Transcripts

"An Editor's Viewpoint" with Dick Adler.

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Dick is Dick Adler, a much published author (books, columns, articles, reviews), and also an editor. He served as Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and as Editor of its award-winning Sunday magazine, California Living. He was Editor of Action, the magazine of the Directors Guild of America, Managing Editor of New West, Editor of Hungtington Hartford's Show, Associate Editor of Life, Editor of Town (a British men's monthly), and an Associate Editor of Argosy and True.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm your moderator, Kristi Holl, and tonight I have with me Dick Adler, who will be talking about "An Editor's Viewpoint." Writers often ask, "What do editors really want?" "How can I make a good impression on an editor?" "What things in a query or manuscript catch an editor's eye--or turn him off?" If these are some of your questions and you want to publish in magazines for adults, then you've come to the right place. Dick Adler is a much published author who also has an extensive editing career. So let's get started. Welcome, Dick!

Dick: Hello, and welcome to all of you who should be watching a ball game.

Moderator: Dick, how did you get started writing in the first place?

Dick: It was a bit like discovering sex -- doing something I liked and then discovering I could get paid for it. But seriously, my father was an inventor who had very little formal education. So I was drafted to write his letters. By the time I started reading science fiction stories, I knew what I wanted to do. I sold my first story to IF when I was 15, got $35, and then got constant rejections for six years!

Moderator: What kinds of things have you had published?

Dick: I once counted that I've done over 1,000 articles for magazines -- and that's not counting newspaper pieces. And more recently I've been able to get a mystery novel published.

Moderator: Impressive number!! You also know about writing from the editorial side of the desk. Can you tell us about your editing career?

Dick: I was lucky to begin on what used to be called men's magazines before Playboy etc. took over that title -- like ARGOSY and TRUE. Then I went to London to work on a British version of ESQUIRE, called TOWN, and back in the US of A had jobs on the old, weekly version of LIFE, then Huntington Hartford's SHOW. Then NEW WEST, ACTION and CALIFORNIA LIVING, so I've had a good ride behind a desk.

Moderator: Do you have a "typical" writing day? If so, could you describe it for us?

Dick: Thanks to ginko and ginseng, I get about four good writing hours, which I spend between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The rest of the day I waste on reading and writing letters and/or e-mail.

jack: In your "typical writing day," do you take additional time for marketing/submitting etc. or is that included in your four hours?

Dick: Jack, I tend to think of ideas in connection with possible markets -- so that's part of the writing process. It certainly requires as much attention as writing.

Moderator: Dick, in your opinion, can a new writer make a living working for magazines these days?

Dick: I think so. Everybody who has ever lived -- certainly every writer or editor -- talks about "The Good Old Days" as though they're gone forever, but I still think there are enough markets out there for a beginning writer to be seen -- and even paid.

Moderator: Are editors still willing to look at a beginner's ideas?

Dick: If they're smart they will. Editing is really one of the easiest jobs in the world. All you have to do is say YES to great ideas and NO to the rest. And certainly nobody has a lock on good ideas -- no matter how many they've written.

Moderator: How important was your own background as a magazine editor when you became a freelance writer?

Dick: Very. In fact, I made sure that I had given myself assignments in areas I wanted to specialize in, like book and film reviewing, food writing, music and travel, before I went freelance, so that I'd have the clips to show other editors. Also, I knew what kinds of queries caught my own attention.

paja: Any general criteria editors use to sift good articles to the top?

Dick: Paja, the good editors are the ones who think like their readers. They ask themselves, "Would I want to read that?'" and by doing that almost subconsciously, they leave themselves open to good ideas.

bernie: What are your primary reasons for rejecting a manuscript?

