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.

Saturday Evening Post Editor Steve Slon Tells You How to Get Published

STS_portrait

Ever wonder what kind of person has the audacity to take a well-known publication and completely flip the script on it in order to roll out something brand-spanking new to their national reader base? Steven Slon is just such a guy. He has a less pallid, Anderson-Cooper-thing about him, though he wears rectangular glasses and occasionally curses in casual conversation. He seems to ponder everything said to him as if there could be hidden importance behind each word and he always thinks very carefully, sometimes at length, before speaking—a quality that often takes a back seat nowadays to any potential for a teensy bit of micro-celebrity. And if you had told Steven Slon while he was a film student at NYU that he would one day be the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher of the longest-running magazine in the United States, he probably would have laughed in your face.

Slon was not only responsible for the 2013 redesign of the Saturday Evening Post; he also brought the magazine into the digital age with its first mobile app, helped launch Men’s Health Magazine, served as Editor-in-Chief under banners like AARP The Magazine and Success, and he won Media Industry News‘ Editor of the Year Award in 2010. At first, Slon says, he wanted to be a filmmaker—a director. But after serving on what he called “the lowest rung” of the movie business as a production assistant, he was  told that writing might be a way to break into the creative side of things. He started scribing for his local “Penny Saver”, making about ten bucks an article, and quickly placed stories with publications like his current employer, the Post, and TV Guide, which was still relevant at the time. From there, having learned how to tell a story literally by cutting and stitching reels of film for most of his young adult life, Slon carried those skills with him into his career as an editor. And yes, he actually used to cut and tape articles just like he did film to determine the shape of his stories.

Mr. Slon was kind enough to let me pick his brain earlier this week via phone about things like what makes an ideal article pitch, his editing pet peeves, and the future of journalism. Here are some highlights:

 

CB: As an editor, what does your dream query letter look like?

SS: That’s tough—it’s funny, because I’ve been on a number of panels for various editing and writers’ organizations on this very subject—everyone wants to know… It’s not a simple answer—I’m looking for really good writing… For a writer that doesn’t have very much experience, I’m more interested in the writing than just the ability to do journalism. It’s a dangerous approach, because some writers that are very fluent with language can’t do reporting for shit, but I’m looking for a flair because I like the publications I work on to be engaging. If you just want reporting you’ve got daily newspapers… I actually used to avoid J-school types in hiring for editorial jobs… Somebody who’s a real long-time daily newspaper reporter is not generally good at magazine-type pieces because a feature is not just a re-telling of something; it’s not just descriptive… It has to bring something to the table—some thinking—and not just be reporting on what’s going on. And I do feel that journalism school can breed that out of people.

 

CB: So, what should that letter look like?

SS: I’d like to see a clip—first of all, I want to be intrigued by the idea, then see what kind of writing you’ve done, but even that can be misleading. I mean, I’ve known writers who have a couple of great clips that have been completely re-written—and they don’t need to tell you that because it’s got their byline on it—and then you realize they can’t actually deliver that kind of quality. But it’s evident pretty quickly what a person can do.

 

CB: What are your editorial pet peeves—the things that will get a query letter sent straight to the trash possibly before you even finish reading it?

SS: Writing that reads like a press release, that’s overly flowery, you know—trying too hard. I mean, that’s the other thing—I want engaging writing but… you know. Let’s say it’s a story about a beach; we don’t need to hear about the ‘luxurious, verdant waves that lapped at your toes,’ you know what I mean? Overdone, purple prose.

Also, I can’t really describe it exactly, but there is some bad phrasing, poor syntax in writing that makes me feel that this person doesn’t have control of the language. Like if somebody says ‘I should’ve went’ or ‘I lay down on the bed’—it’s those kind of common language mistakes that people make all the time in conversation, but if you do it in writing it sort of says to me that you don’t know what you’re doing… If someone is awesome in other ways, I might let it slide, but it depends. But you should know the basic kind of Strunk & White stuff.

 

CB: What can you say about the future of journalism and publishing?

