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Creative Ways To Write Women's Stories That Sell
by Donna Elizabeth Boetig

Have you dreamed of seeing your byline in the glossy women's magazines? Have you longed to share your ideas with millions of readers? To mend relationships with tales of forgiveness? To save lives by recording medical miracles? Have you longed to explore the Mojave Desert, climb the Alps, cross the Pacific--all on assignment? Would you like to meet fascinating people? Be fascinating?

I've been there, done that--and I can tell you it's a hoot. For the past 13 years I've been freelancing women's feature stories to top magazines such as Reader's Digest, McCall's, Woman's Day, Family Circle and Bride's. Recently I wrote the book Feminine Wiles: Creative Techniques for Writing Women's Feature Stories that Sell, an insider's guide to the secrets, strategies, and rule benders for freelance success. It's meant to help you to get your stories from the slush piles of unsolicited material filling New York editorial offices, to the assignment desk--then straight to the pages of your favorite publication.

Before freelancing full-time, I reported for several newspapers. But once I got the taste of the freedom and fascination that freelancing offers, I was hooked. Here's how it happened for me, and how it can happen for you, too.

The Time Limit

I began by giving myself an ultimatum: Two years to break into a magazine that would shine off the newsstand, or else. During this time my articles were selling to specialty magazines like The Rotarian, St. Anthony's Messenger, and Sesame Street Parents' Guide. (It never hurts to start small if you have a clever editor who can help you learn as you write.) Funny thing is, sometimes it's no harder to land those several-thousand dollar assignments than a couple-hundred dollar ones. While most freelancers go from small, to regional, to national publications in a series of steps, there's no reason to follow those rules. What matters to editors is what you can do for them now, how hot your idea is and if you can pull it off.

The First Big Break

My foray into national magazines was with Family Circle. The publication was preparing to launch its high profile "Woman Who Makes a Difference," column, about ordinary women doing extraordinary things for their communities. So it seems I was lucky when my query about a mother with a Down Syndrome child created a job training program for adults with mental retardation landed on the editor's desk. But remember, I'd been pitching ideas for two years. Now, don't believe that will take you this long to sell to a national publication. We're going to straighten your learning curve.

Family Circle assigned the story, although I had never written for a major magazine before. They wanted the idea, so they worked with me. It was rough going. I rewrote not once, not twice, but three times. My ego was shot, but I'd learned a lot. Herein lies the secret to breaking in: offer an editor an idea she can't get from staff writers or her stable of freelancers. Knowing the experiences of people who haven't received national publicity can open doors to large publications. The key is to find experiences that have a fullness, stories readers will care about.

The Winning Idea List

Here's a rundown of a few ideas that worked for me, how I found them, and how you can begin your own treasure hunt.

"Lost in the Desert"--a real-life Reader's Digest drama about a two-year-old lost in the Arizona desert for four days and rescued in the nick of time by a young woman volunteer and her German Shepherd--I found by scanning The Yearbook of Experts, Authorities and Spokespersons for search and rescue groups. (The book is free to published writers, 800-YEARBOOK.) I also used The Yearbook to locate organizations that led me to two Family Circle dramas: "Reunited at Last," the story of a mother's 23-year search for the daughter snatched from her arms as an infant, came from a private detective listed there. The story of a life-long relationship between "Little Sister" Mary Ta, and her "Big Sister" Janet Dodson, who rescued her from a lifetime of abuse, was found through Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.

"The Whole World Loved my Daughter" told McCall's readers how Christa McAuliffe's mother's life was changed after the death of her daughter on the space shuttle Challenger. This story was actually an after thought. I was writing a piece for Woman's Day about June Scobee, when I phoned Christa's mother for a comment to use in a sidebar. Speaking with her I realized hers was the more important story, so I mustered the courage to ask for the exclusive right to tell it. (The Scobee story came about when daughter Kathy attended my writing workshop and mentioned the approaching ten-year anniversary of the Challenger explosion.)

"Leap of Faith," a Family Circle story, reprinted in Reader's Digest, spoke of a mother's decision to risk her own child's life to save another's. She gave an organ intended for her daughter to the child's best friend. This story--the facts without the drama--ran in our local paper.

