Friday, July 28, 2006

But Where Do I Come Up With An Idea?

Due partly to your inspiration and partly to my recent reading of Marian Keyes' "The Other Side of the Story," which may or may not be an accurate depiction of the book publishing industry, I'm thinking I'm ready to tackle a novel. Trouble is, I can't make things up. I write decent narrative and I'm great with dialogue, but that adage about your first novel being autobiographical? My biggest fear. So I keep trying to come up with a "plot" out of the air and I just freeze. "Just write" isn't going to cut it for me, I don't think. I've tried that with little success. I need a plan (a "goddamn plan," :) ), or at least a semblance of one so I can know that I'm deviating.

How do I come up with an idea for a plot? Silly as it sounds, the best fiction writing I ever did in college was when a distant friend in another school gave me a one-sentence plot of a play she'd written and I just copied it. Idea plagiarism aside, the story wrote itself once I started. Should I turn to a book about fiction writing? Are any of them actually helpful?

First of all, hee! Can I just say that I read your question and was like, "why does 'goddamn plan' sound so familiar?" And then I realized that you were quoting ME back to me. Ha! I love it.

Okay, I wanted to push this question to the head of the line because I really liked it and because I think it's a really important one. After all, who cares about the intricacies of getting an agent if you can't write your novel in the first place? I'm not sure if I have the best answer for you, so I'm hoping others might chime in too. But the best place for me to start is to tell you my own experience and see if that helps.

For me, the seeds of both books were planted by situations in my own life. For TDLF specifically, I had just lost one of my three closest friends to breast cancer - at 31, six months after her diagnosis - and I needed a way to channel my grief. And as a writer, naturally, what I did was write. HOWEVER. Her situation was just the seed. WhereI went from there was what mattered. I think, as you said in your question, the philosophy of "just write," doesn't always work. Why? Because when you do "just write," you're often times writing aimlessly, and you end up with a bunch of crap that has no purpose in your overall storyline, but you're too blinded to see that.

This is really what happened to me with book #1. Again, I had a seed of an idea - I wanted to explore female friendships, and the nuances, wonders and problems behind them, and I knew how I wanted the story to begin. What I didn't know was where I wanted the story to GO, and thus, not only did the ms stall for a few years, it ended up being filled with a lot of muck on the way to the ending. Why? Because I just wrote. I didn't write with a real purpose in mind.

So...what was the difference between book #1 and TDLF? For starters, I let the idea gestate, which allowed the seed to take root and flourish. Rather than sit down and bang out chapters, I really mulled over who this character would be and all of the potential roadblocks that she'd encounter, not just with cancer but in her every day life. That really helped create a plot. What could go wrong at work? What could go wrong with her love life? What's going on with her family? As I marinated all of these different things, a story arc began to build in my mind, and before I ever took pen to page (or fingers to keyboard, I should say), I had mentally mapped out all of the different figurative places that my heroine would go. She'd deal with cancer, she'd deal with lost love, she'd deal with a distant mother, she'd deal with losing her identity, she'd deal with figuring out how to rebuild herself when she didn't have a choice in the matter. All of these things led me to imagine situations - whether it was having a mini-breakdown at her office or having a monster fight with her mom over her chemo treatment - that evolved into a plot, and eventually, a book.

And this was a really different tactic than with my first time out, where, as I said, I wrote and wrote and wrote, but all I was doing was spitting out words. I hadn't taken the time to let the seed of the idea sink in and see where the characters could take me. And just to reiterate, for me, it was really, really helpful to mentally walk through all of the possible challenges in my heroine's life. In my opinion, too many books meander and lose the reader because there aren't enough obstacles - no one wants to read about someone's boring, placid life. That's not a story. Readers expect change from the characters, they expect to be brought on a journey with the protagonist, and the best way to deliver it (again, in my opinion) is to dredge up conflict. And in these conflicts, you'll often develop your overall story.

A few other notes: when choosing something to write about, whether it's cancer or baseball or friendship or whatever, I do think it's important to choose something that you're passionate about. If you're not, it comes across very clearly in the energy of your writing.

