Ever thought about submitting your 33 1/3 book idea to our open call, but weren’t sure if you were the “right fit” for the series? This week we have a guest post from Faith Pennick – the author of D’Angelo’s Voodoo. She tells us how she overcame those pre-submission doubts and offers her advice to future writers who are looking to pitch their own 33 1/3 to us.
It was more of a directive than a dare.
I’ve told this story many times, the story about how I became a book author. During a family vacation in Mexico in 2016, my sister told me as we hung out by the resort pool…
“You should pitch a book about Voodoo.”
It was my sister who introduced me to the 33 1/3 series of books years before. I had bought a couple and read another title that my sister loaned to me. She herself opined about the influential rock album she wanted to write about for 33 1/3 but had yet to pitch. She brought that idea up again while we were chilling at the pool. Her passion and love for that album (hint: slight and breakable) had never abated, much like my passion and love for D’Angelo’s Grammy-winning album, Voodoo. During the year 2000, when Voodoo was released, I didn’t shut up about how amazing it was. It broke my brain and lifted my spirit simultaneously.
I literally talked several people—sis included—into purchasing the album; I occasionally joked that Virgin Records should have cut me a check. Friends, family, strangers: if they had hearing and were anywhere near me, the words, “voodoo,” “D’Angelo” and “brilliant” were in earshot at any given moment.
Seems that it was my calling to spread the word about Voodoo, so it makes sense that my sister would suggest that after a decade and a half of me running my mouth about the album that became my all-time favorite, that I should put fingers to keyboard and write about it as well.
I took a moment to think about my sister’s call to action, but I didn’t really need convincing. I knew she was right. If successful, my evangel would extend to the printed page.
I got to work when I returned home to Brooklyn, NY, where I was living at the time. It took 1 ½ months to draft the proposal; at times, it felt like I was writing a second master’s thesis. Upon completion, I emailed it to the 33 1/3 staff during its open call, attaching my resume and bio along with it. That’s when a pang of uncertainty crept in.
I thought the proposal was solid, but it crossed my mind that maybe my credentials weren’t. The vast majority of writers that are part of the 33 1/3 canon hail from two vocations: academia and music criticism. I could claim neither. I was an independent filmmaker and sometimes blog contributor who had an early and short career as a newspaper reporter and radio news producer. I couldn’t rattle off the bonafides many of the 33 1/3 authors have. Daphne Brooks, author of Jeff Buckley’s Grace, teaches at Yale. Emily Lordi (Donny Hathaway’s Donny Hathaway Live) is a professor at Vanderbilt. Michaelangelo Matos (Prince’s Sign o’ the Times) is a critically-acclaimed music and culture journalist who has been published in the Village Voice and the New Yorker. New York Times reporter Ben Sisario penned Pixies’ Doolittle. And the author list is full of musicians, probably the most notable being Buffalo Tom guitarist and singer Bill Janovitz, who wrote about The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.
I do recognize that for some of the writers, their more prestigious accomplishments came after their 33 1/3rds were published. Still, why would someone choose my random, dilettante a— to join them? I sang in my high school choir, took some piano lessons, have perfect pitch and I love Voodoo like it’s my own child. Do those count as qualifications to write for 33 1/3?
Luckily, I don’t suffer from imposter’s syndrome. I pressed “send” on the email, but keeping it a buck, my expectations were low.
Fast forward to March 2017. I check my email and see a message from Gayle Wald. Wald is a professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University and at the time was a member of the 33 1/3 editorial board. The subject line read, simply, “D’Angelo for 33 1/3.”
Me: (eyes bulging) Um…WHAT?!
I open the email.
Wald: “Your proposal on D’Angelo’s Voodoo caught my eye, and I’d like to work with you to shepherd it forward as a book.”
Me: %@*&#!!! Quite loudly.
I’ll conclude this post by directing it to the writers who, like I did, have an album that burns in their psyche or inspires curiosity (or both) who think they may lack the résumé or background to write for 33 1/3. Bunk. If you’re a great writer with ideas about a special album that haven’t been expressed in mass media, 33 1/3 may have a slot for you. Do your research. Know what you want to say. Have people whose judgment you trust read your first, second, and third drafts of the proposal. Most importantly, put your excitement about your chosen album front and center. You don’t need to be a tenure-track college professor or have bylines in Pitchfork to write about the album that stirs your soul. If you’re a great wordsmith who lives and breathes music, take your best shot.
I look forward to reading your future 33 1/3 titles!
P.S.: Happy 20th, 33 1/3!!! Thanks for letting me in the club!
Faith Pennick is a Chicago-born filmmaker, writer and (as you’ve figured out by now) the author of #144, D’Angelo’s Voodoo. In another holy %@*&#!!! moment, it was named one of the best music books of 2020 by Variety magazine.