Upcoming SEINFELDIA Events

In the next several weeks, I’ll be in Georgia, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Oregon, and Staten Island talking Seinfeldia. Join me if you’re in the area!

Feb. 16-19, Savannah Book Festival, GA: Appearance.

7 p.m., Feb. 22, Museum of Jewish History, Philadelphia: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

11 a.m., March 8, JCC Greenwich, CT: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

7 p.m., March 14, Mittleman Jewish Community Center, Portland, OR: SEINFELDIA talk and signing.

7 p.m., March 16, Staten Island HillelSEINFELDIA talk and signing.

Advertisements

How to Fight Evil with ‘Pens, Books, and Advanced Acrobatics’

I just learned about Pakistan’s cartoon Burka Avenger, thanks to a piece I’m writing for BBC Culture about superheroines. Of course I loved her from the minute I heard her name, but what’s particularly striking about her is her emphasis on literacy: The intro tells us (according to the English subtitles) that her weapons are “pens, books, and advanced acrobatics.” In the first episode, she saves a girls’ school from closing down:

She reminds me of the women I’m lucky enough to mentor through the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. These women often risk their safety just for the chance to write their own stories. We help them to share them with the world in English. Please check out some of their work on the site. They are truly fighting evil with pens and books. I can’t speak for the advanced acrobatics, but I hope they don’t need them.

I Love People Who Do Shit

tumblr_nq4g0ghgDu1tgjrx8o1_1280I recently finished reading Brenna Ehrlich’s addictive teen novel Placid Girl. I want to tell you about it because she’s a friend, but even moreso because it’s good and even moreso because she made this happen.

I met with Brenna years ago to give her whatever advice I could muster about finding and dealing with agents. I talk to lots of people about this, because the word “agent” sounds kinda glamorous and people like hearing about how to get one, like hearing where you got your SodaStream or microsuede sofa. But she was one of the serious ones, which I knew even then, but have proof now: She didn’t just write a kick-ass book. She decided to start her own publishing company to put it out, All Ages Press.

I love people who just fucking do shit. They want something. They figure out how to do it. Then they do it.

This is rarer than one might think.

As hinted, I talk to a lot of people who claim to want to be writers or whatever. But they often don’t seem to like the work and rejection and etc. that come with that. I love seeing things come together for the rare others, the Brennas who put in the work to write the book and to get it out there.

Of course, this would be less exciting if it wasn’t a good book. But the Emo Teen inside of me just loved this one. It’s a moody mystery about Hallie, shy girl who’s a drummer in a band and obsessed with a mysterious, mask-wearing musician named Haze. Basically all hell breaks loose when she starts getting direct messages via an Instagram-like app from a guy who claims to be the reclusive Haze, and it becomes part road-trip adventure, part romance, and part gothic mystery.

You should check it out, and support people who do shit.

SEINFELDIA: The Official Cover

SEINFELDIAThe official cover for Seinfeldia is here, and I love it! Something about book covers makes the author feel like she made it, because what’s inside the book inspired the cover, even though obviously I had nothing to do with it. I guess it also makes it feel like a real book. It will actually be a real book in summer of 2016. For now enjoy the wonderful graphic design from Rinee Shah, then visit her site for even more delicious Seinfeld-related illustrations: Her Seinfood series, all based on food plotlines from the show, will make you want to decorate your entire house in Seinfeld references.

The Economics of Book Deals

moneyWhen I wrote about my own experience going freelance in my Ultimate Guide to Starting a Freelance Writing Business, I mentioned the specific development that allowed me to quit my day job: a six-figure book advance. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the mechanics of book advances/the state of the publishing industry in that post, which was long and involved enough. That said, a freelancer friend wisely pointed out that I might want to explain that further, in case anyone’s reading that and thinking, “Oh, okay! I’ll just get a six-figure book advance then.” There are a number of reasons that I could think this was a reasonable expectation for me at that time (and these reasons, not coincidentally, double as a list of ways I was lucky):

1. We are talking about the lowest end of “six figures.” (I feel like I’m supposed to be coy about this, but you get my drift.)

2. I had made this much for my first book, Why? Because We Still Like You. This was pure luck. I got this book as an “assignment”; Grand Central Publishing was looking for someone to write a book about the original Mickey Mouse Club. I had written a lot about current Disney Channel stars while working at Entertainment Weekly. An agent I was working with then heard they needed someone and put me forward for it. I got the gig. Their budget was pre-set at something like $80K and my agent talked them up a bit.

