How to Reprogram Your Brain for Writing Greatness

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The following is an excerpt of my podcast interview with Sir John Hargrave, author of Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days. For the full interview, please listen below:

When did you first start writing professionally?

I started the first comedy site on the web back in 1995, it was called zug.com. It actually was that comedy site that got me into mind hacking in a roundabout way. What had happened was we specialized on zug.com with these pranks and high-profile stunts. I had gotten a credit card in the name of Barrack Obama, and this was really easy to do because you could just call up American Express using your legitimate credit card and say I want to add an additional cardholder. So I added Barrack Obama to my account, and now that I had a Barrack Obama credit card I started making all of these purchases with it. It was totally legal, but the day that Barrack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, suddenly the Secret Service had to protect him and apparently I was high on the watch list. 

They showed up at my house and I welcomed them in. I said, "I'm going to record this meeting," and I pulled out my tape recorder. As soon as they saw the tape recorder, they scattered. They're like, "This is over, this conversation is over," and they left.

It was a really terrible time. I'm making light of it but that night was terrifying for my wife and I because we didn't know if they were going to come back or if they were going to haul me off to jail, it was really awful. 

Through some difficult conversations that night my wife and I kind of came to the conclusion that my drinking and my drug use we're probably at the root of a lot of really destructive behaviors that I was taking. And so I decided I was going to get sober that night, and it really kind of took this call from the Secret Service to wake me up. 

I loaded all my alcohol and my drugs into the car and I go to this dumpster behind a local supermarket and I decided I'm going to throw them all away. I'm going to just go cold turkey and I found that I couldn't do it because my mind was telling me you'll never have fun again. If you get rid of all of this your life is over, it's going to be so boring without all this. 

So what I had to do was I had to hack my mind or basically create a new way of thinking about the act of throwing away all these drugs and alcohol. So I focused on the muscle movement and they talk about one day at a time in the program and this was one step at a time. Literally throwing these alcohol bottles, drugs into this dumpster, and by just focusing on the muscle movement and didn't think about the long term, I was able to get through it. That was really my first mind hack and since then to stay sober I've developed a whole series of these hacks or tricks to reprogram my mind. I'm happy to say I've been sober for 12 years and it's been the greatest journey and it has been so much fun. I have way more fun sober than I ever did back then. 

What exactly is mind hacking?

I  use hacking in the positive sense. So hacking originally meant like a really clever kind of trick or technique to use to improve your life and that's the true meaning of the word hacking. So the original hackers, the original computer programmers, the guys who invented the Arpanet and the internet, those were the legends and heroes, my personal heroes. So I've been a geek my whole life and I just love computers, I love technology, I love hacking in the true sense of the word. So what we're doing with mind hacking is we're finding those tricks or techniques to reprogram the mind. Different ways of thinking to change our lives in a positive direction. 

Sort of thinking of your mind as a computer that can be hacked into and reprogrammed with the new operating system or with a new set of algorithms that make it in a different way? 

We really do have the capability of reprogramming our mind. Most of us don't think like that on an everyday basis, right? When our mind tells us something, we tend to believe it. If our mind gets worried about finances or starts obsessing about a conversation we had with a coworker, we just roll with it and we're really slaves to our mind in that sense. When you realize that, actually, you don't have to believe everything you think, actually you're the programmer that's in charge of this thing called your mind and you can reprogram it, you can choose what to think, that is an awesome power and it is a power. It's a power, it's like a superpower when you really get control of this and learn how to reprogram it.

What are some hack writers can do to help them focus?

I have a whole section in the book about creating a distraction-free work zone. I think the defining feature of our age is interruption. Every app, every program, every operating system, all have these alerts and messages. The folks creating these apps it's in their best interest to interrupt you as often as possible and we kind of allow that by default. So you really have to take control of your own mental space and that means you got to turn things off. You really have to try to live a clutter-free and distraction-free environment.

One of the exercises in the book is you just spend an hour just cleaning up and turning off as many of those alerts and interruptions as you can. Because all the research shows we can't multitask, multitasking is a myth. Every time you're interrupted by something you lose the flow, you lose the state and there's a switching cost, the mental switching cost to getting back into the zone of whatever you were doing. 

The second thing you can do is making a habit out of writing. I've studied great writers in their workday habits and almost all of the greats get up early in the morning and they start writing first thing. It's just like going to work, you just punched the clock and you start writing words on a computer. I know some folks are not early morning people but you can change your habits. You can become an early morning person, the advantage to doing it early in the morning is you get up before everybody else, you avoid a lot of those interruptions. So you have dedicated time, you're fresh, you're right out of sleep and you can get a lot done beforehand and that gives you this feeling of energy throughout the day that, like, "I wrote 2000 words today. I accomplished something already and now what more can I do?" So you're kind of rolling this positive snowball of energy and we talk a lot about that in the later part of the book. These snowballs of energy is really what you want to build in your life, versus writing later in the day when you're tired, when you're distracted, procrastinating, reading reddit for half an hour, not getting anything done. So sit down, write, and don’t even care about how good it is, just get the words out. When you come back later the next day and look at it, I think you'll find that like, it's not as bad as you might've felt.

