Award-Winning Beer Writer and ‘All About Beer’ Editor Ken Weaver Spills about the Writing Game

All About Beer Magazine, Freelance Writer, Editor
Award-Winning Beer Writer, Author and Editor at All About Beer Magazine, Keen Weaver,

Ken Weaver was working toward a Ph.D. in Particle Physics at ivy-league Cornell when he transitioned over to an MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Maryland in 2005. After a handful of years freelancing (and perhaps a stern talking-to from the fam), Weaver is now an award-winning beer writer, the author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide, and Beer Editor at All About Beer Magazine (AAB), where he has worked writing features for a number of years. Weaver sat down to chat with me about his experience in the writing life, his transition from physics to writing about booze, and to offer a few tips to the other writers out there fighting the ever constant battle to get—and stay—published.

Here are some of Mr. Weaver’s thoughts…

…on his recent appointment at AAB and freelancing draughts:

It’s weird, because four months ago I was in one of those freelance lulls and now it’s sort of the exact opposite of that and I didn’t appreciate it sufficiently at the time. I will from now on…you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. You have free time and you’re always thinking about work, or you have work and you’re always thinking about free time.

…on his workload as a staff editor at a magazine:

Half my job is on the magazine editorial side and the other half is on the festival side of things—we do World Beer Festivals with AABM so I end up curating the beer lists for them, figuring out what breweries are going to be on what kind of panels, All About Beer Magazine Logo, Freelance Writing Advice, Editor and Writer Ken Weaverand just do some of the coordination; budgeting, that sort of stuff…no writing or anything like that but just making sure stuff works and editing the process.

Editing itself I find boring…Technical editing pays well, which I used to do, and that’s a good gig whenever you find clients that can do that sort of thing. But I like the magazine stuff better; that side of the editing process where you’re on staff at a magazine and you’re helping design content—instead of working to a mold you’re actually figuring out what that mold looks like—that’s fun; that I like; that stuff I could do for the rest of my life and enjoy doing it, but the actual (copy) editing itself, it is what it is…

…on going from scientist to beer aficionado:

For me, I started transitioning to writing when I was in Grad school. I was in a Ph.D. program in physics and I… well, I found it very boring. I was at Cornell and basically that means, when you’re a graduate student there, you can pretty much do whatever you want. So, I took some wine tasting classes…and I took English classes, because if I submitted a portfolio I could get into undergraduate creative writing classes, so I did that and I ended up applying to do my MFA in creative writing and that was my sort of escape hatch out of the physics stuff. I just basically switched over to another graduate program at a different university. That was when I started writing, but that was all creative writing—fiction, short stories, stuff of that sort. And the good part of that is that it teaches you how to tell a story; and what the important parts of conveying a message and putting things together in a coherent fashion are. The bad thing is it’s completely a terrible degree if you ever want to make any money or have any sense of the real world—it’s just as way out there as physics, to a degree. So, I did some other stuff in between but eventually the beer thing came about when I was out here on the west coast for the most part—I got involved with a beer website which I’d been involved with for a few years (called the Hop Press) and they wanted to start doing some blogging stuff and I just kind of went from there with it—got some clips and just sort of built that up, So that’s the long-winded answer, but there was no direct transition between doing physics and doing beer writing.

…on how he found his focus on beer:

It was mostly tasting beers on my own; I had a lot more experience there—the wine (tasting classes were) useful but it’s a totally different set of flavor profiles and for me it didn’t directly translate. It was mostly just tasting beers with my friends; being involved on RateBeer.com and just tasting with friends and getting a sense of how peoples palates are different and how they talk about beer and that was the biggest influence for that kind of thing. . .I mean I was tasting beers for years before I’d ever tried to make any money off of it—I just did it because it was fun. My friends are into it, my wife’s into it. And so by the time it became a source of income, I had a lot more years of tasting under my belt than I think a lot of folks that do this…it was organic. I was interested in the industry before I’d ever tried to get a job in the industry rather than just coming in fresh, I mean there are writers that will just write about any alcoholic beverage but I focus on beer and I know that and I care about that.