Another Family Circle drama "Father Love," the tale of a single dad raising two critically ill young sons, is now optioned for a CBS movie. It came to me through my then nine-year-old son, Ryan, who convinced me to write about his classmate. A Life Magazine assignment about a 21-year-old autistic musical savant who could neither read nor write, but could play eight instruments and more than 7,000 pieces of music by ear was discovered through Profnet, an on-line service linking public information specialists from universities, PR agencies, and corporations seeking stories. (It's free, call 800-PROFNET.) http://www.PROFNET.com

Sometimes the best drama is your very own. Lynn, a friend, wrote a first-person piece on the trauma she experienced when her father remarried six months after her mother's death--to a woman to whom she had introduced him. Her query earned her several thousand dollars from Ladies' Home Journal--although she had never made more than a pittance from her writing before.

Not every woman's story has to be extraordinary. Reader identification counts, too. Jeanne Marie Laskas, a Good Housekeeping contributor, wrote about a single mom rearing three special-needs kids. Good story, great reader identification for every harried, loving mother.

The Other Stories

Some women's stories aren't dramas at all. Bride's Magazine's article on the importance of play in a happy marriage began with a university press release about research on pillow fights and pet names. I shored up these facts with examples from my own marriage.

Some women stories star men. Recently I wrote about Angela's Ashes best-selling author, Frank McCourt, for both McCall's and Writer's Digest--same interview, two different angles for publications' whose readers wanted distinct rewards from their reading. McCall's readers learned from McCourt how to help their kids love learning (appropriately timed for a Back-to-School issue), and the writer-readers of The Digest learned how the Pulitzer Prize winner wrote the memoir that earned him fame and fortune (with sidebar exercises to improve their writing).

Service pieces--teaching the reader anything from how to pick the perfect lettuce to how to speak French by Friday--are perennial favorites with women readers. Leads for service pieces are everywhere. One writer discovered hers in an adult education brochure listing a class taught by the "Queen of Clean."

Relationship articles, too, are a must read. Every woman wants to know how to get along with her sister-in-law, her child's teacher, even the clerk at the cosmetic counter. Easy ways to locate people willing to share are on-line chat groups. But be sure to follow-up with phone calls, maybe even an in person meeting, to authenticate their claims. Also, try experts like counselors, psychologist, university researchers, professors. (The Yearbook and Profnet as well as the Encyclopedia of Associations found in libraries can help. Other search aids:

BizNews helps ferret out business sources; contact by e-mail, rjohnson@newswire.com or on the web at http://www.newswire.com.

PartyLine, a weekly newsletter for more leisurely deadlines can be reached by e-mail at info@partylinepublishing.com or on the web at http://www.partylinepublishing.com. Public relations people will be happy to link you with their experts who in turn can introduce you to clients with their real life dramas.

Finding the Right Tone

While you're sleuthing for ideas, become a guru of the women's magazines, and the national newspapers whose lifestyle sections feature articles aimed at women's interests. Notice what's on the cover of these magazines. Cut out an advertisement and post it above your computer. Then write to the woman in that ad: She is your reader. Notice the sentence length, use of anecdotes and quotes--even how much an editor "dummies down the language" in the articles to make them resonate with the reader. Read the letter from the editor. The style in which the editor addresses the reader is the way you should too. Immerse yourself in several back issues so you'll soak up the tone by osmosis. Nothing matters more than tone. If you think all women's magazines are alike, you have read them recently.

Consider for a moment a light-hearted comparison made recently by one editor: Family Circle never writes about a woman having sex. Ladies' Home Journal writes about a woman having sex with her husband, and Redbook writes about a woman having sex with anyone but her husband. An exaggeration for sure, but you get the point.

Finding an idea is only the beginning, you must spin it into gold by making it fit for a publication's reader. As one editor remarked, "When a writer pitches an idea, I ask myself if this could fit any other magazine, and if the answer is 'yes" I don't want it."

