Episode 147: #GoodNewsandHowIGotThere

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Now appearing in the DEALS section of Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Lunch:

KJ Dell’Antonia’s THE CHICKEN SISTERS, about the long-standing rivalry between two Kansas family fried-chicken dynasties and the reality TV competition that forces that forces a new generation of sisters to face old secrets and new dreams, to Margo Lipschultz at Putnam, in a pre-empt, by Caryn Karmatz Rudy at DeFiore and Company (World). Film rights with Brooke Ehrlich at Anonymous Content.

I sold my novel!

I’m gleeful. And I’m delighted that my new publisher understood exactly where I would want to announce this–right here on the podcast. Looking back, we were recording the entire time I was writing The Chicken Sisters. I didn’t talk much about it in the beginning–who knew if this time I’d really create something that worked–but as I got more confident in what I was doing, I shared more, and that’s been both fun and nerve-wracking, because good news was never a certainty, and I’m not immune to the urge to hide any failures.

I’m so glad I don’t have that problem. This time.

On the podcast, I tell you all about the deal and how it went down–and why I made the fairly unusual decision to take a pre-empt when there were other interested editors. In part, I really wanted my new editor to know how very much I wanted to work with her, and my new publisher to know how much faith I have in them. I felt like the choice said that, and I felt great about it.

But then I walk backwards–because this happened pretty quickly, and that’s in part because I’ve got name recognition. It’s important to note that name recognition–or platform, if you prefer–absolutely does not sell fiction. Unless your name is Bill Clinton, and you co-write with James Patterson, fiction is all about the story, and it should be. If I hadn’t written a good book, and edited and revised and re-written until it was the best it could be, my name wouldn’t have gotten anyone past page one.

But is does get people to page one faster than they might otherwise get there, so I thought today was a good day to go backwards and do a timeline of how I got to where I am. I even wrote it out, in more detail than I go into in the podcast–so here goes. This is LONG–but hey, it’s been more than 2 decades. Feel free to TL,DR and skip straight to the episode for the basics and more on the deal.

KJ’s Career Timeline

KJ’s Career Timeline

Childhood: Forget “I have always wanted to be a writer.” I have always been a writer. From the minute somebody stuck a crayon in my hand. I wrote fan fiction before anyone called it that. My first book was a highly derivative, self-published work entitled “Julie and the Magic Pen.” I did the illustrations. I printed the book on carefully cut out pieces of poster board. I glued bright yellow cloth over the cover. My mother still has it, and my children used to ask me to read it aloud whenever we visited. You know how, when you read a particularly repetitive and tedious picture book, you kind of turn multiple pages at once by “accident?” It’s like that.

High School: I spent most of my time in the drama department, but I moonlighted for the both the school paper and the yearbook. No evidence of this time remains, but I do remember that when we made a mistake, you took a little Exacto knife, cut out the offending letter or word, then used a special kind of tape to insert the new one. 

College: I dropped my journalism class after two days, because we were required to write purely factual articles that fit a very narrow template and I no likey. Instead, I answered a call to audition for a weekly column in the school paper (which was a daily on weekdays, the Kansas State Collegian). I wrote that column, at $1 an inch, weekly for the rest of my college career. I offended professors and once threw away a letter, still sealed, from some of my sorority sisters condemning something I’d written. It was good practice for moderating comments, later.

Law School: If you are a good student and writer who is frequently described as “argumentative” and you grow up in a conservative community where the arts are acceptable hobbies for the eccentric but certainly not a way to make a living, if you need to be sensible and practical, it is inevitable that someone will suggest you go to law school. There, you will learn to write and edit your work as though it is going to be torn apart by opponents who want nothing more than to find a mistake and capitalize on it. This, too, is good training for modern journalism.

I took two creative writing classes in law school. One was a community class, and I dropped out after a few weeks because I couldn’t keep up with the work. The other was a short story class on campus. You had, again, to audition to get in, and I did—but I only wrote six words the professor approved of for the entire rest of the course.

I never did really like short stories.

The Law: I had six jobs in 7 years, which is even more embarrassing because I spent 2 years at one and three at another. I did corporate litigation for Cravath, Swaine and Moore, where I learned the art of business travel, strengthened those writing-for-people-who-want-to-destroy-you skills and perfected my ability to pretend to be drinking around men who were hoping to impair my judgement. I moved on to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where I represented the People of the State of New York in mostly drug and domestic violence cases, ending when I assisted on a high-profile homicide and realized that this was a career for the passionately committed, which I was not, or for people who were really good at separating work from their personal lives, which I also was not. 

