Before he became the editor of the Best American Sports Writing anthony series, before he wrote the Boston Globe bestseller Fenway 1912, before he won the 2012 Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research, before he ghost-wrote and edited more than 80 books that have sold more than 3 million copies, Glenn Stout was just a ponytailed 27-year-old with a creative writing degree working at the Boston Public Library in the spring of 1985.
Then he happened across a story he wanted to write.
Here's what happened next:
So what to do? Well, I was working in a library, after all. Perhaps there was a book that would tell me what to do.
There was. It was called “How to Be a Freelance Writer” and included a chapter about how to pitch a story to an editor, what information to include in the cover letter, and other practical tips, including sample pitch letters.
I identified two local publications that I thought might be interested in the story, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and Boston Magazine, and I found out the name of each editor. Then I formulated a cover letter and a three paragraph pitch that said what the story was, who would be interested in reading it, why I was the only person who could write it, how long it would be and when I could deliver it, meticulously typing out two copies of each on my little portable electric typewriter using the same few fingers I still use today. Then I sent the pitches out by mail and waited.
Three or four days later an envelope arrived with the return address of the Boston Globe. I opened it and discovered a mimeographed letter thanking me for my submission and informing me that the Globe really wasn’t interested.
It wasn’t even signed. I felt stupid and naïve. I was certain that a similar letter from Boston Magazine would soon follow.
Then I got a phone call. I can’t remember precisely who called – I think it was an editorial assistant or secretary - but Boston Magazine editor Ken Hartnett wanted to see me the next day at 11:00 a.m..
My hair hung down to my ass and not only didn’t I have a suit, I didn’t have a tie. I figured a pony tail would take care of the hair but I still needed clothes. A T-ride to the Salvation Army store in Brighton and fifteen dollars solved the problem.
I called in sick to work the next day, drank too much coffee, cleaned up and walked into Editor Ken Hartnett’s office, hair combed and tied back, smelling faintly of mothballs, an aspiring writer.
Hartnett was old school, banty rooster Irish with big bushy eyebrows, a voice that sounded like it had been dipped in an ashtray, his tie loose and his shirtsleeves rolled up, a tough kid from Jersey City who had fallen in love with newspapers and seemed perpetually amused by the fact that now he was editing a fancy magazine. He ignored both the odor of my suit and the length of my hair and told me he loved my pitch, the way I teased the story and framed it, how I identified my audience for the story and all sorts of other good things. He told me it was the kind of story that really worked for a magazine like his because he needed two months lead time for every story, and that made sports stories difficult, but ones like this worked. Then he said “Do you have any clips?”
Now, having read “How To Be a Freelance Writer” I knew he wasn’t talking about grass, but examples of my work. I gulped and told him the truth.
"I don't have any. I haven't written a story before, but I was editor for the paper in high school."
High school. I really said that.
He could have, and probably should have, sent me away. Boston Magazine was a big deal then, one of the first successful city magazines. The economic “Massachusetts Miracle” was beginning to kick in,. The magazine was fat with ads and had just moved into gleaming new office space in a renovated historic building. Most of the bylines were big name writers that even a poet could recognize.
It was not a place for beginners, and that’s all I was, no matter how closely I had read that book.
But he didn’t send me away. He started asking questions and changed my life.
For the next hour we talked about the story - what it was about, how I was researching it, how I planned to write it, and about me - who I read, where I went to school and a thousand other things. I was out there without a net and he undoubtedly knew it, but he was walking me out there anyway, giving me a chance to talk my way into a story, seeing if I’d slip before I did.
Then it was lunchtime. He had to go.
“Here’s what I’m going to do he said. I’ll take the story on spec.”
Blank look from me. Spec? I hadn’t read the book that closely.
“That means I’m asking you to write it and if I like it I’ll pay you three hundred bucks. If I don’t, you don’t get paid. Alright?”
I was taking home $115 a week. Thirty dollars was a lot of money. Three hundred dollars was a fortune.
I nodded, then he ushered me to door.
“I need it in two weeks,” he added, shaking my hand. I turned to leave and then he spoke again.
“Wait a minute,” he said, squinting at me over his reading glasses, scrutinizing me one more time. “You can write, can’t you?”
I looked him in the eye and lied. “I don’t think it will be a problem.”
Thanks to Glenn for sharing the story.