Second, I also think it helps to write about a subject with which you have some level of familiarity - I think this helps fuel that passion and also gives you emotional heft to draw from when you're writing. Sort of like the actor who's going through a divorce and delivers a bang-up, knock-out job in her latest drama because she can go to those deeper, familiar places and tap into the pain that she needs to convey. But I will caution you against writing about your life too literally. Trying to fictionalize 5% of a true story is very difficult (again, my opinion) because your memories are so tied to the real version that they impede your imagination from going to the places it needs to go to create an honest novel. In the initial draft of my first book, I was paralyzed because I had basically lightly fictionalized events from my life, and when those events had played themselves out in the plot, I really couldn't dream up where to take the characters - I couldn't take them where my life had gone, and I wasn't thinking creatively enough to go anywhere else with it. Thus...the multi-year hiatus. For TDLF, I started with a young woman who had breast cancer, and that's really the only similarity that the book shares with the events from my (or my late friend's) life. The character is nothing like my friend and her circumstances couldn't be more different. This allowed me to think of Natalie, my heroine, as an entirely separate person, and I never once thought, "Oh, what would my friend have done in this situation." It was all about what Natalie would do.

I don't know if that answers your question, but I guess, in short, I'd look around your own life and find something that really engages you: why men and women can't be friends, why some people stay married forever and some don't, why your friend's friend was killed in a car accident for no apparent reason...I dunno...and let the seed of this concept sink in while your subconscious explores it for a while. From there, you just might develop a novel.

Anyone have better suggestions? Let's hear 'em.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Trusting Your Gut

I envy you for being able to trust your gut about your second book and to walk away from an agent who didn't believe in it. How do you KNOW, when your manuscript is good, and to keep going with it in spite of the nonbelievers?

First off, I'm really, really tired today, so apologies for only answering one question. I have neighbors who seem not to understand that allowing their kids to run around and jump off the bed and do various such activities that create loud thumps and bumps and lumps at, oh, 12:35 in the morning might disturb those sleeping below...despite repeated notes under their door. So I'm f-ing tired. Sorry. Sometimes I just hate living in NYC. Fortunately, we're moving to a new apt in a few months, and I can only pray that we have more considerate neighbors. Or at least that I can drink a fully caffeinated cup of coffee by then. (Until that time, two words: Stila concealor.)

Back to the question: how did I know? Hmmm, I've thought a lot about this. First of all, I think that some of it certainly had to do with writing a previous book that wasn't as strong. As I wrote TDLF, I was really able to hone in on where I'd made a lot of mistakes with #1 and knew that I wasn't making them this time around. So that, just in and of itself, definitely boosted my confidence.

The second factor was the feedback that I was getting from objective readers, readers who had liked #1 well-enough (or in my brother's case, had tried to say something positive but really struggled to come up with anything remotely praise-worthy - ha!), but who went bananas over this one. I mean, really went nuts. Who are these objective readers? Well, usually it's not recommended that family members be considered "objective readers," since they'll praise just about any drivel that you whip up, but in my brother's case, I knew that wasn't true. He's the most rabid reader I know, as well as one of the smartest people I know, and I trusted him to be critical and offer feedback...and he was. I also farmed it out to a friend who professional edits books: she sees all sorts of crap for a living, and I knew she'd give me the straight skinny. She flipped for it, suggesting a few minor tweaks here and there, but mostly just really loved it.

So it wasn't as if I were totally flying blind when I say that I suspected that it was good. But really, what a lot of it came down to was something inherent that's very hard to explain. I just *knew* that I'd written a book that flowed well, that told an engaging story, that had interesting and sympathetic characters, and that would also be commercially appealing. I think the harder question might be, how do you know when you haven't achieved these things? Certainly, I didn't know that I hadn't with #1, and I suspect that some aspiring writers can't see this with their own work that they're currently shopping around. Which isn't a dig. Hey, I've been there. It's just that sometimes we get too attached to our work to step back and view it objectively, right? If you're really, really not having luck getting representation and exhausted most of your options, maybe one solution is to set the ms aside and start fresh. I never would have seen the flaws in #1 if I hadn't written #2. Never. And there's no shame in admitting that. (Please no that I'm not advocating that anyone throw in the towel...writing a new book is just another options, that's all. I'm a firm believer in persistence, so I'd never tell you to abandon that. God knows that half of the battle of being a successful writer is being determined, but there just might reach a point when you have to surrender some of that.)

