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.”

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

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.

 

Editors: Some Humble Requests from Your Freelance Writers

girl with bookYesterday I wrote about what I’ve learned in dealing with editors as a freelance writer. But one thing I’ve also learned is that some editors don’t know much about dealing with us, either. And while we admit that you, editors, are in something of a power position here — you hold the money — we also humbly submit that we can be loads of help to you if you give us what we need. Help us help you. Here, a few simple things that my favorite editors in the world — the ones I work for regularly — do that makes me want to hold parades in their honor:

1. Pay us when something goes wrong that isn’t our fault. We spent just as much time on that assignment whether or not your negotiations for a new sponsored section fell through. You could go above and beyond and pay us in full if that’s possible, but at least a kill fee seems fair.

2. Be clear about the payment (or lack thereof) upfront. It’s awkward to ask about money, and it’s so lovely when you just tell us. Many, many friends of mine just starting out in freelancing after me have asked me whether it’s okay to bring up money when they’re given an assignment. While I say OF COURSE it is, it’s even nicer when editors just handle this delicate piece of business for us. We’re so much more motivated when we know what we’re getting for our trouble.

3. Tell us the specific objection you have to a pitch. I know you don’t always have time for this, but it’s awesome when you do. One editor, for instance, let me know that she loved my pitch for a profile of a female TV producer, except for one thing — the producer was 41, and the magazine only features women in their demo, which ends at 36. (Harsh, but helpful.) Another told me she couldn’t run sex-related or alcohol-related stories anymore because of a new partnership deal with Yahoo. (Never mind that it was a dating site … what would they write about, exactly?) That’s great to know, because guess which kind of stories I would now stop pitching her!

4. Be super-clear about what you want. My favorite editors send me assignment letters — sounds scary and official, but it needn’t be. Once we’ve decided that there is a story idea and I will be executing it, they write up an email stating everything they want from it: Questions I should make sure to ask the subject. Which interviews they expect. How many words. Deadline. Good models of similar stories they’ve run. What they’re looking for from a specific interview. (When I wrote about Onion News Network‘s Suzanne Sena, for instance, my editor at Vulture said he wanted to make sure we had some candid talk about her time at Fox News; that’s really helpful to know before I go into the interview, so I can push for that accordingly, or even ask her publicist beforehand if that’s something likely to happen.) If you’re sending me on a fishing expedition, let me know — then I can decide how much of my precious time I can spend on something that may not pan out.

5. Keep it real. My favorite, favorite, favorite editors are very upfront with me. They tell me at the outset if, for instance, they’re almost sure there will be drama down the editing road: I have one editor who will just say, “Look, how this’ll probably go is that we’ll decide on this story angle, you’ll write the story. Then my boss will change her mind and want something completely different and we’ll have to rip it up and start over again. The good news is we pay $2 a word.” Great, now I know what I’m in for, and if it goes more smoothly than that, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’m a no-nonsense girl, and I like being treated like an adult. I hate pretending that when something is torn up late in the editing process it’s because it’s “not good,” as opposed to just “not currently suiting the whims of an editor who wants to put her own stamp on this story,” or “not different enough from that story we have on page 12,” or “not working with the fun infographic we made.” Just tell me what the real problem is, and we can figure it out together and move on. This works in simpler ways, too, like during the editing process; don’t write me three paragraphs about why I should consider changing this one word or adding certain things. Want that sex story to be dirtier? Just tell me that, not, like, “Can you be more specific here when you say, ‘doggie style’?”

6. Stay calm, at least in your emails to me. I understand you’re under a lot of pressure, but please do not come at me with accusatory rants that assume I willfully refused to follow instructions and deliver what you asked for. If that’s actually true, feel free to ream me, but if you could possibly assume for a second that we simply had a misunderstanding in instructions, that would be cool. One of my favorite editors wrote me the nicest note when he was asking me to, essentially, redo an entire story. I think we really did have a miscommunication when it came to the story angle, but I didn’t mind redoing everything when he started his email with, “I am SO sorry to do this to you, but …” Wording that makes clear that the objections have nothing to do with fundamental skill are also welcomed. (“This is a fine story, but for our publication, we really need to focus instead on …”)

7. Specifics, please. One of my unsung talents, in my opinion, is translating editors’ notes into solid changes. Sometimes I wish this were a job in itself; I find it strangely satisfying. What helps me do this? Notes that not only tell me an objection, but offer an alternative or solution. My biggest pet peeve is editors saying things like, “Do you have a better kicker?” As if perhaps I’ve had one all along that I was keeping to myself, but now, editor, since you asked, voila! Of course you should tell me if something isn’t working, but a hint as to why, or what might work better, sure goes a much longer way. The worst editors to work for are like that friend who says, “I don’t care what we eat,” then proceeds to reject everything you offer. “Chinese?” “No.” “Italian?” “No.” Please don’t make me go through that with my stories.

