How to Assign a Magazine Story: 3 Letters

By Jenny Allen
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allen_march22_blogging_post.jpg

Anonymous Account/flickr


Contents:
1. Letter from the editor (heretowith referred to as xxxxxx) to my agent
2. The letter—the one I didn't send
3. Letter actually sent

1.) Letter from the editor

From: xxxxxxx 

Sent: Wednesday, January 06, 2010 3:00 PM

To: Peter Hagan

Subject: Jenny Allen

Hi, Peter,


I'm working on a feature for xxxxxx about things in life that are actually worth your time... This will be a mix of 400-word essays and quick-hits of service, so I'd love to gauge Jenny Allen's interest in pitching an essay topic for this package. I hope she's interested. If so, I'd like to run her quick pitch/concept by my editor-in-chief by the EOD Friday. From there, she'll ultimately choose which five or so essays will be assigned.



Thanks—and happy new year.



xxxxxx
Deputy Editor, xxxxx

2.) The letter—the one I didn't send

Dear Girly,
Let me see if I understand your letter correctly. You are inviting me to "pitch" an idea for a brief essay to your editor, "by the EOD Friday." I first have to ask what an EOD is. I have spent all of my adult life writing for magazines—you were not yet a glint in your mother's eye when I began, I am sure!—but I have never heard of an EOD. Do you mean "OED", as in the Oxford English Dictionary? If so, I'm sorry, but I don't have my own OED—though, with all due respect, something tells me you may not either.

Maybe EOD is a messenger service. Do you want me to send my "pitch" via courier? How classy and exciting, even cloak-and-daggerish! Like a secret message, so the people at rival magazines won't get hold of it!

Or perhaps it is slang for "Extremely Old Dyke," in which case I find the request—and the word "dyke"—in very poor taste. I know several extremely old dykes, but they do not care to be called that unless it is by another lesbian, not even in jest, and I don't blame them. In any event, I am not sending any aging lesbians with my copy. They all have better things to do with their time. At the moment, for example, all of them are reading the new Patricia Highsmith biography, looking for the most lurid parts, as am I.

It just now occurred to me that EOD might, in some horrible, high-handed way, stand for End of Day, as in "by end of day Friday." But then I thought, no, that can't possibly be so: no one uses the phrase EOD in the publishing world, except perhaps in the shipping department ("issues should be shipped by EOD Friday", or "Make certain that Richard, the drunk guy who sent last month's issues to Patagonia by mistake, has been fired by EOD Friday.") Writers are never instructed to hand in pitches "by EOD"; the military, officious ring of the phrase would make them recoil and tempt them to hand in their "pitches" by EOD two or three or 13 EOD's later, or never.

But the real reason why I knew that EOD couldn't mean End of Day is that if it did, you would be "pitching" my "pitch" at end of day Friday—a meeting time that would be impossible in publishing, unless you want everyone over 40 to think you are a big dumbbell. If people in publishing are having meetings at EOD Friday, it tells the world that they are merely in business, like tool-and-dye makers (probably gone now too, silly me! I should say, "like Silicon Valley go-getters"; yes, that's hipper), not in publishing at all, where Friday should end right before lunch. This meal should be long and lingering, and preferably at a French bistro, and involve wine, and should be written off on your corporate credit card--and be followed by leaving the office to inaugurate your weekend with afternoon sex, or a movie, with whomever you enjoy doing those things.

So clue me in, please!

On another, related note, your letter goes on to suggest that after handing in my "pitch," you will then put it in a big pile together with all the other "pitches" you've solicited, and you will walk it down the hall to your editor-in-chief (the EIC, right? I can do this too!). You and your EIC will then review all the pitches (what a lot of work, reading those piles of writing done for you for free by all the writers you have corralled! Maybe you will use a pitch-fork! Sometimes I make myself chuckle!) and then—please do correct me if I misunderstand—she will choose the four or five essay topics from this pile of ideas sent to you free of charge and assign the essays that seem to suit her purposes best.

Again, to clarify: you have written to me—not I to you, in which case I would expect to do a "pitch" as I would be the one who has approached you, eager to get your interest—requesting that I take the time to create an idea for you for free that, given your confines, you may well not use, and that I must do this by some appointed time on Friday, no excuses.

There are no words for what I fear your letter instructs. No words—perhaps only letters. GFY would be one example. You could look it up. But it's not in the OED, I'm afraid.

Sincerely,
Jenny Allen

3.) Letter actually sent

Dear xxxxxxx,

Happy new year to you.

My agent has forwarded your email to me. Like all writers, I'm flattered that you thought of me, but I have to say that your email makes me feel I may have aged out of the magazine business. If I understand your email correctly, you are inviting me to submit a "pitch" to you and your editor-in-chief, for free, for a piece that may or may not be selected by you as an assignment.

In my experience, writers are called or emailed by editors when the editor has already selected the writer for an assignment, work for which the writer will be paid. (On the other hand, if a writer has what she feels is a good idea, she "pitches" the idea to the editor, and takes her chances.)

So the conversation or emails from an editor to a writer go something like this:

Editor: Hello, we like your writing here at the magazine, and have an idea we think might interest you.

Writer: I'm all ears! Also broke! Thanks for calling, and tell me your idea. I'm sorry about that buzzing sound. I just have to turn something off. Okay, shoot!