SS: I think the democratization of writing is good for the exchange of ideas, but it’s bad for being a professional. And what I mean by democratization is, anyone can publish a book on Kindle just by pushing a button; anyone can publish a blog—and everyone does—so everyone is writing madly just because they love to for an audience of usually their best friends… Then there’s one in a thousand—or fewer—that picks up a substantial following and maybe gets some advertising support, and so on. But I would tell young people in J-school to find someplace to make a living—I wouldn’t even say to go. It’s good to study it, but where are you gonna go?

Newspapers are dying and that was the biggest employer of journalists and magazines are thinning down. And I think for many years there will still be print magazines. I’m not sure about forever, but I think they’ll be here to stay for a long time, but there will be a very small, select group that enjoys the fruits of that… And I think there will be increased specialization. You know, people don’t just want a magazine about skiing, for example, but if you’re into powder skiing you want a magazine about powder skiing. And it used to be very general… But I think that where magazines are more successful, mainly for ad reasons, is where advertisers know they’re buying ad space for people who by skis to ski on powdered snow and not just skis in general, so they know their money is being well spent and they’re willing to pay for that.

 

CB: Is it important for a writer to specialize?

SS: I think you need a little bit of specialization… To be very specific, if you’re a women’s magazine and you have a hair column, you’re not going to just hire anyone to write that hair column. You’re going to hire someone who’s been working in beauty and hair and knows the subject. Otherwise, the mistakes people make when they just plunge into a new field are that they tackle the subject that all their readers know has been discussed ad nauseam and that really don’t need to have covered again. They need to be able to zero-in on a new twist on that subject and you can’t do that unless you’ve been following it for months or years. If you’re at Cosmo and you’re going to write a sex story, you better know what they’ve already written about for the last five to ten years… you’ve got to know how far they’ve dialed it in.

 

CB: How important do you think it is for writers to maintain a social media presence today?

SS: Well, I think it’s very important… you have to be up on it. A lot of people get their news from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, etcetera. That’s, in effect, framing the world for them. Even John Green, who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, he and his brother are YouTube stars and he’s all tapped-in to youth culture… He’s got this huge audience so, when he wrote a book, he suddenly had millions of people to whom he could market… It’s hard for a generalist… but I think the people who succeed at it are a little bit eccentric and wacky, and really narrow focused—you know every week or every day what they’re going to put out there and they’re just building a following as they go. But truly, for every one that succeeds there are probably a hundred that get no following. But if there is something you are passionate about and you are willing to post about it over and over, one day you just might get enough followers to where suddenly you can make a living.

 

Steve Slon recommended reading: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. Esquire, April 1966.

Suggested follow: Humans of New York

 

Why I Don’t Transcribe Interviews and You Don’t Have to Either

Writing monster at work.

I’ve never claimed to have access to any mind-blowing secrets that are going to make you rich as a freelance writer. In fact, I have a tendency to put my guard up when I hear anyone make such a claim; even if they’ve turned their job writing from home into a multimillion dollar gig. The truth is that even (INSERT NAME OF FAVORITE WRITER/AUTHOR HERE) might be able to offer you some tips, or maybe they can give you some direction with respect to your craft or ideas. Heck, some higher-up might one day even drop your name to a publishing bigwig and help get you your first deal if the stars are all aligned just so. No amount of suggestion, though—no matter how poignant—is going to deliver clients to your doorstep or take your novel from 40,000 words of freewriting vomit straight to the best-seller lists.

Getting better at writing, like anything else unfortunately, comes with repetition—you know, it’s that dirty ‘P’-word—Practice. That being said, whatever handy little tips and tricks you can collect along the way to save yourself time will make you a more efficient writer. And the more time you can free up in your day to put toward the production of new material, the better off you will be.

