Writing With Friends

girl with bookThis piece on the New York Times‘ writing blog, Draft, by Bonnie Tsui, addresses something that has come up for me a lot lately: the social side of writing. In it, Tsui talks about how she used to resist hanging out with, and especially writing near, other writers; but now, she has embraced the idea of sharing an office with other freelancers.

I’m not about to get in on a communal office space — I like neither the cost nor the impingement on the freedom to go to my refrigerator whenever I want to. But lately I’ve been reminded of the benefits of talking with other writers: online, on the phone, or in person. A giant Facebook group has recently started for women writers (it’s private and closed, due to overwhelming demand) and it seems to be doing great things. Women are sharing ideas, and even landing assignments in major outlets this way. At about the same time this group started, I coincidentally launched my own minor effort to network in person with others who write about pop culture like I do. It’s a strange and specific beat, full of frustrations that no one else totally gets (like trying to hunt down celebrities for interviews or having to watch so much TV that your eyes want to bleed). We met for the first time last night, and it was a great start.

We even talked about how hard it is, particularly as a freelance writer, to share your resources with others. Often it feels like we have to beg and scrape for every $200 assignment. (You don’t want to know what we’ll do for those $2,000 ones.) The last thing we want to do is risk someone else honing in on our territory. But I’m a believer in professional karma, so I’m trying to share my knowledge, even the hard-won kind. And it seems like I know lots of generous souls who want to do the same.

‘Just Shut Up and Learn’

58251_7227I love this little anecdote from my interview with Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman, who got the job after years of freelance magazine writing:

I kind of looked at the other writers, who had been around show business a lot, and noticed that they were talking a lot during lunch, and trying to be funny during lunch. I wrote down on a piece of paper for myself, “Just shut up and learn.”

Good advice for us all.

Essay-Grading Machines? No thanks.

girl with bookThere is now quite a bit of academic chatter about the idea of computers grading essays — specifically, a much-debated study claiming that machines can handle this task as well as humans can.

As a sometime writing teacher, I cringe at the thought of a pile of assignments to critique as much as anyone. (No, really, I love my work! It’s just … so … daunting, sitting there on my desk.) But good lord, I’m not about to hand the job off to a computer. And not just because I value being paid and value the (possibly deluded) belief that I have a valuable skill set to offer the world.

I have to think that if a machine can grade an essay as well as a human, that human is doing it wrong. This guest blog on the Washington Post site, by author and teacher Maja Wilson, lays out the case as well as anyone can — and her case involves the Department of Homeland Security and sarcasm.


‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: My Schedule

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30I spent last week trying out some tweaks to my daily freelancer schedule, courtesy of the book Daily Rituals.

Here’s what I’ve settled on (for, of course, an ideal day that is unlikely to ever happen, but it’s good to have goals):

8 a.m. Wake up.

8-8:30 a.m. Meditate.

8:30-9:30 a.m. Work out.

9:30-10 a.m. Breakfast, shower, dress.

10-11 a.m. Communication. (Phone, email, blogging, Facebook, Twitter.)

11 a.m.-1 p.m. Work. (Pitches, assignments, book stuff.) Outside, if possible. In bed, if desired.

1-2 p.m. Lunch.

2-3 p.m. Optional nap.

3-6 p.m. Work. With music, if desired.

Bed by midnight.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drive: Joan Miro and Gertrude Stein

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30Artist Joan Miro is the first I’ve encountered in Daily Rituals who favors the healthy side of fighting one’s demons instead of the self-medicating side. (He was highly regimented and always worked in exercise to stave off the depression he’d suffered in his early years — smart guy.) Not coincidentally, he’s the first one with a schedule and work routine I’d like to emulate. Here’s my modified version of Miro’s day, which has worked quite well for me:

Got up at 8 (instead of his 6).

Had breakfast, then worked from about 9 until noon.

At noon, went for a run/worked out.

Ate lunch, then napped. (I napped for about an hour, though he supposedly “napped” for five minutes. I call that “lying down.” He, adorably, called it his “Mediterranean yoga.”)

I had an interview (with the Soup Nazi, natch) at 2, so I was back in the office to do that.

From here (3 p.m.) on, I’m planning to deal with communications and then work until dinner time. Lovely, perfect work day.

