Failed Queries: Don’t Give Up on a Good Story

Here is another failed query that worked — after two years of trying. My profile based on this pitch, originally drafted in 2012, is scheduled for publication later this month. Its subject is working on a second cookbook, which made for an ideal opportunity to revisit the query and send an updated version to markets I hadn’t tried in the past. For more strategies on following up, you can also check out my recent guest post on Carol Tice’s blog, Make a Living Writing.

Dear Ms. Editor:

Profile Subject began her career as a restaurant entrepreneur at the tender age of 22 when she opened a business in her hometown of Starkville, Miss. The restaurant and catering company specialized in Southern food with global influences. Owning a thriving business was an impressive accomplishment for a woman in her twenties, but it was a request from a catering client who wanted to host a Japanese-inspired party in sushi-starved Starkville that ignited Subject’s true passion and encouraged her to explore far beyond her culinary comfort zone.

That exploration began in earnest when Subject closed her businesses and moved to Memphis to work as a pastry chef before enrolling in the professional sushi chef program at the California Sushi Academy. While there, she studied under respected sushi chefs and sake sommeliers, taught classes, catered events and observed and worked in restaurant kitchens on her way to becoming the first female African American graduate of the school.

Subject then returned to Memphis where she worked at a now-defunct sushi restaurant and refined her specialty of creating sushi with a Southern twist using local and sustainable ingredients. After three years, she decided to leave her position and focus on teaching sushi classes, catering and occasionally creating “tsushi” for the restaurant where she had once worked as a pastry chef. She also shared her passion for Southern-inspired sushi through her book.

Would you be interested in a story about this entrepreneur and author who has created innovative rolls that include Southern staples like pickled okra but also shares basic recipes easy enough for anyone to follow? The story could be expanded to include other restaurateurs creating innovative ethnic cuisine or focus on Subject’s and other authors’ adventures with cookbook publishing and promotion. I would be happy to provide a source list that fits the angle of most interest to you.

As for my professional credentials, I have 15 of experience as a writing teacher as well as years of reporting experience as a freelancer and staff writer at publications around the country, including The Dallas Morning News. Most recently, I have been working on stories for publication by national magazines and blogs including SUCCESS, Eating Well, DRAFT Magazine, The FruitGuys Almanac and Organic Gardening.

Once I know which angles are of most interest to you, I would be happy to provide sidebar ideas, an estimated word count and a working title. Meanwhile, I have included a link to my resume and some writing samples should you be interested.


Charlene Oldham

Free photo from morgueFile

Free photo from morgueFile

To Record or not to Record: Transcripts are for court stenographers

Transcribing recorded interviews is far and away my least favorite part of being a freelance reporter. In fact, I rarely record interviews unless my editor requests it, and it’s not just because I’m only a fair typist on my fastest day. Here are five reasons I rely on old-fashioned pen and paper for most interviews, whether I do them in person, over the phone or via Skype:

  • I can start the editing process immediately. I only record meaty quotes word for word, spending the rest of the time summarizing and noting other details that might be helpful when I’m writing.
  • It’s less intimidating to the source. When you let someone know you are recording them, they sometimes obsess over every single word and phrase. That rarely results in a string of colorful quotes or engaging anecdotes.
  • Recording makes me a lazy writer. I’ve found if I’ve taken the time to transcribe a ton of quotes, I’ll use them, even when putting some things in my own words will make for a better story or a more compelling read.
  • Reporters are overly paranoid about  misrepresenting people. A study by a University of Arizona linguistics professor showed only 13 of 98 quotations taken from Arizona newspapers proved verbatim when compared with recordings, but only two proved to be incompatible with the meaning of the original statement. When in doubt, I read quotes back to sources or simply ask themselves. Trust me, they don’t mind.
  • Technology stinks. Free programs to record Skype calls don’t activate automatically. New apps that are supposed to capture both sides of a cell phone conversation result in recordings that sound as though they were made in a concrete mixer. Batteries fail. You name it, I’ve experienced it.

Don’t get me wrong, taping has its time and place. I know plenty of reporters who record every interview. And I tape most personality profile interviews so I can spend more time jotting down details about a subject’s environment and mannerisms and hear their tone and speech patterns again and again during the writing process. I also tape interviews I think I might use some time in the far-flung future. But, for the most part, I save the transcription work for court reporters and spend my time perfecting my personalized brand of shorthand.

What about you? Do you rely on recordings or stick to pen and paper?


Free photo from morgueFile

Writing Goals for 2015

I believe working as an adjunct professor is a labor of love. Many who do it could make a lot more money per hour applying their skills outside the classroom. But some, like me, enjoy teaching and want to continue sharing their knowledge with students, albeit not on a full-time basis.

Well, this semester, it’s time for me to prove my long-standing claim that I could earn far more money freelancing than I do in the classroom. I will only be teaching one class and plan to devote much more energy to writing, researching and reporting.

