January 16, 2021 22 min read
"Write about what you love and do it for the joy of it. Never for the money, never for the fame, the status, the book tour, to impress your friends, not even to say you're a writer or an author... Do it for the love of it, and the joy of it. That's, I think, why we all write." —Michael Pietrzak
How can you pitch magazines to start earning a living from your writing craft? How do you build your author platform and embrace rejection?Find out in this video interview with author JL Rothstein (@JLRothstein1) and freelance writer (and our founder), Michael Pietrzak (transcript below).
Hey everyone. It's JL Rothstein here. Author of the Heaven Sent series. My book Atonement is out now. You can check it out on Amazon, or you can go to my website at JLRothstein.com. I have a super special guest with me today—I'm going to try really hard not to butcher his name—Michael Pietrzak.
Perfect, you got it.
Wohoo! Welcome to the show, Michael.
Thank you. Well, I'm a super special guest. I'm very honored. Thank you.
I am so excited for this because I saw the website that you co-founded, So You Want To Write, and I had never heard of it before, and I was out there poking around in the last couple of days, and there's so much good stuff out there for writers, especially writers like me who are new to the industry and their whole focus is about getting better.
It's not about, you know, selling a million copies, although we'd all love to do that. It's more or less about getting better and better and better with every piece of every work that one puts out. So I'm really excited.
So, tell the audience a little bit about the organization.
Yeah, I can start there, absolutely. But, but first I want to say, look, I'm really happy that we connected and found each other. I can see that your blog is doing really well with over a thousand subscribers. It's growing like wildfire, obviously.
And I checked out your book—4.8 stars out of five on Amazon. Like that's unheard of on Amazon, you know, you've, you've escaped the trolls and all that stuff. So, congrats on things going really well.
Yeah. Thank you very much.
So, soyouwanttowrite.org is where you can find us. And essentially our mission is to connect writers with literary agents, editors, and published authors, so that people can improve their writing and then get published.
Because it's two sides of the same coin.
I'll tell you how we got started. It was in a pub actually—
Where all the best things happen.
Yeah. No, actually, it was before that. I decided in 2012 to write my book. And so I left my job and I said, here, "Here we go, taking it seriously," did NanoWriMo, and I had a friend tell me, "Hey, you should really take this writing workshop from my friend Sam."
Well, it turned out that Sam Hiyate was a literary agent and owned his own agency in Toronto, Canada. And so I did an eight week workshop with him on his couch, in his living room every Saturday. I came and I shared my first chapter and I thought it was great, but it needed improvements.
Every week I shared a chapter, and it got better and better. My writing improved and, you know, Sam and I became friends mostly over bottles of wine—things like that.
I started to love writing because I was being taught how to do it in a way that brought out the best in me. And so that's why we started the company. It was to do the same thing for other writers.
So the idea was let's connect writers with literary agents, published authors and editors and help them with their craft. And then, once the book is good enough, you can start talking about publishing, self-publishing or the traditional route—it doesn't matter.
The idea is just get the book out there because so many people have this story to tell, and we think that it needs to get out there. I think that's how the world improves.
That's the long and short of it.
We started as this group of 20 people that came together for meetups in a pub, and that grew to over 2,300 people. Now we have 5,000 visitors a month on our website. So, we're honored to be serving so many writers.
Yeah. I mean, to me, I just think there's not enough places like that to go and to meet up with other writers and to actually share that experience, but to actually take it one step further and to be reading each other's work and to be helping each other improve in the craft.I think that's the piece.
I mean, you could read a book about writing. You could take a class, you could do something online. But it doesn't take it to that next level where you're getting the critique and having someone help you to get better and better at what you're doing.
Bang on. I keep hearing this from all the literary agents and the authors that have had a bit of success. You need to share your writing as soon as possible.
I know that writing is a solitary act, but eventually it has to go into the world where you, at least you hope, you can change someone's life. That's amazing. You've done something wonderful.
But finding a peer group of writers where you can share your work, like a critique group is amazing because it helps you improve.