Email is the worst time-killer ever. Most of the time email is low-value work, so in other words, you can chew up a ton of time with email and you start this response cycle, right? Where people now are like emailing you back and you're stuck in this loop and meanwhile you feel like you're getting stuff done but its usually low value. Writing is high-value work, so writing is the hard work that you need to do first before you get into the email. Email is better later in the day when you're already tired and you can just kind of like churn through a lot of stuff easily. But the writing, the hard work, the valuable work is good first thing. 

What is your morning routine?

What I do actually, first thing is I meditate when I get up. I do not look at a screen. I don't check my phone. It's just 20 minutes silent. You focus on the breath and when you notice yourself wandering from noticing the breath, you just go back to the breath and that's it for 20 minutes. It has made such a difference in my life because what you find is that that practice of noticing that your mind is wandering pays off in everyday life. So in other words, for meditation, we're not developing the skill there on the couch, we're developing the skill for everyday life. 

So then what happens when you're in traffic and you find yourself getting angry at the guy in front of you, you say, "wait a minute I don't have to think this." In other words, that mindfulness that literally the sense of being aware of your own mind and the emotions going through it, that you've been practicing 20 minutes every morning, now are paying off in real life situations and that's the magic of meditation. I never hear people talk about that that clearly but that is why meditation is so good. 

Okay, so you get up in the morning and you meditate for 20 minutes and then you begin your writing? 

Basically, the idea is to do the hard work first and then you've got this feeling of accomplishment and that energy snowball starts to roll. For me, I have about an hour I give each morning to writing, then I've got other things that are pressing into my time.  So I'll get up at 5:30, I'll meditate 6:00 to 7:00 is kind of that time to write. But if I'm on deadline, you know, I'll spend some larger chunks maybe on the weekend on Saturday or Sunday and it could be up to four hours depending. 

You talk about "debugging our minds," explain what that means and how that might apply to writers. 

When you're writing a new application or program, you look for bugs. This is called debugging. When you find a bug you try to rework it and reprogram it until it works correctly. Debugging our minds is a similar process where we try to become aware of those negative thought loops, and it's so difficult in real life because we believe what our minds tell us. So if our mind is telling us, for example, you need to obsess about this relationship with your mother in law or you need to worry about this job promotion, we tend to believe it.

But by being mindful or meditating and developing these practices, this awareness of the mind, we can start to see those negative thought loops and we can start to figure out, okay what do I want? Do I want to think about my job or my mother in law or my kids or my finances or my life? What do I want? Now that's one of the most difficult things to figure out--what do you want? What do you want out of life? And when you ask most people, they might say, "Uh, a pony?" Most people don't know what they want--they haven't thought it through. So figuring out what you want is really an important part of this process. Then you replace that negative thought loop, that you found through debugging, with your positive thought loop. In my case, you know, from sobriety means the end of all fun to sobriety is the foundation of all good things in my life. 

Share some debugging practices.

In the book, we have an exercise called "The $20 Million Dollar Inheritance." Imagine that a great aunt, who you never knew existed, leaves you $20 million dollars and now you don't have to work, what do you do? What do you do with your life at this point? The goal is really to let your imagination run and say, what do I want? 

So for example, some of my thought loops over the past few years have been: I really want to be a model human and I want our company to be a model company. Being a model human doesn't mean I want to be a perfect human being. It just basically means that I want to be someone who other folks would want to model themselves after. And this company, Media Shower that we run, like I want it to be a company that is respected worldwide, that is seen as a model for other companies. It is so powerful how the repetition of that thought loop has changed my life. It almost is like a kind of magic that starts to work its way into your life and you start to undertake projects and think about things in a way that you never thought before. That's been my experience but try it, it's so much fun and it's so interesting to watch how your life changes when you start implementing these things. 

It's interesting you bring up the word repetition because I know that comes up as one of the hacks in your book. What's the importance of repetition and how one might put that into practice in their life? 

Repetition is very important and also repetition is very important. Regardless of how you might feel about the President of the United States, watch how often he uses repetition to get his message across and watch how often that constant repetition starts to become reality for people. Watch, advertising works on the same principle. If something is repeated enough, we become familiar with it and we began to trust it, that's the concept of branding and marketing.

My book Mind Hacking has a bright yellow cover. Audible started running these ads that showed that cover again and again to people who had already viewed it and the sales started to go through the roof. That repetition, that constant repeating of an idea or a phrase or a thought is extremely powerful and it's how we learn as humans. 

Now, the great news is you can repeat things in your own life, like in your own head. For me, I mentioned my morning routine but after then I write, then I have a shower, I have breakfast and then I come back and I have a number of just daily thought loops that I just repeat to myself. Some might call these affirmations but I like calling them positive thought loops instead, it sounds a little less New Agey.

 

I mentioned that I have a list of positive values that I repeat to myself every morning, truthfulness, tranquility, self-esteem, self-gentleness, effectiveness, optimism, humility, things like that. I've got a whole list of these and I basically just read them through. I keep them in a text file, and then I read these and just visually see them and kind of say them to myself and over time these habits gain a kind of magic. They work their way into yourself and they become part of the fabric of your being. So you choose them with great care, but then repeat them to yourself again and again and you'll find that you start becoming them. 

