Literary criticism is close to my heart; I got my own start in book blogging and then reviewing books, so I wanted to include a conversation here about how to go about pitching and doing that kind of writing. I’m delighted Carmen Machado agreed to answer a few questions for us (just see the list of where she’s written for below and you’ll see why).
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a fiction writer, essayist, and critic, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. I’ve written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, NPR, Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI, and VICE, and I have a story forthcoming in Granta. Right now, I teach fiction writing at two Philadelphia-area colleges, freelance, and am working on a novel.
Do you remember the first book review you wrote? How did you get the gig?
My first review was of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue for Los Angeles Review of Books. I connected to an editor through a friend, and they asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing that novel, specifically. I’m a huge Michael Chabon fan and am familiar with his oeuvre, so I agreed. I was nervous about writing my first review – I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do, or that I’d be good at – but ended up loving the process. I felt like it gave me this whole other level of understanding – not just the way that I read and processed and experienced the book, but also the need to articulate that experience.
How do you pitch reviews now?
I’m always on the lookout for books that interest me and pitch them to the publications with whom I have a relationship. I also make sure the editors I work with have a list of my areas of interest and expertise (no matter how niche – the list includes bullet points as general as “genre-bending fiction” and “short story collections” and as specific as “hypochondria” and “micronations”), so they can suggest books that come across their desk. The result is a nice, interesting mix of assignments with which I am rarely dissatisfied.
I also do a lot of thinking about the larger implications of books – how they fit into the zeitgeist, how they are in conversation with culture, with other works of art – and am really excited about a novel (or television show, or video game, or film) that I can discuss beyond its own borders.
How did your career grow from there? What do you think is important for longevity as a book reviewer?
After I’d done a certain number of reviews, I came to an agreement with myself that I would only continue to do so for pay. I can’t pay my bills with exposure, y’know? It was rough going at first (I had to decline several projects), but eventually I got on my feet, and I’m proud for standing my ground. Right now, I’m in the middle of reading and reviewing two debut novels for publications I love.
I think to assure your longevity as a critic you need to be excited, open, flexible, and passionate. You should value your work. You should read other pieces of literary and cultural criticism that are being written and whether you like the piece or you hate it, you should consider what you can learn from it. You also should approach every review you write without an agenda, and always operate in good faith. You should be generous, tough, and fair. Oh, and you should read John Updike’s rules for reviewing other people’s work and follow them, because they are lovely and smart and true.
How do you select the titles you will review? Or are you allocated titles to review more often than not?
Like I said, I just keep my eyes peeled for books that sound interesting and keep on new books by authors I already love. And the editors I work with know what interests me and allocate books to me, too. It’s a good mix.
Can you tell us about expanding into other areas of cultural criticism, like video game criticism?
Last fall, I wrote a piece for LARB about Gone Home, an exquisitely narrative video game. I don’t think of myself as a video game reviewer; rather, I reviewed Gone Home as if it was a particularly intricate type of interactive fiction or postmodern novel – which is how I experienced the game. I’ve also written a piece of television criticism – specifically, about sexual coding in Game of Thrones, which is something that I think about a lot. (Game of Thrones and sexual coding.) I think that if you are passionate about a particular piece of pop culture or media – no matter what it is – and you think about it enough that you suspect that you can see patterns, or ideas being kicked around, or how this show or movie or book or game sits in the cobweb of its peers, or its genre, or culture, then you might be a critic at heart. So go ahead – pitch!
The other day, Meghan Brewster tweeted me saying she’d sent off her first ever unsolicited pitch. I was super excited and asked her to share her experience with us. Thanks, Meghan!
It might not sound like much, but the other day I sent out my first unsolicited email pitch. I sent it to a website I have been following for a few months, with the request that I write for them. The article I pitched was to a professional medical blog. I wanted to pitch an article that covered what they were not including on their site: how it actually felt to have a particular autoimmune disorder.
I am a hatchling of a writer. I have just cracked out of my educational shell and am still finding my feet in the writing world. I am quickly realising that there is a pecking order out here and I am at the bottom. At the moment I am trying to find my place in the “line” and patiently wait my turn. That’s what we are taught, isn’t it – to wait our turn? To be polite, to not be pushy, to not upset anybody. I am a domesticated animal, after all.
I look at all the other writers who have been in this business for longer than me – talented, amazing, inspirational people and I worry I will die before anything good ever happens.
At least that was what I thought until the Emerging Writers’ Festival this year. I was there as one of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Blogging Partners and had just joined Twitter in preparation for the Festival.
At the festival, I was scrolling through twitter when I saw a tweet with the hashtag #pitchbitch. Suddenly I was searching for everything I could find of the hashtag. I read the interview with Estelle Tang on the Kill Your Darlings blog and was so inspired.
I realised that I was the only person who was ever going to get my writing out into the world. I could not just “wait my turn”. I would die before I ever got it. I had to start pitching, even though it made my guts flip over thinking about it.
