Friday, November 28, 2008

One last GCC Hurrah

So, I know I said that last week was my final GCC tour, but Saralee Rosenberg asked if I could kindly tour her, as she'd just joined when I opted out. So below, please see some fun answers to a variety of questions about her book, Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead. (What a great title!) And for a little FYI: I know there was some debate in the comments section as to why I left the GCC, and I just wanted to address it quickly because I think these women are fabulous, and I think the camaraderie that they provide is also fabulous. In a nutshell, we all commit to touring each other on specific dates, and the truth is that once I start writing my next book (which I plan to in about two weeks after I get back from my vacation), I'm no longer going to be able to honor that commitment. I intend to keep blogging, but it might be more erratic or come in spurts or take me on different tangents as I delve into the writing process, and it wasn't fair to these authors if I wasn't able to tour them...nor would it be fair to me if I felt really guilty over this obligation that I knew I couldn't honor. So, I hope that clears up those questions that were posed in the comments section... :)

Without further ado, Saralee Rosenberg and Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead.

In Mindy's yoga-obsessed, thirty-is-the-new-wife neighborhood, every day is a battle between Dunkin' Donuts, her jaws-of-life jeans, and Beth Diamond, the self-absorbed sancti-mommy next door who looks sixteen from the back. So much for sharing the chores, the stores, and the occasional mischief to rival Wisteria Lane.

It's another day, another dilemma until Beth's marriage becomes fodder on Facebook. Suddenly the Ivy League blonde needs to be "friended," and Mindy is the last mom standing. Together they take on hormones and hunger, family feuds and fidelity, and a harrowing journey that spills the truth about an unplanned pregnancy and a seventy-year old miracle that altered their fates forever.

Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead is a hilarious, stirring romp over fences and defenses that begs the question, what did you do to deserve living next door to a crazy woman? Sometimes it's worth finding out.

Q. What was the inspiration for your new novel?

A. Of my four novels, DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD is the only one that was inspired by, well, me! This story is based on my first novel, ALL IN THE CARDS, which was never published, but did take a very exciting journey to Hollywood. Back in 1997, Bette Midler optioned it for a feature film (she was looking for a follow up comedy to “First Wives Club”). Exactly! Wow! First time out and it’s a home run. Sadly, the reason you never heard of it is because ultimately, Bette and her partner couldn’t get financing or find the right screenwriter to adapt it. Bye bye Bette... Now fast forward to a few years ago. My novels, A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE, CLAIRE VOYANT and FATE & MS. FORTUNE had done very well but were about single women looking for love in all the wrong places. I wanted to write about my “peeps” in the suburbs and pitched my editor on letting me rewrite ALL IN THE CARDS. She was hesitant because she wasn’t sure Avon was the right publisher for a suburban/soccer mom story with bickering neighbors. Then came “Desperate Housewives” and suddenly it was, get me suburban/soccer mom stories with bickering neighbors. Timing is everything.... So although DEAR NEIGHBOR is an incarnation of my earliest novel, it is a much richer, deeper, funnier story and is resonating with readers of all ages.

Q. When you got that first phone call announcing you had sold a novel, how did you react? How did you celebrate?

A. Phew. You can’t imagine the relief. I had given up a successful career writing non-fiction, which had sent me on two national book tours, including an appearance on Oprah (heaven!!!!), only to have my writing life come to a screeching halt when I switched to working on a novel. It took me three years to write A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE, another year to find an agent, and the agent a year and a half to make the sale to Lyssa Keusch at Avon. In theory, the sale should have been one of the greatest events of my life, if not for the timing. I got word that the deal was done exactly two days after 9-11, and because I live in the New York area, the grief and shock was all I or anyone could think about. I let family and friends know, of course, but run out and buy diamonds or book a cruise? Didn’t happen. And interestingly enough, all of my book celebrations since then have been, not subdued as much as put in perspective. I’m sure that my joy and satisfaction will always be tempered with the memory that life is so full of yin and yang. And maybe that’s for the best.