I have a list of values that I want to live out in my life and then I have what I guess you might call affirmations. "I'm happy, well, and filled with perfect life." There is another one that I always use. I love this one. "All suggestion of age, poverty, limitation or unhappiness is uprooted from my mind and cannot gain entrance to my thought." I have people all the time saying, "Oh I feel so old, but it's not money or not enough stuff to go around and I just look at them and I say, all suggestion of age, poverty is uprooted from my mind. They think I'm insane, but I really don't care. I don't care anymore, I don't care. 

Then I have goals like personal goals that I want to achieve this week and I want to achieve this year and then I want to achieve in five years and I'll repeat those to myself as well. But the whole process takes maybe five minutes in total. 

You wrote that it's important to write stuff down. Why?

There's a great story in the book about Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He basically used this technique where he started writing things down in a notebook 20 times each day. The first affirmation he wrote was "I will become successful in the stock market." He made a number of very unlikely stock picks that paid off very well for him and it really worked. So he then went back to get his MBA and he had to take his GMAT, a standardized test and he said, "I will a score in the 93rd percentile on the GMAT," which is very difficult to do and repeated that every day, 20 times writing it down. When he got his score, he scored exactly in the 93rd percentile.

He's got a number of stories like that where he said I realized that everything I knew about how the universe was wired was wrong. In other words, we have a lot more control over the universe than we think we do. There's something about that act of writing it down and I think maybe it's partly because you're spending actual time doing it. You start to become much more invested in the outcome than just kind of a wish that it's going to happen like you know, a New Year's Resolution that you never followed through on.

I think also something about the act, it's a meditative exercise writing it down or typing it, that's how I do it—I type it. But there's something meditative about doing that 20 times in a row, almost hypnotic that you start to retrain your brain to look for those opportunities when they arise in your everyday life that sort of get you toward that goal. So it's almost like priming your brain or priming your mind to look and recognize those opportunities throughout your everyday life that are going to get you in the direction of that goal. It's a cool experiment to try. 

Every writer has the experience of self-doubt. No matter how good you are or experienced, you're just like this stinks. Every sentence I write I don't like the sentence. What's a hack for that?

I have found a little hack that is very useful. Imagine that you've got your inner critic sitting next to you when you're writing. Walk the inner critic to the door, ask him to leave, then shut the door. The deal with the inner critic is tomorrow you get to come in and you get to be ruthless. If you want to delete everything I write that's fine--tomorrow, but today is not your day. Today you're going to sit outside, and I'm just going to write. I find that helpful to make a clear delineation between the writing process and then the editing process. Because we have to do both as writers. But if you can lock that guy or gal to the door, shut it, and then just write and not worry about the inner critic, then you're going to find the next day when the inner critic comes back it's actually not as bad as you thought and there's some pretty good stuff in there.

You say it's important for writers to get out more.

As writers, I know that we're often introverted and we'll spend time writing as if it's a solitary exercise. But it's important to get out of your comfort zone and go meet other writers. I have a great place in Boston called the Writers' Loft, that's created by my friend Heather Kelley. I mentioned it in the book where they have all these meetups on a regular basis, where writers get together, they do workshops. I highly recommend these things because you get such a broader scope and by exchanging ideas it makes you clarify your own ideas. 

The other tool I recommend is meetup.com because in every city there are tons of great meetups where you can meet with like-minded people and there are great writer meetups. You can meet with really high-quality people and exchange high-quality ideas and it really does improve the value of what you're doing.

To close off, I thought it would be cool to give my listeners one last hacking exercise.

Here's one that you can play today. "What Was My Mind Just Thinking?" The goal is as many times as possible today, try to catch yourself thinking, try to ask yourself, "What was my mind just thinking?" We gamify a lot of the exercises in the book, so you actually score points. We have a worksheet that you can score points. There's an app that goes along with it to help keep track of how many times you're able to catch yourself thinking and literally ask yourself the question, what was my mind just thinking? You think this is going to be really easy and it is for like five minutes and then you'll find that you get lost in the mind. So it really is a kind of mindfulness, but it's a way to do it that's really fun and kind of a personal challenge. 
 

10 Ways to Be a Better Writer—Right Now

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Recently on my podcast, Write About Now, I talked to writer David Hochman about the secrets behind his success. Hochman, who calls himself “The Freelance Whisperer,” has penned hundreds of stories for magazines, newspapers, websites, and books. And his UPOD Academy workshops offer freelance writers valuable tips and tricks for getting published.

The guy knows from writing, so I asked him to share some whisperer wisdom to help other writers improve their game. Here are some of the highlights of what he said...

1. Notice What You’re Noticing

Hochman credits this Buddhaesque phrase to New York Times journalist, Taffy Akner, a talented and prolific culture writer who also appeared on a podcast episode. What she means is that there is no better arbiter of what makes an interesting story than your own instincts. If you notice that you're noticing something, there's a good chance what you're noticing is pretty interesting. 

Writers ask me all the time, “How do you come up with story ideas?” and I wish I had this answer at the ready. Notice what you’re noticing. Damn you, Taffy, it's so simple but true.

"Be a good observer of what people are talking about but not naming," says Hochman. For example, I noticed that I was getting a lot of telemarketing calls on my cell phone from phone numbers that were almost exactly the same as mine. It really bothered me and I wanted to know why. So I pitched that story and got an assignment. 