The Customized Query

Once you customize an idea, you must convince an editor to assign to you the story. Some suggestions:

*Resist writing the proper, professional query--boring! It's heading nowhere but into the trash. Instead, drum up passion with an uppercase P. In my book I suggest writing a "Love Letter," targeted to the editor.

* Think holistically. Envision the article already published. What's its title? Blurb? Is there a sidebar offering strong service information for the reader? How about photos? Traditionally this is the editor's job. Do it for her and she'll love you.

*Launch your letter at the climax of the drama, or if it's a how-to service piece, kick-off with the reader luxuriating in whatever it is you're going to teach her. Use your senses to help the reader experience the nirvana. Now's the time to play novelist, employing such fiction techniques for description, action, maybe even dialogue.

*In the middle of the letter spell out how you'll execute the assignment: who you'll interview, what you'll do to experience it.

After you've written the query targeted to one very special editor at one very special publication, do the unthinkable--find another five or six editors, at larger and smaller pubs, to whom you can send the same basic letter with some tweaking. Mail these letters all at once. Multiple submissions are essential to freelancers breaking into new markets, trust me. The chances of an unsolicited idea making it into print--sent out to only one editor, with whom you have no relationship--is as likely as Publisher's Clearinghouse van pulling up to your home with that guy in the tacky sports jacket holding the million-dollar check.

Forget it. It's won't happen. Dismiss editors' rules demanding that you submit your idea to them alone. These commandments were conceived back in the days of Elvis, hula hoops, bouffant hairdos and snail mail. With the advent of fax, email, and the proliferation of 24-hour news shoes, the rules have changes.

Before you slip the query into the mail, with three or four of published clips that you're proud of (if you have them, of course, other wise don't worry, forge ahead), wait. Write two more queries. Package all three, fully fleshed out, autonomous letters in a large manila envelope with the word "proposals" scrawled across it. Creating this editorial package of three queries, a few clips, and a self addressed stamped envelope, shows editors you're in for the duration. If these ideas miss the mark, they'll likely to encourage you to send others. Now you have the start of a relationship, and your next envelope will say, "requested proposals," and will rise to the top of that heap of mail.

Writing the Story

Once you get the assignment, it's time to play. The worst thing you can do now is think about the millions of readers who will pore over your published words. Think about your story instead--before you write one word. Which scenes, or moments, take center state? What's the one fact your reader must know. Most important: What one question does your reader want answered? Imagine what you would say if a friend asked, "What's your story about?" You wouldn't rush to get your notes, you'd just speak. Now, do the same. Before you begin take ten minutes to read something written in the tone you wish to write. It can be an article published in the magazine you're writing for. Then start to write and don't look back or stop until you've finished the first draft. This will give you a voice that will shake readers out of their stupor and make them take notice. It will also help you to tell the story. You must untether yourself from the facts, the data, the quotes, and discover what it all means for you--and for the reader.

A professor explained it this way: The two most important questions any feature writer asks are: What is my story about? and What is my story about? The answer to the first question is the way a reporter responds. Just the facts. The answer to the second question is the one to which the feature writer replies: It's the flesh on the bone. It's the what it's all about. I love this quote from a writer: "The story is not in my notes, the story is in my head."

The Happy Ending

After you've written your article, look it over and make sure it's not exactly what you've promised in your query. That's right. Editors don't want exactly what you've promised in your query, they want more. But they're not out there in the trenches with you while you research and interview, so they can't articulate what's missing. They don't know what you'll uncover. But they know thy want it.

"If you give me nothing more than what you promised in your query, I'm disappointed," one editor explained. "It's like Christmas morning with no surprises."

Lastly, give the reader something no other writer can: a bit of yourself. Editors complain that writers give only the facts. Break loose. Give readers a peak into your world.

© Copyright 1999, Donna Elizabeth Boetig

Donna Elizabeth Boetig is the author of Feminine Wiles: Creative Techniques for Writing Women's Feature Stories that Sell (American West Books, $14.95, to order: 800-497-4949). She presents writing workshops throughout the United States and Canada and can be reached at Boetig@erols.com.

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