Northern California Beer Guide by Writer, editor, and author Ken Weaver. Freelance writing advice…on landing his book deal:

For me, I had a book deal before I was even doing this full-time. I actually met a publisher at a book festival; I met him because I was doing fiction and he published a literary journal. And, I gave him my card, told him I wrote about beer, and that’s how we connected. So that was all—I didn’t even pitch the damned thing—it sort of fell into my lap in a magical way and was hugely important to me. We live in the same town now as our publisher, my wife did the photos for the book, but that was how that came about—he saw an opportunity, it was a great idea for a book, and we’ve been selling copies of it ever since. Not a lot of money in regional beer guides, though, no matter where you do it—any regional scope book, there’s not a lot of money in it unless you really, really have a huge platform for selling it… But basically, if you specialize (as a writer), and you do freelance stuff, if you have a book (and it can be a shitty book) it goes a long way in terms of establishing your expertise in the field. Ideally it’s a good book, but for me, after I had a book out, that was it… I could kind of pitch where I wanted. And I think it did make a big difference—it didn’t really change me; I learned things, but it isn’t like I was a totally different process before and after that process.

…on crafting the perfect pitch:

When I was pitching, I used to spend a lot of time on my pitches. If you don’t have a super-dense portfolio, you can convince people of a lot of things in a pitch. You want to do it in like two or three paragraphs, and for some things you need much longer pitches, but I spent a lot of time crafting pitches so that it would sound good, it would sound very knowledgeable, it would be thoroughly researched, it would show ahead of time that I wasn’t coming in blind—that I already knew what I was going to be writing about—and it wasn’t a jump on the part of my editors (to assume) that I was actually going to be able to do it. And I think that’s super important for people, especially early on—you can’t just be like, ‘here’s some random idea that I came up with drunk last night. Sound good?’ It’s gotta be better than that and it’s gotta sound the way it’s going to sound when you actually write the thing. And you can convince people (to let you write for them) that way… I got to write for Saveur Magazine, for instance, and they’re one of the best food and beverage magazines out there, and it was because of my pitch. It was because my pitch sounded good; it’s because I read them; because I had a subscription there and I knew their magazine, I knew what they hadn’t published and I hit them with a pitch that they knew I could write…Editors just want something that’s going to work for them, that’s going to sound good, that’s going to sound right for their publication, that they’re not going to have to go and have rewritten. And I think that when you do stuff like that it makes it a lot easier to get work because editors just don’t want to babysit…

…on what will get a pitch instantly tossed:

This isn’t speaking for AAB, this is just in general, but if you are trying to write about something that someone just published, that’s definitely a good one; a lack of familiarity with the magazine or the publication in any way, shape or form; if you’re trying to write in a voice that is completely incompatible with what they do; if you’re trying to pitch a form (that is outside the normal scope of a publication)—like if you’re trying to pitch a 3000 word story to someone who only publishes one or two page articles, it’s not going to work. And I think because editors see that as sloppy, anything along those lines, anything that sends up those red flags that demonstrate that either you’re not careful, you aren’t paying attention. For me, my biggest concern a lot of times if I’m looking at pitches from other people is, can you write at a high enough level as a freelancer coming in and—especially with something longer—are you knowledgeable enough about both the topic and the larger industry to be able to do so in a way that will actually work for the publication.

Like what you saw here? Find it helpful? Check out some of my other interviews with semi-famous people who write much better than I do in the archives. And subscribe today to get the next one sent straight to your inbox—not sure who the subject is going to be yet but promise to make it worth your while!

Everything I Should Have Learned in College About Professional Writing

A writer's work is never done.I was going to cite a whole bunch of employment statistics—ones that show how having the right college degree helps you get a job—but instead, I am going to lay the truth down as per my personal experience: in terms of finding full-time, gainful employment, having a humanities degree today is roughly akin to having no degree at all.

Since graduating in 2007 with my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing I have spent the majority of my working life in customer service, save the last few years in which I’ve been fortunate enough to get paid to write things. I worked as the marketing guy for a local club for a while, but even that averaged out to around $9 per hour when all was said and done—a little less than I would later make at a jewelry repair store in the mall. I was overqualified (I was told) for most office jobs and underqualified (I was usually ignored) for anything entry-level. Go figure.

