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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 [http://www.sjmagazine.net/]. 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 downtheshorewithjen.blogspot.com 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.
Question of the week: Can you explain what happens at the London Book Fair? It seems it's all I've been reading about this week.Um, sure, if I can! I'm not sure that I have a complete understanding of the entire situation, but I'll do my best. The London Book Fair, along with the Frankfurt Fair, are the two biggest forums in which publishers sell foreign rights to, well, foreign publishers! From what I understand, here's what happens:A publisher, in my case, the Shaye Areheart imprint at Random House, starts generating buzz about a book to foreign publishing houses long before the actual fair. Book sales are often all about buzz, so they try to get as much momentum going into the fair as possible. Once at the fair, they sit down with various representatives and contacts and push the book even more. Though a lot of deals used to happen at the actual fair, these days, from what I understand, most of what happens is an attempt to generate enthusiasm and excitement, and the actual offers for the books come about in the subsequent weeks. Which means, for sure, I'm biting down my nails in anticipation.(Also, having attending BEA last year (Book Expo America), I can tell you that from what I imagine, LBF is really whirlwind of socializing, networking and hobnobbing. It's also really freaking tiring. I was completely wiped out after one day at the event.)
That said, foreign rights sales can happen at any time, which is exactly what happened for The Department. I'd just get a random out-of-the-blue email from someone at Harper's subsidiary dept saying, "We're thrilled we got an offer from X...do you accept?" And duh, obviously, I always did! But don't be fooled into thinking that foreign sales will make you rich: most of these deals are for probably (this is based on nothing scientific, only an estimated guess) less than 20k, and most for much less than that. AND, unless you've earned back your advance, you won't see a dime: they just get added into the overall tally of your sales and earnings until you've crossed that lucrative line.
So tell me, anyone else have inside scoop on LBF? Or foreign rights insights in general?
Today, I am so super-excited to bring you Theo Pauline Nestor, author of the newly released memoir (okay, as of tomorrow), How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed.
I am not what you would call a classic memoir reader. What I mean by that is that if I'm in Barnes and Noble, I rarely drift to the non-fiction table and instead wander over to the novels. (And I do sometimes feel that some memoir subjects are less fascinating than the authors might have deemed themselves...geez, though it feels lousy to say that.) That said, there are a lot of upcoming memoirs that I'm truly psyched about including, but not limited to Jen Lancaster's Such a Pretty Fat, Trish Ryan's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, and Stephanie Klein's Moose, but most often, yeah, I'm a fiction type of gal. But I was sent a galley of Theo's book, which chronicles her divorce and her subsequent recovery, and though most galleys I receive go unread, for whatever reason, I was drawn to this one, and as soon as I read the first chapter, I was sucked in for the long-haul.
The reason, for me, that this book was so readable is because it's not "memoir-y," and by that I mean, yes, this is a true slice of the author's life, but it also reads as smoothly as a novel. I wanted to get to that final chapter and uncover the ending just as I do any fictional creation. I've never been divorced, never even been close to divorce, but this was a universal story about how one woman struggles through the muck and finds her way, and that message resonated with me, regardless of my exact life circumstance. What also made this memoir so intriguing is that it is one of several that got its roots in the NY Times's Modern Love column, which isn't an easy gig to land in and of itself.So, whew, without further ado, I'm thrilled to have Theo here today to answer a few questions for Ask Allison readers. After reading the Q/A, head out and grab her book. I don't think you'll be disappointed! For more on Theo, check out her website.
1) The germ of this book started out as a Modern Love column. As you drafted that essay, did you ever think, “Oh, this is a much bigger story?”
I actually extracted material from a larger (frankly, rambling) piece to create the 1800-word Modern Love column. In the first days of my divorce, I found every day was full of terribly profound moments, and even though I had no intention of writing a memoir about my divorce, I kept taking notes. Some time after the column was out, I started to realize that what I was writing was becoming a book.
2) Can you tell us how indeed it evolved from a column to a memoir? Was it seamless or, as I’d imagine, a little tougher than it sounds?
The essay that appeared in Modern Love describes the sudden end of my marriage and then an overview of the pain and shock I felt in the first few months after our split up. I knew I couldn't use the article as it was because it covered too quickly the crucial time frame that held a great deal of my story, but I did end up taking the break-up scene from the essay, expanding it and using it as the opening chapter of the book.