Q. Which scene or scenes in your novel did you love writing?

A. I am crazy about writing dialogue and would spend days working on a scene between Mindy and Beth to make sure that I got the tone, the phrasing, the timing and the subtle nuances just right. There was so much that they wanted to say to each other after eight years of making each other crazy, I just had to let it out a little at a time, like air coming out of a balloon. But the scene I loved writing the most was the one where they are in a hotel room and Beth confronts the fact that she might be pregnant. It is a funny, poignant moment where both characters reveal their greatest joys and misgivings of motherhood and I remember when I sat at my computer, the words just poured out and I had to sit still to hear every last word coming through. I realized at the end that they had just broadcast my own conflicts and vulnerabilities about being a mom and it was whoa... where did that come from?

Q. Is there a scene you cut from the book that you kind of wish you could put back in?

A. Funny you should ask. Originally, I wanted to title the book Same S--T, Different Zip because the story was very much about that no matter where you live, you have to put up with so much petty neighbor crap and competition. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t allowed to have a curse in the title but in keeping with the theme, I incorporated a funny blog in the story titled, “You Say You Want A Revelation”. It was “written” by a mom in Georgia and Mindy was so hooked on it, she couldn’t wait for the next post. Unfortunately, the blog, which appeared every few chapters, took up a lot of space and got cut on the editing room floor. Bummer. It had some very funny commentary, but I did get to include one out-take in the back of the book.

Q. When and where do you write? Is it cluttered or minimalist heaven?

A. I’m a crack-of- dawn morning writer maybe because my muses are busy all night and can’t wait to have me pour out what they sunk in (at least they let me go to the bathroom first). That being said, when I’m in the zone, I write morning, noon and night. I know I’m done, however, when I look up at the computer screen and I see this, “She said, hjkljkl;uiop.” Then it’s time to shut the lights. As for where I write, the majority of my work is written while chained to my computer table which is situated right smack in the middle of my master bedroom... I never thought this would be my workspace. I always fantasized about having the kind of home office that “playwright” Diane Keaton got in “Something’s Gotta Give.” - this huge, white, ocean-facing office that was stocked with floral bouquets and a breathtaking view. Perhaps one day, but for now it’s fine. I look out at my beautiful backyard and at least my commute is a breeze. Not to mention I can make it to the fridge in under thirty seconds.

Q. When deadlines hit, what happens in your house?

A. Let me put it this way. Please don’t ring my bell unless you’re bringing fresh baked cookies because I don’t want you to see that the dining room looks like a mini landfill. And that’s before you reach the piles on the stairs (I swear there is one that has been there since Clinton was President). The clothes in the dryer go round and round for days because I keep hitting wrinkle remove, we run out of milk, the shows saved on Tivo go unwatched, calls from my kids get answered with, “Make it quick and NO CRISIS’s today”. Also I look like hell and probably need of a touch up. As for dinner? The family is on their own... although they would tell you I say that every day. Basically it’s every man/child for himself and don’t give me a hard time about anything... This is why I write all the time, otherwise I’d lose my privileges, lol.

Q. Do you put friends in books? Have any of them recognized themselves?

A. I get asked all the time by family and friends to be in one of my novels, but I tend not to go there unless they’re willing to buy several dozen books in appreciation for being immortalized (if Girl Scout Moms can bribe, so can I). Once I did give in and named a character after a friend, only to describe the character as a philandering shoplifter. She was horrified and wanted to know how I knew? I didn’t know, I made it up, but boy did that make things interesting afterwards... Also, my husband’s business partner had been prodding me for years, to which I would say that a character who sold insurance, played golf and visited his grandkids in Florida would not exactly be memorable. But finally, in Dear Neighbor, to get him to stop bugging me, I did name a minor character Steven Hoffman. I made him a lawyer in Portland, and it really made Steve’s day... then he asked why he wasn’t a major character and could I feature him again in the next book? Men!!!!

