The Right Way to Ask for Professional Guidance, Mentorship, or Anything of Value

Enough people have encountered my work to make me: 1. Very lucky; and 2. Occasionally sought out for favors and advice on making it in the media and literary worlds. Because of point #1, I don’t mind point #2. However, I have gotten enough requests for favors and advice at this point that I can’t say yes to every little thing people ask of me. This transition did not come to me easily, as I am a classic people-pleaser, but I have finally gotten old and cranky enough to know which requests to consider and which to dismiss. Namely, I can now tell the difference between a reasonable, thoughtful request and one that’s just the wrong thing to ask and/or the wrong way to ask it. I recently got an email from a reader seeking my advice that turned into a wonderful, mutually beneficial assistant/mentor relationship. It was partially a matter of great timing — I was just entering “I need an assistant” mode on my next book — but also a matter of a helpful request, phrased perfectly, with an emphasis on what she could offer me, not just what she wanted from me. She agreed to let me share her initial note to me here. I’ve added my own notes on what makes it great in brackets.

 

Dear Jennifer,

First of all, I wanted to say that I love your book! I just read “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted” and adored it. I laughed, I cried (mostly on the subway, which was embarrassing). And that Grant Tinker – what a classy guy! [This is cute! It's complimentary, which makes me want to read more; and she offers just enough specifics to make me believe she really read and loved it.]
Second of all, I’m taking your Book Proposal class on Skillshare right now and am almost finished with my proposal. I was wondering if I could hire you to review it? I probably won’t be done until the end of February – I’m not sure if that timing is ok for you. [Great. She's basically telling me, "I already paid a nominal fee for your expertise through your online class, and I'm willing to pay more if necessary." Offering money for professional services is a huge plus. I realize this sounds obvious, but with services like editing and writing, people often forget this. Several students have asked me to read their work or meet with them to go over what they missed in class without offering compensation. This is what my job is; I expect to get paid for it. I'll let you know if I'd like to offer it for free to you instead, like if you're my lifelong best friend or my mom or something.]
My book is actually very similar to yours. It’s my dream project that I’ve been thinking about for the past ten years or so but only just got serious about. It’s the story behind the making of The Golden Girls (I was really excited to see that you mentioned Susan Harris a few times in your book, mostly in reference to Fay – awesome!). It’s a little sad to say, but I feel The Golden Girls show has been one of the biggest “constants” in my life for as long as I can remember, since it’s really never been out of syndication. I love everything Susan Harris did, particularly the abortion episode of Maude (classic!) and Soap. I’m also obsessed with Mitch Hurwitz, and GG was his first job out of college. And thanks to your book, I learned that Gail Parent also worked on GG! I just ordered her Sheila Levine book on ebay. I can’t wait to read it.
I live here in NYC, and I was wondering if you possibly wanted to barter assistant work for some guidance on my book? I’m totally prepared to pay you for the critique, but I was wondering if you’re working on anything now and wanted some free administrative labor (transcribing interviews, research, filing, getting your coffee!), in exchange for some occasional guidance on my project. Did I see somewhere that you’re working on a  Seinfeld book? I might have made that up, but I hope not. Seinfeld, and really anything involving Larry David, will always have a very special place in my heart. [She waits a long time to mention the barter idea, and she does it after offering to pay. Awesome. Turns out I desperately needed someone to start transcribing for me. She's doing this for me now, and it is outrageously helpful. Because of this, I bought her drinks last night and will give her any advice she needs on her book project or career or whatever.]
But no worries if you aren’t interested in the bartering – I still want to pay for your services!
Just a little about me… I currently work on the Media team at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and write pop culture-y things on the side for websites like The Hairpin and This Recording. I’m working on expanding my platform, with a website and bigger national clips. [Also important: Who the hell are you? Great. Now I know. I like to know I'm not possibly arranging to bring a lunatic — or even an unprofessional person — into my life and writing process.]
I guess that’s it. Hope to speak to you soon!
Thanks,
Kathryn

In Praise of a Spoiler-Free Life: Why I Loved Being Surprised by ‘The Good Wife’

THE GOOD WIFEI had no idea what was coming when I settled in with a little bit of wine and a late-night viewing of The Good Wife yesterday evening — my partner had gone to bed, but I felt like staying up alone a little longer with my TV. I even thought I might just watch some of the episode while I enjoyed my glass of wine, then save the rest for the morning.