On top of that—though I have to admit that my tenure in a top writing program most certainly made me a better writer—once I left school for the rat race, diploma in-hand, I was no more prepared to become a professional writer than I had been after graduating high school. I had a degree in the subject, sure, but I still I had no idea what a query letter was, let alone how to write one, and that, it turned out, was Pro-Writing 101. I didn’t hear anything about agents, or publishing books, or writing magazine articles, or how to talk to editors or submit to journals until after I graduated, and most of this I did online with the help of blogs like this one. But I did read a lot in school. And I wrote a lot. And I learned how to take criticism. Most of that stuff you can do in any ol’ workshop for much less than the cost of college tuition, and any one of those workshops is sure to tear your work apart all the same. Yes, having award-winning writers as your discussion leaders does have its perks, but for the vast majority of us humanities grads (myself included) it never translated to a single byline.

What nobody likes to talk about when they are trying to sell you a site membership, a book, or enrollment in a class promising instant six-figure success in your freelance writing career is how much work it’s going to take you to get there. They’ll tell you over and over how few of your classmates will become actual professional writers as well as how difficult it is to break into the industry and how the odds are stacked so very high against you, but none of my professors ever told me anything about how much labor was involved in writing professionally. We’re talking nerve-frying, eye-drying, staring-at-a-screen-so-long-you-want-to-puke work. You’ll send in more queries than you thought you could ever write only to have 99 percent of them rejected at first. Then what do you do? You come up with more ideas, send in more queries, reach out to more publications, and keep on slinging it ‘til it sticks. Eventually the rejections are fewer, the work is more, and maybe—if you’re lucky—clients will even start seeking you out for projects. Finish a book-length manuscript or a piece of short fiction in your “spare” time and it’s back to the world’s slowest races with the world’s most obtuse learning curve (Still working on breaking into that side of publishing myself).

Everyone’s backup dream plan seems to be to write something—someday, down the road, once life settles down a bit. But the ones that actually sit down and do it—and then do it again, and again, and again—are the ones collecting the paychecks. And some, as you know, are pretty well-paid.

There is no easy path to writing success that I have found. The road to regular publication—and therefore, regular paychecks—is a strenuous one, though it is littered with intangible treasures if you know where to look. How else are you going to find an excuse to talk one-on-one with your childhood heroes? or that politician for whom you actually had a few questions? or the rockstar who wrote that song you love—the one with the lyrics you never could quite understand. You know the one. How else are you ever going to make a living doing what you love except by throwing yourself headlong into doing it?

I pulled this from a list of Joss Whedon quotes compiled by my editor at MentalFloss.com. She apparently got it from a Hulu Q&A. Don’t worry—you don’t have to be a Buffy fan to get the meaning behind it, and whether you like it or not, Whedon is one of those guys collecting the checks:

“If you have a good idea, get it out there. For every idea I’ve realized, I have ten I sat on for a decade till someone else did it first. Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”

Summation: give your passion whatever you’ve got, then give it a little bit more. Make it a point to surprise yourself and inevitably you will. If I owe nothing else to my college education, it’s the fact that during those four years of workshops I was forced to “MAKE” over and over again, often reluctantly (some things never change). Everything after that was details, each one meticulously honed through a seemingly endless phase of trials-and-errors. I’m still erring from time to time, yeah, but now I’m publishing, too.

If I had to do it over, I would study journalism or marketing or engineering—one of those subjects that actually prepares you for a real-life job. The writing—the “MAKING”— would have come all the same; it was, after all, something I considered a pleasurable hobby long before it paid any of my bills.

Though it may sound like commonsense, all of this took me seven years on top of college to figure out. You just got it tuition-free in about five minutes.

Happy making.

How did you break into the world of professional writing? Do you have a story about something you tried that DIDN’T work for you the first time? I’d love to hear about it—comment below or email me at info@craigsbaker.com.

How to Land Superstar Sources for Your Writing Projects

Writer Monster Conducts an InterviewOften the hardest part about writing an article is just finding a decent source willing to sit with you for an interview. Even on the local level, business owners, public officials, and media personalities are usually too busy to just jump in and offer a great quote for you on a cold call. And if you’ve ever reached out to an A-lister of any ilk than you know that correspondence sent to in-demand individuals will more-often-than-not find its way to the garbage without the courtesy of a response. Though no method is fool proof in this arena, it’s good to stack the odds in your favor when writing an interview request. Many of these tricks I learned the hard way—by doing things wrong on the first go round—and all of them have helped me to land some big interviews even when writing for small publications.

