Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jen A. Miller is a Jack(stress) of All Trades

Hmmm, what's the feminine version of "Jack?" I'm not sure, but regardless, Jen A. Miller is it. So I'm psyched to host her here on Ask Allison because there is nothing that this gal can't tackle. Case in point: her new book, The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May, just hit bookshelves, and when she's not busy penning guide books, she's reviewing other authors' books for major magazines and newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer. Oh, and she still finds time to write articles for some heavy hitting national mags and complete 10-mile races. I know, I'd hate her too if she weren't such a fabulous person and friend.

Here, Jen stops by to answer a few questions on everything from how she got her start to whether or not she feels guilty over slamming a book. After you're done reading, check out her two blogs;
Down the Shore With Jen and Book a Week With Jen, (which, incidentally, means that she's reading a book a week, not that you can book a week with her in person!).

1) Best I know – and correct me if I'm wrong – you're not a travel writer, so how did you land a gig writing a book all about the Jersey Shore? Did you go to them or did they come to you? From there, what happened?
I'm not a travel writer in the sense of "hey, Jen, we're going to send you to a location and you write about it" sense of the term -- well, not all the time though I do some of that now. My speciality became writing about my own backyard because of location and, quite frankly, money. One of my first freelance gigs was writing articles about South Jersey people and places for SJ Magazine []. I was writing about things I knew, and things that were within short driving range. I eventually became editor of that magazine, and really found this area, which is where I grew up, fascinating.

One of my favorite assignments was putting their annual "best of" feature because it was so fun to read about and write about what people told me were the best. After editing the magazine for about a year, I went freelance, and continued to write about my area -- Philadelphia for USAirways Magazine, New Jersey for New Jersey Monthly, Bust, The New York Times. It seemed so much easier to write about things that were in my area -- I could drive to there, interview people, take notes, and then drive home. It was cheaper, too! And fascinating. People started recognizing my name and would feed me information. I never knew you could 'hunt' the Jersey devil, or visit Walt Whitman's tomb.

As I wrote more about New Jersey, I learned more, and the cycle kept going. The shore also has a special meaning for me and my family. We've been vacationing there since, well, before I was born -- my grandfather started taking the kids down when my mom was little. I spent my summers up until college, and it remained this place where, even then, I knew life was a little easier, a little more casual, and always involved the beach. I wrote pieces about it here and there, and I was pitching a lot of articles about the sort of re-birth of Atlantic City when I read a market guide on Freelance Success that Countryman press was looking for guidebooks. I wrote the editor a quick note seeing if she would be interested in a book on Atlantic City, and she said maybe -- the area needed to be bigger for the book. So I thought about regions and looked at what would fit with AC. The answer was simple, at least for me: the South Jersey Shore. That's where most people in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs go on vacation. They go down the shore, and that region has created its sort of own identity. Plus, I couldn't find another book that catered just to that area. So I pitched that, and they accepted.

2) I remember that you had some tight deadlines. Any tips to help readers crank out to meet their deadlines? What did you do when you absolutely felt like you couldn't face the computer for another second?
I did and I didn't. I had the contract for about a year, but the problem with the shore is it's not a year round kind of place. Aside from Atlantic City, I really only had a four month research window. So I spent some time in the library before the spring/summer season to get the history portions done, did as much Atlantic City research as I could, and as the early days of spring rolled around, started heading down on weekends since most places open up on weekends after Easter. After that, it was a sprint.

Someone gave me the advice to set up magazine deadlines since that's how I was used to writing. So I made a chart and gave myself word count goals, daily and weekly so that if I was doing research one day and couldn't write, I could at least hit the weekly total. I made a mistake and estimated too many words for the book, which was a blessing in disguise because I not only caught myself up but was ahead by August -- which left me with a month to fill in the gaps and fine tune the manuscript. When I couldn't face the computer another second, I didn't. I stopped. I've learned my breaking point, and if I keep trying to go past it, I get frustrated, and nothing works. I spent a lot of time writing after dinner, which I rarely do. I would reset my brain by making myself another cup of coffee and go until I couldn't go anymore. And then I'd stop.

3) You've really built a stupendous platform, something that we're always chatting about here on AA. Can you give us some insight as to how you did that?
My platform, at least for this book, came from what interested me. It was with me from the start of my writing career, and once I realized it was there, I turned it into a book. I don't know if everyone has that advantage. As I start trying to build the platform for what should be my second book, I'm doing the same thing: writing magazine articles on the topic. This works out in a few ways. First, it lets me know if I really want to write about the topic. If I can't get through two articles without wanting to throw my hands in the air, then I shouldn't be writing a book about it. It also allows me to start research and get paid for it instead of doing the research for the proposal on spec. It also starts building a network of contacts that I can use for the eventual book. Finally, it will show an agent/editor samples of my writing in that topic. Voila, platform.I did this with the Jersey Shore book as well, but without realizing it. It's weird trying to recreate that happy accident!On another note, I think my shore blog at has really lifted that platform to another level. It kept me into the shore loop even though the book was done, and I'm writing a lot of magazine articles NOW about the shore, not only because of the book, but because editors as well as readers are finding my stuff. It's an ever growing circle!

4) How critical is it these days for a non-fiction writer to have a platform BEFORE the sale of a book?
I think it's necessary, yes. It doesn't have to mean that you've written 20 articles on the topic and are hired by scores of groups to speak in the topic, but you should have some experience working in it. It lets you test the waters as a writer first. I pitched a lot of books I didn't have a platform on, and I'm glad I didn't get any of them. You spend so much time with a subject in a non-fiction book. I think you have to love it to make it through because writing a non-fiction book -- ESPECIALLY a travel guide -- takes so much work that you better love what you're writing about. I think the greatest evidence of that, for me, was that when the book was turned in, edited and ready to print and I wanted to get away for a break, where did I go? The Jersey shore.

5) You're also a fairly prominent book reviewer. How does someone break into the review market, whether it's books, movies, tv, etc.
Persistance. It took me about four years to get my first review in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I've just started reviewing for a woman's magazine, and that took a year and a half. It's tedious sometimes, but for me it's been worth it. Book reviewing was never a big financial part of my freelance life, but I still carved time out of my day to work on it anyway because I loved it. And I think it's paying off.

6) Do you ever feel guilty over panning a book? J Just curious to get inside the mind of a reviewer!
Absolutely. No matter how bad the book, someone has put a lot of time and effort into writing it, and a lot of money's been spent producing it. But I work for the readers, not the author, so it's my job to tell the readers whether a book is worth their $20 or not. That being said, I have asked to be let out of a review if it's really bad since there are plenty of good books that I could review instead. But sometimes a book's going to be talked about anyway, and it's my job to tell the readers what I think. I also have a better sense of what I like, so I won't take on reviews of, say, Jennifer Weiner's latest book. If I didn't like the previous books, why would I tackle the new one? That kind of thing.


Julie said...

Great post, Allison! (And thanks to Jen). I liked the info on how Jen built her platform.

Patricia Robb said...

I would think the feminine of Jack would be Jill :)


Allison Winn Scotch said...

Ha! Good point, Patricia!