On Asking Favors From Writers & Editors

2015 was one wild beast of a year for my career and I could not be more grateful to have spent it writing  essays and articles that I'm proud of, a book that I care about, and meeting a lot of talented and kind people who work in the same industry. It was also the year in which I went from being a writer sending a lot of pitches and asks for small favors to a writer who gets asked for a lot of advice and help from strangers, acquaintances, and friends. So pitches and favors are different animals and should be approached differently. A pitch goes to a professional editor whose job it is to read it. You want to be courteous to them and not waste their time or yours but in some sense, they're expecting it. Asking for favors is different because it typically requires that people go out of their way to help you, to labor on your behalf, and to not be compensated for it. That means you should be even more gracious when you ask for them and even more grateful when you're given them. So without further ado, here are some favors I asked and why I think they worked:

Favor 1: Advice on Writing About My Past

Recipient: Charlotte Shane, freelance writer and notorious hot mean bitch, no prior engagement or introduction

What I Wanted: I had not yet "come out" as a sex worker and I wondered if it would hurt or hinder my career and had Charlotte recommended to me by journalist Melissa Gira Grant who knows Charlotte.

Email to Charlotte

Results: Charlotte and I emailed quite a bit about the ups and downs about writing about sex work online, resulting in me eventually choosing to out some of my past in the sex industry which has been really rewarding because I was able to write about labor more broadly in a way that was important to me. We also became very good friends who walk into parties looking like The Two Meanest Girls at Sweet Valley High.

Why It Worked: I had a pre-existing referral from a friend, we had something fairly unique in common, it was complimentary but not gushing, and we had a shared experienced in media that she was willing to help me navigate.

What I Didn't Do: I didn't ask direct, invasive questions about her decisions and left it open-ended to give her space to share what she wanted to. I didn't do a bunch of the weird shit that people do when they write to sex workers either like pretend I had any idea what her life was like or ask about how to get even better at it.

Favor 2: General information on writing for TV

Recipient: Cord Jefferson, TV writer and former Gawker staff writer and freelancer, no prior engagement

What I Wanted: To get a basic idea of how transitioning to TV writing from digital media would go, what I should know, what I should write, who I should be trying to get to know.

Email to Cord

 

Results: Cord responded that he'd be happy to answer my questions and so we met for drinks and he told me about his experience in TV writing and listened to me talk about my show concept and gave constructive feedback. I used that feedback and am now in the process of talking to producers and other TV executives about buying the show.

Why It Worked: The most important thing I did  was I asked if I could ask questions before I asked them so he absolutely had an out that didn't require him to feel impolite. I can't stress this enough. I found Cord because there was an essay of his called "On Kindness" making the rounds and in looking for more of his writing, I came across the fact that he had gone to LA to write for TV after his digital media career. I made clear that I wasn't clueless about his present career by mentioning it to show I had done my research.

What I Didn't Do: Ask 20 questions from the get-go that would just be disrespectful of anyone's time, I didn't ask for his agent's contact info or any other favors I hadn't earned. I pitched it as an informational meeting and I kept it an informational meeting.

 

Favor 3: Inside knowledge of hiring at The Racket, a then promising website under the First Look Media umbrella

Recipient: Michael Pielocik, writer and comedian had been hired there, we had no previous contact but a mutual friend told him I would be writing to him about the roles

What I Wanted: An interview at The Racket (to know my chances of getting one)

Michael First Look Email

Results: Michael told me what kind of clips to put together for an application and an email address I could send them. The website never launched but Michael and I remained in touch and it was good practice for asking for things when I don't feel entirely comfortable doing so.

Why It Worked: Based on his humorous web presence, I didn't take a formal route in asking for this information and because he knew I was coming through a friend, I was able to state my intentions more clearly. That I clearly read up on him showed that I respected his position enough to be worth engaging with.