However, publishing the essay in the New York Times helped the article evolve into a book in many ways. First, I received an enormous number of emails from readers of the column and their letters gave me a lot of good ideas for the book. Also, the fact that the essay had been published in such a popular column helped get publishers interested in the project while it was still a proposal.
3) I know that you’ve also published fiction. Did it ever occur to you to fictionalize your story and instead write a novel? Especially these days when memoirists are really held up to a lot of scrutiny re: accuracy.
I didn’t want to write a novel, partly because I could hear the voice of this book even before I knew what all it would cover. I knew it was a memoirist’s voice, one that said to the reader: Listen, this is true. In one moment I was married and in the next I wasn’t. I was afraid and angry and sad and then I was hopeful and tired and happy. I thought it would be a voice that would earn the trust of readers, especially those going through a divorce themselves.
4) If I were to write a memoir (which I never will!), I’d always be concerned about portraying other people fairly and accurately, and you did indeed mention this in the acknowledgments, in terms of your ex-husband. Were you ever tempted to downplay what really happened out of concern over upsetting others and if not, how did you get over this?
I wanted to write this book without mentioning that my marriage ended because of my husband’s gambling addiction. I had no desire to reveal that to the world. I didn’t want to do anything to hurt (or frankly, anger) him and my purpose in writing a memoir about my divorce was not to “tell all the dirt” but to share my experience with transitioning suddenly from being married to being divorced. The trouble was the story didn’t make any sense without the reason why we split. I tried multiple times to write it without the gambling in there, and it never worked. People who are reasonably happy (we were) don’t split up overnight unless something big has happened and when I wrote about the split up without including the reason, it seemed like either 1) I was being overly coy or 2) we split up because my husband had an affair (or something worse…although I’m not sure what that would be). So, what I decided to do was include the gambling but write just the minimum about it. I also tried to offset that information by including scenes in the book that showed what a good person my ex-person is despite his addiction. Still, it’s not easy.
5) What I loved about your book is that to me, it read like a novel. How did you decide which stories to include, which aspects of your divorce and post-divorce life to highlight, and which to discard? Was this an instinctive process or is this where an editor really helps you out?
At first I wrote from instinct, but as I drafted the proposal for the book, I tried to think of which of the experiences I went through in this post-divorce period were universal because I wanted to write a book that readers who’d been through divorce would relate to and find helpful. During this process, I read self-help books and talked to friends about their divorces and then returning to my own experience, I picked out the events and experiences that seemed endemic to the divorce process--telling friends and random acquaintances, looking for work, dealing with depression, helping kids through their anger and grief, rebuilding life as a single person and even falling in love again.
6) I know that I found my novel’s release to be the most nerve-wracking aspect of the entire process, and I imagine it’s even more so when it’s such a personal book. You’re right on the cusp of publication: can you tell us how that feels?
Sometimes, I think I’m okay and then I realize I’m really nervous. Oddly, it’s not so much that strangers and friends are going to read personal details of my life. For some reason, I don’t really think about that. I just want the book to do well out there in the world. It’s sort of like I’m sending my youngest child off to kindergarten.
7) You also teach memoir writing at the University of Washington . What are the three (or so) biggest tips for memoir writers to keep in mind as they go about turning their own histories into books?
1) Be patient with yourself. Throughout every stage of the memoir writing process, you will feel internal resistance. It is very scary to tell the truth about your experience and expect that you’ll need to keep giving yourself permission to do so.
2) Learn everything you can about story telling. Study the craft of fiction writing. Character development, plot, theme---all those things that make a novel work are present in memoirs. An excellent book about shaping your story into a memoir is Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. I highly recommend it.
3) Don’t hold back. When you’re writing you’ll no doubt think oh I can’t write this. Everyone I know will leave me and I will die penniless and alone. Yes, maybe, but that might happen anyway, but in the meantime, there’s a reason why you came to the page and that reason is you need to tell Your Story. Once you have it down, if it still scares you terribly that you’ve written all this crazy stuff, you can tear it up if you want. But the words unwritten, they might be the greatest danger of all. Some call it regret.