No chance of that once I saw Will Gardner bled-out on a hospital gurney. So dead. A major character and the star-crossed lover of our heroine, the one she seemed to be heading toward a reconciliation with, dead. I honestly caught myself trying to come up with ways he could not really be dead. But all I came up with were the worst, most hackneyed fake-outs — nothing becoming of the continuously gutsy showrunners at The Good Wife. They consistently manage to reset the show without feeling cheap, and without disrupting what the show’s true journey is: the transformation of Julianna Marguiles’ Alicia Florrick from a doting political wife to, well, a badass bitch. (When I saw her husband, Peter, calling her a “bitch” in the preview of upcoming scenes, I actually cheered to myself: damn right, she’s a bitch. About time.)

It’s a strange truth about enjoying narrative art in general, and television in particular: Surprises, even when they hurt, provide some element of delight. I think it’s because we like knowing we’re in the hands of storytellers who are going to keep things fresh and real at all costs. I think it’s also because we like feeling that our investment in the story is worth something, that it’s leading to some deeper truths.

It turns out the death resulted in part from actor Josh Charles’ decision to leave the show. (To which I’m tempted to say, “What?!?” But we all have our own creative journeys, and it takes guts to leave a successful show to remain true to yourself.) For me, this had an extra resonance: I would have known this was coming if I still worked at Entertainment Weekly. We always knew (what with it being our job) when an actor was leaving a show, when a major plot twist or death was coming, often because our editors were negotiating to get “exclusives” on such developments — fodder for the popular “spoiler” blogs or first interviews with actors whose characters met surprise demises. I didn’t mind spoilers; I still liked seeing how shows executed their twists.

But man, was it strange, devastating, and, in the end, satisfying, to experience Will’s death the way the characters did: as a horrifying surprise.

First Day of Spring Writing Resolutions

These are good for resolutions, too.

These are good for resolutions, too.

Given the brutal Winter we’ve just survived (which is hopefully not just technically over but actually over), this first day of spring feels very much like a rebirth. We have no more excuses for staying inside in our pajamas eating cheese and drinking wine and wrapping ourselves in blankets! We will now do things!

Here, a few of my writing-related spring resolutions:

1. I will clean my desk. (Spring cleaning!)

2. I will start actually writing my book, preferably at about 2,000 words a week.

3. I will blog most weekdays — all weekdays when I’m not wrapped up with a deadline or similarly valid excuse.

4. I will update my records and collect all that damn money I’m owed.

5. I will pitch all the stories on my list of ideas.

6. I will pitch more to the editors who kindly employ me regularly.

7. I will get my finances organized so I know how much money I have/need.

8. I will figure out ways to keep that money coming so I can concentrate on my book instead of worrying about income.

9. I will get back into my morning meditate/work out/eat/then work routine. Yes, this is writing-related. Actually, most things in my life could probably be considered writing-related.

 

Upcoming Events, Take 2: Talking Sitcoms All Over New York

paperback coverI’ve suddenly got not one, but two, chances at geeky sitcom talk — talk that you can witness and participate in! — coming up at events in March. As far as I can tell, I have Saul Austerlitz and his very cool book Sitcom to thank for this; we’re essentially becoming a road show this month even though we haven’t met yet.

Please join us at one or both of these:

Non-Motivational Speaker Series: The State of the SitcomMonday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I’ll be joined by Saul, of course, as well as Slate TV critic (and one of my favorites!) Willa Paskin.

Lit at Lark: Even Better Than Watching TV NightSunday, March 16, 5 p.m., Lark Cafe in Brooklyn. I’ll be joined by Saul (obviously), along with funny memoirists Sara Barron and Annie Choi.

Upcoming Events: Pop Culture Conference (in Ohio) and Reading (in Brooklyn)!

paperback coverI find myself suddenly with a few events coming up, and I’d love to see any friendly faces there, whether in Ohio (this weekend) or in Brooklyn (next month). I’m looking forward to talking Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted again after several months of burrowing away behind walls of snow to research Seinfeld. These are also my favorite kind of events … the kind organized by someone else! Here’s what’s coming:

Sunday, Feb. 23, 10 a.m.: I’ll be the keynote speaker at Bowling Green State University’s annual Ray Browne Conference on Cultural and Critical Studies (in, naturally, Bowling Green, OH). The official talk title: “The Modern TV Woman: How The Mary Tyler Moore Show Pushed Boundaries and Paved the Way for Carrie Bradshaw, Liz Lemon, and Mindy Lahiri.” Basically, I’m going to show some racy Mary Tyler Moore Show clips and talk about them. Details here.