Next up is Gertrude Stein, who liked to write outside (for at least a half-hour a day) after bathing and dressing in the morning. Of course, she specifically liked to look at rocks and cows, which are in short supply here in Manhattan. But I always mean to take more advantage of the outdoor spaces nearby.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: Patricia Highsmith

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30In my continuing quest to try some tweaks to my work process as I work on my Seinfeld book, I lived yesterday at least vaguely in the spirit of Strangers on a Train author Patricia Highsmith (according to the entry about her in Daily Rituals). She seemed kinda unhinged, so I didn’t venture too far into all of her habits. (She said that she had ideas “as frequently as rats have orgasms,” which is an analogy that I will never forget. She also bred snails in her home because she could relate to them more than people, so there’s that.) She aimed for up to 2,000 words of writing a day, which I didn’t hit, but that’s because I’m still in the outlining/rearranging phase that precedes any of my book writing. (I get the info I want written in chunks in a draft, then keep moving them around until they make sense, then rewrite the whole thing; it’s like a very long and involved outline.) But I did spend about three hours yesterday with my notecards and messy, crazy outline thing. And I borrowed one of Highsmith’s specific techniques, which was to, according to biographer Andrew Wilson, “ease herself into the right frame of mind for work” by sitting on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut, and an accompanying saucer of sugar. Of course my version involved the bed and the coffee, sans cigarettes and doughnuts. She also apparently enjoyed “a stiff drink before she started to write,” but that seemed like the worst possible idea at 2 p.m., especially if I was going to get into bed. It seemed to me all that would do is bring on an afternoon nap. (“In her later years,” Daily Rituals says, “as she became a hardened drinker with a high tolerance, she kept a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and marking the bottle to set her limit for the day.” Whoa.) It’s so comforting to learn that even if given an “excuse” to indulge, some indulgences just don’t tempt me. Being in bed worked well, though — it made the process feel a little more fun and relaxed. I also blasted ’90s music, which, it should be noted, was my own addition to the Highsmith regimen.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: W.H. Auden

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30I’m reading this fun book called Daily Rituals, which details the routines of dozens of artists, writers, scientists, and other famous creative types. Since I became a freelance writer three years ago, I’ve been obsessed with how people with the freedom to make their own schedules arrange their days. I made a schedule of my own after realizing how easy it was to drift into days full of baking and cleaning and errand-running instead of working. I still keep to that basic schedule, but I’ve been considering some tweaks. Thus I picked up this book and decided to test drive some of the less-destructive ideas. (There is an awful lot of drinking and some drugging that could certainly become counterproductive, and I salute those who managed to be brilliant and famous despite that.) I’ll write about some of the experiences here.

First up in the book is W.H. Auden, who does have some of those destructive habits, though he pales in comparison to some others. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” the poet wrote in 1958. I think he’s right, obviously. He was strictly punctual, something I aspire to in my own life — yesterday, while on the Auden Plan, I skipped an elaborate shower and simply freshened up instead to get myself to meet friends for a concert in Prospect Park on time. (Good thing, since the line to get in ended up being incredibly long, and we got a decent spot by arriving when we did.) I didn’t get up at 6 a.m. like Auden, but I did get up by 7:45, and it was nice to have some time to ease into the day before my 9 a.m. phone interview. I did get to my desk for work a little before 9, and that was nice, too — I got some stuff done before hitting the grocery store around 11. I did work in a few Auden-like cocktails post-6:30 p.m., just as he did; though I had just two glasses of wine, not several martinis plus wine. Auden relied on amphetamines for energy and sedatives for sleeping, and I was hoping to avoid both.

Why Finding the Right Literary Agent Is Like Dating

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegAlmost everything in life worth anything is like dating, in that you put yourself out there, vulnerable and asking for rejection. This couldn’t be more true of the author-agent relationship — which can actually be worse than dating, in the sense that this person controls your livelihood, and can “date” as many people as he/she wants while you can have only one of him/her. For a situation in which you’re supposedly a “client” and this person supposedly works “for” you, the power dynamics feel quite the reverse.

This week I got an email from a friend that’s very typical of the conversations I’ve had many times with fellow writers:

“A week ago my agent emailed to check on the status of the book proposal [for a nonfiction project]. I sent her everything I had. This was a week ago. I called on Monday to touch base. (Since I am a crazy phone person who thinks it’s 1987.) She *emailed* me back and said she was swamped and would call on Tuesday. Have heard nothing since. My knee jerk reaction is that she never bothered to read what I sent her. She will be taking 15% off the top of whatever this book sells for — and yet I feel like I am a very low priority for her. She hasn’t read [my sample chapters for my novel], either. At this point I want to do just this one book with her, and that’s it. I’m not feeling the love but I also don’t feel like I’m being a princess either. #thisiswhyIdrink”

I’ve heard even worse stories, too, with agents taking months to get back to writers on potential projects, ignoring email and phone pleas, etc. Now, I’m sure every agent has a dozen stories about crazy, needy writers, too — we can be a little sensitive. But given the experience I’ve had with four different agents throughout my career, I feel like I’ve learned some things by trial and error that others haven’t been able to. I’m a slightly more experienced than average “dater” who can comparison shop.