Oh, one final note that really just pertains to my personal situation. Remember that my first agent had already told me that she was happy with the ms, and it wasn't until an assistant in her office was ho-hum about it that my former agent wavered. This instinctively told me that it wasn't so much an issue with the ms as it was with my agent being gun-shy about submitting me again, especially with a perhaps less-than-perfect (in her mind) ms. She'd been burned once, and didn't want it to happen again. Screw that. In my mind, I was burned once too, and certainly had no interest in repeating history either.

So...anyone else out there ever trusted their gut? What sort of results did it get you? And when do you know to throw in the towel and start fresh?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Really, I Don't Bite!

A quick housekeeping note: I've gotten oodles of email from readers thanking me for offering advice (you're welcome!! thanks for reading!!), but saying they're too shy to ask these questions themselves...which defeats the whole purpose of being able to ask anonymously! So go ahead - ask me! I promise to be gentle in my advice and might be able to answer a question that really will help further your career. Think of it this way: if you can't ask moi, how on earth are you going to be bold enough to market yourself aggressively to agents and editors?

Chew on that while you read today's questions. Then email me at:

On another note, I went on a Felicity binge last night while my husband was at a work dinner. Le sigh. I highly recommend you tune into the WE and catch it in reruns. There's simply nothing better than the final two episodes of Season One (well, except perhaps the final episodes of Season Two), especially when, seven years later, you know that she picked Ben. :) Oh to watch their first kiss, when Ben leans in and his chair shoots out from under him and they just melt into each other, and afterward, Felicity is so stunned that she bolts for the door and mutters, "it's a flight reaction!" Hee! (Remember the days it felt like you absolutely, desperately, fiendishly had to kiss this person RIGHT. NOW? Ah, college.) And even better: once you have it on your DVR, you can fast-forward through all of the irritating Julie scenes. Now, I zap right through (except for the scenes that she's in with Speedman), and it's like she was never on the show.

PS - Blogger's spell-check isn't working, so if you spot errors, blame the man, not me!

Exposing My Worst Nightmare

Here is a question for you- are you worried about second book syndrome? Do you have one written? This is not intended to stress you out- but merely taps into my own primal fears. Am I worried?

DOES THIS (cue: frantic, hair-pulling, sleep-deprived, cuticle-chewing, rabid, sweaty pregnant woman) LOOK LIKE SOMEONE WHO IS WORRIED TO YOU??????!!!??!?

Phew. Okay then. Yes, I am totally and completely suffering from SBS. I'm relieved to know that I'm not alone - Jen Lancaster has blogged about this recently, and I guess I find comfort in numbers. For whatever reason, the second book is 10000000000000x harder than the first. Perhaps it's the pressure of knowing that you delivered once and that you could totally, completely and utterly bomb the next time out, or perhaps it's just that I was so inspired by the idea behind TDLF that it flew out of my brain without much effort, but either way, my second ms has stalled at about 35k words (more on that below). In fact, I'd committed myself to writing 1k words a day over the summer and having a draft completed by Sept, but that was before I discovered blogging. :) Now, the time I spend doing this should be the time I spent doing that. Ah well. Just don't let my agent know! (She's away this week, so I can slip this in!)

Anyone out there working on his or her second book? Got any tips (besides Xanax?) to help?

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Do you ever think you'll come back to your first book, or is it done?

I have a rule...or at least I do now that I'm married. My single girlfriends should never, ever revisit their past - ergo, when their ex-boyfriends come knockin' on their door, begging for them back (which they invariably do), rather than opening said door, they should lock it, bolt it, triple check it, and run to the farthest closet so they're never tempted to let the scoundrel in. Now, it's not like I ever applied this tough love theory to my own dating life, so it should come as no surprise that I'm having a tough time applying it to my writing life too. It's a shame really, that I'm more of a "preach but don't practice" type of gal, because if I were, I'd probably have not only spared myself hours upon days upon weeks of heartbreak (in my single days), but I'd also presently be sparing myself the grueling process of overhauling book #1...which is now turning into book #2.