Q. Do you think about writing series or do you prefer stand alone titles?

A. Readers often ask if I can turn my novels into a series because they like the characters so much and want to revisit them, which is great. I have thought about it, but the bottom line is, the high drama, intrigue and craziness that unfolds in the novel is pretty much a once in a lifetime event for the characters. I wouldn’t know how to replicate the same level of intensity and sea changes and I’d be afraid that readers would post this on Amazon: “The first book was so much better!” That being said, I have thought about writing a novel where my previous characters make token appearances so readers could learn what was new in their lives. I might call it WHINED AND DINED, and it would take place at a spa weekend so that there would be a chance for lots of characters to mingle and to get to know one another. And I do like the idea of having tough-as-nails Shelby Lazarus fighting over a massage therapist named Ivan with get-out-of-way Beth. Stay tuned.

Q. What comes first? The title or the idea?

A. For DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD, the title came to me only a few months before publication and trust me, by then I was in a total panic. The original title, based on the very earliest draft, was ALL IN THE CARDS, but everyone agreed that was kind of boring. Then I submitted a list of twenty titles, some interesting, some wacky, some that would never fly because they involved curse words. Here is a sampling: Hot, Hungry and Hormonal; Ask Your Doctor if Stress Is Right for You; Same SH-T, Different Zip; If Lucy Hated Ethel; and one of my personal favorites, The Bitch Next Door. No, no, no, my editor said to all of those. Then I came up with Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead and she smiled. We have a winner!!! And I must admit, it’s a beauty. Everyone gets it. No need for an explanation. As for my novel, CLAIRE VOYANT, that title came to me years ago and it took me a while to create an entire story based on the premise that a girl named Claire would have super natural abilities.

Q. What is up next for you?

A. I am very excited about my next novel because the focus is about a child leaving for college and this is hitting very close to home fas our youngest is now a senior in high school. But in this story, Jackie, a twice-divorced mom, has one son, 17-year old Daniel and she is in a panic thinking that when he leaves for college in the fall, she’ll be left alone with her ornery, widowed father. Thus, when she sets off on the campus tour circuit, she decides to throw caution and her underwear to the wind and boy does she have one hell of a good time. It’s worse senioritis than even Daniel has and their adventures visiting the Ivies is one for the books. In the end, she rediscovers the smart, ambitious girl she left behind at Yale Law and pledges to get her life back on track. The title of the book is EARLY DECISION and I think it’s going to be my best yet. No publication date as of yet.

Q. If Oprah invited you on her show, what would the theme of that show be?

A. Sigh. I’ve actually had the distinct privilege of appearing on Oprah to discuss my non-fiction book, 50 FABULOUS PLACES TO RAISE A FAMILY, and I gotta tell you, it was awesome. She was soooo nice and I and my husband/co-author were treated like royalty. We got the limousine, the fancy hotel, the nice dinner out, hair and make-up and a souvenir coffee cup that still sits on my desk as a pen holder. And Steadman was there, too (he smelled so good!) Would I love to be a guest again? Are you kidding me? It would be a dream come true to be invited back as a best selling novelist. In fact, I had a dream scene in DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD that involved my character Mindy being on the show to talk about what it was like to live next door to Beth, the bitch. It had to be cut because of space limitations, but trust me, Oprah is always on my mind. Nobody sells a book like her.

Q. What is one of your strangest/most quirky author experiences?

A. My first three novels are a trilogy in that they all deal with the super natural. All of my main characters have funny and intriguing encounters with the other side, the after life, and/or a ghost. But never did I expect that I would personally have a strange encounter with the spirit world while I was hard at work. And yet... I had been writing my debut novel, A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE over a three year period, and as you can imagine, was very very tired. All I wanted to do was cross the finish line, have a good cry and eat a box of Mallomars... One night, I was working on the final pages and was so bleary eyed I convinced myself that the ending was terrible but maybe my editor wouldn’t notice, or would say to me, no, this is great, don’t change a word. But just as I was fixing the last page, we had a power outage and the whole house went dark. It was so strange. There was no storm, no reason to lose power. But when the lights came back on a minute later, I had lost the latest version of the ending. It literally disappeared and I freaked out and cried. How could this happen? On a whim I called my neighbors to see if their power had gone out but it turned out ours was the only house that did... Clearly it was a sign from above. The next morning I started over on the ending, and when I finished, it was so much better, so much more rewarding. This time I cried from joy. I had finished and it was great.

Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline or are you more organic?

A. I know that every author has a different approach and there is no right or wrong way to go about writing a novel. For me, the most important thing is to have a steady handle on my protagonist because I believe that the question readers should ask is not what is your book about but who? If the main character is multi-dimensional and in a serious bind, that is the recipe for a great story. The way that I develop a compelling character is to write their back story- pages and pages of how their life unfolded, what frustrates them, the things they desire that have eluded them, etc. Then I put on my Katie Couric hat and interview them and out of that, comes tons of possible story lines. In the end, I liken the process of writing a novel to driving with a man. I know where I want to go but damned if I’m going to stop for directions. Sure I’ll get lost but eventually I’ll arrive at my destination and tell everyone I knew where I was going from the get go. And one other thing. I do not outline because I find it too confining. No surprise for the writer? None for the reader, either.

Q. What is your writer fantasy?

A. I can only have one? I have several. I want to make it to the New York Times Best Seller List and stay there for at least a year. No wait. I want to have two books on the list at the same time, just like Jodi Piccoult. I also want to have Oprah tell me that she couldn’t put my book down and why am I wasting time talking to her, I should be busy writing the next one. I also want a feature film or TV show to be developed based on my book and it should star Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer (and their maybe babies). Finally, I would like my kids to say to me, “Mom. You Rock!”

Q. Would your high school friends be surprised to discover you’d become a novelist?

A. Funny question. When I attended my 20th high school reunion in Munster, Indiana, I had been living in New York since graduating college and had lost contact with most of my classmates. One of the first people I ran into was Mary Ann Jugovic, the class valedictorian and the sweetest girl ever. The first thing I said to her is, “please tell me that you went to med school and became a pediatrician.” To which she said, “only if you tell me that you moved to New York and became a writer.” And the verdict was? She was a pediatrician with a beautiful family and I was an author with a beautiful family. Dreams do come true.

Q. If you could ask one author for one piece of advice, who would you ask and what would you want to know?

A. I’m very lucky because I actually had that opportunity. One of my favorite authors in the world is the novelist, Sol Stein, who wrote THE MAGICIAN and THE LIVING ROOM, among many others. I discovered him in college and feel in some ways, he was an influence in my secretly aspiring to be a writer. Recently, I was curious to see if he was still writing (or even still alive) and discovered he had a website and an email address. I wrote him this long, flowery message, never expecting a response. But the next day he sent me a lovely note back and we exchanged several emails. In one of them I asked his advice on whether I should change my name and use a pseudonym for my next book. This is something that my editor and agent had been discussing and I was torn. He wrote back and said, don’t you dare. Saralee Rosenberg is a wonderful name and quite memorable.... now you know why I loved this guy, and so far, I’ve followed his advice.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Things I Currently Love

So this is a thread that we sometimes do on one of my writer's boards, and in light of this week's holiday, I thought it would be fun to carry over here. There are always a lot of things to gripe about in the world of freelancing and writing, but there are also some wonderful things that comes with living this life. So this thread, on our board, always serves as a reminder of the wonderful - and simple - things in life. The rules: we all love our families, we all love it when we land an assignment, so we steer clear of things like that...see my list below for the things I'm currently loving. And happy Thanksgiving!

1) Chuck on NBC. Oh man, do I love this show! (Followed very closely by 30 Rock.)
2) Napster to Go. (This one is always on my list, but I could spend hour after hour exploring new music. Right now, I'm listening to The Rescues, Frightened Rabbit and David Cook - yes, I'm man (or woman) enough to admit it.)
3) Edy's Slow-Churned Ice Cream. (The Peanut Butter Chocolate Cup is my current fave, but I'll pretty much inhale any of the options. I have no fewer than three in my freezer at all times.)
4) J. Crew crewcuts for my kids. As soon as I get a sale email in my inbox, I'm off to the site like a Pavlovian rat. I just got the CUTEST bathing suit for my daughter for our upcoming vacation that I've ever seen.
5) Our upcoming vacation. Just the thought of a beach and a hotel somewhere waiting for me is enough.

