It’s a writer’s nightmare: That magazine you’ve been angling to write for, that editor you’ve been courting so assiduously, finally comes through with a plum assignment. Your big chance to break into some coveted market is at hand at last.
And then you can’t deliver.
It’s not your fault, of course. Maybe Your source takes a six-month fellowship in Zimbabwe. Perhaps a crucial interviewee gets cold feet about talking to you. Or, worst of all, maybe you start researching your story and discover it’s not the story you sold to the editor — what you promised m your query just isn’t so. That hot trend sweeping the country turns out to be colder than Hula-Hoops, or the medical miracle promising relief to minions gets deflated by a contradictory study.
Whatever the reason, your article goes awry and you can’t deliver on an assignment. What should you do? Can this marriage of query and reality be saved?
As with most such cosmic questions, the answer is: It depends. The important thing is not to panic, to think creatively, to be honest with your editor, and to never, ever deliver an apple when your assignment asks for an orange.
Being honest with your editor and sticking to the assignment doesn’t mean giving up at the first detour, The immediate thing to do when an assignment goes awry is to evaluate the damage and see if the “patient” might pull through with quick emergency treatment.
Tight Lips Sink Ships
Let’s take the simplest and probably most common cause of article anxieties: losing a key source. You built your query around plans to interview a professor at the local university, and when the editor finally says yes, the professor says no.
First, probe the reasons for the prof’s refusal. Quite likely it’s just the familiar “I don’t have the time.” Of course, you’ll make reassurances and minimize the time demands of your interview. (It’s your editor you need to be completely straight with — with sources, you need to get your foot in the door!) Offer to meet your subject any time, any place; I’ve done interviews riding in a limo on the way to the airport.
If your pleas don’t work, fall back on a request for a phone interview. “Can you just spare me a few minutes on die phone?” You’re playing to a (false) perception here: that phone interviews take less time than in-person interviews. Sure, they take less of your time — no need to drive someplace, find your subject’s office, drive home again — and they’re less satisf-actory for getting a feel of your subject and his surroundings. But phone interviews don’t necessarily mean less actual time talking to your subject; you can always just keep asking one more question.
So push hard for the phone-interview fallback. It seems rude not to be willing to spare just a “few minutes” on the phone with an interviewer, even for the famous and unapproachable. In extreme circumstances when you absolutely must have something from this source, you can even fall way, way back on the written “interview.” You mail, fax or e-mail a list of questions, and your harried source can write. his responses when he can squeeze in the time. In this e-mail era, this is a particularly seductive gambit: Responding to e-mail seems so effortless, it’s hard to resist.
Of course, this is even more of a false perception than the phone interview: Crafting written responses takes more time and certainly more care than answering a few questions in person off the top of one’s head. But you’re trying to rescue your article here, not make life easy for a source.
With phone interviews and especially with written answers, you need to make extra efforts to keep your article from reading like a phone call or from being as flat as the piece of paper that was your “interview.” Dig deep into secondary sources for color and detail about your subject. You might visit the professor’s campus, for example, just to get a sense of place. Ask other sources about your reluctant interviewee. Hunt down a recent photo.
Don’t deceive readers or your editor when you pour this material into print: Never combine facts to create scenes you didn’t see, for instance. But neither do you need to advertise the fact that you weren’t there. Many writers will append “he said in a phone interview” to quotes — but that’s seldom necessary. Readers don’t care as long as you make the subject come alive in print.
Sometimes an important source simply can’t be persuaded to answer your questions, or can’t be reached. If you specifically pegged your query to this source your assignment may indeed be history. Let your editor know sooner rather than later, even if you can concoct a backup plan.
But if your query was more general, even if you had a specific source in mind, the assignment might still be saved. Start a hunt for a substitute source — and start with the source that just stiffed you. “Can you suggest someone else who might be able to talk to me on this subject?” is a good parting shot when an interviewee turns you down flat. (And being able to drop Source #1’s name when you call suggested Source #2 may help open the door to an interview.)
If you can’t find a single perfect substitute for a main source, try filling in with several different, albeit not quite as good, interviewees. Together, these lesser interviews may add up to as complete a picture as you would have gotten from your ideal source.
If your key source does agree to talk to you — just not as soon as you need the interview — again, full and early disclosure to your editor is the best policy. The first rude of keeping editors happy is to never, ever miss a deadline. The second rule is to give plenty of warning when you do miss a deadline. Tell your editor why you can’t deliver on time, promise perfect copy on the earliest possible date, and maybe you can save that hard-won assignment Offer to e-mail the article, then follow with an express-mailed manuscript.
Articles That Do an About-face
Another case where honest — yearly-is the best policy is when an assignment takes an unexpected twist. Sometimes an article turns out to be different from what you expected (and different from what your query promised). Maybe it’s still interesting — but never assume it’s as interesting to your editor as the original query. Come clean and try to re-pitch the new take on your subject.
This prince-into-frog transformation happens to articles more than you might guess. Even if you’ve done your homework before crafting a query, you run the risk of reality running your idea off the road.
My favorite example of an article turning upside-down was my interview with the maestro of the Dubuque symphony. He was marking one of those anniversary milestones in his conducting career, and the local symphony boosters pitched me on an interview to celebrate the maestro’s years of artistic triumph. Unfortunately, when I sat down to chat up the maestro, he proved to be anything but triumphant. Instead, he was bitter and begrudging, complaining that he’d wasted the prime years of his career in an artistic backwater with a fifth-rate orchestra. The next step in his career? The graveyard, he answered.
It made a heckuva story, but hardly the story I’d promised my editor at the Dubuque daily newspaper. To try to shoehorn the unhappy maestro into a milestone-celebration story would have been a disaster. So my first stop the next morning was at my editor’s desk, to sell him on the new story. (He went for it, I wrote my story, and soon the unhappy symphony backers were seeking a new maestro.)
Anniversary stories rarely blow up in your face like that, but articles pegged to trends are prime for a “boom” to go bust. Nothing deflates a good trend story like the facts: Maybe sales of your “hot” product are actually cooling, or that promising program to combat juvenile crime seems less promising when you learn teen crime rates have soared since the program’s inception. Oops.
What do you do? Confess to your editor — now. The only thing worse than not being able to deliver on an assignment is delivering the wrong story. Don’t try to hide the awful truth; editors are smart people, and they’ll sniff out an article that can’t support its key contentions. And don’t turn in some other, only tangentially related story: A travel piece on Miami, say, when you pitched a terrifying tale of surviving a hurricane (and then Florida goes and has the mildest storm season in memory).
That doesn’t mean you can’t still try to make lemonade out of lemons. Just as my maestro story turned out to be interesting — more interesting, in fact, if utterly different — so, too, might your prince-into-frog story reveal a darned interesting frog. It’s still not the prince you promised your editor, but maybe the editor — or some other editor — will want it.
After all, the basic elements that made the subject query-worthy are still there. If that breakthrough against heart disease failed to pan out, you’ve nonetheless learned a lot about heart disease that might be spun into an article about prevention — or about how resistant such ailments are to quick cures. If your boom went bust or your boy wonder went broke, well, spectacular failure can be as dramatic as success.
Similarly, failure can be as educational as success. When an assignment takes a detour, try to keep your eyes open to the possibilities that detour may have brought you to.