I sent the email – a proposal for the article I wanted to write and two examples of past work. I took Meanjin’s advice and did not apologise for the work I was submitting. I did not apologise for my unsolicited email. I did not excuse myself for being forward and approaching them without an invitation. I was truly polite, but I was not ashamed of what I was doing.
It was the first time I ever asked someone about a job that wasn’t advertised. Within the hour, I had received a very positive yes, along with the encouragement I needed to continue pitching ideas. Pitch, Bitch is such a wonderful resource. I’m frustrated that I did not find it sooner and will definitely send the word around.
Meghan Brewster studied Fine Art and taught Visual Arts at high schools for a little while before committing to writing as a career. She has a blog about emerging writers called Manuscrapped.com.
Brodie Lancaster is a shreddin’ staff writer for Rookie
, an editor and copywriter at The Good Copy
and a contributor to various print and online publications. In 2012 she launched Filmme Fatales, a zine on women and cinema. You can find out all about it here
. We talked to La Brodie about pitching to specialist publications.
1. Brodes, have you noticed a gender disparity in who pitches you or how they pitch?
I have! The majority of pitches I get are from women, which is excellent and one of the true perks of editing content with a female focus. But I also seek out a lot of writers I admire, or friends who I think have strong voices and excellent things to say. And I’d say about 75% of the time I do this, I’m met with hesitation, and responses ranging from “aww no I really don’t think I’m the right person for this” (I wouldn’t have asked you if you weren’t!) to “nobody would want to read what I have to write.” (they would!! I do!!)
Dudes, on the other hand, will often pitch with the assumption that everyone wants to hear what they have to say. It’s not their fault, really, because they’ve been told that since people were living in caves. It really irks me, though, when they are unable to take no for an answer, or engage with feedback. I’m the editor and make the final call on every decision, but I’ll often find men trying to convince me or mansplain their ideas, as though I didn’t understand their intentions the first time.
The point of Filmme Fatales is to shine a light on women doing great things in cinema, and to look at instances when we’re misrepresented. I feel like most of the women who cold-pitch understand this, but some guys just can’t quite grasp it. I recently got a pitch from a guy who wanted to interview a young, female filmmaker and his sample questions were all about how HARD it is for women to make films and if she STRUGGLED to get funding because she was a woman. That guy got a swift, firm “no” from me. (Then tried to tell me how wrong I was for saying no.)
2. Filmme Fatales is a specialist publication. What are the challenges in commissioning for a specialist publication?
Often, when I’m commissioning pieces from female writers, they’ll hesitate or decline because they’re not walking encyclopaedias on the suggested topic. I don’t care if you know what Goldie Hawn’s favourite colour is if you have a lot to say about Private Benjamin!
In the past, I’ve compared my own experiences in this area to the “fake nerd girl” stigma that follows girls who are into cosplay or comic books. Girls can barely step foot in a convention centre without nerd bros hounding her and testing her knowledge, hoping to call her out as a poser and belittle her for the crime of sharing their interests. When people hear I edit a magazine about cinema, but haven’t seen their favourite obscure film, I’m sometimes met with a similar response. It makes me feel like a poser, and like I’m not allowed to be into films without being an expert. I think this is a truly female phenomenon, because we’re acutely aware that people (dudes) are just waiting to call us out and prove that they know more than us.
3. What do you like to see in pitches?
I like to see a writer’s personality and unique perspective, more than anything else. Academic writing or anything too heavy on theory is boring to me; you can recite Laura Mulvey by heart but that doesn’t impress me as much as your ability to draw comparisons between The Sound of Music and Sex and the City. I don’t care if writers have tons of experience in film writing, as long as I can get a sense of what their writing will sound like.
It’s always obvious which writers are familiar with the publication — or, really, it’s obvious who’s never read it and pitched anyway. Sometimes this turns out well and I get a pitch from a newbie writer who is super keen and interested, but a lot of the time it results in ideas that are totally off the mark or repeats of what we’re published in the past. The worst thing a writer can do is include the words “I’m not sure if this is suitable for your publication” in the email. You need to be sure before you send a pitch, otherwise why is the pitch being sent to me and not myriad other publications?
4. You’re also a writer – how do you approach pitching publications?
- what is the idea?
- what timely events is it connected to?
- why am i the person to write it?
- why is this publication the right fit for it?
- background info on me and relevant examples of my work (if pitching a publication for the first time).
Of course there are exceptions to the timeliness question, but you know, it makes the most sense to pitch a piece about One Direction in the lead up to their Australian tour than during non-peak 1D times; or to pitch a piece about women’s role in the AFL the week preceding the league’s annual Women’s Round than during finals time.
