Taking risks in my writing came fairly easily. I was always pushing the boundaries of what I could accomplish. My first big risk was querying another big publication, Mississippi’s leading lifestyle magazine, also based in the Jackson area. I pitched an idea for a book review, leading to me (and other writers) establishing a running book review feature that lasted for several years. I did other articles by assignment and that I came up with myself for them as well, giving me an entrée that led me into doing pieces for a glossy magazine in the Delta area of Mississippi as well. My most enjoyable one for them was a story on the opening of the gardens of a famous author in Jackson, Eudora Welty, to the public. Miss Welty had passed on and willed her house to become a museum for the public. I wrote a story about her gardens and what a prolific gardener she was, which garnered me one of my few “letters to the editor” complimenting me on the story.
Another risk I took was cold calling the editor of a suburban weekly when I heard talk that he was losing his food writer. I called him up with just those words–“I heard you might be looking for a new food writer soon.” He knew my work, having seen it in the parent paper for his weekly. So he asked me to write a trial article. The risk here is that I’m not really that much of a cook. But I did know good cooks and knew how to get people to talk to me. The trial article worked, and I not only wound up doing the food articles (which included a personal column every week) but also articles on faith and on homes and gardens.
One risk that didn’t work out was my attempt to write for a new paper in town that was unabashedly liberal in its politics. I had decided to use a reverse strategy again here and become the house conservative, a thought that I believed the editor had embraced,. I did one article for her. She pounded me unmercifully for it once it came out, saying it was riddled with errors and poorly constructed. I knew better. So I never wrote for her paper again.
The biggest risk I ever took was breaking one of my personal cardinal rules. I had resolved once I started that I would not cover politics or crime, being that I never wanted to place my children in an uncomfortable or dangerous position because of something I had written. But I came up with an idea after reading an article about young people involved in politics. The article concentrated on student activists and nonprofit groups. I decided to write about young people with real power–elected officials, appointees, and other power players in Mississippi politics. I approached it as a human interest feature, telling their personal stories about how they got involved in politics and what they wanted to accomplish. I wrote about men and women, Democrats and Republicans, media types, elected officials, and executive office appointees. That series of articles (and the risk I took) won me a Mississippi Press Association award for best planned series, weekly division.
Next time we’ll concentrate on what makes a good query letter and how to get an editor’s attention.