"You should write a reportage," my writing mentor said. "When you go to Russia, talk to people. Ask them what they think about Trump. Everyone wants to know." So I did. And it resulted in my story getting published on Vox under the title of "My conversations with Russians about Donald Trump."
Many of you have asked me to write about the submission process: "How did you do it? How did you pitch this? How did you make it happen?"
First of all, I didn't make it happen on my own. It was an effort of a whole community. My writing mentor who prompted me to do it (without him the idea would've never crossed my mind), writer Allena Tapia who doesn't know me but whose article Sample Magazine Query or Pitch Petter I used as a blueprint for my pitch, my editor Sarah Grace Liu who has edited the essay draft before I submitted it, Vox editor Eleanor Barkhorn who has edited several drafts of the article and who has guided me to writing the final piece with her suggestions and comments, and you, my readers. One of you (I tried to find you in all my messages, but couldn't; there were too many; please comment so we can all thank you!) have sent me a link to 30 Publications that Pay Writers for Personal Essays, where at the very bottom I saw that Vox accepts personal essays to feature in Vox First Person. I'd heard of Vox before and I've read their articles and fell in love with their mission, but if not for this resource, I would've never submitted my essay there. So you see, it wasn't just me. It was a whole lot of people who made this a reality.
Now, to your questions. I'll answer them in the shape of the lessons I learned while doing it (ask more in comments, and I'll answer as many as I can).
LESSON 1: ASK PEOPLE FOR PERMISSION
When I arrived in Moscow, most of the time I didn't even have to ask the questions I prepared as almost every conversation turned to American politics (and then to Russian politics) one way or another. I took notes on my phone to remember specific details people mentioned, or certain phrases, or key words that would help me remember what they said when I was back. The one thing I did wrong was, I failed to ask people's permission if I could use their names in the essay. I did tell them I was going to write about this (which resulted in silence in some cases), but I had to contact everyone I'd mentioned to ask for permission later. So, Lesson 1: when doing this kind of journalistic work, truth is imperative. Only when your interview subjects explicitly ask you not to use their names or there is danger to their well-being can you use pseudonyms (experienced journalists, correct me if I'm wrong). You can also simply describe them without mentioning their name. For example, "a retired woman in her 60s."
LESSON 2: JOT DOWN YOUR ANALYSIS
This is something I should've done right away, and again, because I'm new to reporting, I didn't think about it. I had reactions (often unspoken) to everything that was being said, and I'd done my own analysis in my head on why one or another thing was being said, but I didn't take notes. So later, when working with Eleanor, I had to pull it out of my brain, and it was painful. In fact, I have spent 12 hours (an entire day, with hardly a break) on adding 500 or so words to the piece—my emotions and analysis—because I had to sit and think and remember and crosscheck and tie it into the narrative. In the future I'll be smarter.
LESSON 3: INVOLVE YOUR COMMUNITY
Throughout the whole process of writing the essay, editing it, submitting it, and waiting for a response, I talked online about it all, and your support was what kept me going. Without it I probably would've chickened out. When I finished writing the first draft, I looked at it and thought, "Nah. Nobody would be interested in reading this. Why even bother?" This is the hateful fraud police that lives in our writers' minds, in a deep dark place full of deep dark thoughts. "I'm no good, my writing is no good, I'll go shoot myself" is the typical downward spiral. If not for my community, I don't think I'd have the guts to do it.
LESSON 4: HAVE NO EXPECTATIONS
I speak about this all the time, because this is the hardest truth to grasp. Don't assume that just because you wrote something amazing, it will be accepted somewhere. And don't assume that just because it wasn't accepted anywhere, it wasn't amazing! So much of this involves chance and luck. For example, there are rules (or perceived rules, as some knowledgeable people will tell you) about getting someone's attention, like: "It's better to submit on a Tuesday morning" or some shit like that. I used to tout these, and now I know it's all moot. Yeah, it might get your chances up, but really you won't know. Too many factors are involved. I did all my submissions on a Sunday night. Supposedly, the worst time possible. Why? Because it was the only time I had. I just wanted to be done with it and forget about it, because I thought I wouldn't get any response anyway. So imagine my shock on Monday morning when I did get a response. Wow!
LESSON 5: JUST FUCKING DO IT
Before fear grips you, do it and be done with it and forget about it. Move on to other things, like writing your books or whatever it is you're writing. Pretend like it never happened. It's like throwing stones into a lake. You throw one stone, it makes ripples. You throw more stones, they make more ripples. The bigger the stones, the bigger the ripples. Eventually the ripples (that is, if you keep throwing stones) will get big enough to get someone's attention. Then that person will reach out to you. And then stuff will start happening. My big ripple was getting my writing mentor. We met on Twitter, because I threw a stone at him (in the shape of a sarcastic tweet), and he responded. It turned out, we lived not too far from one another. So we met, and the rest is history.
Right. At this point you're probably dying to know specific details. I shall oblige you, on some of them (can't publicly say how much I got paid for this; I know, many of you asked—sorry). Here is my actual pitch and all the rest that went with it.
