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!

Award-Winning Writer and American Introspectionist Taffy Brodesser-Akner Is Always Keeping It Real. Really Real.

Indeed, haters are gonna hate.The phrase has admittedly been tossed around by more than one super-huge pop star as sort of a catchall for any and all criticism, regardless of its legitimacy. But still, the simple truth is that no matter how hard you work, no matter how successful you might become, there will always be someone lurking—in the PTA, on the internet, in your office, on the internet—doing their best to sprinkle a little bit of metaphorical fecal matter onto your optimism salad on the off chance that it might sour your spirit to a level they deem appropriate. And even though she recently signed contributing writer contracts with two of the biggest names in long-form reporting on the planet (GQ and The New York Times Magazine), and though she is now writing cultural biopics (like her recent feature on Nicki Minaj for GQ, or her feature on the female fighters of the UFC for Matter) that will likely be read by university students, journos, and news junkies for many years to come, not even Taffy Brodesser-Akner is immune to the effects of naysayers.

Brodesser-Akner was still in high school when she started ghost writing professionally. Well, she was writing college entrance exam essays for her peers and, somehow, her eleventh-grade English teacher caught wind of the operation. She told a young Taffy Akner to shut the side business down “Principally,” the teacher told the future New York Press Club Award winner, “because you’re not that good of a writer.” Brodesser-Akner told me over the phone that she remembers the whole ordeal vividly, and that, even years later, she couldn’t help but wonder if there was some truth in her teacher’s words. “I kept thinking, what if she’s right?” she says. Still, Brodesser-Akner insists that self-doubt plagues many of the writers she knows and, no, I didn’t press her to name names, but she did tell me (half-) jokingly that she doesn’t “know very many writers who don’t believe in their hearts that they are just hacks and that eventually they will be found out.” I was just glad to hear that it wasn’t just me.

But it did make me wonder. Did that mean that the feeling of dread that comes while waiting for a piece to be accepted, followed by that surge of anxiety preempting the public response never completely goes away? Brodesser-Akner says that landing a decent contract (or two) helps confirm that your efforts as a writer are paying off; she also said that, to this day, she hopes just a little bit that her eleventh grade English teacher sees everything published under her byline. Made sense enough to me. Let ’em hate.

And though she’s now working much more closely with at least two major magazines than ever before, Brodesser-Akner says that her working life hasn’t changed all that much from when she was strictly a freelance writer. She says that about eighty-percent of her stories still come from pitches, and that her contracts do not necessarily mean that she can’t write for other markets. “Whereas, when you are completely freelance you are kind of dating a lot of different people, I now have two husbands and all of my stories have to go through them first.”

But, she adds, working with such talented editors is her “favorite part” of her job. Basically, to this guy, it kind of sounds like a non-fiction writer’s dream; the type of dream I might believe is real right up until the phone rings or the dog starts barking. At any rate, needless to say that when Mrs. Brodesser-Akner said she was willing to chat with me about how to get from ‘Point A’ (naysayers) to ‘Point Z’ (what I’ll refer to as the ‘haha-told-you-so’ phase), I was eager to give a listen.

Here’s what she had to say about…

…the most important aspect of her pre-interview research:

“When you look at someone’s art, when you are looking at the thing they are lauded for, you can see who they are trying to be.”

…how to know when an article is ready:

“You have to cultivate the confidence to wonder, ‘Am I still curious about this subject?’ That way all of the questions I ask myself on behalf of the reader are not false questions. ‘Is my curiosity satisfied about all of this?’ You have to remember that you are acting like an ambassador (on your subject) to the reader.”

…specializing:

“I always resisted a beat and, therefore, I don’t know if anyone actually thinks of me for any one type of story.”

…working from home as a parent:

“My kids can’t tell the difference between when I’m using my computer for work or when I’m just using it to check Facebook. Your children don’t just sit in the corner quietly while you write—they want you to actually be in there watching the movie or doing whatever else with them. They want the shared experience.”

…long-form non-fiction v. other forms:

“I actually went to school for screenwriting but I think I lack the sort of imagination required to make things up. What I’ve found that I am pretty good at, though, is seeing something and finding some sort of art in what I’ve seen—in the true story.”

…her dream interview:

“I’ve always thought that I could retire a very happy person if I could get any kind of quality time with Bruce Springsteen.

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.