"Be the person who is putting those strings together and putting meaning in them that you can then take to an editor," Hochman says

2. Explore the Adjacent Future

It sounds like an episode of Nova on PBS narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson but bear with us. David explains, "It's the idea that there’s this shadow future that exists right next to you." All you have to do is look at something familiar in a new way and a whole new reality opens up to you.

So how does this future stuff apply to writing? David gives this example from his own life: One day as he was training his son to go potty, he said to his dad, "I want to go on the potty train." A lightbulb flashed, violins began to play. This was a children's book idea just waiting to happen.

David had never written a children's book in his life. But he sat down and wrote his masterpiece, The Potty Train with the catchphrase "chugga chugga poo poo" in 45 minutes. He sold it to Simon & Schuster who found him an illustrator and now the book is #71 in all sales on Amazon. 

David is amused and horrified at the fact that his most successful piece of writing is for an audience of readers who can't even read. 

3. Find Your Diddy Hours

On the podcast, David tells the story of the awkward interview he did a while back with Sean "P-Diddy" Combs for Playboy. The interview was not going particularly well, and Diddy was reluctant to answer in more than one- or two-word sentences. Sitting with Combs in the backseat of his Maybach, David began to panic a little. He asked him how he's able to keep it all together running so many different companies. Something about the question caught Diddy's attention.

"We all have Diddy hours," he said. "You have the same diddy hours I do. You have the same 24 hours I do."

In other words, that excuse that we all use that you just don't have enough time to write or to finish your story or to pitch ideas doesn't really fly in a P-Diddy timezone. We all follow the same clock. It's how we manage our time that's the difference. 

4. Take a Social Media Timeout

I'll admit, when David dropped this tip I checked out for a minute. I could get with the whole P-Diddy thing, but give up my Instagram and Facebook feed? That's blasphemous. But David correctly believes that going cold turkey on social for an hour or two a day gives you extra time to really get stuff done. It will also put you in a better mood. Studies show that social media causes acute anxiety, which doesn't help your writing—unless you're Larry David. 

5. Be Done, Not Perfect

Here's another pithy phrase I wish I'd thought of first: "Done is better than perfect." Damn, that's good. How often do you tweak and polish your copy over and over again, fearing that it's just not ready for general consumption? I would imagine, like, often. Like, I'm doing that right now and it's late and I really should be going to bed soon. 

"Don't agonize over getting it perfectly," says David. It's not going to happen, especially if you're the final judge. Sometimes the simple act of just finishing something is enough. Someone once said, "Perfection is the enemy of progress." It took him four hours to come up with the perfect way to say that phrase, but that's not the point. 

6. Exit Your Bubble

Like it or not, we all inhabit some sort of bubble of common interests and values. It's human nature to want to seek out similarities. Familiarity might breed contempt, but similarity breeds contentment. Just witness how happy you are when a friend shares an article or a TedTalk on a topic that you totally agree with. 

But living in an echo chamber can also make us deaf to new ideas. Good writers know when to put a pin in it and enter alternative realities that might not be as comfortable. David recommends wandering out of your neighborhood (maybe write in a cafe in a completely different part of town), meet new people, and do something that's totally not you, like take an improv class or learn taxidermy. 

You don't have to do it all at once. Slow and steady bursts the bubble. "Build a bridge to a bridge," David says, "If you feel overwhelmed think about what are the next things I am going to do. What are the next two things I can do? Remember to build little bridge to another bridge and eventually you get there."

7. Ask for 100 Percent

You want to be an accomplished writer, act like one. "Ask for 100 percent of what you want from 100 percent of people in your life 100 percent of a time," says David. It's very easy to not commit fully to something. I do it all the time. Not eat sugar for a week? Maybe just one bite of a donut. Meditate every morning for 20 minutes? Maybe five minutes when I'm really busy.

No! You need to be in all the way. That means if you tell an editor you're going to get them a story in on time, you get it to them early. If you call accounts payable about where your money is, you don't hang up until you have an answer. 

As someone much smarter than me once said, "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

8. Ask If Not You, Then Who?

It rhymes and it's the truth. Doesn't get much better than that from a writing perspective. Seriously, though, we all need to ask ourselves this question a lot more. "If you’re not going to be the one to tell the story, you’re leaving it to someone else," says David. 

Don't allow yourself to stand there in the dust while someone else steals your thunder, says me, the Mixed Metaphor king. If you have a great story to tell, tell it immediately. Which leads me to the next crucial question: "If not now, when?"

9. Capture the Unicorn

Every editor has that one story or book they really want, but are too busy, too stuck in the weeds, too distracted with a million other things, to find. We call these ideas unicorns. And if you can catch one, you will make magic happen.

How do you track a unicorn? You can start by asking the editor what they are, says Hochman. In a move that I have since blatantly stolen, David likes to sit with his editors and future employers and ask them point blank, "What's the one story you've been wanting to get but haven’t been able to find?"

If there isn't a unicorn on their wish list, ask what kind of stories they're looking for, what their audience wants, "thenI go back and re-engineer it to fit that need. This is so much simpler than "trying to squeeze your idea into their thing," he says.

10. Thumb Slam!

This is a technique that David suggests you use when you need to send a difficult email, or you're pitching a story that may be a stretch for you. He advises lifting your hand up from the keyboard and then, in a forceful motion, slamming your thumb down on the send key. "It feels good doing that twice a month," he says. Sounds good to me.