3. The book that allowed me to quit my job was Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. It was sold on auction, which means that publishers were competing for it, which drives the price up. Many, though not all, of the other offers were very low. I would not have been able to quit my job on those offers. I actually didn’t know what I was going to do if that was as high as we went, because I really did not want to write this book while holding a full-time job. Working at EW was incredibly demanding at this point because we’d laid lots of people off and were trying to feed the web beast. And I wanted to do a great job on the book. So this was a total gamble. We ended up with a few big publishers wanting it in hardcover in the end, though, which is crucial for an advance this large. Luckily, I really liked the two highest bidders, and the absolute highest was Jon Karp, the publisher at Simon & Schuster, who turns out to be a huge Mary Tyler Moore Show fan. This was a no-brainer. (In further lucky news, he ended up editing my book himself, which was an invaluable experience for me.)

4. In conclusion, this was a Cinderella story and not a sure thing.

I think there are a few specific lessons that you, as a person who is not me, and who is possibly considering a similar career path, can take from my experience:

1. Non-fiction tends to sell better than fiction. There’s more of it, and more demand for it, no matter what your pre-conceived picture of an “author” is. It’s also less dependent on you as a name and more dependent on subject matter. Which brings us to …

2. My solo books have all been about TV shows. This makes them more dependent on the show as a brand name and less dependent on me.

3. That said, I have a pretty strong “platform” for writing about this stuff, thanks to having spent ten years at a national magazine covering television. Not only do they trust that I can pull it off, but they also know I have connections who can help spread the word about the book in the right places.

4. In contrast to all of the above, for instance, the book I co-authored with Heather Wood Rudúlph, Sexy Feminism, sold for much, much less. It was meant for a young, female audience, so it made sense to go paperback-only. Furthermore, it had no built-in hook like a very popular television show. I loved doing this book, but it was not the reason I could quit my job. I’m told this is a much more normal experience; I’ve often heard $10K-$20K for a book is the best most people can expect, especially for a first book.

I hope this helps anyone pondering books as a “money-making” option. Also keep in mind that for non-fiction, advances are doled out in halves, thirds, or fourths, usually over a couple of years between signing the deal and publishing the book. So even what sounds like a lot at first isn’t that much. Keep all of this in mind as you ponder quitting your day job.

If anyone has questions (that I can answer) about any of this, let me know!

My Favorite Books About Writing Nonfiction

41lhhayQO9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I always love reading about writing. I caution students about spending so much time reading about it that they never actually do it, but these books in particular have been invaluable in shaping my own approaches to writing. Some of them focus on nonfiction specifically, while many are great for any kind of writing:

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell: I use this every time I do a self-edit on a manuscript. It’s also a fun book to read straight through. She uses the editing process for The Great Gatsby — detailed in letters between Fitzgerald and his editor — to show how editing makes everything better.

The New New Journalism, by Robert Boynton: Interviews with all the rock stars of current creative nonfiction — Ted Conover, Erik Larson, Susan Orlean. This is like a fan magazine for nerds like me.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron: For anyone doing any kind of writing, or any kind of art, this is a go-to for kick-starting your creativity. It’s a practical, step-by-step process full of nutty self-helpy stuff that I just tune out. I resist what Tom Bissell once brilliantly called “tea and angels writing” — you know, workshops about finding yourself through writing and that sort of thing — and this book has a lot of that silly ’90s self-help language in spades. But underneath is an effective plan for getting your creative juices flowing. I’ve done it at least five times throughout my adulthood.

Storycraft, by Jack Hart: Helps with the hardest parts of nonfiction — making real life into great stories, while still telling the absolute truth.

Telling True Stories, by Mark Kramer: Covers journalism as well as book-length nonfiction, through written pieces by and interviews with writers and editors.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott: A classic. Great inspiration to just keep going with your work — even, especially, when you’re feeling despondent or overwhelmed.

Why We Should All Give Subscriptions and Books as Gifts

magazines-0607-lgI love the idea set forth in this Huffington Post blog post by Josh Stephens: He promises to give subscriptions as gifts this year as a way of supporting the journalism profession. Everyone’s always decrying the state of journalism — note the irony that this idea is proposed on HuffPo, the biggest offender in the “let’s pay writers in exposure, not money” business. So why not do at least a little toward helping to keep journalism alive and paid? I’d add books to the mix, too. Instead of, or at least in addition to, bitching about the state of publishing, let’s support it as much as possible. I think both businesses will find new ways to survive, but there’s no reason we can’t help a little, while giving great gifts along the way.

In Praise of Friends Who’ll Read Your Manuscripts

girl with bookWhen students ask me what my “one piece of advice” is for aspiring writers, it’s usually: Read. But my second piece of advice — something people rarely ask for — is almost as important. That piece of advice: Cultivate a group of friends willing to read your stuff before it’s published.

I recently taught a workshop about writing book proposals, and a professional copyeditor was among my students. This was his advice, too: Don’t turn anything in ever without having at least one other person read it first. Other people can see holes in your work that you can’t. They can point out places where your knowledge and research is overwhelming your ability to see that others won’t understand something. They can tell you, whether you like it or not, when you’re not making a lot of sense to anyone who does not have your brain. (One of the other students asked, “What if I’m not ready to show my friends?” I will tell you the same thing I told him: If you’re not ready to show your friends, you’re definitely not ready to send it to a potential agent or publisher. I understand the sentiment — it sometimes feels easier to send something off to a faceless stranger, as if you’re sending something into an abyss. But it will be an abyss if you don’t edit your manuscript carefully and work out all its kinks before it ends up in front of someone who matters. You’ll never get anywhere that way.)