What I Didn't Do: Ask him to read my resume directly, ask for a direct email for where to apply without first establishing a rapport with him and demonstrating that I might be a good fit, or email him without first looking at his website, background, and interests.

Favor 4: Pre-blurb for my book proposal

Recipient: Leslie Jamison, author and columnist, we were friends in graduate school at Yale in 2011 and 2012 but our relationship had gone mostly to email after leaving grad school

What I Wanted: When writing a book proposal, it is often suggested that you get other writers who are familiar with your work to write a pre-blurb that gives you credibility and demonstrates that established authors vouch for you and have the potential to blurb your book or review it when it actually comes out.

Email to Leslie

Results: Leslie wrote an exceptionally thoughtful and specific pre-blurb about my work that I put in my proposal and that I have every confidence was one of the reasons that it sold well to a major publisher.

Why It Worked: The primary reason it worked was that Leslie is a generous spirit and we already knew each other, I don't deny that this did some of the heavy-lifting. But I was also earnest and noted my respect for her time at a time when her career was absolutely on fire and I appreciated her work without being over-the-top in my praise of it. I was also every bit as awkward as I was as a graduate student in real life because while I didn't want feign more familiarity than we actually had, it would have been weird if I showed up really formally in her inbox.

What I Didn't Do: I didn't pretend that there hadn't been a seismic shift in her life in the time between knowing her in graduate school and her becoming a best-selling author but also tried not to dwell on it. I also didn't overload her with information in the body of the email but put the book proposal material below the signature for her to peruse if she wanted to.

These are just four of several favors I've asked over the past few years. I have very similar ones that resulted in no responses but that at least made the effort to respect people's time and show that I wasn't just firing nonsense into the ether. The thing is, most people want to be helpful. Sometimes they are too busy to do favors or they can't actually give you what you need but when you contact people with respectful, appropriate asks and opportunities for them to decline, you'd be surprised by how much you can get out of them.

Also, as Charlotte noted when I asked if I could write about our first email exchange in this post, people might very well be seeking a favor from you at some other point:

Charlotte you sucker

 

 

I Look Like So Much Stuff: A Journey

When I learned that my favorite girl group alive, Little Mix, is releasing an album today called "Get Weird," I was at once stoked because I can't get enough of the adorable troop of crooning murderesses and disappointed in myself because I don't get weird nearly often enough. The early days of this blog  were all about posting bizarre shit that I dreamed up and since like, six people saw it, I didn't care how strange it was. Now I feel like all my writing here is about writing, the blog equivalent of eating chewed Skittles from the bottom of a popcorn bucket at the Kent on Coney Island. So below instead, is a visual adventure with my face and the various shit it looks like. My resemblance to other shit that wasn't me began early. By my third year on Earth it was plain as day that Little Critter and I were cut from the same cloth. We were short, we had  gigantic faces, and we were tormented by ennui and our own idiocy.

foul-temperament

But as I grew older, I discovered that the only quality I possessed more of than dissatisfaction was G-L-A-M-O-U-R. The resemblance to famed dead pageant super baby JonBenét Ramsey was plain as day, even though she is three years old in her picture and I am nine years old in mine. Yes, I was a pipsqueak of a person. Yes, I killed a baby polar bear to make the luxurious pelt in that photo. No, I'm not sorry.

Alana Massey as Jon Bonet

The years wore on. My golden locks gave way to chestnut waves. Alas, I became a stone cold fox as was my birthright seeing as that glorious sorceress from Arkansas gave me half of my genetic material. Gail, you minx.

Mom and Alana

But as grateful as I was for my mother's witchery, I longed for doubles in the world who were not just magical or dead. But what should they be instead? Oddly arousing maternal figures with a fuh-reak streak like Sally Field, that's what they should be!

Alana and Sally Field

But this too was not enough. I craved more. I wondered if I would ever amount to more than the critter of my youth. My prospects were bleak.