Then I did some other stuff. As a side note, I am terrible at both being a “Vice President of Business Development” and a corporate recruiter. 

During those seven years, I wrote many first chapters. I started an email I called “The Cake,” which was about eating out in New York. I reviewed a couple of books and a couple of restaurants for Time Out New York. I started and quit journaling a dozen times. I wrote more chapters, including a murder mystery in which a male law student was found dead in the parking garage of his apartment building. All I can say is, that guy totally deserved it.

And then. 

I had a baby.

9/11.

I got laid off.

I collected unemployment.

I went to culinary school for pastry and did some fancy baking on commission.

I read, in O Magazine, about a woman named Susan Straub who had a program teaching prison inmates to read aloud to their children. I emailed her, offering to maybe do some administrative work for her. I knew enough to know I didn’t want to work with prisoners, but I wanted to support someone who did. 

Susan and I met and somehow decided to write a book together instead.

My husband suggested we move to New Hampshire, where he had been offered a job with one of his clients. I agreed—if I could start trying to make writing into a career, which meant we would need babysitting and/or day care. 

We did.

I sat in an office in our new house, which was approximately a zillion times bigger than our apartment, while a series of babysitters and mother’s helpers tried to keep first my son, and then my son and daughter, from finding me and stopping me from endlessly printing and mailing queries to magazines for freelance jobs. I bought a book called “How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query and Cover Letters”. It was a big, 8.5 x 11 book, and it had the letters actual size, so you could see how to format them. It had two book proposals in it as well. It became my bible. 

I pitched, then wrote an article on a trendy new ingredient, miso, for our local paper that included recipes, which I adapted (with credit) from real chefs. I left the miso out of one of them. I was so humiliated that I never, ever pitched the local paper again—which was probably good, as it forced me to try other things.

I ranked the parenting magazines that were out then in descending order from best to worst and then modeled a pitching system off that of Anne in one of the later Anne of Green Gables books. I’d send something to the top mag, then rewrite the pitch for the next one down when it came back, and so on. Every time, I’d pitch a feature, then include ways to do it much much smaller. Eventually one of the lesser mags (ePregnancy, and I have no idea why it was called that as it was purely in print, of course) let me try out one of the smaller ideas. I wrote front-of-book pieces for them for about a year before convincing them to give me something bigger. 

Susan and I wrote a book proposal and pitched it to agents (this must have been in 2003). At the same time, I was sending out essays (fully written, not pitched) and multiple pitches. My first big piece was for Mothering Magazine—a feature! With pictures! For which they paid me… in copies. Mothering was a non-profit, the magazine for natural parenting—but it was right up there, in terms of street cred, with Parents and Parenting. And it would be a very pretty clip to enclose in future pitches. So I did it anyway.

At the same time, Susan and I were writing our book proposal. Thanks to my how to write letters bible, I made us look like we knew what we were doing. And Susan really was an expert on literacy. Kind of. She’d been in O!

Susan and I sold the book in 2004. We even had more than one publisher interested, although it wasn’t an auction (our advance, for both of us? $6,000.) We flew out to Chicago to meet the people at Sourcebooks on our own dime. I brought at least one kid, and my mom, who was living in Wisconsin at the time, came and babysat.

Weirdly, it was almost easier to get the book contract than to get the freelance features. Maybe it was. It all began to work together—I’d include in queries that our agent was pitching this book. I puffed up my freelance work in the book proposal we went to agents, and then editors. I started to sound like I knew what I was doing. I started to know what I was doing. 

Oh, and I wrote a really embarrassing did-she-jump-or-was-she-pushed thriller, which I seem to have let several friends read, and which—I’ve blocked it out—I did try to get agented. A little. Kind of half-heartedly and with much fear, which I’m sure showed. I think I had a couple of requests for the first three chapters, but it went exactly nowhere and I dropped it, and I have pretty much blanked on the whole thing.

I wrote my parts of Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos with babies on my lap the whole time. My youngest son was born just a couple of months before it came out. I still remember sitting in a cafe, nursing him with one arm and typing with the other. I met one of my “writing coven” that way. She was impressed by my multi-tasking.

And now—enter the Internet in its real glory. I’ve got a book coming out, so now I’m an “expert” in children’s literacy. (Which I did study in college. A little. A very little. Fortunately no one asks for details about things like that.) I start reviewing children’s media for the brand new Common Sense Media, and now I’m an expert in that. Slate launches a women’s site, Double XX, and I sit in a bookstore in Washington, D.C. (where my in-laws live) drafting a crazed pitch to be one of their bloggers. I’m desperate, I want it so bad. I’m scary.