Yeah, and to learn how to take a critique, right? That's no small feat. We all like to think that what we put on paper is perfect the first time around, but 99% of the time it's not.
And so you have to learn how to take that critique. So it's great practice if you're in those groups and you can get that.
I know I've told people the story before, but yeah, I hired a professional editor because I didn't know what I was doing. And I knew I needed help. And I had taken some classes and I had taken an online class, but I knew I needed professional help.
I wanted somebody to look at it and say, these are the things you need to focus on. And coming back when I opened it and seeing all the cross outs and all the lines and all the notes, I mean, it was a little overwhelming.
Yeah, there was a copious amount of wine that night. But it actually wasn't that bad. It just, it is overwhelming when you first get it.
But now, once you have that experience and you know this person's intent is to make you better, you come at it with a more positive mindset.
You're going to do so much better next time around. And the time after that. And the time after that, etc. Now, I'm actually looking forward to it. Whereas before I was not looking forward to that.
Like in all areas of life, right?
It's not just writing where you need to be able to take the critique and improve yourself, but in other areas of your life.
You know, the people that improve the fastest are the ones that are willing to have that growth mindset and just accept the criticism.
And you don't have to accept all of it. Of course, some of it is nonsense. If you go to some of these free critique groups, there are writers there that have just started themselves, and maybe they're not giving the best feedback. So, you know, you have to take it with a grain of salt and really use your intuition about what works for you and what doesn't.
Yeah. Or the things that you're just not willing to give up on and trade those off for the things that you are that you can really, you know, it is sort of a game.
I remember my editor was like, "Obviously it's up to you, what you take, but you hired me and this is what I'm telling you."
And I, I just looked at it differently and said, "No, I'm taking it all."
But, looking back on it, there were certain things that she had critiqued on, that maybe I wouldn't have taken, but I really felt at the time like what she hit on was spot on.
I think once you have a few books under your belt that are published, you get more confident about rejecting the advice. I'm sure that you know, I think...Oh my God, what's her name? Harry Potter...
J.K Rowling's books—they got longer as they went along. Right. And I think that's because probably she wrote a really long first book, but it was edited down significantly by the publishers and you know, once she got to superstar status, like she said, "Forget it, I'll take my own advice." You know? Which is what you can do at that point.
Yeah. I'll get it right. Write a thousand page book and people are going to take it.
Critique is so important to listen to, and it's—look, I want to speak to new writers and to first time, aspiring authors—sometimes it's hard to hear. Absolutely.
But don't take it personally. Yes. It's your best work. It's your baby. But people are trying to help you.
Yeah. I think if you're in a place like this, like in the setting like yours and your organization, that is the mindset you should take, because everybody there is doing it for your best interest, the way they want it for themselves.
I think if you're out on Facebook, then maybe you take it with a grain of salt or something, but it really depends on the environment that you're in. But yeah, I think you should take all of it. I'll take it all in and learn from it as best you can keep going.
I have an open mind, at least, for sure. Hopefully it leads to bigger and better things. Maybe people listening will go and do this and become the next JK Rowling, who knows. That's the whole idea. We want everybody to do that.
So I have the three questions for you. Do you want to do this now? Or do you want to share screens or how do you want to—
Let's dive in. Go with the questions.
So I didn't introduce you as a freelance magazine writer, but you are. That is part of your profession. So that is new. I have never actually talked to anyone who's written for a magazine.
So tell the audience a little bit about what that experience is like and how they could write for a magazine.
I'm even more honored now. So yes, I am a freelance writer, which means I'm not employed by any one publication to do the writing.
I have to pitch, and then they say yes or no, depending on whether they liked the idea or not.
And, and I want to start by saying that I'm very encouraging for other people to do this. It's a great way to get started as a writer.
You know, I think Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Jack London William Faulkner, Alison Row, Truman Capote, JD Salinger—they all started their careers writing short pieces.
You know, short stories. Hemingway did a lot of newspaper writing, too, even in Toronto where I am hailing from. And it's great because publishing articles is so much easier than publishing a novel, right?
It's orders of magnitude easier. And so once you start publishing these small pieces, you're building your platform, you're building your readership, you're building your audience, which is a great way to, to convince a publisher to actually publish your novel.
