The Well-Turned Column
My great-grandfather was a fireman. Not the kind who rescues people from burning buildings; rather, he worked for the railroad, shoveling coal into the firebox of a steam engine. A poorly educated man, he was lucky enough to have a barrel chest and strong arms. He spent his days shoveling 200 pounds of coal into that relentlessly hungry furnace for every mile the train traveled, and then another 200 pounds for the next mile. There was no stopping. His job was to keep the furnace — and therefore the train — going.
I think of my great-grandfather often in my role as Columns Editor. With weekly updates and 20 writers, the pace is relentless. As soon as I post one weekly group, I begin polishing the next group, and then editing the group behind that. Every Sunday another batch goes live, and the process starts again. When I’m not actively editing, I’m reading submissions and managing the Web site, with its own hungry maw of broken links, comment spam, and fragile code. Without the help of my co-editors, I would surely be a goggle-eyed and weeping mess.
But enough about me. What about you? The aspiring columnist needs to know that editors aren’t the only firemen on the train, that the writer’s job isn’t that different. Unlike novelists, who have a year or two or ten to lovingly craft their masterpiece, a columnist has only a couple of weeks at Literary Mama (or days at some publications). Unlike essayists and short story writers whose deadlines are mostly self-imposed, a columnist’s deadlines can be aggressive and rapid fire, with wild-eyed editors behind them. Yes, writing a column can help you develop a fan base, a platform, and a name (not to mention a long-term writing gig, a wealth of material and maybe even a book deal). But trust me when I say: It’s not for sissies.
Feeling brave? Brimming with ideas? Love the heat of a burning furnace? At Literary Mama, a successful column pitch needs one compelling hook, three solid sample columns, and ten ideas that map the future of the column. Let’s look at them each in turn.
The hook, or angle, tells the reader specifically where you’re coming from and generally what you’re writing about. For example, the column Single Mom Seeking is written by a single mom about the sometimes rough terrain of the dating world. Mama at the Movies discusses specific films through the lens of motherhood. It’s clear just from the title who these writers are and what they’re talking about.
Other hooks are less obvious, but still compelling: Zen and the Art of Child Maintenance examines motherhood and spirituality, while Red Diaper Dharma explores family cultures, values, and dynamics from the viewpoint of a Jewish-atheist-feminist-Marxist legacy. Each of these writers is looking through a specific lens (recovering fundamentalist Christian, child of lefties) at general issues (the intersection of the spiritual with motherhood, intense family legacies).
So. What’s your angle, perspective, or viewpoint? What more universal ideas do you want to talk about? Are you an older mother dealing with menopause and toddlers at the same time? The mother of multiples? A mom on welfare who’s working two jobs and has a lot to say about the Republican administration? A school teacher with some wisdom to impart? Each of us has a perspective that is uniquely ours. What is yours?
It’s not enough to have a great angle — you also need samples of the column you’re proposing (rather than clips from previously published work). A small group of sample columns does two things: demonstrates your writing ability, and gets you off to a running start. That fast start is crucial for the writer’s sanity and the editor’s confidence, because it gets you over the wall that looms early in a column’s life cycle.
The typical pattern goes like this: Installment one is no problem because it’s introductory and contains a lot of big ideas. Heck, you can probably just polish the original proposal and call it good. The second installment? Still meaty, a little harder, but it practically writes itself. Installment three requires a fair amount of midnight oil and sweaty palms. At number four, though, the wall looms and panic sets in. The idea well is dry, and your deadline is tomorrow. Welcome to the ninth circle of Writer Hell. But hey — if you have three columns already written, you’ve got something called “inventory,” which is every editor’s favorite word. (Mine, anyway.) Fish one out, send it off, and start writing the next one right now.
A Map to the Future
At Literary Mama, columns are contracted for thirteen installments, published every four weeks. So if you already have three installments written, it helps a lot to know what the other ten will be. No one will hold your feet to the fire and make you write about these topics. The goal is to show the editor that you do know where you’re going, and to give yourself that much more leaping power over the famous wall. If you have to fish for ideas, why not go fishing in a stocked pond?
When you’re mapping the future of your proposed column, look at a calendar of the year ahead. Do any holidays jump out as natural topics? Seasons? Five-year, ten-year, one-hundred year anniversaries? What are the hot topics within your area of interest? What makes you angry, confused, or sad? What do you obsess about? If it’s appropriate, think in terms of a narrative arc over time. Are you telling a story with a natural beginning, middle, and end (for example, trying to adopt a child, as in Passport to Parenting)?
How to Pitch a Column
As busy as we are in the Columns department, if we read a pitch for something fabulous that isn’t already being done, we’ll make room for it. Just send your ideas to lmcolumns(at)literarymama(dot)com and give us 4 to 8 weeks to respond. Thanks in advance for your submissions. This train is going places, and your words are the fuel that feeds our fire.