I don’t get it, but Erica Perl, who wrote a children’s book Susan and I praised like crazy in our now-published to very little acclaim book, Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos, becomes their chidren’s media reviewer—and is offered a better gig before the site launches. She suggests me as her replacement, and (I’m sure reluctantly) Hanna Rosin and Emily Bazelon agree. 

I review a zillion things while regularly pitching blog posts to them which, I tell them, they do not have to pay me for. I get better at the blog posts, and eventually they begin to pay me, which is good, because they get folded into Slate and are no longer a stand-alone site, and the media reviews end, but now I am an official Double XX blogger. I make much of this, even though I have never once been to Slate’s offices and don’t know anyone, or how to do anything other than exactly what I am doing. I’m still freelancing. I have my own not particularly popular blog, I’ve given up on fiction because I want to become Catherine Newman or Anne Lamott. I write a few times for Lisa Belkin at Motherlode, and we hit it off. We even meet for coffee.

I forgot to say that I read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, and I took its advice very seriously. I made every opportunity to go meet editors face to face. I sat in their offices with a list of ten ideas and got out in ten minutes. I go meet my Slate editors. I meet everybody. I always tell them I’m in town for some very professional-sounding reason, but I’m not. I’m there to stalk them.

We adopt our younger daughter, and I write a memoir about the process and pitch it to agents live at an ASJA convention. Most of them hate it. But one or two say they will look, and I also send a pitch to Laurie Abkemeier, who is my writing friend Jess’s dream agent. She likes it. I’ve got an agent and a memoir to finish, and I’m writing for Slate and getting feature pieces in Wondertime and Family Fun and Parents and everything is great. I apply for, and am interviewed for, the job of Children’s Book Editor at the New York Times. I don’t get it (at least in part because I’m unwilling to move to New York) but I feel close. I feel like I’ve broken in.

I’ve told the story of my takeover of Motherlode in other places. Lisa left for HuffPo, and because we’d become friends, we had talked about it before she went—and I planned to throw my hat into the Motherlode ring, but I didn’t know when. The day her departure became public, I was out to dinner with Jess (who  and Sarina Bowen (who wasn’t Sarina yet). Sarina asked if I’d heard—I had not. I ate another bite of my curry, and then I started to rush the rest of that meal. I didn’t tell them, but I was going home to pitch the hell out of whoever I had to to get Lisa’s job. 

Lisa’s gone silent (later she’ll tell me that the Times was so angry with her that any support from her wouldn’t have helped me anyway). I find the name of her editor from a friend (who I happen to know has also thrown her hat into the Motherlode ring, and I send a very direct email that started like this: You already know I’m not subtle. I really want to take on the new Motherlode, and after two years covering parenting, family politics, and the work/family juggle for Slate’s XXFactor blog, I’m the perfect person to do it. 

The editor at the time (the wonderful Megan Liberman, now at Sirius) called two days later. Would I just do the column while they found someone? Might be me, might not, but meantime, they didn’t want dead air.

I said yes, of course. And then I dropped everything else and I nailed it. Or I think I did, and I got the job (after stepping back to allow a few other people to have audition weeks).

I won’t go through all the years of Motherlode, but obviously the people I met at the Times, and even more so the many writers I edited over the years, have become a big part of that “platform.” I worked hard to bring in new voices, to make Motherlode a bigger place, to encourage writers. I replied to (in spite of my recent essay) every single email from a writer. Every one. If I didn’t, I didn’t see it. (That happened occasionally, but it was rare.) I said no a lot, but I never said nothing. Because I’d been there.

From there: It took me 2 years to write the book proposal for How to Be a Happier Parent. Another 2 to write the book. 

Jess and I started #AmWriting in 2017, and we intentionally decided to focus, not on what we were writing (parent and family writing for both of us at the time) but on writing itself. I already knew I’d move on to other topics (and I’ve always had my sights set on fiction). I’ll let Jess tell her own version someday. But for me, writing—well, that we would always be doing. 

Motherlode became Well Family, and more health focused, and after my book leave I decided to go freelance—and try fiction again. Oh, I’d been writing a few things in fits and starts over those two decades I just covered. But it was time to fish or cut bait. I’d been writing around that dream for a long time, and it was great—it was the fulfillment of another dream, really. But if I was going to be a novelist, it was time to—write a novel.

You know the rest. But not the end.  

Thanks for riding along on the trip! All writers really want–well, all I want–is to tell. To be heard. To connect. And without readers–who are so often also other writers–it doesn’t happen.

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