A few years ago in Denver, before I published my book, I went to an event at the largest of our local booksellers.
There was a man there speaking about all the new books coming out from one of the publishers. Since he worked for a big publisher, I assumed that he read a whole lot of books, both the ones that made it big and the ones that didn’t. And I was hoping he’d give me some food for thought, some path I could take to make my own work better. So I asked him my burning question:
What do bestsellers have in common?
“Good writing,” he said.
And, instead of excited or ready to take on the world, I walked away annoyed.
Because anyone who has studied writing knows that modern-day bestsellers are not necessarily the most well-written books on the shelves. In fact, sometimes the writing is downright atrocious.
So, no, the answer isn’t good writing.
But my conversation with him and my subsequent refusal to accept his answer made me think.
What is the common denominator? How do things become runaway successes?
I thought about the bestsellers I love (the Eat, Pray, Loves and Harry Potters of the world) and the bestsellers that I hate. I asked myself what these all have in common.
And the answer was story.
Not grammar or writing, style or poeticism. Story.
Because whether or not I think Marley and Me is poorly written, I must concede that it is a beautiful story. Even if the writing in The Di Vinci Code isn’t my favorite, I totally get the appeal – the intriguing, fascinating, wild, and compelling story.
Of course, not every great story makes it. These stories all had the additional benefit of great marketing, large publishers, etc. But, if you look at all the books with exceptional marketing and word of mouth, I think you’ll find that those that rise to the top are the ones whose stories resonate with people (for better or worse).
Which brings me to my own journey.
* * *
During my teenage years, I wrote all the time. I published poems and fiction on story websites, encouraging strangers to leave me feedback. I wrote tips for volunteer travel on a small website I built myself (this was after my first few volunteer trips to Australia and Africa). And then I took a leap: I started writing pitch letters to magazines.
They all came back with rejections.
Since I was far from supporting myself anyway and writing for a small online audience for free was far more rewarding, I gave up on magazines and focused my efforts online.
I didn’t feel any worse about my writing, but I did get the idea that magazines were a saturated market and breaking into writing for one didn’t seem worth the trouble.
* * *
Fast-forward to this year.
Even though I’ve been writing for a living for years, I’d never again queried a magazine. When friends talked about having their stories published in National Geographic or some other big pub, I basically thought they (my friends) must be made of magic. So minuscule was the chance of getting a foot in the door.
After a couple years as a full-time freelancer, though, my desire to tell travel stories – not just brand stories – started to grow beyond the bounds of this blog. And I asked myself, as I so often do, why not try?
Why not try to get something published in print? Why not try to make my living a mixture of brand writing and creative writing?
After all, I’d been a successful copywriter and content strategist for years. I understood writing, editors, deadlines, structure, and selling. And I’d been writing paid pieces for online publications both in the content world and the travel world.
So why not pitch a magazine story?
Worst case scenario: I waste an hour or two of my life. Big deal.
* * *
For my first travel pitch, I chose International Living Magazine because their focus is so well-aligned with mine. They’re all about practical advice, living abroad, and having a wonderful quality of life. They’re targeted at people who want to live abroad, not just short-term travelers. And I like their style.
So here’s where I bring this blog post back around to the beginning. My theory – that writing succeeds not simply because it is good writing, but because it has a powerful story – was put to the test. I pitched an article about traveling or moving to Europe with a dog.
The story here – that you can live your travel dream without leaving your best friend in the dust – is a compelling one for many people. Because we just can’t imagine life without our fuzzy companions. It’s also something that not many people are doing yet, so the whole idea feels new and intriguing.
* * *
I think you already know how this story ends.
International Living accepted my story and published it in May. And I’m writing three more articles for them as we speak.
So here are my thoughts, new to magazine writing though I may be, for anyone who might be thinking of doing a little story submitting of your own:
Yes, you should work on your craft. Yes, you should care about words and communication and the art of writing. But. BUT. That’s not enough. You also need to have a story.
Sure, there are plenty of “the top 10 things to do in Brussels” articles out there. But how many of those are truly remarkable? How many of those allow you to wedge your foot in the door of travel writing and make a name for yourself?
Great writing, truly great writing that gets you in the door, leaves readers speechless, and, well, sells – that kind of writing always has both story and personality.
So you want to be a writer? Do something remarkable, unusual, wonderful.
Always tell a story.