Dick: There are different kinds of rejections here, Bernie -- first is rejecting a query because I don't think it's right for the particular magazine, or else I don't see any evidence that the writer can actually produce the article in question. Rejecting an article is another story -- to be done only as a last resort, if the writer has screwed up totally. My first instinct is to try and save a piece that once seemed promising.

aegis1: I've had an idea to write about only to find that particular article idea in a current magazine. Should it be still be considered for submission in hopes another year the same type of article could be used?

Dick: Sure. Think of some other direction to go with it, change the focus -- and count on the fact that everybody has a short memory. Did you see how many Tom Cruise pieces there were this month?

Moderator: Would you recommend that new writers take jobs on trade magazines?

Dick: Yes, it's a good way to get A. experience and B. medical insurance. I've worked on entertainment trades, which are great fun unless you hate entertainment. But I did once turn down a job on a magazine that told doctors how to charge their patients as much as possible. It all depends on how badly you want/need the experience.

Moderator: Does a writer need to be on staff to write for newspaper Sunday magazines?

Dick: That does seem to be an unfortunate trend these days. The L.A. Times has just stopped buying freelance pieces for its magazine. I say unfortunate, because the staff writers are usually so busy covering their own beats that they don't have the time and/or energy to produce good magazine pieces. But the NYTimes Magazine and the Chicago Tribune magazine still use freelancers.

Moderator: How does a freelancer approach a newspaper if he wants to write for their Sunday magazine?

Dick: First, find out by reading the masthead who edits the Sunday magazine. Then write him or her a beautiful query, proving that you are the perfect -- indeed the only -- writer to produce this marvelous piece.

Moderator: Can a writer multiply submit an article to several Sunday magazines whose readerships don't overlap and sell the article simultaneously?

Dick: I say yes -- although it's officially frowned upon. But since it can take six to eight weeks to get a reply, I'd say go for it.

Moderator: What types of articles work best for Sunday magazines? As a writer, what sold best for you, and as an editor, what types of things did you most like to see submitted?

Dick: Speaking generally, the pieces I like to read are the ones that shed some new light on a subject I thought I knew about, a great new restaurant or shopping district that's opened up in a surprising neighborhood, for example, or a person who is worthy of notice even though he or she is not a Newsmaker. All of this gets into the area of the difference between writing for and in a newspaper as opposed to a magazine. A subject on which I could go on for hours.

smithsndy5: Wouldn't the article about the great new restaurant be considered advertising?

Dick: Not if you wrote it because you actually liked the place, it had a great history, or something else to make it worth reading about.

jim: Does a magazine's acceptance depend at all on the word count being at acceptable maximum, minimum, or in between?

Dick: I hope Long Ridge doesn't punish me for saying this, but word count is not all that important in whether a magazine piece works. Of course, if you send in 15,000 words (or 150) to fill a 1500-word slot, somebody might be miffed. But basically a good editor can cut and shape a piece to fit. What else do they have to do all day?

jim: Should a cover letter with a finished manuscript describe the story or let it stand on its own?

Dick: Let's divide this into fiction and nonfiction. If fiction, I'd say you should sum up the story in a sentence or two. "Here's my piece about two vampires who meet at the orthodontist's." If it's nonfiction, you should have already sent a query letter, so their cover letter now should just say "Here's my piece on Farmers Markets."

aegis1: There is a magazine I would like to submit to, but no word count is identified in their criteria. Should I call the magazine anyway?

Dick: Surely. If your idea is good enough, I'm sure you and the editor can come to an agreement.

janp: When you have a subject in mind for a Sunday supplement to a newspaper, who do you approach first? The subject of your intended article or the editor of the paper?

Dick: If you think you know enough about the subject to prepare a good query, I'd say the editor. If you go to the subject first, they might got all excited -- or think up reasons to say no in advance, whereas if you go to them with an assignment in hand, they'll be much more receptive.

bingocliff: Dick, what is your thought on new writers submitting to writing contests that charge reading fees?

Dick: I've never done it, and I don't recommend it to my students. Contests are fine, but the fees aren't.

