years the cost of having your own website, complete with email and a custom domain, has been shaved down to the bare minimum. Look around for deals online—I know GoDaddy is running a special right now that will get you a domain, a website builder and template, and an email address for an entire year for just $12. Mine even came with $100 of advertising credit. So, unless you are literally overdrawn in your bank account and late on your billing cycles, you really have no excuse not to get on that. Seriously. (If you really can’t afford $12, wix.com offers free websites, and you can upgrade your domain here at a later date).

A professional looking website can be the make-or-break difference to a client—even the best portfolio on earth is doing nothing for your career if nobody can find it. As such, this one simple addition to your marketing arsenal can take you from the level of ambitious amateur to up-and-coming professional instantly, and trust me on this—it will be the easiest and most worthwhile promotion you have ever given yourself.