Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times best-selling author of The Department of Lost and Found and Time of My Life. Her third book, The One That I Want, hits the shelves in June 2010. Although her focus is on fiction these days, Allison built a solid reputation as a freelancer for several well-known publications before making the switch to full-time fiction novelist.
She regularly offers advice to writers of all levels and shares her struggles and successes with her own writing projects on her popular blog, Ask Allison.
In a remarkable stroke of luck, Allison recently landed a deal that would have any writer green with envy—her novel, Time of My Life, is currently being developed into a film. The book focuses on Jillian Westfield, a young wife and mother who seems to have it all. One morning, she wakes up seven years in the past. Though confused at first, she quickly recognizes this opportunity for what it is—a second chance to right some wrongs and see how her life would be different had she made some different choices.
WOW! is excited to talk with Allison and learn more about the film project, her books, and living the writing life.
1.Thanks for speaking with us, Allison! You’ve been a writer for quite a few years, and your novel Time of My Life is currently being made into a film. How did that come about?
I’m fortunate enough to have a great literary agent who connected me to my great film agent. My film agent loved the book and the concept and shopped the book around a few months before it was published. We had a good amount of interest, and one producer in particular, Meryl Poster who used to chair Miramax, was really excited about the project. I went in and met with her and her second-in-command a few times; and after the writers’ strike ended, which caused a lot of delay throughout Hollywood, The Weinstein Company bought the rights on behalf of Meryl and made an offer we were all excited about.
2.How involved are you in the process?
I would say I’m involved in the sense of Meryl and her team have been very kind in continuing to be interested in my opinions and feedback. When we were first working out the deal, they sat down with me and talked about how the book resonated with them, the overall themes, and even some specific casting. One reason that I was really excited to sell it to them is that I completely trusted that they “got” the book in a way that you’d hope for. Throughout the process, they’ve done some temperature check-ins with me to gauge my thoughts on various aspects of the adaptation, and I recognize that this is a luxury. Most writers, to the best of my knowledge, aren’t consulted in this manner, and I feel fortunate to have been.
3.What kind of pay or percentage does the author receive for the rights to their book?
I think it varies wildly based on the project and who is buying. Initially, a book is optioned for about eighteen months, which means that a studio or production company or whoever buys it pays a lesser amount (anywhere from, I don’t know, a few peanuts to six-figures) for the rights to develop the project. Then typically, if the project is indeed given the green light, the author receives a much more substantial lump sum.
4.How is the process going? Any idea of when the film will be released?
Things are moving along quite well, and my option was just re-upped, which means they paid me another sum to retain the rights for eighteen more months. I’m hopeful that this means the movie will actually get made as the producers have had enough time now to ditch the project if interest weren’t high, and certainly wouldn’t pony up more money if there weren’t genuine hopes for moving forward. As to a release date, I’m not sure—my fingers are crossed for 2011.
“...screenplays are so different than novels in that there’s no interior dialogue, and that the producers and screenwriter have to work with the plot lines that best translate to the screen.”
5.How similar or different is the screenplay from your original novel?
I have no idea as of now, but I will say that part of selling the rights is recognizing that very little of what you put in the book may end up on screen. And as an author, you have to be okay with that. Even if the movie is a complete piece of garbage—which I have NO expectation that it will be—it doesn’t take away from what I wrote. Obviously, in an ideal world, the movie would be almost a mirror of the book; but I understand that screenplays are so different than novels in that there’s no interior dialogue, and that the producers and screenwriter have to work with the plot lines that best translate to the screen. So, I’ll trust that they’ll do their best. I’m not a screenwriter, so I really don’t poke my nose in that aspect of the process.
6.Your professional background is very interesting—you’d originally planned to be an actress. How did your writing career get started?
In theory, I’d have like to have been an actress, but that wasn’t something that I banked on, so to speak. After college, I went into PR; but yes, did quit my job to see if I had the chops to make it in acting. I was out in Los Angeles, shooting commercials and what not, when a friend from college called and started picking my brain on some marketing and PR questions for a start-up she was trying to launch. I ended up being really interested in her idea and moved back to New York City to help her—I wrote the web copy for the site, wrote a bunch of articles/content for it, and did the press releases. After we sold the company, a lot of our partners asked if they could retain me for similar purposes; and from there, I was hired by a big PR firm to ghostwrite for celebrities. At the time, I was also getting married; and since I wanted to break into magazine writing, I began pitching wedding-related story ideas.
As luck would have it, The Knot was looking for someone with ghostwriting experience to pen a book for them...and they ended up hiring me. From there, I broke into magazines and made my living from that for half a decade.
7.Did your acting background help your writing? How so?