Saturday, March 15, 5-7 p.m.: I’ll read and sign books at the Lit at Lark reading series, along with Saul Austerlitz, author of Sitcom, a totally fun (and obviously related) book. Lark Cafe is at 1007 Church Ave. in Brooklyn.

Freelancer ‘Fame’: It Takes Longer Than You Think

from iClipArt

from iClipArt: This is not me, but I love whatever this girl is doing at her typewriter.

Or at least it took longer than I expected it to. I figured that having spent nearly ten years at a national magazine and several before that paying my dues as a reporter, every editor would immediately jump at the chance to work with me. I mean, I knew how solid my reporting skills were, how prompt I was with deadline work, how cool I was under pressure. And I knew these were serious assets as a freelance writer. The problem, I soon realized, was that all these editors didn’t know me, and thus didn’t know any of that about me.

It took more than two years of painstaking pitching and doing small assignments well before my freelance writing business became a legitimate, reasonably steady business. It took proving myself, then being recommended from one editor to the next. It took doing a lot of solid work and gaining a following, of sorts, for certain kinds of work — my Mindy Project recaps on Vulture, for instance, netted me a bunch of recent work at Cosmo when one of my readers became the new editor of their website and came looking for me. It took writing a book that got a decent amount of positive attention, enough that some fans of the book have given me speaking engagements and writing assignments. It also, crucially, took time for my former coworkers at Entertainment Weekly to go onto other places where they could hire freelance writers. They know me, they know my work, and they know I’m looking for work.

So if you’re struggling still, just know: It takes longer than you think it will. Keep plugging away.

How to Write a Solid Blog Post

girl with bookBlogging well can be tricky because there are so few rules. The whole point of blogging, in a way, is that anything goes. But that doesn’t mean that anyone will want to read that anything. As a working journalist in the last five years, however, I’ve been forced to reckon with blogging — and I have come to like it. It can be profitable — maybe not lucrative, but some places do pay you to share your thoughts, depending on who you are and what your thoughts are. (I’ve made at least a few dollars by blogging for Vulture, Bitch, Dame, USA Today, Hollywood.com, and Cosmo.) Here, a few things I’ve learned about making a thought, observation, idea, or news bit into a blog post:

1. Have a peg. This holds particularly true for that profitable kind of blogging, rather than your own personal blog. (Note that here on my own site, sometimes I’m reacting to news, but often I’m just sharing whatever’s going on with me today. There are good reasons to do that, but most of them will not net you a paycheck.) A “peg” is the word we use in journalism for the kernel of news that sparked the item, that we’re “hanging” the piece on. (Get it?) It’s the answer to, “Why am I reading this now?” For example: Even when I wrote for Vulture about my favorite Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes, it wasn’t just because I had a book coming out about the show; it was also because the women from the show were reuniting on Hot in Cleveland.

2. Make a broader point. News travels fast on the internet these days, so you’ll need your own “spin” or “angle” on the subject to make it unique. Leave the straight news-briefing to wire services and major news organizations; you can link to those (reputable ones, ideally!) and then make it a little more relevant to readers. After all, what are blogs good for if not spouting opinions? Even better if you can legitimately back up a unique opinion. For Bitch, for instance, I opined that perhaps Betty White Mania isn’t 100-percent good.

3. Cite evidence. The difference between a rant and a reasoned, interesting piece? Research. You don’t have to do 30 interviews and conduct original surveys, but gosh it’s nice to see detailed analysis and links to strong sources that back you up. I was pretty happy with how my recent Dame column on why people hate Girls‘ Hannah Horvath so much came out: It has lots of links to previous discussions on other sites, and even a screen grab!

Got those three things? Boom! You’ve written a solid blog post. Anything more is just icing.

My Recent Work: I Fail at a 3-D Printing Business, Investigate the Birth Control Mandate, and Defend Hannah Horvath

3-D Printing Goes DIYFast Company

3 Major Challenges to the Birth Control Mandate ExplainedCosmopolitan

13 Badass Women to Watch in the OlympicsCosmopolitan

Setting a High BarFast Company

Tina, Amy, and Ellen Rule the Awards Shows … and White Boys Still Rule Late Night, Dame

Why Do We Love to Hate Hannah Horvath So Much?, Dame

 

What I’ve Learned from ‘Seinfeld’ Writers So Far

670px-2,675,0,410-CharactersI’m in Los Angeles this week doing my first round of interviews for my Seinfeld book, meeting mainly with guys who wrote for the show. (I say “guys” because in this case, it really is all dudes.) I’m not going to tell you all the really juicy stuff — I’ll save that for the book — but here are a few fun tidbits in honor of the folks who suggested some great questions to me via various social media:

* Getting a full script together was arduous. Writers had to pitch a storyline for each character and get each approved before starting to even outline. Even the most prolific writers had a hard time; some who were hired for a full year wrote just one or two before being let go at the end of a season.