Email subject: Pitch: What Russians Really Think about Trump
Dear [publication name] Editor,
First of all, I love [here I inserted the publication name and a few words of history, if there was any—for example, if I've read them in the past, etc.]. Thank you for all you do. And here is the pitch.
18 years ago I immigrated from Russia to America. This January, six days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, I have returned to Russia and took the opportunity to speak with some Russians about our election and what it meant to them. The stories they told me are nothing like what’s being written about in American news publication at the moment. I propose a 4,765-word personal essay (I can cut it down to any word count—1,000 or even less) that highlights six of these stories. What’s it like to escape an autocratic, fascist regime and then have it catch up with you in the country you came to regard as a safe home? How is Cold War propaganda making its way back on Russian TV and into Russian minds? Why do Russians love Putin, why do they think Trump is horoshiy muzhik—a great fellow, and why do they believe his election will prevent war?
This is my first time contacting an editor of a publication with a pitch, so the only link I have is to my blog. I’ve been writing, blogging, and self-publishing full-time for the last five years. My books have won several awards, the most notable the Indie Ebook Award 2016 and the Amtrak Residency Program 2015. I’m currently working on two new novels.
Thank you for this opportunity.
PUBLICATIONS I PITCHED
Before doing the pitch, I contacted people I knew, journalists, or anyone who might have been connected to looking for the type of the article I was proposing. I heard back from four interested people a few days later, but by then it was too late—Vox already reponded. I cold-pitched Vox and all other publications (used their submisson form or email) from lists that you have suggested (this and this and this), picking out the ones where publishing my piece would be the source of pride to me. They were:
- The New York Times (Lives, Opinion)
- The Wall Street Journal (Opinion)
- The Guardian (Opinion)
- The Nation
- The Atlantic
- The Establishment
- DAME magazine
I heard back from, in order (these are responses I got from editors as opposed to the automated emails from The New York Times, Slate, and The Guardian):
- The Atlantic
- The Establishment
RESPONSE FROM VOX
Thank you so much for this pitch. It sounds really promising. My main note is -- you've got a lot of good ideas here, but we're going to need to narrow the scope of this a bit for it to work as a standalone essay. The questions you pose in your pitch could easily fill several books :)
I'm very interested in hearing more about the conversations you've had with Russians about the American election -- that's where I think the focus of the piece should be. Could you send me a short paragraph summarizing what people have said to you that has been surprising, and particularly how it differs so much from what else has been written in the American press?
My goal here would be to land on an approx 2,000-word essay that describes how the Russians you spoke to feel about the state of American politics right now, and how those responses surprised (or didn't surprise) you based on your experience living in Russia, then moving to the US, then moving back.
If we do proceed with publication, our rate for this would be [this list will give you a general idea of payments].
Thanks so much. I look forward to hearing from you.
SHORT PARAGRAPH SUMMARY I SENT
This is what I sent Eleanor after sitting and thinking about her request for some hours:
What surprised me is that ordinary Russians don’t believe in voting. They think all presidents (both Russian and American) are not voted in but appointed by people with money, to do what they’re told, but because Trump is a millionaire, he doesn’t need money so he’ll do what he wants, therefore there won’t be a war between America and Russia (which is what would’ve happened if Clinton won), but there will be Civil War in America. I was shocked at how dismissive everyone is at the idea of democracy or at the possibility of change because voters demand it; I’d forgotten I grew up with this mistrust.
Many Russians detest Clinton for slandering Russia left and right (she was told to do so, and as a woman of course she submitted). And Trump is a businessman (omnipresent patriarchal figure akin to Putin, Brezhnev, Stalin, etc.), so there is hope he won't submit. Russians like it that he’s so vocal and is breaking the rules, so they hope for a change, for Russian money to stay in Russia for once (and so fix their financial problems). They vehemently deny that Russia had its hand in elections. They believe the right "people with money" appointed Trump, just like Stalin was appointed, like in Soviet times Brezhnev was “written in” in the empty ballots of people who didn’t show up to vote, like Putin was brought to power. And they think a good solution to problems is to shoot people, like in Stalin’s times—it’s all a clan system at work and nothing else can be done; history will be rewritten once more by politicians, and it’s all lies. They trust no one.
This pessimism coupled with apathy and any kind of will to protest made me feel sick (they laughed at my participation in Women’s March as something stupid). And this is the Russia America is so afraid of (what I see in the news).
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE NEXT FIVE DAYS
- We exchanged a gazillion (well, almost a gazillion) emails with Eleanor, up to the morning when the essay was published.
- I signed the agreement.
- We went through three rounds of revisions, one of them so substantial, it took me a whole day to do it; the whole process took five days, from the day I pitched the essay (Sunday) to the day it got published (Friday), and it pretty much derailed all my other projects; I focused solely on this.
- I got paid.
Now that I've tasted the waters of getting published, I feel I can do more. We've talked with my writing mentor, and he gave me ideas, and I already got permission from a person in Russia to be interviewed, so stay tuned. I'll be most likely writing more. However, before I do any of that, I will finish the final draft of TUBE (starting tomorrow). Then and only then will I get back on the bandwagon of journalism.