Editor: Our idea was to ask you, and three other writers whose work we also like, to do a short essay on things that are really worth doing--even if you don't necessarily like the actual doing of them. Like writing a thoughtful thank-you note, or making something from scratch.

Writer: I love that whole concept.

Editor: Is there anything that comes to mind now, or would you like a few days to think about it?

Writer: Oh, I don't have to think about it! I am just sitting here admiring the vibrator I made from scratch this fall. The actual making of it wasn't that much fun—and there was an early wiring kink ! but it was really, really worth it.

Editor: Yes, well, that sounds great. I'm not sure it's exactly right for us, though. Any other notions?

Writer: Let me think. (Pause) No, I'm sorry. That's it.

Editor: Well, please call me if anything else comes to mind.

Writer: Okey-dokey!

A more fruitful conversation might go like this:

Editor: Hello, we like your writing here at the magazine, and have an idea we think might interest you.

Writer: I'm all ears! Also broke! Thanks for calling, and tell me your idea.

Editor: Our idea was to ask you, and three other writers whose work we also like, to do a short essay on things that are really worth doing--even if you don't necessarily like the actual doing of them. Like writing a thoughtful thank-you note, or making something from scratch.

Writer: I love that whole concept. I know what you mean about thank-you notes. They're so hard to get around to for some reason, almost terrifying, but when you write one the person who gets it is always so grateful. I know I am.

Editor: I'm sorry, but one of the other writers we've asked is already doing thank-you notes. That was just an example.

Writer: Oh, okay. How about, let's see, here I am looking at all my Christmas tree ornaments and wondering what to do with the ones that have lost their little metal caps and that round piece of wire that you hook onto the little wire hook to hang it from the tree. What do they call that top part, that tiny metal cap with the round piece of wire that sticks from it?

Editor: I don't know. It doesn't really matter right now, but I'm with you so far.

Writer: So I was wondering what to do with, you know, those shiny capless balls. I'm just too old to go looking around for the little metal caps they got separated from, too old to crawl around on the floor on my hands and knees, and God knows no one else in his family wants to take ten minutes to do anything for me, honestly the whole house could burn down and I don't even think they'd notice, you know what I mean?

I'm just—hey, you know what? Wouldn't it have made a great Twilight Zone episode if you had this woman who had this family who never helped her with anything, and so one day, when she's cleaning up after Christmas all by herself again, she just cracks ,just goes crazy, and she takes the broken ornaments and grinds them up in her Waring Blender and adds some other stuff, like ice cream, and feeds them to her family. They all die, and she goes to a mental hospital, where she meets another crazy person. He's crazy but he's also very very rich and he's nuts about her and loves helping her do everything, and they both get cured except she has amnesia about the bad thing she did so they live happily ever after in his mansion in Santa Barbara, where he waits on her hand and foot.

Editor: That would have made an excellent Twilight Zone episode. It's too bad the program ended many decades ago.

Writer: I know! It's tragic!

Editor: I wonder if you could get back to your idea.

Writer: What idea?

Editor: About the ornaments.

Writer: Oh, the ornaments! I'm so sorry, I just sit here at my computer all day, and I get a little gabby when the phone rings.

Editor: That's okay.

Writer: Okay, so, I was thinking that I could take shiny ornaments that have lost their little caps and turn them into something else—re-purpose them, that's what they call it now! I could put them inside a tall glass vase and set it on my mantle. That would look elegant, I think. Or I could put them in a big pretty bowl, along with real fruit that's also round—pomegranates, tangerines—and set the bowl out on my coffee table. I actually did that this year, and I threw in some little gold-wrapped candies, and it looked very festive. And people ate the candies and enjoyed that. The teenagers put the empty wrappers back in the bowl, but that was just a little annoyance. Otherwise, it was a very successful Christmas touch, I have to say.

Editor: Those ideas sound appealing, except for the tall vase one, which we've done. Let me check with my editor and get back to you.

(Later)

Editor: My editor likes your idea too, and would like to assign it to you. We'll send you a contract in the mail for four hundred words. Does that sound right?

Writer: Sounds great to me!

Finally, a conversation might go like this:

Editor: Hello, we like your writing here at the magazine, and have an idea we think might interest you.

Writer: I'm all ears! Also broke! Thanks for calling, and tell me your idea.

Editor: Our idea was to ask you, and three other writers whose work we also like, to do a short essay on things that are really worth doing—even if you don't necessarily like the actual doing of them. Like writing a thoughtful thank-you note, or making something from scratch.

Writer: I'd love to do something along those lines.

Editor: Well, I'd like to bat some ideas around with you, and maybe, just in chatting and getting to know each other, we'll come up with some other notions for pieces that we could also think about you doing for the magazine. We don't have those old-fashioned big expense accounts anymore, but I could treat you to lunch at Pain Quotidien.


Writer: I love Pain Quotidien! I love anything that's not tuna fish at my house, but I really do love Pain Quotidien.

Editor: Me too! How about Tuesday?

Writer: Tuesday is great. Any day is great. I'm not that busy.

Editor: See you then!

I hope I haven't been too rude, but these are the scenarios that I'm used to. I think I'm just too old to learn another script. Thanks for your time.

Jenny Allen

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/03/how-to-assign-a-magazine-story-3-letters/37844/