Or if you're self publishing, you already have these people that follow you, so it's going to be way easier to sell your book.
The other thing is, I would encourage everyone not to become a writer to make money.
It's not the most lucrative job in the world. It's definitely a labor of love type thing, but you can definitely get paid, especially as a freelance writer. I mean I have, again, many hats that I wear, but one way to get paid is through writing for magazines.
I write for success.com and Success Magazine, and it's not an insignificant amount of money. I publish one or two articles a month and it covers, you know, a portion of my expenses and enough that my wife and I, we were able to live in Mexico last year for about five months. And it paid the rent and paid a little bit more than that. And, you know, we got to live on the beach in Tulum for a while.
If you want to become a digital nomad, at least when it becomes less of a life threatening thing to travel again, definitely your writing will support that lifestyle.
The other hats that I wear include being a coach. And so having success.com with 2.2 million readers publishing my work... It definitely is a funnel for my other business type of things. So, you know, there are many benefits across the board.
Yeah. There's got to be some networking.
Yeah. You find a lot of great people. They come find me actually.
Yeah. Which is what you want when you get to that book stage and you've written a book and now they're coming to find you on your website and you can give them something else to read that's yours.
So how does that work for you though?
Like, I understand the whole pitch thing, but if you were a novice and you had never done this before, are you sort of applying first? And then they say, "Okay, these are the things that were topics that we're looking for and then you pitch."
Yeah, I've talked about why do it, but so now, now how.
I mean, we're talking really about a few things here. We're talking about writing articles for magazines, you know, usually non-fiction, but you can also write for literary magazines, which means pitching your fiction or your poetry, and you can also write for news outlets, pitching your journalism.
And then there's copywriting somewhere over here, which is just writing for people's websites and stuff like that. I did it for a while. I don't love it, but how do you get started?
Well, my story, I guess I can share, it's a pretty simple way. I just wanted to be a writer and I thought, all right, let's get some, some credits under my belt, some publishing credits. And so I started writing for this magazine. It was a men's magazine online only, and they paid you $50 an article.
So, I did it. I said, "All right, I'm not doing it for the money. I'd love to get some some work for my portfolio."
Once I had a portfolio, I could take that to a bigger magazine.
And I found success.com and I got lucky. The first pitch I did was accepted. And they paid me quite a good rate for that one. And that got my foot in the door. I've been writing for them ever since, which is wonderful.
I would say, when you're starting out, be willing to do some unpaid work. You know, even the unpaid or $50 articles. They'll get your name out there which will show editors that you can write and that people are publishing you somewhere.
And I don't mean your own LinkedIn profile. I don't mean your own blog. Like someone else publishing you, because it's kind of a sign that someone else likes your writing too.
What else to find out...
Which magazines you want to write for. Well, what do you read? If you're reading, you know, Vogue or Cosmo, or you're reading travel magazines, write for those, because that's what you're interested in.
What you're interested in you'll be more successful in pitching right within the zeitgeist. What are people talking about right now? Black Lives Matter, COVID, the election, right?
Any editor will probably pick up an article if it's well-written on those three subjects.
Right now there's many, many more in the zeitgeists, but write about what's current, write about what you love, because you're an expert in that. Presumably write about what maybe you have a unique story in. Pitch that.
I'll tell you what I'm going to share my rules for pitching. And normally I do this in my workshop that I run through So You Want To Write.
Rules for pitching...
1. Follow the submission guidelines.
Every magazine has the tell you what they want and how to do it, plus the maximum word count. Should you submit a word document or something else? Make sure you don't mess this up because they'll automatically delete your pitch.
By the way, backing up a sec, a pitch just means send an email to an editor at a magazine. Tell them what your idea for your story is. They'll tell you yes or no.
Next step follow directions please. Yes.
2. Make sure it hasn't been done.
If someone has written on what you're pitching, they're probably not going to publish another one. So, before you pitch research your subject.
Make sure, you know who's talking about what out there. Be current on the subject.