I’m going through this process with my Seinfeld manuscript now, having three friends of varying knowledge about the show read my manuscript draft. It’s my favorite part of writing a book, actually. First of all, this means I’m in the home stretch. Second, finally someone else is reading all of this stuff I’ve been researching for the past year and a half, and it’s fun to be able to talk about it to others at last. Third, it’s like a writing video game. Every day I open the shared Google Doc and see what little “bugs” in the manuscript I can eliminate. It’s so satisfying, like shooting Space Invaders.

It’s good to start cultivating this group of people as early as possible in your career. You can, of course, hire outside help — this is a service I offer! — but you can also have a little team you go to again and again. Given that “again and again” part, and presuming you will not be paying all of these people, here are a few specific recommendations for finding them:

1. Make friends in writing classes you take. Stay in touch so you can read each other’s work as your careers progress. What’s good about these people is they often automatically comply with my second tip …

2. Pick people at a relatively similar phase in their career to your own. Mentors and teachers can be great — and often are the types you might want to pay for their extra level of expertise. But if you have friends with whom you can regularly exchange work, you’ll be able to pay your readers back in future reading chores for them. Most of my go-to people are like this. It’s a huge favor to ask, specifically when it’s a book-length work, and you want to be able to reciprocate as much as possible. (Interesting alternative: The woman who has served as my research assistant on the Seinfeld book offered to do so in exchange for me reading her book proposal. Bartering can work!)

3. Screen potential mates for editing skills. Okay, maybe this is going too far. But my best editor is my domestic partner, Jesse. He’s a computer programmer by profession, but it turns out he’s a grammar and style stickler. He’s more honest in his comments to me than anyone else is. (Others: “You might want to consider …” Jesse: “NO. Never write this phrase again.” Others: “Maybe a little unclear?” Jesse: “Huh? I have no idea what you’re saying.”) He’s often editing while I’m sitting in the same room, and I’m often addressing his notes while he’s in the same room. A quick chat resolves a lot. And luckily I don’t have to worry about the reciprocation; I figure he financially benefits from my book being great, so he’s more invested than most. (Also, he loves me, so there’s that.)

4. Tell your “editors” what you want from them. Is this a final, final draft, about which you must know every tiny flaw? Or are you concerned about specific structural issues they can look for? Or is this early in the process, when you need encouragement more than anything else?

‘How’s the Book Going?’

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegPeople love to ask this question of writers who are writing a book. I don’t blame them. What else are they supposed to ask? It does seem like the natural equivalent to “How’s work?” They’re trying to start a conversation is all. They’re trying to show interest in the writer’s life and livelihood. And for certain people (close friends and family, plus other writers) who will actually sit through a genuine answer to this question, it’s fine to ask.

But the cocktail-party version always feels fraught for me. It’s like people who ask “How are you?” in passing. They don’t want to know the real answer; they just want to express their vague interest in your well-being and then hear, “Fine. How are you?” Sometimes I also feel this pressure to make the answer super-glamorous, to live up to some kind of Hemingway fantasy people have about professional authors. “It’s great! I shot a boar and then went running with the bulls last week, and somehow when I came home, another three chapters had magically appeared on my computer in the perfect, terse prose of a master!” Given the subject matter of my work, I also feel a pressure from others to make it glamorous by Hollywood standards: “Oh, I barely have to write the thing. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have volunteered to personally ghost-write entire chapters for me, then come over and shower me in some of the excess hundred-dollar bills they have lying around.”

The accurate answer, however, is: “I transcribed another interview today. Then I printed it out and highlighted the best quotes and stories. Then I had a glass of iced tea. Then I started copying and pasting the quotes and anecdotes from the transcribed file into the working draft of my book in what I believe are the best locations for those quotes and anecdotes. Then I started working them into the narrative, but I didn’t finish because our take-out burrito order arrived. Then I ate and watched an old episode of The Sopranos.”

If you’re really wondering how the book’s going right now, I have about five huge transcripts to get through, plus a few more on the way; the good news is I already have a 90,000-word, very messy draft. I also have several fresh highlighters in different, exciting colors.

How it actually feels every day is best described by this recent New York Times essay by Rachel Schteir about the constant failure that writing requires. Even productive days feel like a series of failures. In it, she quotes Junot Diaz:“In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” Even writing a book on contract for a publisher feels like a kind of failure for me right now: Every day, I fail to finish the book. Then, one day, somehow, miraculously, I will not fail. I will finish. Then I’ll start failing at something else.