I think so, definitely. For me, a lot of my writing is very similar to immersing myself into a character—and that’s the same whether or not I’m typing pages into my computer or reading a script. It’s about digging into the inner life of your characters and being honest and pulling out moments that readers can relate to in their own lives. When I hear from readers who connected with Time of My Life, it’s almost always because of this—that Jillian’s struggles reflected their own; and I definitely attribute that ability to connect with sort of tapping into my inner-actress. (I will also note, however, that there are certainly readers who didn’t connect with Jillian and/or love the book; and I hear from them, too, and that’s just fine also!)
8.You were a freelance writer for quite a few years, and your work has appeared in several well-known publications. How did you transition from your magazine work to writing your first novel?
Yes, as I said above, I wrote for magazines for a good percentage of my career; but at a certain point, I felt ready to flex a different muscle. I’d reached every goal I’d hoped for in that venue; and while I loved it and was so, so, so fortunate to write for all of my favorites, I just...wanted to try something else. So, to that end, I started writing fiction to see if I could do it. The result was a manuscript that took four years to complete and looking back, wasn’t very good. But I didn’t know that at the time. The manuscript got me an agent but ultimately didn’t sell. Still though, just finishing that manuscript inspired me to keep going, so I tackled another one that ended up being my debut: The Department of Lost and Found.
9.Do you prefer non-fiction or fiction?
Well, I only write non-fiction in the magazine world since I’ve never attempted a non-fiction book; but still, that said, I’d say that I lean toward fiction. Again, I loved the magazine gigs for the time that I had them, but there is something freeing (and terrifying) about not having any limits as to what you can put on the page. Non-fiction requires heavy-duty research, which I don’t have the stomach for anymore (and applaud those who do!), so I like being unshackled when it comes to my characters, plot line, and wherever things go.
“...my most memorable assignment was flying down to the White House to interview Ari Fleisher...”
10.Can you tell us about some of your more memorable magazine assignments?
Funny, I was just thinking about this. I’d say that my most memorable assignment was flying down to the White House to interview Ari Fleisher—who, at the time, was President Bush’s press secretary—for Men’s Health. I went into the press pool, and then was ushered into the West Wing and got to hang out in his office for a while. It doesn’t matter what side of politics you’re on—it’s an incredible experience and one that I’ll never forget. And though I don’t do too much other magazine writing these days, I do still continue to do celebrity profiles—usually one or two a month—and I love chatting with some of my favorite stars. Steve Carell was super-awesome, as was Michael Vartan, among others. It’s always amazing when these celebrities exceed your expectations and prove that they’re awesome both on and off the screen.
11.You’ve written two other novels besides Time of My Life, and all three of your books tend to ask those “What if?” questions. (“What if we could go back in time and make some different decisions, as Jillian does in Time of My Life?”) What is it about those types of scenarios that appeals to you? Are you looking to challenge your readers to think about some decisions they’ve made?
Yes, that’s it exactly; and along with that, I enjoy challenging myself in the same way as I’m writing. I very much enjoy taking women who aren’t living their lives to their maximum potential and figuring out how to help them do that...because I think so many of us can relate to that dilemma these days. As women, we’re pulled in so many different directions that we often feel like we’ve compromised across the board. So, I like to examine how these characters can accept the compromises they’ve made while still living a fully fleshed out life. I think that’s the most we can ask of ourselves.
“In my opinion, it is critical to listen to constructive advice and to take your ego out of the equation.”
12.You’re very pro-writer, and you offer a lot of advice on your blog, Ask Allison. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received (or given a fellow writer)?
I always tell aspiring writers, as I was told way back when, to be open to criticism and to figure out the best way to make yourself a better writer. I think it’s so, so easy to fall victim to thinking that you’re great when, in fact, you’re not. In my opinion, it is critical to listen to constructive advice and to take your ego out of the equation. There are always going to be better writers out there and editors who truly know what they’re talking about. If they offer you helpful suggestions, digest them and don’t immediately assume that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They very well might. But if you don’t get out of your bubble and figure out how to make yourself a better writer, you’re never going to both improve and get published. I can’t tell you how much I value—to this day—the advice and suggestions of my editor and agent, both of whom have made me a better writer.
13.If you could offer one piece of advice to all of those new writers out there, what would you tell them?
Wow, one piece of advice? That feels tough. In addition to what I said above about criticism, I would say to develop a very thick skin and not to take things personally. If you don’t cope well with rejection, this is not the industry for you. Every single writer—even the very, very prominent ones—gets rejected a lot. I think of the story of Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the smash The Help and who was rejected by dozens of agents and editors. Now she’s a number one New York Times best-seller. I don’t know her personally, but I promise you that if she didn’t have the stomach for this type of rejection, she wouldn’t be in the position she’s in now. You have to be okay with your ego getting trampled. Even better, you have to know that it’s not personal and actually shouldn’t affect your ego at all.
If you don’t have this disposition (and it’s plenty okay not to!), I’d suggest writing for pleasure, but not pursuing it on a professional level, unless you have loads of support built in who can nurse you along.
“I write without a map, which means that I start with a story idea, and I just see where the story and the characters lead me.”