Confused-Critters

Change was needed. Drastic change. As the years etched onto my face and wore away the tissue of my heart, I longed to be a slutty baby once again. And a slutty baby needs blonde hair. And a white dress. And a style icon like the hellspawn Kewpie Doll you see here. A change was here.

Alana As Kewpie

Soon, I began to look like all manner of shit. I dare anyone to guess who is the emoji cookie and who is me in this photo. You won't, you can't.

alana massey emoji cookie

I also looked like the tough but fair older sister to that darling Sky Ferraira in an indie breakout for both of us. We'd have French names like Servanne and Garance and smoke cigs in bed together. Often.

Alana Massey and Skye FerrairaBut why have an indie breakout when you could have a string of indie darlings? Here I was conjuring Michelle Williams thinking about an abortion and Ryan Gosling while on public transport, though I assure you my thoughts were far more lurid.

Fall Look

Sometimes, I would take drugs and fall somewhere between Scarface-era Michelle Pfeiffer glam bitch and Requiem-era Ellen Burstyn, ranting always about being on the goddamn television.

Me and Ellyn and Michelle

I grew bored of my own predilections, smoking indoors like a rotten-cored swamp teen.britney smoking.

Alana Smoking Gif

In a fit of desperation to regain my former moxie, I strategically placed a designer handbag across myself in an attempt to regain the je ne sais quoi of The Lady Miss Williams. It was in vain. Emphasis on vain.

alana michelle williams bags

I briefly turned to the Dark Arts. I excelled in them, as I do in all things. I cannot speak of what I learned or from whom I learned it.

Alana as Lucius Malfoy

As I was prepared to give up hope, I was greeted with a vision so thick with light and life that I was nearly blinded. This, surely, was my Road to Damascus.

keith is jesus

And I realized all along, that my vanity had shielded me from the love which was my destiny to embody as a double. To emulate profound love was my calling. And so I answered that call. And though to love is ultimately to lose, I was glad to bear the weight of it.

Pieta Alana Massey Collage

Don't Forget Where You Belong, Harry Styles (Over here, mixing DNA with me)

As many of you know, the world's handsomest man recently left the band One Direction. While packing for his trip, he tore straight into my chest cavity and took my still-beating heart with it. Thanks, Zayn. IMG_4205 But last week, I had the unique honor and privilege (shared by 60,000 or so people) to see One Direction live in concert. It was magical. I was cleansed. Renewed. Revitalized. Enraptured. Captivated. And most importantly, I was open again to the idea of love. For what mortal can resist the allure of romance when they are in the presence of Harry Styles?

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Since the show, Harry Styles has entered my brain space in the same rotation of men with whom I actually have romantic interactions. I'll be like "Oh yes, William the baker's son is indeed a smart match. But Anders has such a strong jaw and would teach the children to row. And Harry, well he's young, but he's wise." Plus there was a part of me that still ached for Zayn.

I would have to use SCIENCE to make my determination. So I did what any self-respecting 30 year old woman would do: I bought a face-fusing app to see what our offspring would look like and decided he who made the cutest baby should be my groom.

Zayn and I went to digital wedding chamber first.

IMG_4211

Now, these children are not total babes. This is true. But they've got strong features and determined eyes and I'd be glad to call them my offspring. HOWEVER, they are clearly very sad young people. Who wouldn't be with the genetics of a grumpy Gus like Zayn and a Sour Sarah like me?

Harry was called to my quarters.

IMG_4212

These babies are more babely in the sense that they look like actual babies, because me and Harry Styles also look like actual babies a little bit. It will bode well for us in our old age. I was obviously in luck with these moppets but wanted to try another photo to make sure it wasn't a fluke. Then there she was.

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Behold, a golden child is upon us! Look at that kid, she's like a Jolie-Pitt but will get a sensible British name like Mary because Harry, shenanigans aside, is a traditionalist at heart. Look AGAIN!

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"Baby you light up my world like nobody else," barely even begins to cover it. I have never felt more certain of my destiny.