So, what about you?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Get Known Before the Book Deal

So today, I am super-duper excited because I have a guest here whom I think will be very, very helpful for many of you out there. We've discussed platform on the blog before - namely, how critical developing a platform is BEFORE you try to land your book deal, and while I've tried to offer examples and ways that you can build this platform, I'm certainly not the world's top authority. But I might just have the world's top authority here today to answer a few questions! Yay!

Christina Katz is an author pal of mine (one of those incredibly supportive, collaborative types whom I adore!), and her new book is called, Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. I thought that she sounded like the *perfect* expert for Ask Allison readers, so below, here are some questions that I posed and that she took the time to answer.

1) How crucial is platform these days? If you don't have a platform, are you much less likely to land a book deal?
I’d say a platform is more crucial than ever before. A platform is a promise, which says you will not only create something to sell (a book), but also promote it to the specific readers who will want to purchase it. Not very long ago, publishers were overproducing books without sufficient publicity for the majority of them, so landing a book deal hinged more on a strong book concept at the “right” time by the “right” writer. To a certain extent, acquiring editors were pressured to acquire enough books to be a player in the over-production game and “A list” authors got the lion’s share of the publicity dollars. Today, things are different. Yes, editors are still acquiring books. But we are all more aware that precious resources —trees, gas, money, etc. — are used to produce them. The books currently making the cut are going to get acquired by houses operating with smaller staffs and reduced budgets, thanks to the economy. Publishers are going to necessarily produce fewer books, which means more competition for author status among writers. What it all boils down to is that a writer can have a great book idea at the perfect time and be the absolute best person to write that book…and still not land the deal if he or she does not have the platform that is going to fulfill the promise to sell the book. A platform-strong writer is a writer with influence. Agents and editors have known this for years and have been looking for platform-strong writers and getting them book deals. If you want to land the book deal, today, then you need to be a platform-strong writer.

2) Are there any types of writers who don’t need a platform?
Yes. There are dozens of reasons to write but only writers who want to establish themselves as professional writers, who aspire to publish a book or a self-published book need to concern themselves with platform development. If you are writing for other reasons, such as to heal, to connect with friends and family, or just for pleasure, then probably you don’t need a platform. There’s no reason why those writers should feel pressured to have a platform. Doing so might hinder rather than help.

3) Basic (and general, but important) question: can you give three specific tips to help writers launch their platform?
A. Clarify the expertise you have to offer. If you don’t know what your expertise is, then mulling it over could take some time. And that’s okay. Consult experts you respect. Do some self-refection. Get out and connect with others like you through associations or conferences. Write some articles on things you know how to do. This is how Cindy Hudson discovered how much she knew about mother-daughter book clubs [more on:]. Today, she has a book deal with Seal Press. Don’t be afraid to take time for platform development before you start spending a lot of time online…especially if you already are online but are not getting any closer to accomplishing your professional writing goals. When it comes to clarifying your expertise, taking a step back and looking within is a very good strategy.

B. Carve out a distinct niche among others who are offering similar expertise. How are you different? Inquiring minds want to know. You’ll have to communicate who you are and what you do quickly. Attention spans are getting shorter, so writing down what you do concisely is critical. Platform isn’t the credentials or your resume; it’s what you currently do. It’s current, constantly evolving, and updated on an ongoing basis. Allison, your blog is a perfect example. (AWS: Thank you!) As a part of your platform, your blog is a place where you authentically share what you are learning and have learned about publishing to assist other writers. Your service garners loyalty and that loyalty is priceless, both to those you serve and to you. Any niche should always be a win-win proposition like this.

C. Identify and respond to your audience. If you are vague about your audience, the whole writing process takes longer and typically requires more rewriting. This applies to books, blogs and everything else. But when you identify your specific audience and begin speaking to them directly, the conversation can spark all kinds of wonderful ideas, connections and opportunities. In less than one year, look what Jenny Kales has been able to accomplish in her blog, Nut-free Mom []. Small concrete steps build over time and create career momentum.