The problem is that not unlike those exes who held so much allure when they rapped on my figurative front door, the first ms holds too much promise, too much blood, sweat and tears for me to merely abandon it. So...yes, I've come back to it. Whether or not this is the smart move, only time will tell.

The hard part about returning to an old ms (or an old boyfriend) is that with time, I'm able to see the flaws much more clearly. Of course, I'm also able to see a few of the dazzling nuggets, which is why I can't let go of it in the first place. I still love the overall story idea, which focuses on the intricacies of female friendships, and I still love some of the scenes and writing. But with a much better novel under my belt, some of it also feels almost amateurish.

So what I'm currently in the process of doing is breaking down the ms and then rebuilding it. Which is sort of like rebuilding your house when you've left your living room and bathroom intact but the rest is in shambles. In other words, it might have just been easier to start over. (Find a new house, get a new boyfriend: choose your metaphor - I'm on a roll today!) I've nuanced the characters and have rejiggered some of the plot but left the overall arc of the a point. And it's hard, VERY hard. Because, as I said, I'm fitting pieces back into the ms rather than writing it organically.

That said, when I go back and reread what I have, I'm really happy with something must be working, I guess. (Don't tell that my single girlfriends!) But like those rekindled relationships with exes, only time will tell.

(Sidenote: I've actually had the good fortune to date some wonderful guys, some of whom I'm still good friends with - and who read this blog, so I don't mean to bust on them in this post! The analogy just worked too well not to run with it.) :)

Anyone else out there overhauled a previous ms? Any dos and don'ts?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Writers' Guidelines, Schmiter's Guidlines

I have an article I have been working on that would be great for a bridal magazine, however I am not sure where to find writer/submission guidelines for any of them. I have tried finding them online. Do you know of a resource to find magazine markets?

This seemingly simple question raises a whole slew of smaller questions that I want to address. The first of them covers writers' guidelines. Okay, now, just like I told you before, in terms of emailing agents, I'm going to tell you to toss writers' guidelines out the window. (Pause for the collective gasp of readers.) Yes, really. I know of very few established freelance writers who read them, much less seek them out. The true guidelines for most magazines are these: write a great query, email it to the appropriate editor (check the masthead for the correct name and dept), then follow-up a few weeks later. If they don't want to use it, they won't. WGs are often written to weed out the riff-raff (a word I've now used twice in one week, which has to be some sort of record). Don't know if the section you're interested in takes freelancers? Check the articles: if there's a byline there that doesn't match up with an editor's name on the masthead, it's probably freelanced. And even if it's not, so what? You sent a query, and if they can't use it, no real loss.

Before you complain that you don't know how to find email addys for editors, I'll tell you two things: 1) what makes a great freelance writer is not only his or her ability to write, but to research. This information is out there, it's up to you to find it. One great place to start is Another is at the magazine's parent company's website, such as Conde Nast or Hearst. You can often track down the generic forumla somewhere on there (check the press releases or media kits), and then just plug in the name of the editor. 2) Because you're faithfully reading my blog, I'll make it a little easier for you. Here are some formulas for major publishing companies:

American Media:
Conde Nast:

Love me yet?

Writers Market is obviously another way to find new markets. A word of caution, however. Many of their listings are outdated. And many of them aren't entirely accurate. For example, they'll give you a generic email address or tell you to snail mail your query or whatever. Again, riff? Meet raff. Whomever submits this info to WM figures that a lot of beginners are using WM, and they're simply trying to weed you out from the get-go. You are MUCH likelier to have success if you contact someone with a real name and real email address, rather than a general email inbox (or snailed address). I do think that WM is a good place to research potential new markets, especially when you've exhausted all of the ones you can think of on your own, but google might work just as well.