To that end, let me start by saying that writing a 1000-word article used to take me right around twelve hours to complete, and it was Te-di-ous: four hours for general research, one and a half to conduct interviews, three more to listen to and transcribe those interviews, one more to compile my research (mainly, highlighting the best quotes in my interview transcripts), one hour to write out a rough draft, and another two-to-three to polish it. Today, the same article takes me right around half that time, maybe a touch more, depending on the article. And the products of that effort are (as they should be) better quality today than they were when I started, or at least I think they are. Not to say that there isn’t still plenty of room for improvement—I’ve never read anything I’ve written in a published forum and thought, ‘Yes, that is exactly the perfect way to have used those 800+ words on this subject’, nor do I think that I will ever necessarily get to that point. Still, the writing portion goes much more quickly now simply as a result of that previously mentioned ‘P’-word. From being unpublished just over two years ago (aside from a pair of op-eds in college which ran in a now-extinct afternoon newspaper) I now have dozens of published pieces to my name, each of which has afforded me the opportunity to learn something new about my process along the way. Sheer repetition alone has probably shaved about two-hours off of my production time just by granting me a familiarity with commonly-used formats. Most of the rest came from constantly looking for ways to further refine my rough-edged routines—from digging around the web for those precious tips and, perhaps even more so, from directly reaching out to people who genuinely knew what they were talking about.

Some things, however, you just pick up along the way—I realized this one day when one of my editors (who has been at this writing thing quite a few years longer than myself) asked me for tips on saving time while transcribing interviews. It was just too time-consuming, monotonous, and more so, TIME-CONSUMING to have to do two or more times per article, she told me. “I don’t transcribe anymore,” I responded, and her eyes went as wide as coffee cups.

During—and especially right before—my first interview (I can’t even remember who it was with at this point, though it was most likely a college professor or someone of similar status) I was terrified. I don’t recall the conversation but I do remember that my voice and hands were shaking the entire time. Once all of my interviews were complete (thank God!) and I was ready to sit down and write the article, I sketched out a rough outline before listening to each interview (did I mention I recorded every single interview I conducted—that’s kind of important) and meticulously transcribing every single word spoken in the audio file including the “uh’s” and “um’s”, pausing every couple of seconds to type out each sentence, fragment by fragment, before pressing on.

Where this made for some very accurate reporting (save the various non-interview-related errors that crept into a handful of my earliest pieces) it sucked up a great deal of my time. Soon I realized that what I was saying (the questions) had no import with respect to writing the actual article, and so I began transcribing only the answers given by my interviewees. This cut about fifteen-percent from the process. Not long after, I was using shorthand while transcribing so I didn’t have to pause the file as often to catch up–another twenty-percent. I also started including regular timestamps throughout my transcriptions for ease of reference should I need to refer back later on. Over time I gained a bit of an ear for what made a decent quote and, since I had an idea of the shape of each article before I started compiling the piece, I knew what to listen for when replaying my interviews. Now I was only pausing three or four times per replay, and only when I knew there was an exceptionally long and significant piece of information to write down. It was only a few more interviews after that before I was able to incorporate a form of shorthand into that process, as well. Now, replaying an interview to extract quotes for a piece of writing is essentially a one-shot deal, and rarely do I need to pause any more at all to catch up—at least, that is, on my good days.

None of this interview time-saver stuff happened all at once. And none of it came to me straight from the source, so to speak. But simply by knowing ahead of time what I was looking for and by learning how to listen for those sound bites I was able to cut my research and review time roughly in half—the actual length of my interviews also seems to get shorter the more of them I do. Unless, of course, it’s just for the sake of good conversation. Once I got a little better at mentally organizing shorter pieces, I was eventually able to completely cut out the outlining process for those articles, as well. And what has this meant for my writing career, you ask? Maybe not dollars in the bank, directly, but it has added up with respect to my time and level of productivity, and that translates to more flexibility for doing just about everything else; like dishes, and marketing, and writing blogs like this one for you.

I hope it helps.

Got any time-saving interview, research, or writing tips you want to share? Or maybe you’ve spotted all the flaws in my personal process and need to tell me about it. Either way, (and for any other reason, really) I’d love to hear from you.

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.