1)      Over-Canvas and Overshoot

It is not possible to have too many sources, nor is it possible to reach too high when it comes to the quality of those sources. Treat every local newspaper piece like a dollar-a-word assignment and reach out to the very best source you can find for your topic. Worst case scenario: they don’t have time to talk or don’t respond—no harm done. You can stifle your fear of rejection by blasting out correspondence to multiple sources at once—get five requests out each afternoon and that 20 percent success rate will start to feel pretty good.

2)      Be Likeable

In everything I write—from emails to articles—I read out-loud or at least in a whisper to check for flow and tone. The tone you are shooting for in your interview request is business casual, like the language you would use while out on a lunch with a co-worker. Be respectful and appreciative for the time you are requesting from your potential source—that means say thank you—and if you can get in an appropriate joke, I say go for it (depending, of course, on the publication): making someone laugh or smile ups the chance that they will want to sit and talk with you for any extended length of time.

3)      Don’t Ask for Too Much

Get in touch with your chosen subject as early as possible—your deadlines are not their deadlines and the best sources are also the busiest people on the planet. Let them know you will not need much of their time: 15 minutes is probably good for about every 800-1000 words of print, especially if you are using multiple sources in the same piece like a good little journalist. Not every article requires multiple sources, though, and for those you may want to try and get a little bit more time. This goes back to that being likeable thing—if a source is enjoying your conversation you might even get some bonus time out of your call or meeting without asking for it.

4)      Do Your Homework

If you know what your source is doing professionally or personally you are going to be much more able to empathize with them (again, see #2). Don’t take this to the point of creepy (e.g. “I saw you walking your dog near your house in Malibu and…”), but if the subject is involved with a promotion of any kind (say, for a new book, research paper, concert, film, class, television show, business, or anything else) feel free to mention that your piece could be a great opportunity to spread the word. This also shows that you value their time and will minimize the amount of BS they will have to deal with when they do agree to talk to you. Doing a little research is also going to be the only way to find contact information for big-name sources, so take the extra time to read the content on their sites and get a feel for the language they use in their tweets or status updates. If they swear a lot, feel free to loosen your language a bit; if they don’t, act like you’re writing a boss you’ve never met as you draft your interview request. Oh, and a casual compliment usually won’t hurt your case, either way.

5)      Let Them Know What You’re Looking For

Even if you are without assignment when you make first contact, mention publications you intend to pitch and the angle you intend to take for your article in your request. This shows professionalism and minimizes the amount of back-and-forth necessary before your source can make a decision on whether or not to talk with you. And don’t take it personal if you don’t hear back—as we all know, time is everyone’s most valuable asset.

6)      Provide a Link to Clips, if Possible

Having a website helps. Short of that, sending a link to your blog or attaching a few writing samples to your request for your source to consider will usually be to your advantage—again, it cuts one more inevitable email out the exchange and, yeah, it looks pretty good for your credibility, too. No matter how you want to take it, efficiency is always your friend in these efforts, second in importance only to humility.

7)      Keep It Short and Sweet

Your request to interview should look something like this:

Hello [Mr./Ms./Mrs. Famous Last Name],

I was just looking over your [book/website/film/skin cream label] and was really intrigued by your point about [homelessness/happiness/hairlessness/halitosis]. I am actually a freelance writer working on an [article/blog post/possible novel or biography] for [intended medium] and I was wondering if you might have some time in the next [intended time frame adjusted for impossibility of scheduling] to chat with me on the subject?

I know you must be incredibly busy with [optional current project] and so I promise not to take up too much of your time. I am available on [list availability and be as flexible as possible] by [phone/Skype/to meet/tin cans connected by string] but am more than willing to work with your schedule should you be able to find a bit of time for me. You can find samples of my work [at the link below/attached to this message]. Thanks for your time to this point. I will look forward to hearing from you.