Writers don't often get a chance to high-five or chest bump. They're often a team of one, alone in their offices or coffee shops, quietly reveling in their own triumphs. The act of doing a thumb slam might bring some well-deserved joy into your life.

Listen below to hear the full interview with David:

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5 Things Literary Agents Wish You Knew

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Man, the process of getting a literary agent can suck. You send query after query and receive rejection after rejection—if you receive a response at all. Trust me, I feel you. I’ve had enough thanks-but-no-thanks letters to wallpaper my home.

But, in the traditional publishing world, an agent is a necessary and valuable ally on your path to book deal, Population: you. I like to think of agents as The Night Watch, guarding the impenetrable Wall that is Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Agents are the gatekeepers. You just need the key. I eventually found it—and you can, too.

To get the inside scoop on what makes agents sign you or decline you, I spoke with big-time, literary agent, Stacey Glick, on my podcast Write About now.

Stacey’s been in the game for 20 years with the NYC-based agency, Dystel, Goderich, & Burrel, She represents an eclectic stable of authors, who write everything from memoirs to cook books, picture books to children’s non-fiction.

You can hear the entire interview on my podcast Write About Now. Here are some key takeaways.

Think of Yourself As a Pizza Pie

I’m a New Yorker, so I know from pizza pies. This advice really resonated with me.

Stacey encourages writers to think of themselves and their brand as margherita. Having a great book idea is one slice of the pie, so is having amazing writing chops—but it’s not enough. “The rest of the pieces of the pie need to be filled in before you have a book deal." These include your social outreach, your audience, your ability to market and sell yourself without dipping into the publisher’s piggy bank.

Have a Unique Take

Seems obvious but you’d be surprised how many people don’t heed this advice. “What’s your saying has to be unique or different,” Stacy says. The world doesn’t need another World War 2 book, so what is it about your World War 2 book that’s never been done before?

Also, Stacey encourages you to run your book idea through the magazine test. Could your point be explained fully in an article, or does it require an entire book? And while we are on the subject of articles…

Write an Article First

Think of an article as a trailer for the movie that is your book. If you write your book idea first as an article, and said article goes viral, they will come in droves. Heck, you might even be able to get your book in a bidding war. Stacey has many tales of books that started off as articles. For example, she signed  Amy Morin, author of  13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, based on an article she wrote in Forbes magazine.  Says Stacey, “Ideally you want speak to a cultural concern or issue of something that hasn’t been explored or told in a way that will resonate with people and offer help,” Stacey says.

Think Non-Fiction for Children

We often think of the publishing industry as stagnating, and this is true in a lot of ways. But Stacey sees one big market opening up that you might be not have been aware of. Non-fiction for children.

She encourages writers to take a look at the Rutgers University Council of Children’s Literature. “There are so many resources for perspective writers there,” she says. Much more than on the adult side.

She also recommends the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators (SCBWI) as a terrific resource for networking.

Thrill or Instill Confidence

Tracey says that thrillers are all the rage in the adult fiction side. What kind of thrillers? “We joke about it in the business, but if it has the word “girl” or “woman” in the title, it’s gonna be a bestseller.” Think Girl on the Train or Woman in the Window.

Whatever you do, don’t get all Hunger Games or Twilight. Says Stacey, “There was a long time where you could sell anything dystopian and before that vampires, now you can’t sell anything dystopian or vampires.”

On the non-fiction side, the big sellers are books on doing something irreverent with R-rated titles like, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F$#k and You Are A Badass. But she stresses the facts that the authors of these books had big platforms that they mobilized to get sales.

 

 

 

 

5 Pitch Mistakes You Shouldn't Make

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Last year, I pitched a story to a major women's magazine, which I won't name but let's just say it rhymes with Hood Mousesweeping, that recounted the harrowing experience of a Spokane, Washington mom. Angel Fiorini risked her life to save her daughter from a horrible house fire.

The story hadn't been widely reported, and it fit right into Food Spouseleaping's sweet spot: They often published stories featuring "real life heroes," and Angel was similar to their readership—married, mom, 30s, heartland. Check, check, check, check. 

I wrote up a proposal and fired it off to the appropriate editor, confident that I'd struck gold. When I didn't hear back right away, I was surprised. I waited a few weeks than I contacted the editor again. She said liked the story, but in order for her to sell it to her boss, the editor-in-chief, she needed it to fly off the page. Like the reader flipping through the magazine, this editor needed a reason to stop on this story and start reading—immediately.

So I rewrote the pitch. I added a catchy headline, included a family photo, and tweaked the intro so that it put the reader right in the middle of the fire. In short, I pitched the story as a mini me version of how it might read in the magazine.

As a long-time editor and writer, I've had the opportunity to be on both ends of the pitch process. I've fielded hundreds of pitches (at one time I was in charge of a magazine's so-called "slush pile"), and I've fired off just as many story queries to various magazines, newspapers, and websites. I'm still learning how to to pitch perfect.

While every publication has different guidelines, if they have guidelines at all, there are still some tried-and-true techniques that will help improve your chances of getting your pitch seen, considered, and hopefully assigned.

Unfortunately, too often I've seen the same mistakes made over and over again. So in the spirit of helping you understand what to do, here's what not to do.

Canvas the Town with Your Idea Sending your story idea to multiple publications at the same time, is a big no-no. Target the specific pub you want to run your story and send it there. If you don't hear back in two weeks, move on to your next choice.

