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.

Best,

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?

SONY DSC
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: https://charleneoldham.com/writing-samples/ should you be interested. Finally, please contact me if you need any additional information or samples to consider this idea.

Best,
Charlene Oldham

Failed Queries: A Repurposing Success Story

I was too in love with this lead to let it go. So, even though this particular query failed more than once, I was eventually able to use its subject — and a variation of its first sentence — in a story on balancing a full-time job with a start-up business.

Dear Ms. Editor:

Not very many grandmas would be willing – or able – to compete in a physique competition clad only in a bikini, body oil and a pair of killer heels.

But no one who meets XX today would ever guess she was a new mother at 17 and just became a grandmother at 36.  In between those milestones, she battled the challenges of single motherhood and many more obstacles. Since 2001, exercise – specifically distance running – has been instrumental in winning those wars, she said. XX started her fitness journey after years of battling body image issues while working as a paralegal and holding additional part-time jobs to support her daughter. Today, she often competes in events to raise money for causes including the American Lung Society and has finally followed her dream to become a full-time fitness professional as owner of XX.

In between visits to her new granddaughter and training sessions with clients, the AFAA and IFA certified personal trainer acts as race director for the XX and founding member of XX. Given all the fitness events on her calendar, it’s no surprise she decided to leave a career in commercial real estate to pursue personal training full time. She specializes in weight loss and functional training and also has a few clients preparing for physique competitions. While she’s had some challenges with start-up costs, billing and collections, she’s on track to break even or possibly turn a small profit in her first year.

Although it was a tough decision to leave a stable job in an uncertain economy, XX said it was time to explore her own strengths if she was going to encourage clients to do the same. Through her work and volunteer efforts, XX, who is also working on certification as a life coach, hopes to convince others that being fit and happy is possible for everyone, no matter what life brings.

“You only have this one life to live. You have the power to choose how you want to live – use your power and talent to do what you want and do it well,” she wrote in a recent email. “Take that power to control your own life because no one else can.”

Given her own inspirational story and her recent efforts to share that story with others, I think  XX would make an excellent subject for a profile. Depending on your needs, the story could focus on her use of exercise to overcome the obstacles in her life, the journey she has taken to become a certified personal trainer and full-time fitness devotee in today’s tough economy, her challenges and successes in her first year as a business owner or all those angles.

Please let me know if you are interested in a profile or if I could provide information on another angle of this story.

Thanks,

Charlene Oldham

Free photo from MorgueFile
Free photo from MorgueFile

Failed Queries: Take it from turtles and keep truckin’

Here is yet another entry in the Failed Queries category. Good thing I take the same approach as turtles. We may be turned away at times, but slow and steady really can win the race.

Dear Ms. Editor:

Turtles haven’t changed much in the last 210 million years, and their genes prove slow and steady sometimes wins the race when it comes to evolution.

“They may be slowly evolving, but turtles have developed an array of enviable features,” said Richard Wilson, director of Washington University’s Genome Institute and senior author of a recent study that analyzed the genome of the western painted turtle. “They resist growing old, can reproduce even at advanced ages, and their bodies can freeze solid, thaw and survive without damaging delicate organs and tissues. We can learn a lot from them.”

Turns out turtles are experts at activating genes many vertebrates – including humans — share, but don’t use, allowing them to survive for long periods of time without oxygen while hibernating in ice-covered ponds. Scientists are also studying the turtles’ genes for clues about why they live so much longer than most animals their size.

Would you be interested in a story that explains what the western painted turtle’s genes tell us about its unique abilities and addresses the question Can Turtles Someday Help Humans Live Longer or Survive Without Air?

As a former middle and high school teacher and experienced journalist, I feel I could do this in a way that would be both entertaining and interesting to your young readers. 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. Most recently, I have been working on stories for publication by magazines, books, newspapers and blogs including SUCCESS, Eating Well, Organic Gardening, Poets & Writers, DRAFT Magazine, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2014 Songwriter’s Market, Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, The FruitGuys Almanac and WOW! Women On Writing.

Please let me know if this idea is of interest and what angle you might like to take with a story so I can provide more details. Meanwhile I have included a link to my resume and some writing samples in case you would like to take a look.

Best,
Charlene Oldham

Free Photo from MorgueFile
Free Photo from MorgueFile