 

[Salutation]

Writer Name

www.WriterName.com

800.555.3645

 

Do your best not to overdo it and be considerate—that is the type of journalist a superstar source wants to talk to. Now that you’re feeling confident, get out there and start contacting some sources. It’s never to soon to get started on your next piece.

Were these tips helpful for you? Do you have any tips of your own for landing big interviews? What was the best interview you’ve ever landed and how did you get it? I’d love to hear from you.

Living to Write/Writing to Live: How One Author Cracked the Code to Success.

            AndrewBlackman-300x233 A-Virtual-Love-Cover-195x300

Andrew Blackman is living “a writer’s life”, and you can learn all about it on his blog of the same title. The long and short of it is this: he was a Wall Street Journal staff writer for a while, then participated in NaNoWriMo in 2007. During that month of intensive wordsmithing he finished a draft for his first novel, The Holloway Road, which went on to win the first ever Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers in 2008. It was then published by Legend Press the following year to some acclaim, even earning a spot on the short list for the Dundee International Book Prize. He published his second novel, A Virtual Love, earlier this year and moved to the island of Crete soon thereafter for cheap rent and a view of the Mediterranean Sea, where he can “live simply and concentrate on writing,” according to his website. Jealous yet? Well, you’re not alone.

Blackman’s blog includes occasional insights to his life and career as a professional writer, as well as tips and tricks for up-and-comers in the industry. Subscribers get a free copy of the eBook “$250,000 Writing Contests”, which could potentially save any writer of short fiction many countless hours of outlet-searching for their polished-yet-unpublished pieces. On a personal note, I can tell you that his guest post for the popular blog, The Renegade Writer, on using the “TK” method while drafting has saved me tons of time writing magazine articles and anything else in which a tedious research effort had the potential to morph into an all-consuming waste of time.

Fresh from a meditation retreat somewhere even quieter than his rural home site, Blackman was kind enough to speak with me via email about the writing process for both of his books and—spoiler alert—even clues me in about his progress on novel number three. It seems that a good relationship with a publisher—even a relatively small one—really can affect a writer’s approach. And even the pros are constantly learning, incorporating new information and experiences, and evolving with regard to their perspective and their process.

Here’s the unedited text of my questions to him and his email response, also unedited:

CB:  Maybe you can start by telling me a little about that first novel- how long did your first draft ultimately take? And what about the revision process? How many read-throughs were there before you set it free? Finally, did you find the process of writing your second novel to be similar to the first, or was it perhaps an altogether different experience?

AB:  Good questions. The process was completely different for each novel.

I wrote the complete first draft of my first novel On the Holloway Road in a month, and that first draft was remarkably close to what eventually got published. I went over it, added a few scenes, straightened out a few logical inconsistencies, fixed a few ugly sentences, and then let it go.

Shortly after finishing, I found out about a newly-established prize for unpublished writers, the Luke Bitmead Bursary. I sent off my manuscript, not expecting much, and was amazed when a few months later I was invited to an award ceremony in London and announced as the winner. The prize was £2,500 and a publishing contract with Legend Press, a fairly small independent publisher in the UK.

After revelling in the win for a while, I panicked. They’d only judged the prize based on the first three chapters. What if they hated the rest? I spent a few frantic days making last-minute revisions, but I don’t think I changed anything much – it was more just agonising over words here and there.

To my surprise, my editor at Legend Press didn’t make or recommend any major changes either. It was more line-editing stuff, like breaking down some of my long and winding sentences into smaller pieces. So the process from start to finish was very easy, and the published novel was mostly completed in that one-month manic writing binge.

For my second novel, it was totally different. I wrote much more slowly, and edited much more thoroughly. With the first novel, I’d had the freedom of not expecting it to be published. Second time around, I had an agent and a wiling publisher, and knew the chances of publication were high. The second novel was also more complicated in theme and structure, so there was more work to do.

So I spent about a year and a half writing the first draft, and then wrote a second draft with major changes – whole chapters deleted, characters dropped and introduced, personalities and plot radically reshaped. And then a third draft, and I showed that to my agent, and he recommended some pretty major changes. For example, the novel is narrated by different characters in different chapters, and he felt the voices were not distinct enough. Going back through the whole novel and changing the voices took months by itself, and then there were elements of the plot that had to be rethought, characters who had to be made more believable or sympathetic. I think this stage took another year. I showed it to him again, and he was happier, but recommended another draft.

