Sometimes, the best way to break into a big magazine is to find a small story.
Family Circle, for example, has a slew of writers to call on for articles about health, relationships and money. What it doesn't have are lots of writers who know about a woman in Alabama who runs an annual karaoke contest to raise money for autism research. They count on freelancers around the country to tell them about great human-interest stories.
In the search for splashy feature ideas, it's easy to overlook the profile subjects living next door. Interesting people are in demand, whether they're famous or not. Next time you're stuck for an idea, keep your radar up and mine your neighbors, relatives and friends for profile gold.
STORIES THAT SELL
Be on the lookout for people who fit these categories:
•Outstanding entrepreneurs: Women's magazines feature stories about women with unusual businesses. Business magazines feature entrepreneurs who are doing something different from competitors. Parenting magazines feature mom-centric businesses.
•Super volunteers and heroes: It's not enough for a person to be a participant in charity events; she has to be a leader with an interesting story and a high degree of success. Of particular interest are innovative fundraisers and those who do something groundbreaking to raise awareness for a cause. Most of the time, if the person's paid a salary for her charity-related cause, magazines won't feature her. People who perform selfless acts to help others fall into this category, too. A story of a firefighter who rescued a cat from a tree isn't enough to be nationally newsworthy, but a person who caught a kidnapper or a child who saved his parent's life would probably work.
•Real-life dramas: These include stories about people who've survived a life-threatening event (such as a hostage situation); did something positive after a tragedy (helped enact stronger legislation against drunk drivers after the death of a loved one); or overcame a disability or health crisis (an athlete who's an amputee). Dramatic or inspirational situations are always of interest. Editors love to hear stories about people who've succeeded despite all odds.
•Quirky people: Those with strange hobbies, odd collections, bizarre jobs or unusual traits often get featured in the front-of-the-book sections of magazines. These are short, snappy articles—usually fewer than 700 words. Know a 90-year-old widow who met her husband online, a man who collects celebrities' fingerprints or a mom who delivered her baby in the aisle of Yankee Stadium? Any of these could find a place in the upfront pages of major magazines.
"The key is to find a story that the reader can either totally relate to or will be totally wowed by—so know your audience," says Michelle Lee Ribeiro, senior editor at CosmoGIRL! "In addition, there should be some lesson involved. A girl who was stalked by her boyfriend needs to be at a point in her life where she has something inspiring to say, not just, 'This is what happened, and it was scary.' We like girls who fought back in some way, or have a better perspective on it now and can tell readers what they wish they'd done."
If someone has already appeared on talk shows, in major news-papers or on national news programs, you're probably too late. Refine your talent for breaking new stories: Find people intriguing enough to deserve national attention and be confident in your instincts to pitch these stories before the rest of the media catches on to the story.
Writer Denise DiFulco has sold profiles of a woman who started her own franchise of kids' cooking schools, a female blimp pilot and an international strongwoman competitor to The New York Times and Ladies' Home Journal. "Someone who serves hot meals to the homeless at your place of worship is probably a great person and deserving of recognition," she says. "But to sell an article about that person to a national publication, he needs to have a compelling and dramatic backstory. Or, at the very least, there needs to be some unique angle."
DiFulco says she couldn't place an article about a 16-year-old pilot, because the girl didn't have major obstacles to overcome or a tragic background. "Unfortunately, accomplishment and goodwill alone aren't enough to sell these types of stories," she says.
WHERE TO HUNT FOR STORIES
In person: The most obvious sources for real-life stories are the people around you. You're a writer, which gives you license to eavesdrop. Listen to people in line at the supermarket. Sit at the bar and chat it up with the couple next to you. Go to your neighborhood block party and listen. Tell people that you're a writer looking for interesting stories and ask them to let you know if they hear anything that might be appropriate.
Local media: Your community newspaper's a great spot to hunt for ideas with potential national appeal. The smaller the newspaper the better, because it'll be less likely that other writers have seen and pitched the same stories. (You can access other community newspapers across the country online at www.newspapers.com.) Your local cable station may feature fascinating stories that will never hit the national media radar without you. And turn up that AM radio: Guests on local talk-radio shows can be great profile candidates.
Organizations: Nonprofit groups and business organizations can often tell you about what their members are up to. If you see an announcement about an unusual charity event, call the organization and ask whose idea it was. While you're at it, ask who their unsung heroes are. Visit a chamber of commerce party or awards ceremony and chat with interesting businesspeople.
BEFORE THE QUERY
Before you start pitching, make sure the person you want to profile will cooperate. Look for a phone number (try www.switchboard.com and search Google for the person's name). If you saw the person in the local media, contact the reporter or show host and ask if he'll pass your phone number to the subject. Contact organizations the person's involved with. Most people can be tracked down if you try hard enough.
Once you've made contact, explain why the story intrigues you and where you'd like to pitch it. Know upfront if the person will agree to being photo-graphed. Then ask for the right to be the only writer pitching the story to publications for a month or two. Otherwise, this person may speak to several writers who are unknowingly competing against one another. If the person won't agree, decide if you want to invest your time on someone who's not committed to you. You may determine that the risk is worth it.
National magazines may require subjects to sign agreements for exclusive story rights. This means the person's story can't appear in other publications—and often on TV or radio shows—until after the article's off newsstands.
"That's something that can be off-putting to the source, considering that it often takes months for a magazine story to be published," DiFulco says. "Some stories are morning-show material, and a savvy source might not want to pass up opportunities to appear on national television. While I haven't had success in getting a magazine to ditch the agreement altogether, I've been able to amend these agreements so they include only the magazine's immediate print competition."
This is another issue to discuss with your subject before you pitch. It's a waste of time to interest an editor only to find out your subject won't agree to the exclusivity contract.
When determining where to pitch someone's story, pay attention to the magazine's demographics. No matter how interesting your subject is, Good Housekeeping probably won't buy a profile of a 70-year-old woman, and Glamour doesn't want to hear about the world's greatest PTA mom . Your subject should be in the magazine's target market, which you can determine by reading a magazine's media kit or writers' guidelines (usually available online).
GET TO IT!
One of the greatest perks of being a freelance writer is that you get to talk to interesting people. Use this opportunity to write about those friends and neighbors who inspire you, fascinate you or touch your heart, and get paid well while you're at it.