Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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Yet Writer's Market listings often say, "No 'my first ___' " stories. Why? Because many inexperienced writers, spurred by the "write what you know" maxim, have had the same idea. Thus, magazines are often inundated with "first experience" pieces that are poorly conceived and even more poorly written. While I was editor of Dog Fancy, at least 50% of the unsolicited submissions in the slush pile were "my first dog" stories. About 99% of them went back. But there are ways to beat the odds.Look for readers who haven't shared your experience. If you want to sell the story of your first dog to a magazine, keep in mind that just about every reader of such a magazine has already had that experience. Most already have dogs, and most have already had several dogs. The emotions and discoveries that were so new and exciting to you are old hat to these readers.
So instead of thinking "dogs = dog magazine," look for an audience that really will find your experience new and different. Look for an angle that will give your experience appeal in a different special-interest market. An article about the difference a new pet made in a single parent's relationship with her child, for example, might do well in a family or parenting magazine.Look for an uncommon element. A "my first dog" story will sell to a pet magazine if there's something unique about the dog, its owner, or their relationship. For example, I purchased an article about a canine escape artist who once chewed through a chain link fence to get free. The story went far beyond the usual canine misbehaviors that so astound first-time pet owners (chewing and wetting and barking), and presented an unusual and moving story. It involved both an external conflict (how to confine the dog without causing it to harm itself or do damage to property) and an internal conflict (could the author win this battle, or would she have to give up the dog?). Ultimately, the author won--which was important for our magazine. Your resolution must be appropriate to the audience; had the article ended with the author shooting the troublemaking dog, we wouldn't have bought it. Look for an unusual perspective.bSomething as universal, and potentially unsaleable, as "my first trip to the supermarket" would be as exciting as Valium--unless you are, say, an immigrant who has never seen a supermarket before. The "outsider looking in" approach can often be a key to a sale. But there's a catch: You must know enough about the "inside" to understand what makes your perspective unique and different. I once sold an article on my reactions to the strange, and (to me) bizarre world of dog shows to a publication that specializes in dog show topics. To do so, however, I had to know enough about the sport to understand what would come across as humor, and what would simply come across as ignorance or even stupidity. Look for smaller "first experiences." Instead of writing about your first dog in general, write about a specific aspect of your new relationship with that dog. How about the first time your dog became seriously ill, or your first obedience class or dog show, or the first time you took your dog camping? Such tightly focused stories give you endless opportunities to entertain and instruct, because you're now venturing into areas where others may not have shared your experience--or where they may be able to learn from it. Look for a service angle. How can your experience help and instruct others? The first time you took your dog on a backpacking trip, what did you learn about park regulations, equipment, trail hazards, getting your dog in condition, first aid needs, and so forth? Your article can pass this information on to a reader who might want to try the same thing. The "how-to" piece couched in the intimate terms of a personal experience is meat and drink to editors (and to you, since it's likely to earn you a check).
If you plan your article along these lines, you'll give it the structure and purpose that other writers often forget as they submit those tedious memoirs that ramble from cradle to grave with no particular road map in between. Regardless of what editors say elsewhere, most special interest magazines can use personal experience articles--if those articles meet the same criteria that apply to all other types of writing: Quality, Purpose, and Applicability to the Reader.
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This article originally appeared in Writer's Digest
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.