3. Start drafting your email to the editor at the magazine.
The subject line is probably the most important part there. It should say "pitch" or "article idea" so that they know that they're getting a pitch.
Then be descriptive. Don't, say, pitch an article about dogs. Be more specific, very detailed, so that they actually want to open this.
Then your first line. Your email needs a killer lead. Like, something that will hook the reader to read more. You know, there's something like I wrote the other day.
It was, "When three large men picked me up and tried to shove me into a land Rover, I knew it was time to kill my business"—
Which actually happened. I worked in Africa for a while—
Write a first sentence that they can't help but read more.
Then every pitch is really, here's a problem I want to talk about and here's a solution to the problem.
And then you finish off your pitch with why now, and then why me—why am I the best person to write this? Which is essentially your bio.
And keep it short, like 200 to 300 words.
Editors are busy people. You don't want a tomb. They don't want to read like 15 paragraphs about why this is the great article for them. Short. They're busy.
Yeah. That's good. That's great advice. It sounds a lot like you took the recipe for a query letter on a book and adapted it.
A lot of similarities. Yes. Pitches are pretty close.
Yeah. Especially the subject line, you know, the making sure that that's something that they want to open. It's the same with the query.
If you don't have that killer two sentences, then they're not going to read down and see who you are and whatever else you have.
I could use your class. I might join, because it's the bane of my existence to take my whole book and put it into sentences.
One of my next questions is about what piece of advice you would give yourself your younger self. What's the one thing you go back and tell yourself?
One thing, that's... Yeah, it's, it's hard to get one thing. I could give myself lots of advice in other areas of my life. Like, don't date her. Don't go to this. Don't do this job.
No, but, for writing, the most important advice I could give to my younger self is...
"Write about what you love and do it for the joy of it. Never for the money, never for the fame, the status, the book tour, to impress your friends, not even to say you're a writer or an author. Those are not the greatest motivations. Like I said, this is not a money-making venture, unless you're at the top of your industry. Do it for the love of it and the joy of it. That's, I think, why we all write."
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I heard somebody write once that getting published was sort of like winning the lottery, and then getting to be a bestseller was winning the jackpot portion of a lottery.
I don't know how many times I've heard that advice of don't do it for the money. And obviously I'm just like you—I don't. That's not what I'm angling for. But I am surprised at how many people do have that expectation, even though it's been said, and it's been written, and it's been talked about. It's strange.
I learned the hard way. And I'll tell you, you know, when I was writing for that magazine, that paid $50 an article I did maybe about a dozen of those for them, and it was, no regrets, but I went into it with the feeling that, "Oh, I'm going to just keep increasing my rate and get paid and I can live on a beach somewhere."
But I was doing these interviews for these articles. And I would have to go across town and go to like six different bike repair shops and interview them to find the best ones. And then people would complain because I didn't cover all of them.
But anyway, it was like 20 hours of work for $50. It was crazy. But, you know, I love the writing. So that was the bonus, right? It wasn't about the money.
And then later in my writing career, I started writing as a copywriter. You know, that's where people want some copy for this product on their website or they want to write the whole website. It's promotional stuff usually.
I hated copywriting. Now, I don't want to discourage everyone from doing it, but, because you're competing with people from the developing world where they're charging like 2 cents a word, it's very hard to get paid in copywriting.
Like, I remember doing this one job. I had to do copywriting for printed circuit boards. And I remember it was so much work, like days and days of work, for a hundred bucks.
And I barely understood what I wrote at the end of it, because it was so technical. But after that I was like, "You know what? I'm never ever again going to write for money alone. I'm going to write what I love."
Even now, sometimes, the magazines I write for will ask me, "Hey, you want to write an article about X?" And I say, no, because I don't have any interest.
And I'm much happier for that reason. So it's for the love of it. Not for the money of it.
And it probably came through, right. Whoever read that article aboutCirquereports is probably like, "There's no love, no passion here."
You know what I mean? Like it might've been knowledgeable or knowledge based, but I think, if you don't have any passion for the subject matter, you pick up on that.