Moderator: Does a writer need to live in a big city to write for the national magazines?

Dick: I don't think so. If you are an expert on a subject, it doesn't matter where you live. And if you write a good enough query to get an assignment, most magazines will pay to send you where you need to go.

jazzcat: What is your best advice for new writers when preparing queries?

Dick: Make believe you are sitting across from the editor in a stress-free place like a bar or restaurant. Then make the editor believe that you are the best person in the world to bring this particular idea to life.

rowan: Do the editors ever allow the location of the writer to influence whether or not they select that piece for publication?

Dick: Not to my knowledge. Would I assign a piece on Moscow hotels to someone who has never been there? Probably not. But if the writer indicated a savvy idea of what was required, it shouldn't matter where they were located.

mbvoelker: What makes an editor believe that one particular writer is the best for a given subject?

Dick: It's that subtle combination of talent, chutzpah (nerve, if you will) and -- most important of all -- the instant accessibility of the query letter that does the trick.

mbvoelker: What do you mean by "the instant accessibility of the query letter?"

Dick: It should stand up on its hind legs and shout, "Read me! Assign this story to me!"

smithsndy5: How important is the list of credentials for a freelancer and a new writer? If it's good writing does it matter what has been published, or is this just a key to which writer the editor will consider?

Dick: You should have some history -- but the great thing about today's publishing scene is that a review on Amazon.com which you did for nothing can have the same weight -- if it's well-written -- as a review in the New York Times Book Review. A new writer needs clips, but they can be electronic.

Moderator: Are there any advantages to living in a small town or rural America if you want to write for national magazines?

Dick: Yes. I think in the country's present mood of togetherness it's especially valuable to suggest pieces from those areas.

Moderator: What magazines, if any, NEVER use freelance writing?

Dick: The Time, Inc. stuff -- Time, ET, People, etc. Newsweek. Generally, the more formulaic the magazine, the more likely it is to be totally staff-written.

Moderator: What if your real love is fiction writing? Can anyone make a living writing just fiction for magazines?

Dick: Probably not. The magazines that do buy stories don't pay enough to beginners to keep them going. But it's a great place to try out your fiction skills for books.

Moderator: What is the range of payment when writing for adult magazines, both highs and lows?

Dick: The low is what Calvin Trillin calls the "high two figures". The high is the $10,000 the New Yorker pays for stories and articles. And magazines pay much more than that for pre-publication rights to some books.

Moderator: Writers are always told to "develop a relationship with an editor." How can you do this with magazine editors?

Dick: It goes back to what I said about writing query letters that catch their attention. Then you must be sure to produce what you promised, and make sure they like it. That way, your name on a query will give an editor a warm glow.

mbvoelker: Are there specific things to do or not do in order to make your queries stand up and shout?

Dick: Be aggressive but not obnoxious. DON'T TYPE IN CAPITALS! Be smart, funny, succinct, original, outrageous but not obscene, colorful but not too weird. Again, make believe it's conversation.

jim: I've written a number of corporate news releases; can they be considered credits?

Dick: Look them over with an editor's eye, Jim: do they really represent the you you want to project? If so, send them along.

bingocliff: On having pieces rejected, do you polish them and keep sending them out?

Dick: Certainly, especially with fiction. Jack London spent every extra penny he had on postage, sending stuff out until they sold. But in nonfiction, a few rejections (more than ten) might mean the idea's time has come and gone.

paulplqn: How does one submit reviews to Amazon.com?

Dick: The instructions are on the page for each book. Go to Amazon.com, browse for a book you want to review, then click where it says to and type away.

janp: A while ago you mentioned a difference between writing for magazines as opposed to newspapers. Explain, please

Dick: I'll try to do it briefly. Newspapers impart information as quickly as possible. Magazines impart emotions, feelings AND information as artfully as possible. There have been blurrings of the line in recent years, but basically the form determines the content. By that I mean even the best newspaper writing looks abrupt and out of place on magazine stock, surrounded by slick ads, and even the best magazine writing looks silly and pretentious on newsprint.

rowan: How long should it take to find out if a magazine is interested in your piece or not?