My advice in almost all of these situations, provided the writer is not being crazy and needy, is to find a new agent. If this person isn’t vibing on you, she’s not going to be passionate enough to sell your work the way it deserves to be sold. She’s the equivalent of a boyfriend who only texts you when he’s feeling horny late on a Saturday night. You’ll know when you find the right one. I’ve had an agent who didn’t like any of my ideas, an agent who couldn’t greenlight anything without first talking to her boss (who, of course, didn’t know me but somehow got to decide which projects I should do), an agent who went radio silent for months at a time and then wrote me back one-line blow-off emails. (Some of these were the same person.) When I signed with Laurie, my current agent, the angels sang like I’d just found the love of my life: She called when she was supposed to, checked in frequently when appropriate, read everything I sent her in a timely fashion … oh, and sold two books for me within four months of our first phone meeting. She’s always quick to offer an opinion on a career choice if I need it; to me, that’s the whole point of having an agent. It turned out I wasn’t crazy or needy; I just hadn’t met the right match yet.

In literary agency, as in dating, you should never feel like a “low priority.” I say keep looking until you hear those angels singing. And the one thing about this situation that’s better than dating? You can shop around all you like — it’s not cheating, just business.

Why Writers Should Go to the ASJA Conference

58251_7227I spent today at the first day of the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference, the second year in a row that I’ve attended. I never thought I’d go to a writing conference again, but a friend dragged me last year. I’d also just joined ASJA last year, so it seemed like the right time. I loved it so much, obviously, that I signed up again.

Any freelance writer will understand the gravity of me putting it this way: I voluntarily spent several hundred dollars and many hours to go to this thing. Money and time, people.

Last year, I walked away with loads of tips on pitching and social media, lots of inspiration to really “work” on my career instead of simply letting it idle where it was, and, most significantly, a major job — advising masters’ in journalism students at Columbia University. This is a serious resume-booster, an actual money-maker, and a lot of fun. I got it after attending a session last year about working in academia, where the woman who hires Columbia profs spoke on a panel. She mentioned that she values experience over advanced degrees when hiring, which was a huge revelation for me — I’ve always wanted to teach at the college level, but chose work experience in my 20s over getting a masters’. I promise you that working at a local newspaper for five years was at least the equivalent of a masters’ in journalism, and she got that. I emailed her afterwards, went in for an interview, and landed a gig.

This year, I don’t see any signs that I’m going to get something quite that concrete out of the sessions I attended today. But I came away with at least the following: a possible new structure for the book I’m writing, an exercise to use in my Gotham classes, and gobs of new stuff to try on social media. That’s worth getting out of my pajamas for.

And FYI, though ASJA has publication requirements to join the organization (which I do think is worth it if you’ve got them), and today’s sessions were for members only, the remaining two days are open to the general public. I’m not sure if you can still register, but if not, it’s worth checking out next year.

The Best Advice from Meredith Maran’s ‘Why We Write’

Why-We-WriteI just finished reading a fun book called Why We Write, in which editor Meredith Maran compiles thoughts from well-known writers such as Mary Karr, Meg Wolitzer, and Sebastian Junger. In it, we learn that lots of people aren’t sure exactly why they write, but that doesn’t stop them from having interesting insights about the process. (We also learn, if we didn’t know already, that most writers hate the act of writing, or at least parts of it, sometimes.) Mostly, we get some solid advice from some of our nation’s most commercially and critically successful writers, both fiction and non.

Here, a few of my favorites:

From David Baldacci: “Whatever genre you write in, familiarize yourself with what’s current in your genre. What thrilled the reader even ten years ago doesn’t necessarily thrill today.”

From Jennifer Egan: “Read at the level at which you want to write.”

From Sue Grafton: “Figuring out how to get an agent, how to find a publisher, how to write a good query letter, how to pitch, how to network — all of this is beside the point until you’ve mastered the craft and honed your skills.”

From Kathryn Harrison: “We all know talented people who piss their lives away, and dogged souls who show up even when they’re uninspired, even when they’ve lost faith in their work. It’s good to have talent and discipline, but there’s really no substitute for self-discipline.”

From Mary Karr: “Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident.”