After I did the copywriting myself, I you can't unsee copywriting anymore. I'll go to a website and I'll be like,"This person doesn't know what they're talking about. They're just using corporate jargon or whatever filler."
It's pretty funny. Now I can critique other people's copywriting.
I feel like you can say the same thing a little bit after you've been through the editing process. After you've been through multiple critiques, I read differently.
Once you're a writer, you read like a writer. It's a really strange experience because I used to read things all the time and not think about it. I would read things I liked and things I didn't like. And it never went beyond that. It was like, I just don't like that.
But now I'm like, "Oh, I didn't like that because this character did X, Y, Z, R, and it pulled me out of the story."
Or, because this or that setting didn't make any sense. Or this character did something that betrayed their other, earlier characteristics. Or the point of view is all messed up.
And so it's like, I can't unsee that.
And sometimes it just drives me crazy because I just want to sit down and.
It can drive you crazy, but also it can be a good thing in the sense that you appreciate writing a little bit more.
I mean, yes, because you see all those little nuances, you understand what the author is doing with these various techniques. Critique groups are awesome for this, as is having a beta reader.
So I don't know if your viewers know what that is, but an alpha reader is like your family, your friends, the first person you send your work to. And the beta is more like someone that's at your level, that's reading more, a little bit more professionally.
You're not paying them, but maybe you trade your books. And that's super valuable too, because people see what you can't see. We all have our blind spots, especially with writing.
And so, yeah, again, people need to share their writing.
Oh, I thought of another thing to tell my younger self...
"Keep pitching. Pitch, pitch, pitch pitch. If you're trying to write for magazines, don't stop."
And I'll you a story that someone told me when I was just starting out in my writing career, this was a very established author who some of your viewers might know. I won't name drop, but he was very generous.
He bought me a scotch and we sat in a bar and he gave me his writing advice. And he told me about how, years ago, Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker was shopping around his new movie idea.
He had this idea for a movie and went to a studio that said, no.
Okay, if you're Spielberg, you're like, "You're saying no to me? Are you crazy?"
He got five rejections from five different studios before another studio said yes to make his movie. I don't remember which one it was, but keep in mind, keep this always in mind...
Even Spielberg—who has 30 years of experience, and however many movies that were blockbusters under his belt—is still getting rejections.
Stephen King says all writers that are successful get good at accepting rejection, because it's going to happen. And it's not a personal thing. It's part of the job.
If you're a professional writer, you're going to have to get good at accepting rejection. So just keep pitching endlessly, keep querying, keep keep writing something different, and you will get a yes.
And once your foot's in the door, you have a name for yourself. And it gets easier.
That's great advice. But it's hard when you say to somebody, "Don't take it personally," like when it comes to reviews.
I give this advice on reviews all the time. And I gave a similar story where I said, you know, a lot of people don't realize, but JK Rowling has one- and two-star reviews on Amazon. If you go look up any of her books, it doesn't matter what book it is.
Pick a book, you know, there was the seven or eight or whatever of them pick a book and she has one- and two-star reviews. And you're thinking to yourself, That's impossible. There's no way. But go and look. It actually happens.
So I give the same advice on reviews. I say, "Don't take it personally."
Everybody's always known the adage of It's not their cup of tea.
What's more, there are people out there that just, cause they want to—whether they enjoy it or they're in their own misery—will give you a bad review.
But that whole concept of don't take it personally. It is hard.
It is fundamentally hard when it comes to something so deeply personal. I mean, if you're writing and you're truly writing from a good creative, passionate place, it is some sort of piece of you.
It is personal.
It's a little bit of a paradox.
It really is.
I guess it helps to remember that some of those one- and two-star reviews are just trolls. They're like 12 year olds who didn't even read the book and just want to troll.
Or, your neighbor who can't stand you, who knows.
Yes. Or someone that that's having a bad day. I don't know. Some people advocate don't ever read your own reviews of your book.
You know, that's one way to do it, to just focus on creating and putting things out into the world because not everyone's going to love your art.
"Art is not meant to be loved by everybody. Art's supposed to be shocking and uncomfortable for a lot of people. That goes with the territory of art and writing."