Finally it was done, and it was just the publisher’s edit, which was pretty light again. All in all it was about four years from start to finish.

I’m now pretty close to the end of my third novel, and it’s a similar process to the second. I think that’s my way of working in general – slower and more considered. On the Holloway Road was more of a one-off. I’d been working on a novel before that for years (a novel which remains, and will always remain, unpublished!), and had got so sick of it that it felt incredibly liberating to free-write for a month without the burden of expectation. I was viewing it as an exercise, to rediscover the joy of writing, and never dreamed that I’d end up with anything publishable. Maybe I’ll try some speed-writing again one day if I get stuck, but for now the slower pace is working well for me, so I’ll stick with that.

All the best

Andrew

Do you have any experience with novel writing, NaNoWriMo, or a publishing success story you’d like to share? Leave a comment below or email me—I’d love to hear your take on things!

NaNoWriMo: Facing All of Your Worst Writing Fears in a Single Month

Copyright NaNoWriMo
Copyright NaNoWriMo

Anyone that has ever tried to publish a piece of writing knows that there are a number of steps along the way that can be downright terrifying. There is the intimidation wrought by that lone blinking vertical line on an empty Word Document to tend with, then the countless hours of tedious rereads and edits (also known as facing your own shortcomings), followed by forcing your writing on unwilling readers (friends and family), accepting criticism, and then perhaps worst of all, sharing your work with willing readers (strangers), at which point all control of the piece is out of your hands. At that point, your opinion of yourself is effectively handed over to the public, en masse.

If you’re like me, there is an additional fear associated with the anticipated length of a piece of writing. If it’s going to be very long, I have a tendency to shy away from working on a piece in favor of something much shorter and simpler. Writing short stories has always been an enjoyable pastime for me as I have grown comfortable in that 20-pages-or-less neighborhood. I can edit those 20 or 30 times before sending them in to a journal for a proper rejection, or even abandon one for a period of months and come back to it for a reread without having to dedicate a full week or more to the process. Great! But a novel has always been too big for me. The prospect of spending 200 full pages on a single story makes me shiver. Even worse is the thought of sharing any bit of the product with the world before it’s finished. What if it’s bad? What if I can’t publish after my work has been shared online? What if a big-time player in the publishing industry reads my work and is offended to the point of vomiting? Will I be blacklisted from ever publishing again?

If this level of anxiety seems at all too intense to maintain while still holding on to your sanity, that’s because it is. That being said, with respect to my own writing career, the process of getting from the level of amateur with no experience to that of a barely-paid professional has been all about conquering fears. We writers must learn to constantly face our fears head-on to survive. We tackle the fear of rejection with each query letter sent; we stumble awkwardly through the fear of humiliation with our first handful of interviews; we live with the threat of criticism from the moment we release a work and allow it to be published in any format.

National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org) is the chance to stand up to long-form fiction once and for all. The challenge is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. In short, the goal is to have a rough draft for that novel you have been dying to write banged out without any excuses by midnight on December 1. The organization responsible for NaNoWriMo even provides you with a word count feature, forums, motivational messages, and plenty of tips and tricks to keep you blasting through writer’s blocks along the way. And though we are almost one week in to the challenge, it’s not too late to start. Build your profile today and start by cranking out your first 2000 words. Stay on it each day and by Saturday’s Writing Marathon you’ll have a running start toward tacking ‘novelist’ on to your resume.

Happy National Novel Writing Month to all of you! I’d be happy to hear from you about your experience with NaNoWriMo or any other tips and tricks you might have with respect to writing long-form fiction.

A Faith Healer of Fiction– My Conversation with Manuel Munoz

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At 41, Manuel Muñoz has hit what many would consider a stride in his writing career. He is an Assistant Professor in one of the best creative writing programs in the nation. His first novel, What You See in the Dark, was published in 2011 by Algonquin Books, following two selections of short stories: Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press, 2003) and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin, 2007). His was a 2008 recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, has earned numerous prestigious fellowships, and his story “Tell Him About Brother John” garnered him a PEN/O.Henry Award in 2009. I sat down with Muñoz last week in his Tucson office to talk about his work, his process, and to get some general tips for writers that, like me, are just starting out on that long, lonely career path. If you are a writer and you are looking for a bit of insight from someone who knows a thing-or-two about the craft, look no further: wherever you come from, this guy has been there, and it all shows in the imagery and intimacy of his prose.