With all of this said, we love you, editors, for paying our bills, and we understand you’re under a lot of pressure. Thanks for being awesome! Hope any of this helps you help us be awesomer.

Love,

Your freelance writers

Freelance Writers: A Guide to Dealing With Editors

from iClipArt

from iClipArt

For freelance writers, dealing with editors can be as fraught as dating. Except, of course, we’re dating many, many people (if we’re lucky) and we’re depending on dates to put food on our table (hopefully not the case in our real personal lives). Here, a few things I’ve learned about working with editors. Feel free to chime in with your own.

1. When they ignore your pitch, it probably means “no.” Feel free to follow up once (maybe twice, tops) to make sure they really did get your first email. (Once, an editor really did say I’d accidentally ended up in his spam folder, a nightmarish scenario for a freelancer.) After you’ve followed up, radio silence means it’s not happening. As a general practice, in the age of email, editors have decided to spare themselves and you the pain of an actual rejection. Whether this is cool or not doesn’t matter; it is what it is.

2. When they say, “This won’t work, but please pitch me again,” they mean it. If they wanted to blow you off politely, they’d ignore you, per above. If they say pitch again, pitch again; they’re interested in you, just not this idea. I romanced one magazine editor for about two years this way before landing in her pages.

3. Treasure assignments. Assignments mean they like you! Or at least want to test you out. They’ve decided on an idea, and all they need is someone — you — to execute it. Killing it at one can lead to many, many more, and thus actual steady income. I’ve taken some doozies — you know, a 24-hour deadline, an assignment over a holiday — that all led to more and better work.

4. Ask questions. No shame in figuring out exactly what they want. In fact, neglecting to do so can lead to disaster. (I’ve been guilty of this more than once.) No offense to editors, but some just don’t really know what they want. They say words that sound good in headlines or whatever, and then it’s on you to figure out what it all means. (“I know you want a story about how to spice up your sex life with the headline ‘Take It Outside,’ but I don’t really know what that means. Practical advice from sexual health experts? Racy stories from women in your demographic? A chart with positions?”) The clearer you are at the outset on your angle and expected sourcing, the better off everyone will be.

5. Take revisions gracefully. Even after all that, the editor’s editor’s editor will undoubtedly come up with some whole new idea of what she wants from this story once she lays her eyes on what you thought was your final, final draft. No use whining about this — you are not going to be the person to single-handedly change the editorial direction of a national magazine. Go with whatever they want. You are a widget manufacturer, and they are the customer, and they should get what they want. As long as it’s not untrue, immoral, or offensive (I know, that’s subjective, but still), roll with it and move on. Every piece doesn’t have to be ready for your literary anthology.

6. Expect your schedule to be plowed under repeatedly. People always think freelancers get to run around doing whatever we want all day. The fact is, we’re more imprisoned by our “employers” than many full-timers; we need to jump when the opportunity arises. If many opportunities arrive, we’re jumping around a lot for a lot of different people at once. We don’t have one boss to go to and say, “Please help me prioritize my assignments.” Any of our given customers does not want to hear that some other customer got in the way of their delivery. Of course, it’s okay to tell editors what is and isn’t reasonably possible, and we do have the privilege of saying no at any time. (Though we like to pay our bills, which makes this hard.) We trade the joy of working in pajamas and throwing in a load of laundry between assignments for writing what strangers want when they want it.

Given all of this, I still thank God every morning that I wake up and don’t go to an office.