4) What about blogging? Everyone seems to do it these days, but is it essential? What can you do to make your blog stand out?
Blogging can be tricky and not just for folks who are unfamiliar with the conventions. For example, blogging can be a challenge for veterans who need to keep things fresh and keep themselves engaged while moving forward into new territory. On one hand, blogging is great and there are many good reasons to blog: to build and maintain your identity online, to be a part of an extended community of bloggers, to explore what it’s like to write and have your writing responded to online, to share about your writing process, to give and receive support, and to become better known. On the other hand, blogging can be a huge time suck from other types of writing you might have to neglect in order to blog. So if you are wondering, “How can I keep up a blog and take care of my four kids and my aging parents and my three pets and meet my deadlines…and…and…?" Then maybe don’t blog right now. Maybe reading blogs for twenty minutes a day and simply learning about blogging until you have a plan, makes sense. For folks who consider blogging a part of their professional writer’s platform, a blog can work wonders. I’ve noticed by studying blog-to-book-deal successes that the phenomenon really has more to do with the person (or people) behind the blog, the quality of writing being posted in the blog, and the degree of professionalism of the writer, than it does with the technology alone or even the amount of time the writer devotes to blogging. So, if you want to make your blog stand out, consider the role it can play as a handy, instant publishing tool to serve your audience. And don’t be afraid to take a creative approach and stand out in the crowd, even as you become a member of a huge online movement.

5) Times are tight, and people don't necessarily want to shell out money right now. Do you have any tips that are also cost-friendly? (Besides buying your book!)
Well, certainly buying my book is the best economic choice for the value that I can think of (wink). But, seriously, platform development doesn’t have to break the bank. Yes, if you don’t take a long-term, incremental approach to platform development, and then suddenly, you have to have a platform and you needed it yesterday…then sure, there are going to be expenses involved. But that’s because in your haste, you are squeezing the most important player out of the game—and that’s you, the writer. So my advice is don’t shell out money at the get-go, educate yourself first and take small steps, so you won’t feel the need to slap together a platform quickly to impress others. I suggest a more long-term approach and working slowly and steadily in order to spend less and save more in the long run. This means, while you are working on your novel, you should be at least planning your platform. And if you want to write nonfiction, I suggest platform development first and book proposal development second. Platform development will help you write a stronger and more impressive proposal. The numbers of people you influence will help close the deal.

6) Let's say you do land that book deal. How involved should an author be (very!) in the promotion process? Do you recommend hiring an outside PR person or should the author be prepared to do a lot of the work him/herself? And if so, what sort of work?
Don’t try to go it alone. Having a team is helpful and important. So not only should the author be involved in the promotion process, the author should be involved way before the promotion process. There are many key people inside a publishing company to introduce yourself to and stay in touch with on an ongoing basis including, but not limited to, your acquisitions editor, your book editor, your publisher’s event planner, your book’s publicity person (if you are lucky enough to get one), sales folks (ask for an introduction) and anyone else within the company your editor thinks you should meet. If you are easily overwhelmed by meeting lots of new people, ask your editor who you should talk to early in the process and then schedule introductions over time. If you can afford a PR person, that’s great. They can assist you with publicizing the book before and after its release, which can be a huge help during an extremely busy time (at least you should be busy—very busy, right Allison?). Be prepared to do research and talk to lots of authors about who they recommend before you approach a several to discuss your needs. On the other hand, there are ample books available that cover how to handle your book’s release in detail (some with more suggestions than are humanly possible). Some favorites I flagged in Get Known include Plug Your Book! By Steve Weber, Self-promotion for the Creative Person by Lee Silber, Publicize Your Book! by Jacqueline Deval, and two by Penny Sansevieri: From Book to Bestseller and Red Hot Internet Publicity. If you can’t afford to hire someone, put together a brainstorming group with your fellow first-time authors and share resources. This can exponentially increase your success.