And also, for any fans who are still shipping "Zarry": their baby would be Voldemort so like, proceed with caution.

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Write Pitches, Get Money (And Bylines and Books and Advice)

So the reason I started a ~personal blog~ in the first place was so that I would have writing on the internet to show to editors whom I wanted to let me write on their part of the internet. I've had the extraordinary opportunity to neglect the blog because the dream of writing for a living became a reality so I've prioritized professional writing over imparting my own profound WISDOM and building my BRAND unedited here. Until now, friends. Until now. I sold a book on proposal two weeks ago and have been told by a lot of smart people that maintaining a blog during the writing process is a good idea so I'm going to be more committed to updating here. There isn't a whole lot to report on just yet but selling the book and overcoming the delusion that I'm still struggling as a writer makes me want to be helpful to people who are starting out and it is easier to write about it here than in endless private conversations with emerging writers.

So I am starting with pitching, the part of writing that so many people really dread but that I'm really fortunate to not mind at all. Instead of explaining my process or whatnot, I am just including pitches that worked to some extent, their context, and how it turned out. They cover story pitches, cover letters, and even a bit of help-seeking fan mail. The truth is, more people are reading emails from strangers than people like to imagine and getting it right is not rocket science as much as it is research, courtesy, and relevance.

So let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start....

Pitch 1: First pitch EVER, March 13, 2013, for a personal essay

Sent To: Assistant Editor at xoJane, a personal acquaintance

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 8.14.15 PM

Results: Accepted same day, I submitted a day earlier than the deadline and it went up here. I wrote 25 stories for xoJane in just over a year and I still consider it some of my best writing.

Why It Prob Worked: Until I started being invited to write for publications, this was the only pitch I ever sent to an editorial staff member whom I actually knew and I am certain that this helped open the door to writing there. It was also super casual and to the point, much like other writing on xoJane.

Other Things: When I published this, THREE different people told me I was making a huge mistake because it make my Google results embarrassing. Haters: they are going to hate.

Pitch 2: First pitch for a non-personal essay, October 31, 2013, for a religion/politics opinion piece

Sent To: General submissions email at Religion Dispatches

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 8.23.39 PMResults:  Accepted that day, pubbed here. After writing a second piece for RD, I was invited to blog 2-3 times per week for Religion Dispatches, which I did.

Why It Prob Worked: There was a hook to a bigger media article, it was concise, I included a bit about my background in religion because I didn't yet have writing in the same area, and I actually delivered it the next day as promised.

Other Things: The reason I was invited to write for them was not my religion writing, but my personal writing. My editor Evan happened upon an xoJane story of mine and wrote, "I happened to follow a tweet to your XO Jane post on non-compliments... which was GREAT. ...So it got me thinking. You have this great voice that you temper in some of your other writing, which of course makes sense, but we'd be interested in having you blog for RD in whatever way suits you best. In other words, Lisa and I both loved your post and don't see any reason why a blog on religion has to be more sober or pertinent than a blog on any other topic."

The point of including this is not to BRAG about how I'm super funny but to show that you are not nearly as stuck in your niche as you think you are. Branch out like as far as you feel capable!

 Pitch 3: Cover letter applying to be web editor for the soon-to-be-launched redesign of The Baffler, February 10, 2014

Sent to: Noah McCormack at The Baffler, after a friend of a friend passed me a job listing, no previous interaction

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Results: I am still dying of embarrassment at how cheesy this cover letter is and I didn't get the job because I frankly wasn't qualified for it. BUT, Noah really liked the cover letter and invited me to pitch them, which I did and resulted in my publishing a lot of my most fun criticism there and opening new editorial doors.

Why It (Kinda)  Prob Worked: Because I made it clear that I knew the spirit of the publication and wasn't scared.

Other Things: Showing that you care is way more important than looking cool.