The Best Tech Tools for Freelance Writers

I’ve stumbled onto a few wonderful discoveries lately in my quest for more efficient reporting, writing, and collecting money from clients, and wanted to share them in the interest of good freelance karma:

girl with bookCallsFreeCalls: I discovered this in a time-sensitive situation. I was trying to set up an international call for an interview and figured I’d have time between scheduling and doing it to straighten out my international service on my phone. Well, suddenly, the princess’ people (yes, she’s a Middle Eastern princess) were telling me she had an hour-long window right now, but the Verizon website was down and the call center was backed up accordingly. I downloaded CFC and was able to purchase enough time for the interview for just $5. They’ll also let you build up free long-distance time by watching ads.

HelloSign: Get this to revolutionize your paperwork nightmares. Freelance writers never stop filling out paperwork if they actually want to get paid for their toils, and printing/filling out/scanning/attaching can end up forcing you to delay your own payments by weeks. This app, for your email, allows you to open a document, electronically sign it, reattach it, and send it back within a minute or two.

TapeACall: The moment independent reporters have all been waiting for has finally arrived: We can now tape our damn phone interviews like real, professional reporters who still have access to landlines because they work in ancient offices. Those of us with cell phones only have been MacGyver-ing our poor little iPhones every which way in attempts to record our interviews—elaborate cord-splitting constructions that led into old-school recorders but yielded terrible sound quality, putting people on speakerphone so we could tape on a different device … but TapeACall has solved all that with a (fairly) simple app. It even allows you to instantly send your recordings to a variety of outside storage means (Google docs, etc.), email, and even …

Rev.com: With the click of an app button, TapeACall will send your recordings directly to Rev.com, which will transcribe them for $1 a minute, with a turnaround time of 48 hours. Totally affordable, even on freelance pay.

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.

Pop Stars as Our Modern-Day Poets

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegPoetry isn’t much of a career choice anymore.

I had the pleasure of getting a preview of IFC’s upcoming film Adult World, in which Emma Roberts plays a smart-but-clueless aspiring poet struggling with her early 20s, and one of its biggest jokes is the futility of poetry. The movie doesn’t need to even tell you why it’s funny that Roberts’ character dreams of becoming a “famous poet” like her desired mentor, a grumbly guy with the amazing nom de plume Rat Billings, played by John Cusack. But poets really did used to be, as we say so unpoetically these days, a thing. Remember how you studied T.S. Eliot. e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost in school? They’re still famous poets. Poets bring beauty and meaning to our everyday lives, no small thing. Poets give us smart things to quote when we want to say something smart but don’t quite have their way with words.

I think pop music is our poetry now, an idea at least partly underlying another fine John Cusack film, High Fidelity. Cusack’s character in that movie uses music, at least partly, to hide behind while avoiding real adult life; but music, in the end, also lends meaning to his existence. He expresses his feelings through mix tapes. To switch right over to yet another Cusack moment in yet another movie, there’s the bit with the boom box in Say Anything. John Cusack knows that pop music is our poetry.

This all makes me think of a lovely ode to celebrated poet John Hollander, written last year for The New York Times Magazine by his nephew Sam Hollander, who has written and produced songs for One Direction, Good Charlotte, Train, Gym Class Heroes, Daughtry, and others. The two finally found common ground after a lifetime of not connecting when Uncle John called asking about this guy named Don Henley wanting to use some of his verse on an Eagles album. (It became the song “No More Walks in the Wood” on their 2007 album.)

It also makes me think of a nice moment last month when I went to a reading for the spectacular Rosie Schaap’s memoir, Drinking With Men. For the paperback release, she smartly assembled a group of her favorite writer friends to read works related to the theme of her book: That is, she asked them to read about bars. One unassuming guy was introduced as a poet (“How novel!” I thought), and he proceeded to read the following:

“All I want is to have a little fun
Before I die,” says the man next to me
Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing. He says
His name’s William but I’m sure he’s Bill
Or Billy, Mac or Buddy; he’s plain ugly to me,
And I wonder if he’s ever had fun in his life.

His name is Wyn Cooper, and he wrote Sheryl Crow’s first hit back in 1987. He wrote it as a poem before she adapted it to her 1994 hit “All I Wanna Do.” It sounds good both ways, each one different. But it made me miss a time I never lived through, when there was at least a chance I would have known the poet’s name in addition to the pop star’s. Something about it just seems like it would’ve been calmer, quieter, and artsier. Then again, maybe I’m being as silly a romantic as a current 22-year-old who wants to be a famous poet.

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.

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.