Jan. 19th, 2016

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I've written mostly nonfiction the last few months; I'm short on both time and money, so it's valuable to know whether I'll get paid for a thing before I put in several hours writing it. Fiction editors want to see a completed piece. Nonfiction editors want a query. Selling fiction is like trying to pick someone up at a bar. I can be at my most gorgeous and still get turned down, or I might find somebody who wants to take me home even though I have a pimple on my forehead and won't stop talking about Napoleon. Selling nonfiction is like being the bartender. We may disagree over whether I'm a genius mixologist or a pleb who puts liquid in glasses, but as long as I'm serving alcohol and the glasses are clean, we're going to make a deal.

My queries have tended to be pretty successful; my fiction might be an acquired taste, but my essays usually hit a sweet spot that bridges "relatable" and "weirdly specific." I'm close enough to the mainstream that readers can identify with my experiences, but I'm oddball enough I can give things a mutch-coveted edge, point of view, fresh perspective, whatever you want to call it. My ideal for a nonfiction piece is that a reader will think "this is exactly the thing I'm obsessed with! Yet I've somehow never heard of this particular aspect or looked at it this specific way! How?"

Anyway, I decided to give pitching Cracked a try, because I like some of the stuff they run, and it seemed like our interests might overlap. I've heard people I don't know complain about their editorial process, but I've also known people who've published articles with them, and they aren't people I think of as willing to put up with a lot of nonsense. So I figured, try it myself, see what I think.

Cracked uses a pitching system that's unique to them. Instead of shooting a quick e-mail, it all happens on a proprietary bulletin board system that's pretty clunky. (Less clunky than sending things back and forth through the postal mail, though.) They also want you to fact check your piece before you write it; maybe half your pitch is your bibliography, although they don't say that in as many words. That's an annoying amount of on-spec work for a concept they might pass on as soon as they read the title, but it also makes sense in that you don't want to greenlight "6 Golden Age Hollywood Stars You Didn't Know Were Secretly Lesbian" and come to find out none of them were. Ditto "5 World War II Dogfights You Wouldn't Believe [because we didn't discover until very late in the editorial process that the author made them up]."

One of the plusses is that they reply quickly, typically within a week. Another plus if you don't like rejection is that they don't seem to say no to things as long as they're properly formatted and you show respect; as far as I can tell, their rejections are more like rewrite requests. If I pitched them something totally inappropriate, like "6 Best Annuals For Your Winter Garden," they'd probably come back to me with a nice note about how maybe I could redevelop the pitch to make it about weird unsolved murders that have happened on camping trips, some of which might involve plants. Note the "maybe." They haven't agreed at that point to buy a piece about camping trips, and if I revised my pitch in that direction, they might leave me a nice note about how camping isn't really interesting to their readers and maybe I should switch to murders that happen in videogames.

I pitched them a piece on famous pickled corpses, and a piece on world-renowned art that accidentally self-destructed. On both pieces, the feedback was contradictory in a way that feedback sometimes is. (I.e. This piece is too focused on materials science; why not make it about videotape preservation, which is entirely materials science?) I can find a way through that. But ultimately, it seemed like there was a more existential disconnect on whether it's inherently interesting that one of Queen Victoria's dead relatives was brought home in a casket made from kludged-together biscuit tins. And although I'm fully willing to engage with other contemporary art fans in a debate over whether Damien Hirst's work is dumb, I don't think the burden of proof is on me to prove his shark is an influential art installation. It factually is. I can't guess what counts as "really famous" if it's not audience sizes or press coverage or references and citations in other work.

Probably the most useful thing my (standup comedian) Uncle Rex taught me was the concept of "Wrong Room." Sometimes, your material is damn funny but you're not going to get a laugh because you're in the wrong room. For whatever reason, there is something about you that means the people in that room are not going to laugh. You could give the best set of your life and not win them over. Your sensibilities just don't overlap.

It's a shame, because I really feel like Cracked and I should. But I don't have enough spare hours to chase "famous enough that everybody in the world already knows this story; but simultaneously you've never heard of it before" crossed with "all these list items are the same thing, but also totally different." It's clearly a needle that can be threaded, because plenty of pieces make it through to publication and some of them connect with me. I just don't know that figuring out what "everybody" knows plays to my strengths. (Maybe something to do with Yoko Ono, who is very famous, but largely not for the reasons she's actually interesting?)

So I've withdrawn the pitches. I think it will be easier and more lucrative to spin individual items off into articles for other people. After all, I've already done the research.

I don't think I'll go through this process again any time soon; I suspect anything I could sell to Cracked I could sell in its component parts to somebody else for more money and less hassle, and retain more editorial control. I don't hate the Cracked system, and the editors seem like nice hardworking people, but they remind me of my experience at ComedySportz - oil and water "we're both funny so why don't we agree on what counts as a joke" exasperation.

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