The other thing that your question brings up is the bridal market. I think that wedding writing is a wonderful, wonderful way to break into regional and online magazines. There are SO many out there: everything from, I dunno, Northern California Winery Brides (I made that up) to The Knot to a gazillion in between, and I know a lot of writers who happily toil for these mags and sites. They're a great way to build reputable clips and have some fun. I actually got my first national clip from Bride's, and I'll forever be indebted to my wonderful editor there for allowing me a shot at the big time.

Does anyone use writers' guidelines anymore? Care to prove me wrong?

Is Your Agent On Your Speed Dial?

How often do you speak with your agent? What's a standard level of communication between an agent and a client?

Standard? Well, I'm not sure. But I can tell you about my own experience. When my agent and I were on submission, we were talking or emailing every day, often a few times a day. As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to be kept in the loop, and we had fun calming our nerves and swapping "fingers crossed!!!" emails. Once the book had sold, our daily correspondence slowed - after all, she had other clients to deal with or else she'd never be a successful agent with juicy deals to post on Publishers Marketplace.

These days, we probably email about once a week, but this is almost always related to the book - blurb getting, potential film news, etc. Occasionally, one of us picks up the phone just to catch up, but I'm well-aware of the demands on her time. That said, I do think it's important to have an agent whom you trust will get back to you within a day (or so). Mine almost always does, and to me, at least, it's a sign of both her professionalism and her respect for me as a client.

I should also note that I'm fortunate enough to consider my agent a friend. I really do like her as a person (and vice versa). Now, not every writer wants this in an agent, and certainly not every agent wants this in a client (see: Snark, Miss), and while it wasn't a requirement for me, I rather like it. Are we friends enough to do girls' poker night every Wednesday? Of course not. But we're friends enough that I know what's going on - to a certain point - in her life (and vice versa), and it's bred an intangible camaraderie that makes me value her more as an agent. Certainly, some authors and agents will caution you against this. First and foremost, the agent-client relationship is that of business. Without a doubt. But it's always nice when you actually enjoy the company of those with whom you work, is it not? That's no crime.

So how often do you hear from your agent? Am I the norm?

Monday, July 24, 2006

I Want To Write for Vanity Fair! Tell Me How.

I have a Ph.D. in education and before I quit working to be home with kids and pursue fiction writing, I taught at a major university, was part of research projects, and worked in countless classrooms all over the country...but my work being class-room based, I don't have publishing credits. Now I'm looking to parlay my experience into writing--Parents, Brain Child, etc. I'm just starting to think about querying and wonder how hard is it to break into major magazines, even with credentials?

I've gotten several variations of this question, so I'm basically going to address the overall question that was asked: how hard is it to break into the majors, and how can I go about doing it?

Well, listen, here's the bad news: it's not easy. I can't really sugar-coat that. I think of freelance writing a lot like acting: there are thousands upon thousands of writers who probably ooze talent and are entirely competent, but only a few crack the upper tier. And cracking it just isn't that simple, even though the job might seem like anyone can do it. (Trust me, I get those emails from friends of friends of friends: "Hiya! I want to do what you do - it seems so easy and perfect! Can you get me an assignment!?!?" Ha! If only. (**ETA: I don't mean to imply that I mind getting asked for help from friends of friends! This happens all the time, and I'm always happy to help. It's the ones that have the assumption that they can just slide into my position that give me pause...and a chuckle...and annoyance.**) But a lot of people can't do it. Freelance writing isn't a snap: it requires constant hustling, more social skills than you'd imagine, dealing with the ebbs and flows of the marketplace, meeting deadlines (often rigid ones), managing demands of editors, delivering revisions per an editor's (often times multiple editors') requests, developing unique story ideas (yes, I know, you often feel like these stories aren't that different than one another, but sending an editor an idea called, "The Ten Healthiest Foods for Your Body," won't cut me), finding the right experts and research to back up your writing, knowing the tone of each distinctive magazine (i.e., I write for both Women's Health and Woman's Day...not exactly the same voice or readership), etc, etc, etc.