Here are five freelancing goals I aim to achieve in the first half of 2015:

  • Begin every work day by sending out a query. This might be a fresh idea or an existing pitch that I re-slant or re-purpose for a different potential market. In either case, my plan is not to start on anything else until this task is complete.
  • Keep better track of my income and expenses. Rather than dumping all my invoices, check stubs and receipts into a folder until tax time, my goal is to keep running totals that give me an immediate idea of whether I’m making more this year than last.
  • Find five new clients and resolve to do more work for editors I enjoy. Sending a query a day should help me achieve the first part of this objective. To accomplish the second, I plan to propose a new story to my favorite current clients as soon as I turn assignments in to them.
  • Blog more, both for this site and others, and earn more money for guest posts. I’ve already subscribed to’s Morning Coffee eNewsletter, which lists many paid blogging opportunities. ProBlogger’s job board will also be a regular cyber stop for me in 2015.
  • Explore new types of writing. I haven’t had a personal essay published since grad school. And I haven’t written educational materials for anyone but my own students since leaving the K-12 classroom several years ago. Both are genres I hope to conquer again in 2015, and my first step is researching potential markets for personal essays.

What are your writing goals for 2015?

Free Photo from morgueFile

Free Photo from morgueFile

Failed Queries: Here’s one that worked — after a few tries

Since this month boasts five Tuesdays, I offer a query that actually worked in place of the usual Failed Queries feature — albeit not at the first publication I pitched. So, don’t trash a query after the first rejection. And, for freelancers who are curious about how a query might translate into a full-length piece, here is the resulting story. Happy Holidays!

Free photo from morgueFile

Free photo from morgueFile

Dear Ms. Editor:

Although the Man in Black is one of Arkansas’s most famous natives, little more than a roadside sign marks the site of Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess. Today, there are no attractions or interpretive sites open to the public in the Mississippi County town of 410, but that won’t be true for long. By combining state funds, private donations and proceeds from its first Johnny Cash Music Festival last year, Arkansas State University has raised approximately $1.4 million to restore the Cash family home, renovate the historic Administration Building and rejuvenate the Theater Building in the Dyess Colony Center. As part of its Arkansas Heritage Sites Program, the university will also reconstruct the outbuildings at the Cash farmstead, provide visitor services, install historic markers throughout the town and build a walking trail linking the Cash home and town center. The first phase of the project, including opening the Cash home and Colony Center Administration Building to visitors, is expected to be completed by June of next year.

In addition to its role as a country music pilgrimage site, the Dyess Colony represents a unique window into Depression-era America. The colony was one of the nation’s first agricultural resettlement communities built by the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to move families from failed farms into model communities. The colony’s Greek-Revival Administration building, dedicated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1936, lay at the hub of a wagon wheel of farmsteads for 500 colonists. Those early colonists included Ray and Carrie Cash, who relocated from Kingsland, Ark., with three-year-old J.R. Cash and their other children that same year.

As a native of Northeast Arkansas, graduate of Arkansas State University and consummate country music fan, I feel uniquely qualified to write about this new heritage site, which I think would make an excellent subject for a travel feature. If you are interested, I could also expand the story to highlight the other Arkansas Heritage Sites, which include the Lakeport Plantation and the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center. Upcoming events, including this year’s Johnny Cash Music Festival and a creative writing retreat at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, would also provide some excellent photo opportunities to complete a story package.

As for my professional credentials, I have a decade of experience as a writing teacher as well as years of reporting experience as a freelancer and staff writer at publications around the country, including The Dallas Morning News and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Most recently, I have been working on stories scheduled for publication by national magazines and blogs including SUCCESS, Eating Well and WOW – Women on Writing.

To avoid clogging your inbox with attachments, I have included a link to my resume. You can also find some writing samples at: should you be interested. Finally, please contact me if you need any additional information or samples to consider this idea.

Charlene Oldham

Filling the Praise Reservoir

As a teacher and freelance writer, I’m no stranger to criticism. In fact, I welcome a well-thought- out revision from an editor or insightful comment from a student that really shows they’ve paid attention and want to make you and your work better in the future.

But as the semester and calendar year come to a close, I always make time to refill my own praise reservoir for the dark days when students seem to be putting in exponentially less effort than I and the freelance assignments are few and far between. I review and save any appreciative emails from students and editors and carefully file the rare handwritten card in its own special folder. Refilling the reservoir also means reading unflattering emails editors may have sent on a bad day in the last six months and revisiting the last round of end-of-semester evaluations that slammed the textbook I didn’t choose myself or picked apart my Southern accent as “just too much” before deleting them for good.

Criticism can contain valuable nuggets of advice to help guide improvement, but it never seems in short supply. However, it’s not every day you get a sketch from a student that depicts you single-handedly pulling a soda truck to its destination, so I’d certainly save those when they come along.