 

Here’s what Manuel Muñoz had to say…

 

…on observing new writers at work:

What’s so interesting to me be about watching (students) work through a story is knowing they’re going to get to a point where they’re going to send it out, whether it’s having the courage to send it out or having the ambition to send it out—it could be different things that drives somebody to do it—but knowing almost for certain that the piece is going to be rejected… knowing that’s the probability, but doing it anyway. Because it might cross the desk of an editor at the right time of day, if your vision has completed itself on the page, you know all sorts of different things can happen.

 

…on the submission (and rejection) process:

It feels to me sometimes like this sort of belief and faith that I can just keep working on my stories and at some point they will hit.

 

…on rewriting and drafting:

A lot of it is patience; seriously considering what you’ve done after you’ve written it, and maybe sent it out. You put it away in a drawer and maybe come back to it and you realize, well, maybe this story doesn’t have the energy that you thought it did, it doesn’t have the language, it doesn’t have the vision. Maybe I don’t think I know what the story is about yet…and being hard on yourself, in some ways, but not in such a way that it keeps you from trying… have the patience to let it sit, put it away in a folder for even just a week… but the patience is the key. Work on something else, start a new piece, but put it in a folder and whatever you do, don’t touch that story for a week, two weeks, four weeks. I had a professor that said to leave (a story) for a month always, because you can really surprise yourself when you go back and reread it.

 

…on trepidation about starting a new piece:

There’s always that moment, I think, of trying to edit even before you begin, and I think that can be self-defeating… I don’t think you should necessarily be afraid of that…as long as you can find a way to get moving on the page.

 

…on criticism, workshopping, and finding his voice:

I am a short story writer at heart. When I was in graduate school, I worked on a novel because my early experiences as an undergraduate in a short story creative writing workshop were pretty disastrous. I had great instructors but my experience in the classroom with my fellow students was really negative, and it pushed me away from material. I had a real resistance to content: not writing about these things, these places, these people, this tone. The instructors were the ones who were responsible for keeping me enthusiastic and moving, reading… and they were the ones that encouraged me to do an MFA and all of that.

But it got in my head that I didn’t understand scope and that I should be working on a novel, because that’s what I kept hearing from my peers. So I got to graduate school and I worked on a novel… it wasn’t great work, when I go back and think on it, it was pretty terrible, and that’s what I did my workshops on.

It was only when I was out of the graduate workshops—and I’ve said this before—and I thought that no one was paying any attention, it was just me, and if I wanted to work on something, why not a short story? Just try. And so I just started in a coffee shop one day just writing these sentences and it felt truer. ..

 

…on having room for improvement:

No piece is ever finished. You have to let it go. I look back at some stories and, well for instance, I’m really hard on my first book (Zigzagger)… it hits a lot of points that are thematically urgent, but when I go back and look at some of the stories and (now I see them as) kind of like mood pieces, but not stories. I mean, (this is) because my concept of story has changed, and that’s been a big revelation to me.

 

…on reading and writing for content:

Every time I pick up a new book, or I read something new, I’m never reading for content. I think a lot of people do read only for content. That’s the question (you get) at the party: “Well, what is it you write about?” and I hate that question because, and I’ve said this many times, who I write about are people that most people don’t care about, so already I have these big road blocks to an audience, you know? …So when I sit down to write about these people I have to think about form and telling, and know that that’s the big hurdle to get somebody who’s not from that community to find the story compelling, interesting, intriguing, or relatable even.