5. Your next issue of Filmme Fatales has the theme “POWER”. What do you wanna say about this topic?
I treat my themes pretty loosely — more as buzzwords and thought-starters that provide a cohesive thread through the publication. POWER is all about women in charge, women with strength or supernatural abilities, women teaming up together, women with weapons, women overcoming. My feature interview in this piece is with Janet Pierson (SXSW Film head honcho), who has my ultimate dream job and is easily one of the most powerful women in independent film. This theme has connections to the supernatural, as well as strength and authority, and it has resulted in some really exciting ideas I can’t wait for people to read!
YO IT’S THE SECOND EVER #PITCHBITCH DAY. Use today to work on that pitch you’ve been thinking about – research, ask for advice, write a draft, read the publication, check out the resources on this ‘ere tumble, look up editor details – OR send off a completed pitch.
Jessica Hopper is a constantly shredding editor (at The Pitchfork Review
, and she’s music editor at Rookie
) and music critic who is a constant source of inspiration and support to me. I’ve asked her about her experience as a female editor and writer.
Jessica, as a new editor at Pitchfork Review, have you noticed a gender difference in who sends you pitches?
No one actually pitches me yet because only like 14 people know I have started there, am preferring to pick and choose, but I sent out a call on Twitter to try and find some non-male hip hop writers – maybe for Rookie, maybe for the review – just get some folks in rotation, see who has some charismatic copy and got a slew of things back from young women who were very interested, though many of them lacked the sort of experience and clips that would even show what they were capable of. Some of them had been so goaded and corrupted by the kind of assignments that are out there for ambitious young gals trying to freelance that they were giving me their SEO-optimatization stats and their clips were listicles about 2Chainz GIFS. It was very depressing, for a lot of reasons.
What do you personally like to see in a pitch?
I want the pitch to be written with the same tone and energy as the piece and to give me the arc, or at least the approach of what they want to do. I don’t mind a few possible ideas together, but more than 4 dilutes it. I like confidence, wit, brevity and something that indicates there will be some personality in the copy they turn in.
What else do you think female writers should know about pitching and communicating with editors?
Go for it. Men pitch me with more confidence and frequency, will argue for and reassert WHY their pitch should be reconsidered even when I have told them no. About half the women I approached for Pitchfork Review
pitches, even ones I went to with a potential assignment and asked for their ideas – some of them I had to go back to two and three times to goad them to pitch me. Only women who are on their grind ask me about money, ask questions up front about expectations, arc, etc. It’s truly bizarre to me, and that it makes more work for me to try to even just get them moving – talented writers all! – makes me understand, in part, the greater dynamics of music journalism. You don’t want to have to parent someone – those writers are going to fall through the cracks because they need babysitting and no one has that time. And if I start getting excuses why the piece is going to be late, especially immediately after assigning something, or telling me two days after deadline – it says to me you are just not interested in doing this work and I stop hiring people if they do it more than once. When something matters to you, you respect it, your energy and your effort naturally go towards it. Now, all of that, I know, is compounded by things like… being a young woman and feeling like you do not have permission to succeed. I take that into account, I have been there, but ultimately, I will wind up giving work to writers that seem like they want it.
You’ve also been a writer for years now. Have you ever experienced a lack of confidence, or anything else that affects how much or where you pitched your work? How did you overcome it?
I started pulling down my first freelance checks at 15, despite that I don’t think I knew how to write until I was about 27 (my editors at the Chicago Reader
can take credit for that). Pitching is still hard for me, but I can tell you this – the stories no one wanted, the stories I had to pitch all up and down the ladder, fight for until I found a home, are the five biggest pieces/ stories of my career: R. Kelly for the Village Voice
, David Bazan for Chicago Reader
, Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t for Punk Planet
, Deconstructing Lana Del Rey for SPIN
and How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock for Buzzfeed Longform
. I couldn’t have done that if I had not been resolute in my confidence, in my approach, dogged in pitching. If I am not feeling it, I fake it until I make it. I study the places I pitch, I take criticism and questioning without taking it personally or getting too wound about it. I trust my editors and know that I am building and getting better all the time. And I never read the comments, and I don’t really care about anyone’s opinion of my work other than that of the people editing me, and of course my own. Also, I accepted long ago, sometimes I will get it wrong, do lame and imperfect work, fuck up – and it’s less frightening to take risks.
What works for you when writing a pitch?
Hmmm. I study the places I pitch and try to imagine whether I could see that artist profiled/critiqued in the way I want to do it. I don’t pitch a lot of underdog/left-field stuff and save that for when there is really truly a story that needs to be told – like I am not pitching eight pages on Marnie Stern to a national magazine. Though, honestly, I am lucky – I have editors that trust me enough to tell me yes with frequency because they know my work. Right now I am culling and editing pieces for my book and I can really see now the distinction between work I pitched when I really had something and the stuff where I was turning on the bullshit faucet in my pitch just because I had to make rent, and I respect both. It’s a hustle, and everyone knows that.