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Make Readers Care about Magnesia or Whatever
by Beth Fowler

I’d resigned from my management-level job in corporate America and moved to Malaysia because my husband was transferred to Kuala Lumpur, the Islamic country’s capital. Without a regular job to report to everyday, I was suddenly at loose ends – no meetings to attend, no briefcase to lug around, no job title. Yikes!

"Ah, I’ll be a freelance writer," I told myself, and I was published the very next week in a prestigious international magazine.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Operating under the delusion that my articles about life in Malaysia were just so darn interesting that I could ignore various magazines’ house style and mission and readers’ demographics, I mailed out lovely essays that were, with good reason, rejected.

Soon I began dreading afternoon teas and other social gatherings, because typically the chitchat went like this:

"What do you do, Beth?"

"Uh, ahem, I’m, er, a writer."

"Anything published?"

"Ahem, er . . .."

No one, including me, swallowed the bromide that as long as you write you are a writer regardless of whether your stuff has been published or not. Consequently, I changed my strategy and met with success. My first sale was the stepping stone to more than 270 articles, poems, short stories and two books being published in my hometown newspaper and in markets reaching the far-flung corners of the world.

Although I’d changed my strategy, I didn’t change what I wrote about. I wrote about my impressions as an American living in Malaysia, and I believe this first step is crucial – write about what you are truly interested in or the fun of expressing yourself can turn into a slog.

Next I aimed at a realistic target. Forget National Geographic and Lonely Planet (for the time being, that is). What specific publication was I familiar with? What reader-audience did I know well? Furthermore, who gave a hoot about my impressions of Malaysia, besides my mom, and that’s up for debate? I decided that my hometown newspaper was my best option for legitimacy if I didn’t want to squirm in my seat when people asked me, "What do you do?"

To up the odds that the newspaper editor would publish the piece, I called my folks and asked them, "Hey, what’s the name of the Hanover Evening Sun editor, anyhow?" In the cover letter and article addressed to Wayne Hough, I included a riff about my husband, a native of the town of about 40,000 citizens, being a graduate of the local (and only) high school in Hanover and that he was employed by a local company. I mentioned that he is the son of George and Betty Fowler, both well known personalities at K-Mart and any place that sold breakfasts for under a buck. Normally my husband’s and my in-laws’ names are irrelevant to what I write, but in this case, thinking local, thinking homey, was germane. In fact, the editor included all the bio bits that I’d provided.

Another reason the article found its way into print in the small-town newspaper, I think, was because I knew that many of the readers, like me only a few months prior to moving overseas, probably didn’t know where Malaysia was. How could I make people who thought a shopping trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line was a big deal care about... what’s that place called... Magnesia?

I scared them, that’s how. I employed one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book for hooking readers' attention. It’s called building suspense. By temporarily withholding what really happened and covering, early in the article, what could happen to Westerners in Malaysia, I gave readers a reason to keep reading. For example, I recounted the incident about an American woman being tackled and spray painted allegedly by fanatical Muslims.

Finally, I included decent photographs with informative captions, which the editor saw fit to publish along with the article.

If I’d known then what I know today about freelancing, I would do a few things differently. Namely, I wouldn’t kid myself that editors will make an exception in style and standards for little ol’ me. These days I try to do what they suggest in the guidelines of most publications: "Get familiar with the kind of material we publish before sending a query or manuscript. And we really mean it!"

Also, ever since the publication of that first article, I’ve learned to write snappier titles and that newspaper article titles are a breed apart from magazine and book titles. The editor took my wishy-washy title, "Impressions from Malaysia," and added the words "Tolerance promised, neighborliness prominent." Scan the headlines of your favorite newspaper and you’ll see a unique kind of zippy, economic language that grabs your attention.

Another lesson I learned was to exploit receptive markets when possible. For some reason I’d waited a year and a half before submitting another article to "Hanover Evening Sun." When the editor accepted the second article, I hatched the idea to submit articles to him on a regular basis. Ultimately, more than thirty articles with my byline were printed in that paper. I was paid for every one. Many of those articles appeared in slightly different form in magazines published in America, Malaysia, England and Canada, to name a few countries.

These days I purposely steer the conversation around so someone will ask, "What do you do, Beth?"

"I’m a writer."

And it says so right there next to my byline at the top of the published article: "Fowler is a freelance author from Hanover, Pennsylvania."

© Copyright 1999, Beth Fowler

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