Advice & Tips, Work March 28, 2017

How did you become a writer?

I’ve always been a writer—a dabbler, a periodic poster, an infrequently paid contributor—but how did I become a real, live, published author of two books? Well, after I quit my job as a book editor at Simon & Schuster, I had an idea, drafted a proposal, showed it to a literary agent (who had expressed interest in whatever I might do after I left corporate publishing), and she sold the hell out of it. My path was certainly less fraught than many of the writers I’ve worked with, because I had good connections and a deep understanding of the business, but ultimately it was all about getting struck with a great idea and then executing it.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

My high school English teacher, Bonnie Jean Cousineau, was a great champion of mine, and I credit her with developing my childhood love of reading into a deeper intellectual pursuit of literature. My Uncle Bob, who recently passed away, was my “biggest fan” (his words) and always said I would write a book someday. Turns out, he was right.

As to stylists, I love any writer who can grab me from the first line and propel me through a book, whether a novel or nonfiction. My favorite first line of all time is from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

When you think about it, even just the first three words are more compelling than the opening lines of most books!

I always want to be surprised and entertained when I read, which is probably why, during my career as an editor, I gravitated toward commercial fiction (specifically thrillers and suspense), humor, and celebrity memoir. But I also worked with many literary writers whose prose and plotting was equally page-turning. I’m not one to revel in a beautifully crafted but static novel—I like to feel invigorated when I read.

Finally, I’m such a word nerd that I love writers who are inventive and playful with language, like Nabokov. My own books (The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Get Your Sh*t Together) are nowhere near his orbit, of course, but I do like to play around with language and I have several fuckmanteaus to show for it.

When and where do you write? 

I am a creature of habit, and my brain works best between about noon and four p.m., so that’s when I do most of my work. Now that I live in the Dominican Republic (my husband and I moved here from Brooklyn last year), I write at our outdoor dining table, overlooking the pool and garden, and with a never-ending parade of lizards to provide distraction.

What are you working on now?

I’m crafting a piece for Medium called How To Switch Seats On An Airplane, inspired by my recent trip to Miami to give a TEDx talk. As I say in Get Your Sh*t TogetherI have a real beef with people who think I guess I’ll just sit wherever is a viable strategy for ticketed airline travel.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Not in a serious way, thankfully. Both of my books were written on extremely tight deadlines (four weeks and ten weeks, respectively) so I really had to put my butt in the seat every day to grind out the words. Some days, they came more easily than others, and every once in a while I had to admit defeat and just take a day off—and inevitably, the words poured forth with gusto after my brief mental vacation.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

If you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Respect the process. Whether you’re just trying to finish a draft of a book, or sending out query letters to agents, or you’ve got a contract and are working with a publisher, there are no magic shortcuts to writing a book or publishing one. Eventually there will be lots of people other than you whose opinions and experience shape the book’s trajectory. It’s important to keep that in mind and not try to cut corners. Patience, Grasshopper.