Dick: Rowan, it shouldn't take too long -- or else somebody's not doing their job. That's why I advocate multiple queries. If you don't get an answer within a month, send it to somebody else.

Moderator: How does a writer go about becoming a reviewer?

Dick: As I said, the best way is give yourself your first assignment. Failing that, do a couple for free for places like Amazon.com. Then send those to editors of other magazines that actually pay!

Moderator: Do you only give positive reviews? Or a mix? Or do you just NOT review a book if you don't like it?

Dick: For my Chicago Trib column, I pick the five or six books a month I like best. For Publishers Weekly, I review (anonymously) whatever they send me.

paulplqn: Do reviewers eventually get free stuff to review?

Dick: Yes, especially if you have a regular outlet. Then you can actually write to publishers and ask to be put on their mailing lists.

Moderator: Are there any special requirements you need to become a reviewer?

Dick: I keep going back to it -- put yourself in your reader's place. Why am I spending time reading this particular review? How will it improve my life? It also helps if you've done some work in the field you review in.

Moderator: Are the "golden days" of magazine writing and editing over, do you think?

Dick: Golden, shmolden -- as my grandmother used to say. They probably never existed. But a new writer can still have fun, make money, get clips and valuable experience writing for the miserable loads of crap that call themselves magazines today -- oops, got carried away there.

Moderator: Are there worthwhile online magazines writers could try to be published in?

Dick: I can think of at least two in the arts/books field. Here they are, complete with URLS: January Magazine, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ and SALON, at http://salon.com/

Moderator: What's the most important thing you learned as a magazine editor?

Dick: Aside from how to get an expense account through? I'd say it was what Clay Felker taught by example -- to say no to middling ideas, not to worry about empty pages, and the really good ideas would come along if you were ready to recognize them.

Moderator: You touched on this earlier, but what were some turn-offs in submissions you received? Were there things that prejudiced you against a query or manuscript?

Dick: Aside from the obvious -- I'd like to do a REALLY SERIOUS piece about Tom Cruise -- the worst offenses were to try to convince me about something the writer didn't really believe in.

Moderator: What particular things caught your eye in a favorable way with the submissions you read and bought?

Dick: Anything that made me say, sometimes out loud, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Moderator: When submitting, should you address your submission to a particular editor at the magazine? And how do you know which one to submit to, and where can you find a current name?

Dick: The masthead is a good place to start. Having been a managing editor, I have high hopes for these folks. They know how to send stuff to the right place.

paulplqn: Do magazines pay by the article or word?

Dick: Both. Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen pay by the word, for example, about 30 cents. Magazines like Playboy and the NYT Magazine usually pay by the article.

kplano: Do editors ever reject an article or story if they think it is politically incorrect? Are editors concerned with only publishing views that they agree with?

Dick: I suppose that National Review might, or Commentary, or The Nation. But most good magazines like to stir up controversy.

rowan: Is it necessary to write and be published by a magazine before one tries to get a book published?

Dick: Not any more, from what I read in PW.

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to interrupt here, but we're out of time. Thank you so much, Dick, for coming tonight and sharing so much valuable information with us. It's so helpful to hear from a writer/editor who knows both sides of the editorial desk!

Dick: It has been a great pleasure. Thanks for the smart questions!

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks when we'll be joined by Jennifer Reed who will be talking about the "Nuts and Bolts of Magazine Marketing": writing queries, analyzing the markets, submitting, dealing with contracts and deadlines, and much more. This will be an excellent follow-up interview after tonight's discussion. Jennifer Reed is now the editor for the online parenting magazine, Wee Parent, and has written articles for various adult magazines and newspapers. Let her experience help you get published! And now, good night, everyone!

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