So with those illusions out of the way, let me offer a glimmer of hope! The first thing that you'll need to start freelancing is some clips. Now, how the hell do you gather clips when you've never been published, and yet you need the clips to GET published? Well, yes, that's a little tricky. The catch-22 my friend. Here's the honest answer: you're probably not going to land your first clip at Glamour, Parents or Men's Health (or wherever). These editors get dozens of dozens of queries each week, and they're not going to take a chance and pay an unknown commodity $2 a word. They simply don't have to: they have a pool of writers whom they know can deliver what they need. (Not to say that they don't use writers outside of the pool - they do - but even those writers have similar credits. Or they get referrals from other editors...and yep, these editors are at other major mags, so the problem for a newbie remains.)

What I suggest instead (and I teach an annual workshop on this for Woman's Day, and I know that some attendees have had success with this route) is gathering clips in regional, local or online publications. The web is a fantastic way to get your start. Sites constantly need fresh content, and because the turnover rate is so high (and the pay rates a little lower), they work with a diverse pool of writers. Ditto newspapers (your local paper is a gold mine) or regional magazines. Start there. Build your portfolio of clips. Then, when you develop a perfect query for InStyle, you have something to prove to the editor that you can deliver.

Another smart route is to pitch the FOB section of the magazine. FOB stands for front-of-book, and it's a literal term: this is the first 1/3-1/2 of the magazine that contains those quick little articles that you read while on the treadmill. When you pitch an editor an FOB, you can often pitch him or her multiple ideas, and he'll pick and choose what might work for him. (Good places to find FOB ideas are in recently released research, studies or newly released books.) Assigning you a 200 word FOB involves much less risk for a new-to-you editor...Essentially, if you suck, he can rewrite it (or reassign it), and he isn't out a lot of time or money. But if you come through, you can build a relationship with him, which might eventually lead to bigger and more lucrative assignments. I got my start at Cooking Light and Men's Health, among others, in the FOB depts, and have since graduated to features.

I wish I could say that your background - whether it's a Ph.D or as a top chef - gives you an automatic in. While it might help you hone your pitches and sway an editor if she's unsure about assigning to you, it won't really open doors. Why? Because editors at the major magazines need someone who can write. And until you've shown them that you can, the rest of it is irrelevant.

While We're on the Subject of Magazine Queries

a) How do you get your ideas for your articles? Are you given the ideas like writing about brides buying sleeved dresses or do you track trends? b) Once you get/given the idea, how many words do you approx. write? c) If you have a certain idea, do you pitch the idea to mag editors then write the story or do you write the story then pitch that?

a) I get my ideas from every day life, as simple as that seems. Right now, I do a lot of parenting writing, and one of the easiest ways for me to come up with a story idea is just to observe my son. Now, I touched on this a bit in the previous post, but the hardest part of developing a query idea is coming up with a unique angle for it. Why the italics? Because unique and fresh come out of an editor's mouth as often as oxygen. "What makes this fresh?" "We've covered this before, can you come up with something unique about it?" Etc. Querying is a lot easier in theory than in reality. If you've thought of the generic overall story idea, so too have the editors, not to mention 117 other writers who have pitched it. You need to peg it to a new study or a new trend or a new something to grab an editor's attention.

I'm fortunate enough these days to have many of my assignments brought to me, so I don't query too, too often anymore. But I've been freelancing for a long time: in essence, I'm the actress who finally gets scripts sent to her after years of auditioning for B-movies. But I'm only afforded this luxury because I busted my ass proving to my editors that I'm their go-to gal. I'm lucky to be in this position, but I've also earned it.

b) Editors give you the word count when they assign you the story, whether it was your idea or theirs. An average feature story can run anywhere from 1200 on up (though the major consumer magazines rarely assign over about 2500), while an FOB is usually about 150-400 words.

c) NEVER, EVER write the entire story and send it into the editor BEFORE he or she has assigned it. You're gonging yourself before you've even had the chance to step onto the stage: this is the ultimate sign of a newbie. Editors like to be able to put their own stamp on the story - what you envision is most likely not entirely what they envision. They want to give you nuggets to include, angles to follow, studies to track down. Writing a completed piece before they've even AGREED that it's for them is just totally and completely wrong. I can't really say it any other way. (The exception to this rule, however, is for essays. Essays are almost always written in full and sent in. And occasionally travel pieces as well, though that varies from newspaper to newspaper.)