How to Pitch Narratively: Super Subcultures

Hiya! I’m W.M. Akers, an editor at the nonfiction storytelling website Narratively, and I’m engaged on an ongoing hunt for dynamite reported investigations of strange, beautiful, dangerous and just plain fascinating subcultures around the world. My colleague Lilly Dancyger recently wrote about what she looks for in a memoir, and because I believe quite firmly in following Lilly’s lead, I thought I might do the same.

Before I go any further, I’ll provide the particulars: Narratively publishes two stories a week — one reported and one memoir. Our rates for reported stories are usually around $300 to $400, and while we have no set word count, our pieces tend to run 1500 to 3000 words. We usually give three to five weeks for a writer to work before filing, and tend to put stories through two to three rounds of edits. Because we only publish twice a week, our standards are high.

You can submit stories here—we take completed submissions and detailed pitches. Mention my name at the top if it’s for Super Subcultures or Hidden History—my other vertical—and it will get flagged for me. We respond to pitches in 2–4 weeks.

Stories about unusual and surprising subcultures have been part of Narratively’s DNA since we were founded in 2012. These pieces have been some of our most popular, I think, because a well-done subcultures story is more than an exploration of something odd — it’s a look at the passions that animate all of us. Everyone is a member of some subculture, even if it isn’t as extreme as the ones we tend to explore, and looking at the subcultures of others’ tell us a surprising amount about ourselves.

Recently we’ve run stories about a Jehovah’s Witness-turned-sex-guru, a festival of redheads, an all-girls professional robotics team, and Game of Thrones fans who live for spoilers. But my favorite Super Subcultures piece we’ve run in the last year, and the one that will provide the most insight into what we’re looking for in the future, is Abigail Holtzman’s beautiful story about Jewish breast cancer survivors who are reclaiming the mikveh and turning it into a post-chemo cleansing ritual.

Abigail’s story resonated with me not just because her prose is brilliant—although that is essential—but because it shed light on her subjects’ efforts to use the mikveh, which is traditionally denied to women whose menstruation has been stopped by chemotherapy, turning a deeply old-fashioned practice into something liberating. She gave her subjects the utmost respect, and their deeply personal story became something universal.

Not all of our super subculture stories are quite so serious, of course, but they all approach their subjects with that same level of respect. We want these stories to illuminate people who are doing something out of the ordinary—not to gawk at them.

Abigail’s piece is a good example of another crucial Narratively requirement: it is built around fully-realized dramatic scenes, with dialogue and action and conflict and personal transformation. Here’s a particularly good moment, showing her subject, Rachell Goldberg, scrubbing herself clean in preparation for the ritual bath:

She’s finally gotten the nail polish off of her toes and has begun to comb her new, short hair in quick strokes. “It’s going to be much easier,” she says lightly. “No worries about loose strands of hair on my back or anywhere.”
She moves on to her eyebrows and grabs the tweezers.
“You’re allowed to have, in general, the hairs on your body that you normally keep.” She grins. “So, if you’re normally getting a Brazilian wax, you need to go get one for mikvah night.”

It’s a simple moment, drawn well. It shows a key moment in Goldberg’s journey—rather than just telling us about it—and it gives us her voice at the same time, leavening a serious moment with humor that feels appropriate because it comes from the source herself. Every Narratively story needs scenes like that—at least one of them, and preferably two or three. Learn to build a story around scenes like that, and editors everywhere will be more interested in your work.

So beyond Jewish breast cancer survivors and spoiler-happy Game of Thrones fans, what kinds of stories are we looking for?

Something we’ve never seen before: If a subculture has been written about often, or recently, we don’t need to hear a pitch about it.

People who attempt the impossible: I love stories about mad quests and people who tilt and windmills.

Sex: Stories about sex, handled intelligently, always do well for us, and we are always happy to hear more.

Cults: Likewise, our readers love cults and so do we.

Fun: We get a lot of pitches for depressing stories. Some of them are great, and we love them. But any time someone suggests something lighthearted, it goes to the top of the pile.

Most importantly, we’re looking for stories about subcultures whose passions tell us about who we are.

What aren’t we looking for?

Parachute journalism: We get a lot of pitches from American authors about people in other countries. Maybe they went there once; maybe they’re planning on going for a short trip soon. Generally, these pitches get thrown out. If you’re writing about a place, we want you to know it intimately.

Sloppy pitches: Unless you’re submitting a completed draft (which we love to get!) your pitch is our introduction to your storytelling ability. So write the hell out of it. Your pitch should be tight, strong and irresistible. By the end of it, we should be fully convinced that the people you’re writing about are the most important people in the world, and we should be dying to read more.

First drafts: I never submit anything to an editor until I’ve gone over it at least five times—including one meticulous final pass, read out loud to myself, looking for any extraneous word or clunky phrase. Submitting something that is less than perfect wastes your editor’s time. I don’t do that, and neither should you.

If this sounds like the kinds of stories you like to tell, get in touch! I’m going on paternity leave in two to four weeks, so if you have something you want me to see, send it immediately. If you send a pitch while I’m away, another editor will respond to it—otherwise, I’ll be back in spring.

Either submit to the link up top, or email me if you have more questions. You can follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter, Strange Times, to learn more about what I like.

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