Send Pitches Blindly I can't tell you the number of times I received pitches at Glamour about gardening, or submissions at Stuff about poetry. It's as if the person pitching never read the magazine. Study the publication you're pitching. Know their tone, style, and subject matter. If you're targeting a website, look at their content categories to understand the topics that interests them. If you're pitching a magazine, take a look at the different sections/columns. If there are no pages dedicated to, say, first-person essays, don't expect them to make an exception just for you.

Pitch a Copy-Cat Story I always do a google search before I pitch, just to make sure the publication I'm hitting up hasn't run the story already. In fact, I usually do a broader search to make sure that no major national publication or competitive pub has run the same story. 

Pitch a Dated Story In an age where information moves faster than any time in the history of our planet; it's hard to be first to break a story. Unless you work at a daily, I wouldn't recommend playing that game. Being topical and relevant is important, but you don't have to be first. Instead, try approaching a story from a fresh angle. Have an original take or an original piece of reporting.

Pitch the Editor-in-Chief Don't pitch the people at the top of the masthead. Although they sign off on all stories, they rarely, if ever, assign them. Instead, target your pitches at assigning editors or even editorial assistants, who may be hungry to make a good impression at work. Don't know who these people are? Do a LinkedIn search for names, then a social media search for contact info. If someone has an assistant next to their name, they might be a good place to start. 

Ok, so now that I've told you what you shouldn't do, here are some examples of what you should do. I'm not trying to boast—trust me, many more of my story pitches have failed than sailed. But I thought it might be helpful for you to see some story pitches that got me jobs.

Good Housekeeping

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You can read the final story here

New York Times

Last month, I pitched three stories to the New York Times Arts section. Guess which one they chose?

Marcia Clark’s Second Motion

Twenty years after disappearing from the public eye, the infamous prosecutor is back in a new role as TV detective in Marcia Clark Investigates The First 48. On the show, she examines the first 48 hours after high-profile murders, such as the death of Casey Anthony’s daughter, the murder of Robert Blake’s wife, the fatal shooting of Jam Master Jay, etc., trying to get closer to the truth. Clark will also be hosting a true-crime docudrama.

As The Americans Bows Out, Holly Taylor is Just Getting Started

Holly Taylor, who plays Paige Jennings on The Americans, is perhaps the most underrated but polarizing character on the show. A few seasons ago, she outed her parents as Soviet spies to her minister, incurring the wrath of the show's fans. On the sixth and final season, which premieres in late March, she may join them in the family business. Would you consider a profile of her as a fresh new face? 

Is David Chang the Next Anthony Bourdain?

Celeb chef David Chang’s new docu-series “Ugly Delicious” premiers on Netflix on February 23. On the show, he travels around the world with celebrities, food critics, etc, exploring different cuisines and talk about cultural barriers and misconceptions around food. It’s sort of a Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee meets Anthony Bourdain. 

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You can read the final story here

And here's the Facebook live video I recorded!

7 Insider Tips for Aspiring Health Writers

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Do you have a health or wellness story you want to get published? Or maybe you’re considering a career as a health and wellness writer? You’ve made a wise choice. Stories about our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being are in massive demand in our health-obsessed world. You just have to know what the hot topics are and how to pitch them.

On episode 29 of the Write About Now Podcast, I spoke with Lisa Lombardi, a former executive editor at Health magazine and co-author of What the Yuck: The Freaky and Fabulous Truth About Your Body­, about breaking into the health and wellness writing world. Here are some key takeaways from our lively conversation.

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First-person health stories kill it online Personal stories about your struggles and triumphs over illness, body image issues, and psychological disorders, are highly-coveted by editors, according to Lisa. She says this is particularly true online, where the appetite for these kinds of tales is particularly voracious.

“If you’re struggling with a health issue and you’re comfortable writing about it, I would say that’s a great hook and a great way to get a relationship (with a publication),” she says.

The great thing about first-person stories, in general, is that you’re the only one who can tell them. So no need to worry about sounding “authentic” and “original.” They also offer wonderful opportunity to help others who may be struggling with the same issues.

But first-person health stories also require an extra layer of fact-checking. Your story may be very impactful, but if the science is wrong it could have unfortunate consequences. “Make sure that you understand your own condition— that it’s clear and not misleading,” Lisa says.

The #1 topic is… What do you think the perennially most popular health topic is? According to Lisa, it’s stories about sleep, and lack thereof. Reader can’t only get enough shut eye, they can’t get enough information about it. Just writing that sentence made me sleepy “The new challenge today is feeling overstimulated,” Lisa says. It’s your job to tell people how to chill out, calm down, and get some shut eye.

The next post popular topics are… Diet and fitness, for the win! Stories about how to maintain your health and lose a few pounds in new and exciting ways are always a welcome read. Two things to watch out for, though. First, so much is written about diet and fitness that you’ll need to work extra-hard to find a fresh and new angle. Perhaps a celebrity trainer has a new workout regime, for example. Second, diet stories are different now than, say, 5 years ago. Says Lisa, “We noticed readers were less interested in complete diet plans, but more in everyday lifestyle tweaks and strategies. They like knowing that people who eat yogurt tend to have less belly fat, or eating fiber and protein will fill me up so I can go longer between meals.”