 

…on writing about the central California valley (where Muñoz grew up):

I’ve made a commitment to myself to write about the valley in an effort to make sure that a little piece of it can enter the dialogue. It’s not a big voice, it’s not a powerful voice, it’s not a huge voice, it’s not a voice that a lot of people are paying attention to, but it’s a record and that’s really important to me… when I get in to these moments of feeling down on myself, or when I’m struggling with my confidence… I have to step back and say to myself, ‘What kind of work do I want to put out in the world’? Even if it’s not noticed by a lot of people, it’s still now a record toward ultimately who I want to write about and the place I’m trying to define. It has to be about that. It can’t be about me.

Any of what award-winning author Manuel Muñoz had to say strike you in any way? Was there anything you disagree with? Whatever you might have to say, I’d love to hear from you! Please, feel free to leave a comment for me below!

Manuel Muñoz’s website: http://www.manuel-munoz.com/

Work by Manuel Muñoz: http://amzn.to/16nbI9U

Sager Says—My Unlikely Conversation with a Best-Selling Author

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It was by design that I was at Mike Sager’s talk with Chuck Klosterman on the University of Arizona campus during last month’s book fair. It was also by design that I harassed ever single writer and editor at the event that I could get to bend an ear in my direction.

It was completely by chance, however, that I actually got one of them to not just hear me for a moment, but to actually talk to me in their free time. Woah.

Perhaps it was because I promised to buy one of his books (which I eventually did), but when I asked Mike Sager for advice or (yeah right) help with my writing career, I was stunned when he (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed to hear me out. I was knocked on my ass when he later agreed to talk with me on the phone. Imagine—little nobody freelancer Craig talking with a big-shot writer for Esquire Magazine. The guy has won awards. He was a peer of Hunter S. Thompson, for God’s sake, so as a writer, I am not fit to lick the mud off of this man’s boots. But, believe it or not, most writers, it turns out, were once nobody nothing freelancers just like me and they, too, had to put a little extra elbow grease into paying their dues in order to finally get noticed.

Mike, like a lot of other writers from the last generation of greats (Mike is known as the “American Beat Poet of Journalism), got his start young working for a newspaper. That mike sagerpaper just happened to be the Washington Post. Once he had proven himself indispensable there (and this is what he says you’ve got to do to keep getting the big stories), the door opened itself to bigger and better things.

But it was persistence, confidence, and perhaps even a little bit of measured arrogance that kept those doors open. Mike explained to me in his slow style of speaking that somehow melded both Californian and Brooklyn dialects that he used what charms he had to his advantage—being a small guy allowed him to approach men that would have perhaps been intimidated by guys bigger than he was. “Oh, girls love me too,” he said, largely because he made himself so deliberately approachable. The reason he ended up forming his own publishing group after years working as a journalist—“I just got tired of hearing no all of the time (from editors)”.

In lieu of the daily reporting jobs, Mike advises you find a way in to your alternative weeklies, your local lifestyle magazine, and whatever bylines you can get. Can’t find a place to publish? Put it online. The point is, he told me, (and I paraphrase here) that as a writer there are going to be a lot of times when it all feels too tough—like nobody cares about you or your work and that all of your hard work to date has been for naught.  But for the writers that find success, this can’t be a stopping point.

You have to get out there. Pursue the stories that mean something to you, assignment or not. Make connections, get out and do the leg work, send out queries, then send out more queries. You have to keep on working, even when it feels like the entire industry is working against you. “You know, it’s weird,” said Sager, “that these editors are so overloaded with queries and people that want to write for them that they can get overwhelmed—but they are always looking for good people—people they can trust to do the work and do it well.”

As a writer, you need to know that a ‘no’ is not always a no, but more often than not, it is more like a “try again.” If an editor didn’t want to give you the time of day, you wouldn’t even get a proper rejection. So save your ‘no’s’ in your contact list and put together a new query for those editors—do some research and make sure this one is better than the last. Knock that editors Goddamn socks off and take the nail polish with ‘em. Keep at it until you do and the ‘yes’s’ will come. Eventually.

Until that day, I can only follow (and, I suppose, share) the most poignant piece of advice given to me in my forty-minute conversation with Mr. Sager, and this one really is a direct quote. “You’ve gotta produce like a motherfucker,” he told me.

And so I am.

Check out Mike Sager’s website for some valuable tips for writers or read his latest book, The Someone You’re Not (available on Amazon) for insight into creating stellar pieces of “Journalistic Anthropology”, or just for a great read.