Pitch 4: Asking pitch advice when I didn't know where to pitch, April 10, 2014, on a think piece about the sexual economy of thinness

Sent to: Author Roxane Gay, cold email after reading this story that she wrote, no previous interaction

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 9.14.44 PMResults: Gay wrote back with comments and suggestions on where the piece might find a home, which ended up being here on The Beheld blog on The New Inquiry. It was my first Twitter "hit" and convinced me of the importance of maintaining a presence there.

Why It Prob Worked: The first reason is that Roxane Gay was an editor at the time and was known to care about the success of new writers, which she still does. I was complimentary but not over-the-top and I also made sure that I sent this particular story to someone with a very related and relevant piece. I gave plenty of outs if she didn't want to write back so it didn't seem super-entitled either.

Other Things: I sent this email two weeks before An Untamed State came out and five months before Bad Feminist did so Gay was well-known in literary circles but not yet the mega-star author she soon became so I was fortunate to get her feedback. I mention this because it means she was probably more able to spend time responding to a cold email than she is now but more than that, I think it is important to admire and engage writers who are not famous because (SURPRISE!), most talented writers don't ever become famous and the ones who do often struggle as writers for a long-ass time before they blow up, as was the case for Gay. Intentionally trying to hitch your wagon to The Next Big Thing is tacky and most people are shit at predicting who TNBT is anyway so don't seek advice based on someone's Twitter stats, seek advice from people whose work you genuinely admire.

Pitch 5: First reported story, June 26, 2014, on the harms of criminalization of sex workers

Sent to: Editor at Truth Out, I had previously cold emailed her a completed op-ed that was time-sensitive and ended up running it on the blog for SWOP-NYC before she had time to respond but she invited future pitches.

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Results: It was accepted the same day and I did the reporting super fast so that I could turn it in the next day. It ran here.

Why It Prob Worked: I established a unique angle, I already had sources lined up, and it was an area they had seen me write opinion pieces on already so they were willing to take a chance on me doing some reporting.

Other Things: My first pitch to Truth Out was a completed op-ed about a Nick Kristof piece to the general submissions email and I withdrew it and posted it on the SWOP-NYC blog before they had a chance to even see the pitch. I was polite and explained myself and the time sensitivity of it so they didn't "blacklist" me as so many writers fear happens if they even mildly annoy an editor. The truth is, most editors are far too busy editing to have a blacklist. Be kind, offer value, and apologize instead of disappearing if you do something wrong.

Pitch 6: First pitch to a magazine, Pacific Standard, November 3, 2014, cold email after the editor posted his email on Twitter, had previously interviewed there for web editor job with a director Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 9.52.48 PMResults: So there were three pitches in this email and he fortunately ended up taking the one that I was able to get in the screen grab here and it became the essay/critique of freelance writer abuse here. The story resonated with a lot of other writers and resulted in them asking for work which eventually resulted in me being a weekly columnist there.

Why It Prob Worked: Ryan posted his email address on Twitter when he was actively looking for pitches, which more editors are looking for than you might think. I also had a creative framing for an issue that was already being discussed a lot which made it work. Pacific Standard is also a magazine that I knew to accept newer writers more often than other mags and the fact that they had even considered my job application when they had candidates with a lot fancier credentials than me showed that they were paying attention to people who weren't always getting it.

Other Things: Part of me is posting this last so that emerging freelance writers will read the actual story and realize that this line of work is a TON OF WORK and that these emails are just a handful of the uncountable emails I've sent trying to get work. The other reason I'm posting it is because my next story with them was this one which was the story that made my literary agent contact me which resulted in me selling my first book and being in a position to give advice about writing and actually having some qualifications for doing so.

There is a pernicious myth that the only way to get published is to have a ton of connections. But the way you can make a ton of connections is by introducing yourself to the right people in a way that shows you're smart and kind and capable of delivering something worthwhile. So go back to Twitter where you likely found this link anyway, start looking for writers editors there who post their email addresses publicly, find out what they want delivered, and tell them how you're the one to do it.