Stories on health trends also do well Articles that either explain or debunk new health trends are definite winners—people are always looking for an authority to make sense of all the new research out there. Is coffee really good for you? Are legumes really bad for you? But if you write this kind of story, you’ll need to enlist the help of doctors and qualified researchers to make your case.

Timeliness is next to publishiness  No editor wants to get called out for covering old news. For this reason, they’re often hyper-vigilant about making sure that they’re on the pulse of whatever subject matter they cover. At the same time, no editor wants to miss out on a hot story. Try to give the stories you pitch an element of timeliness or a news hook. Even if you’re not the first to report on a piece of health news, have a fresh take on it.

Blogs are helpful For aspiring wellness writers, Lisa advises creating a blog or website that features some of your health writing. The standards for health writers is probably a little higher than other types of writers, due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. Case in point: If the only thing you’ve ever written about is fashion, it will hard to convince an editor that you’re qualified to write a health story for her.  

So is reading As Stephen King, who writes more about death than health but whatever, once said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” So true. In order to understand what great health writing looks like, you need to read the best. Lisa suggests The New York Times, Washington Post, and of course Health.

LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE PODCAST

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On this week’s Write About Now podcast, I visit the New York City offices of Real Simple magazine to talk clutter with new Editor-in-Chief Leslie Yazel. Leslie opens up about her impressive career as a writer and editor, which started on the mean streets of Des Moines and continued all the way to the top spot of a major Time Inc. publication.

She also gives me a tour of the office, including the legendary fashion closet. I had a secret fantasy that Real Simple's offices would be complete mess with piles of stuff scattered everywhere. Not a chance. Befitting of the mag’s title, Leslie runs a lean and mean ship.
 
Prior to helming the SS Real Simple, Leslie was director of editorial content at Cosmo, deputy editor at the Wall Street Journal, and she held senior editorial positions at The Washington PostRedbookMaximSeventeen. We first met as young, idealistic editors at Glamour magazine, where we both received an invaluable education in the Bonnie Fuller school of grab-em-by-the-lapels journalism.
 
Both Leslie’s career path and her knowledge about the craft of editing are super interesting and instructive. Here are some snippets I took away.  

  1. She honed her “down-and-dirty” newspaper skills as an investigative reporter at the Des Moines Register—her hometown newspaper. One of her biggest scoops was uncovering that the new University of Iowa sports complex was slipping off its foundation.
  1. She prefers editing to writing, making decisions about which stories to run, who should write what, and which photos to choose. She says, “As an editor you have to be able to work with a lot different people, you have to have trust of writers, and you have to be a person who can manage down as well as up.”
  1. She says that another secret skill of the best editors is “knowing when to say no.” Even if a writer really wants to write a story, you can’t have too much of their times spent on just an ok story.”
  1. One of the first things she did when she took over at Real Simple was remove a lot of the puns. “Something about having cutesy puns was dissonant with a magazine that had real information,” she says. Sounds like a Real-ly good idea (sorry).
  1. She once had a boss at The Washington Post named John Pancake, who was married three times but, surprisingly, none of his wives took his name. Oddly, I once had a boss named Ben Waffles. Actually that's not true.

5 Things I Learned from Music Critic Ben Ratliff

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Ben Ratliff has a dream job. He gets to listen to music all day, go to concerts all night, then get paid to write about it in prestigious publications that everybody reads. 

In my interview with him on the Write About Now podcast, I wanted to know how he went from the sweet and smart kid I knew in high school to one of the most well-known music critics around. And what did he learn on the way to the top? The interview was rich with insider tips and practices. Here are 5 lessons I took away...

1. Be a Journalist not a Shrink

Ben has written hundreds of profiles of famous musicians, trying to get at the heart of what makes them tick. One of the lessons he learned early on at The New York Times is that it's not a journalists responsibility or goal to play mind reader. "You can’t think that you can get inside of the head of someone you’re writing about," he says. "You can’t pretend to think that you know how they think. You have to stay outside their head. You’re an outsider you don’t know what this person thinks. You are making your own conclusions."

2. Write Reviews for the Audience not the Artist

Ben says one of the most common misconceptions of a critic's job is that he/she is trying to tell the artist how they can be better. Wrong! "You’re not giving them pointers about how to be better. I mean that’s insane," he says.  "You’re writing about it (their performance) from the perspective of the person in the audience, and you’re writing it from your experience." I asked him who he writes for. "Me," he said, "and the people I respect."

3. Follow the Pleasure Principle

Not, I'm not referring to Janet Jackson's hit song—although I do suggest you rock out to it during your next workout. I'm quoting my friend Ben, who tells me that's the guiding maxim at the New York Times critics desk. "If we got really excited about some music that we heard, it gave us a feeling of pleasure, we would follow that and try to write about it," he says. That didn't necessarily mean they were going to write a glowing review, it just meant, "There was something there for you that you just want to get inside of."

4. Run Before You Write then Nap

Many writers I talk to have rituals they do before they start the tortuous process of writing. Ben likes to run three to five miles. It enables him to get away from everything and clear the way to "think thoughts that are mine only." Jogging around his upper Manhattan neighborhood, he says he's "getting that very important feeling of motion and the range of things you notice when you’re in motion. It is so rich and complicated and you just start to feel drunk on it.  He also likes to take a nap every day at around 3 pm. "If you eat something a little salty, maybe a little oily for lunch than you’re just ready for a nap," he says. I'm in.

