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The exotic Midwest: Regional author speaks to students

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The room was eerily quiet as Whitney Terrell, Writer-in-Residence and assistant professor of English at UMKC, held his iPhone up like a divine text while his creative non-fiction students (and a few guests) gathered round.  Despite the tinny sound, the voice of Ben Paynter, senior editor at Men’s Health, had the students rapt because Paynter was a Midwest writer who accomplished the dreams of most in the class: to be published nationally while writing about the Midwest.  Paynter is proof that it is possible to live by the pen in a region of the country that is known for cows, corn and a slow lifestyle.

Paynter has been published in Wired, Fast Company, Bloomberg Businessweek, New York Magazine, and The New York Times, Best of Technology Writing, Best Food Writing and Best American Sports Writing. All were articles about Midwest events.

“There are interesting people doing incredible things just about anywhere,” Paynter said on his website.

Paynter has written about hunting meteorites in Kansas farmlands, Pitcher Oklahoma (America’s most toxic town) and electrocuting invasive species of fish in the Illinois River.  One student, with wide eyes, asked how Paynter finds these kinds of stories. Despite the Midwest seeming to be a small community, most of the students hadn’t heard of half the stories he has covered.

“Mostly reading small-town newspapers,” Paynter said.  “They usually aren’t the front page stories, but there could be interesting articles buried inside.”

He told the class that the articles found in small-town papers will mostly be written for their local audience and he finds a way to write about these “Midwest Problems with a national angle.”  He said there is a market for stories from our neck of the woods because big cities find us “exotic” and because things that happen to the Midwest—where most of the countries food comes—could have an impact on bigger cities like New York, where many of the publishing companies are located.

He gave the class tips on how to get stories published.  He started at The Pitch, Kansas City’s free newspaper covering political issues, nightlife and restaurants.  Gradually, his stories began to be picked up by national magazines.  One was his article “So You Wanna Be a Cowboy?” which starts with the line “Just because this is gay rodeo doesn’t mean Shorty likes to see men acting like women.”

Paynter emphasized to the class the importance of writing dramatic scenes in articles because it makes it feel “more cinematic,” but also stressed the importance of “getting in and getting out” of scenes to keep it from turning into a short story.

He also answered practical questions from students. The pay rate is about $2 to $3 per word. From start to finish, major features take about a year between the writing, interviewing, researching and publishing. Paynter also recommends three days to pitch a story in a persistent enough way as to make sure it is read by the editor but not so much that it is annoying.  He also reminded the students of the importance of simply making a phone call to ask real humans questions and told them he makes 20 phone calls on a good day of reporting.

“That’s more phone calls than I’ve made in a year,” one student said.

Paynter imparted on the class that it isn’t impossible to write for venerated magazines like Wired, National Geographic and The New York Times.  All you have to do is look and grind.  Even though about 20-30 percent of his stories get killed before publishing and only 30 percent of all his reporting and research ends up in print, he still looks at issues and asks questions. What are they missing? What is an aspect that no one has covered? What happens next?  For the students in the class, what happens next could wind up a featured story in a national magazine if they take Paynter’s advice.

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