Yeah, for sure. It's great advice.
And the criticism helps you build resilience. You just have to keep hearing it—
And it won't be easy the first time, but maybe it'll be less hard, right? Maybe that's the attitude: It's going to hurt the first time. Like, just be honest. It's going to hurt the first time you have a critique, or a bad review.
But the idea is that it hurts less and less as you go, as you build up that exterior.
My first time getting feedback was traumatizing. I think I had a beer after that, or two, but you know, eventually, you get to the point where you're like, "Some of it is not helpful, and the other stuff is probably helpful, and I should maybe listen to it."
Yeah. And I imagine that comes with time—time to understand the difference between those two.
Time and maturity and experience.
Yeah. Like, if someone just told you that your book is crap, ignore it because that's not a critique. That's someone's opinion, someone who couldn't formulate enough words to be helpful. And so you should ignore it immediately.
But if somebody says, "You know, there was so many characters. I was confused and I was lost and I stopped halfway," well, that could be really helpful.
Granted, maybe that's not the genre that they read, but that's still really helpful feedback. Think about that next time you go to write a lot of characters.
That's valuable feedback.
Yes, exactly. So, telling the distinction between those is really helpful.
You have been very generous with your time, so I don't want to take up too much more of it, but you founded this organization. I know we started there and we're coming back around.
So your third question revolves around the writer training and the company that you started. So what else do you want to tell the viewers about?
Yeah, I guess I gave you the Coles notes version of soyouwanttowrite.org.
So, this is our little project slash growing company, I guess.
At So You Want To Write our job is to connect writers, especially new writers, with experts like literary agents, publishers, editors, authors.
We start with the free stuff, which is really great. Great content on our blog. Right now we're doing The Top 10 Tips for Writing Great Short Stories because we have a workshop on that coming up.
We did The Ultimate Guide To Writing YA. We had someone go and collect all the best information about writing YA and put that into one single document.
So, you know, take a look at the blog. There's some helpful content there.
And then, if you feel like you need your book needs to have someone in the publishing industry look at it and give you specific advice, then take a look at the one-on-one meetings.
We have a bunch of literary agents and authors there that will sit with you on zoom for 45 minutes, read 20 pages of your book beforehand and give you that market industry, insider info feedback that you probably can't get from just a random critique group.
We have a bunch of workshops that we run every year. So, you know, for example, we have How To Write Short Stories coming up with author Tevis Shkodra. He's also the editor in chief of our magazine, which is Raconteur Literary Magazine.
We have myself, I'm doing How To Write For Magazines.
And then we do also these longer programs, which is where I started with Sam Hyatt on his couch. You know, we did eight weeks with Sam. Now we're doing 12 weeks with Sam.
And everyone shares their work on Slack beforehand—shares a chapter of their work. Then you get some feedback on a Zoom call. And then we do Slack check-ins throughout the week. People are really writing their books and improving them in a very short span of time.
You know, 12 weeks, it goes by fast, but it really seems to be working for people. So we encourage people that are serious about their books to do that one.
And it's 12 weeks. Is it you doing something once a week with someone, or is this continuous. Are you getting communication during that 12 weeks?
Yeah, so generally we're meeting once a week. Like, on a Saturday or Monday, and it's led by one of these literary agents who are giving you their expert advice. And you're also getting the peer feedback inside the room two hours at a time.
The work has been shared beforehand. So everyone's read everyone else's work. Six or eight people maximum. So, really small intensive groups and, and the progress is amazing. It's phenomenal.
It's how I got my start in writing too, sitting on that coach. Now we don't have a couch, we have a zoom. A zoom room.
Well, that is fantastic. And I know the viewers, especially the big author group out on Twitter, I think they're really gonna love this. I think they're gonna get a lot out of this.
I'm so grateful that you came on the show. I'm so happy to connect. And I'm happy to promote this and I'm going to be poking around the site myself. I think everybody should. I think everybody should be striving to be better. And I think it's great that there are organizations like this out there.
So thank you for it. And thank you for this meeting.
It was real pleasure.
It was an absolute pleasure meeting you.
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