5. Writing Cliches Isn't So Bad

I always say that you should avoid cliches like the plague. Always the contrarian, Ben doesn't entirely agree. In fact, for his next book, he's considering writing about the complicated idea of cliches. He says, "We are always told they (cliches) will weaken your language and lead you to a thought that’s not authentic to you. There is also a a way that they are natural or necessary. It’s all about you using them rather than them using you."

How the Story of the Amazing Finley and Christina Came to Be

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Good Houskeeping magazine recently published my story on the inspiring Smallwood family (no relation). I felt incredibly fortunate to meet them, and I was honored that they agreed to invite me into their home and into their lives to share their personal journey with the world. 

People often ask me how a story like this comes about. How did I find the Smallwoods? How did I get in touch with them? How did I get the story published in Good Housekeeping? The story was a combination of tried-and true old-fashioned reporting, good timing, and just a really amazing story that basically wrote itself.

So in the spirit of sharing, I thought I'd break it down step by step:

  1. I contacted an associate at Good Housekeeping to ask if they were hiring freelance writers. She put me in touch with a senior editor there. After a bunch of emails back and forth, I was able to get her on the phone for a few minutes. In a brief conversation (editors don't have a lot of time), I was found out the kind of stories they were looking for. One of the items on the menu stood out for me: Stories About Inspiring Moms.
  2. As soon as I got off the phone, I embarked on what I thought would be a light google search. Four hours later, after an intense session of binge browsing, I came up for air and made a list. Turns out there were quite a few stories of inspiring moms, but I wanted to find a story that hadn't been reported widely--if at all. No stories that were already national news. 
  3. I whittled my list down to three potential stories, did a brief summary sentence or two with a catchy headline, and sent them to my editor. She was very interested in Finley's story, and asked for a more detailed proposal that she could run by the editor in chief.
  4. At this point, I felt there was sufficient enough interest to contact Christina directly to find out if she'd be interested in participating in the story. 
  5. Thankfully, Christina is very active on social media. So I was able to contact her via Facebook. When she got back to me and expressed interest, I asked if I could have 10 minutes of her time to do a quick pre-interview. She graciously agreed.
  6. Armed with new and updated information, I put together a more formal powerpoint one-sheet pitch for Good Housekeeping, which included a lovely photo and a few paragraphs summarizing the story and my unique angle for magazine. I tailored the story to the magazine's readership, which as moms 35 and up.
  7. A few days later, I got the greenlight. Whoot! Next, I made plans to visit Christina and Finley in Corona. If possible, I will always try to meet a story subject in person. This allows me to add color and details that you just can't recreate from talking to someone over the phone. 
  8. Armed with two recorders (I always have a backup) and a camera (many pubs now require that the reporter takes photos), I visited Christina and Finley. I asked if I could come on a day when Finley was having a dance lesson and they granted my request. Christina also scheduled a physical therapy session for Finley while I was there, which I greatly appreciated.
  9. I shadowed the two for the day, and then Christina talked to me for a few hours at her home. Because Christina is a working mom with a 4-year-old, I made sure beforehand that we would have some time to talk alone one-on-one. I planned this portion of the interview after we'd spent the morning together. This way a certain trust and comfort level had been established, and I wouldn't be some random reporter asking her a bunch of personal quesitons.  
  10. I brought along prepared questions for Christina, but I also added to the list as the day unfolded. During our interview, I made sure to really listen to her answers and follow up on any questions that may arise. Knowing that Good Housekeeping (like all good publications) likes to infuse their stories with feeling and emotion, I asked Christina to recount not only what happened but what it felt like every step of the way. I left the interview with more than I needed--which is always a good rule of thumb. 
  11. Back at home, I did phone interviews with Josh Smallwood and Dr. Park and other people Christina mentioned. I also did extensive research on cerebral palsy and SDR surgery. 
  12. With all my informaton in hand, I wrote up an outline then embarked on a first draft. After doing a few passes, I sent the story to Good Houskeeping. They were very pleased with the story and had a few questions--most of which I could answer from my notes. For the others, I schedule a brief and very pointed follow up interview with Christina, who was more than generous with her time and candor.

I handed in the second draft a few days later. It received a lovely polish from my editors. And the result can be found here.

Since the story appeared in the September issue, Christina has received many kind words, donations, and notes from parents all over the world wanting to learn more about SDR surgery.  I am also pleased to announce that Finley is making incredible progress and may be walking completely unassisted soon.

Please leave your thoughts on the story in the comment section. If you have any further questions about the pitching and writing process, I'm here to help!

Until then, do the write thing!

How An NFL Linebacker is Tackling the Business World

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I recently had the opportunity to hang out with Derrick Morgan, an NFL linebacker for the Tennessee Titans. It was part of an Entrepreneur story focusing on a new sports agency started by marketing guru, Gary Vaynerchuk. Morgan recently signed with the boutique agency because he felt a kinship with its founders' entrepreneurial spirit.

Unlike many pro athletes who end up bankrupt after their short careers, Morgan is planning a future for himself after football. “You always hear about statistics of players going broke,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a statistic. I realized I needed to invest in myself outside of the game.” Check out the story here and let me know what you think.