* The last two seasons got a lot more meta — think “Bizarro Jerry” or that backwards episode — not just because the writers were running out of new ideas. It was also because many of the writers were new-ish hires who’d watched the show through its rise and were bringing that sort-of outside observer approach to the characters. For instance, inventing those “bizarro” versions of the characters who would hate Jerry, George, and Kramer, or wondering why Elaine had no female friends — and then giving her a storyline to explore that.

* The final season was exhausting.

* The finale possibly didn’t come off as well to viewers as it seemed in the writing, possibly because of bad programming decisions: The parade of former characters (via the main characters’ trial) was supposed to be a huge part of the fun, but it lost its impact when it ran after a long, nostalgic clip package.

* Though many network and studio executives wanted to hire former Seinfeld writers because they wanted another Seinfeld-sized hit, they still didn’t want to hear Seinfeld-style storylines or characters from them. They reverted right back to the “that’s too crazy” and “this character is too unlikeable” lines.

Freelance Writing Resolution: Stop Doing Stupid Crap.

Without money

I have one major resolution this year for my career: Get more discriminating about what I take on. This is a particularly difficult thing for freelancers to do. The simple formula for our success goes like this: The more I work, the more money I make. This assumes you’re already turning down those assignments that pay in “exposure” only. But even having sworn off free work, you can still find yourself mired in a lot of stupid stuff that isn’t the best use of your time.

Most of the “success” I’ve had in life has come, I’m afraid, by saying yes. I made teachers happy. I worked the hardest. I climbed up ladders. I kept my job during bad economic times by rarely saying no. The key to magazine staff job security in the mid-to-late 2000s went from “be a brilliant writer with great ideas” to “do the job of a junior staffer and a senior staffer combined.” When I transitioned to freelancing two and a half years ago, I kept that work ethic. I said yes to everything the space-time continuum allowed me to do, worried that every opportunity could be the last, at least for a while. The theory being: An assignment in the hand is worth two in the hand of your freelancer acquaintance who always seems to do better than you.

But I’ve been rethinking this position in the last year. Granted, part of that is because I simply started to get more work. It does happen, the work just rolling in unbidden, but it takes longer than you think it will. People recommend me to each other now, think of me when stuff comes up. So in some ways, my work has paid off yet again — doing a good job for one person has led her to recommend me to another, and editor contacts have moved up and around to other publications where they could hire me for better gigs. I also wrote a book that did okay, which has brought a few assignments my way.

Because freelancers by definition work outside of a corporate structure, we get a lot of freedom — but we also don’t have clear ideas about when we’ve advanced our careers to a new level. It’s not like I went from being called “staff freelancer” to “senior freelancer” or something. So I’ve continued to operate the same way, saying yes to anything that came my way with even the slightest bit of payment attached to it. With the internet, there are more opportunities than ever for freelancers to make a bit of money here or there. There are smaller websites paying $50 for your soul-baring essay, online platforms offering you the chance to teach mini-classes, lead tours, sell short e-books. There are good reasons to do any of these things.

But there comes a time when we must be more discriminating in order to up our games. That’s what I’m hoping to do this year.

Every activity you take on takes time and energy away from other things. Every minute I’m writing something totally unrelated to my passions and expertise for not-much-money, I’m essentially ignoring the things that really matter to me: writing books, teaching writing and journalism, and writing about women and pop culture.

Last night, when I was particularly frustrated by a particular recent energy-drain of a pointless project, my boyfriend took a cue from the “What Would Beyonce Do?” placard on my desk and translated it to a career that’s a little closer to mine: “I think you want to be Mary Roach,” he said, accurately. Or, at least the Mary Roach of pop culture writing. “Worrying about that thing is not going to make you Mary Roach.”

It’s true: You know Beyonce and Mary Roach aren’t fussing with anything but what makes them Beyonce and Mary Roach. At some point, we all need to figure out what that is for our own careers.