Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writing the Dream Query for the Dream Job

Recently, the fabulous Renegade Writer Blog posted a q&a with former New Yorker writer Dan Baum, and he shares both an interesting approach to freelancing and a whole treasure-trove of detailed queries. Some of those landed assignments at The New Yorker.

I point this out because it's interesting to see the amount of detail and the work he's put into his queries. One query I read, which landed him an assignment writing about the "jake leg" for The New Yorker, was so compelling I couldn't stop reading. No surprise it landed the assignment. It taught me a couple things about long-form narrative non-fiction pitches:

  • Write like you've got the assignment. Duh, right? But I know I've queried the New Yorker with far less narrative pitches, and I can see why his pitch sold and mine didn't. It's a case of show-don't-tell.
  • Details, details. The pitch is like a short article--fully researched, sourced and well-crafted.
  • Open access. All good queries should do tell the editor about access, but his do a good job of showing the editor that he's thought out how much background he'll need and where he'll need to go to get it. It makes the job easier on the editor and builds trust.
He also has a great quote about how he pursues his sources for his queries. It fits with the persistence theme, but also gives a window into another freelancer's world (emphasis mine):

[To make it,] I think it takes relentlessness. When I’m starting to work on a story, I’ll start reading about something, and I’ll just follow every link, and as I’m doing it I’ll make a list in a Word document of the people that I need to find.

I start calling them immediately, and talking to them and taking notes on my computer. The expression I use with Margaret is “I had a red dog day today,” which means I had my nose down on the ground and I was going after everything today. Just hoovering in enormous amounts of information. And when I start a proposal, I try to have a series of red dog days where I am just relentless, going after everybody, and as soon as I encounter somebody’s name I pick up the phone and I call. When I finish the interview I say, Who else should I talk to? Then I call those people.

I don’t put it off — I don’t say these are people I’m going to call later — I do it right then. Man, there are times when in one day I can get enough information to write a proposal that will get me a $12,000 magazine assignment.

If you're a freelancer interested in long-form narrative, check out his archive and try an exercise:

  • Take one of the queries
  • Take a story you've written that you thought had narrative potential
  • Start playing with your notes and research and practice making a narrative query from those notes and that research.

See how it works. Is there more research you need to do? What's missing? Do you know how to find the missing piece, or do you need to talk to someone about it?

It's fun. Try it and tell me how it works, and I'll do the same.

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