14.Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
I write without a map, which means that I start with a story idea, and I just see where the story and the characters lead me. I wouldn’t say this is the best way to write a book, to be honest. I find it pretty frustrating at times and truly wish that I had the patience to outline before I got going. But I don’t, and I know myself well enough to know that I don’t! That said, what I love about the way that my process works is that I sincerely think that this creates the most honest and organic book possible. I don’t corner myself into an ending or a plot point or a character arc because I let the characters and their decisions guide me. If I outlined from the get-go, I wouldn’t be able to make different decisions that feel more honest and spontaneous; and in the end, my frustrations with my process aside, it really does create the best final product.
15.Do you have a method for keeping track of your story ideas, whether they’re for future articles or possibly to use in a future novel?
No, because I really only focus on the book I’m working on and don’t gestate other ideas while doing so. I feel like I’m lucky enough to have stumbled upon the current idea, much less any for the future!
“I don’t want anyone to think that I’m writing these books and working on my magazine articles during the wee nap times of my children because that wouldn’t be a fair impression.”
16.How do you balance writing and family life??
I get asked this fairly often, and I always immediately say that I have a great babysitter, which is true. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m writing these books and working on my magazine articles during the wee nap times of my children because that wouldn’t be a fair impression. But that said, I treat my job like any other working mom would: namely, while my kids are at school or in their after-school activities, I sit in my office and I work; and then, come six o’clock, when it’s time for their dinner, I shut down the manuscript and hang out with them. It’s actually surprisingly easier for me than I think people think it is, and I’m so fortunate to have this flexibility. I can take my son to school, see my daughter at lunch, but then get right back to work; and I’ve been doing this ever since my kids were born.
So, they’re pretty used to coming into my home office, hanging out for a few minutes, and then letting me return to my screen. I don’t know—I also don’t have the expectation of perfection around here. We’re sort of an easy-going, messy (figurative) bunch, and we go with the flow a lot of times. I think that motherhood asks a lot of you, and you give it your best; and then you’re okay with that.
The One That I Want is sort of the bookend to Time of My Life, in that it takes the concept from TOML and flips everything on its head. Here’s the synopsis:
Tilly Farmer is thirty-two years old and has the perfect life she always dreamed of: married to her high school sweetheart, working as a school guidance counselor, trying for a baby. Perfect. But one sweltering afternoon at the local fair, everything changes. Tilly wanders into a fortune teller's tent and meets an old childhood friend, who offers her more than just a reading. "I'm giving you the gift of clarity," her friend says. "It's what I always thought you needed." And soon enough, Tilly starts seeing things: her alcoholic father relapsing, staggering out of a bar with his car keys in hand; her husband uprooting their happy, stable life—a packed U-Haul in their driveway. And even more disturbing, these visions start coming true. Suddenly Tilly's perfect life, so meticulously mapped out, seems to be crumbling around her.
And as she furiously races to keep up with—and hopefully change—her destiny, she faces the question: Which life does she want? The one she's carefully nursed for decades or the one she never considered possible? What if you could see into the future? Would you want to know what fate has in store?
“There is very little that you can’t do for an hour a day—you’d be surprised.”
18.On your blog, you’re very up front about the fact that writing this novel was quite difficult for you at times. How did you power through the rough spots? What do you hope other writers will learn from the challenges you faced through this process?
As I noted above, I have a very wise editor who read a few early drafts and made very helpful suggestions to amp up the action and the pacing and the plotting. So that definitely helped. But I think as far as relating this more universally to other writers, I found that I simply didn’t have a choice: I had to keep writing. I had to keep revising. This book was sold and under contract; and there were times when I was so frustrated with myself that if it hadn’t been, sure, maybe I would have quit. But I’m so, so grateful that I didn’t. My method is that I simply have to sit down and work for an hour a day (when revising) or until I reach the 1000-word count (when I’m drafting). There is very little that you can’t do for an hour a day—you’d be surprised.
So even when I was tortured with the thought of revising yet again (I believe this book went through six full edits), I knew that I could do it if only for an hour. Thank goodness I did!
19.Along those same lines, how do you tackle those bouts of writer’s block?
Well, in addition to my motto of sitting down and writing, come hell or high water, I do give myself breaks if I really need to. Sometimes, you simply can’t get water from a stone, so I give myself permission to take a day or two off, which allows my brain to really float freely and consider what might jump-start my writing process. Usually, it’s because I need to create more conflict and push my characters off a figurative ledge; and once I figure out how to do that, I’m back in the saddle. I’ve also found that going for a run really gets my creative juices flowing again: there’s something about being alone with only my iPod and my thoughts that triggers my creativity.
I’m almost done with the initial draft of my fourth book, The Memory of Us, which focuses on a woman who survives a plane crash but loses her memory in the process, and is forced to tape together the pieces of her life by the stories that other people relay back to her. I think it’s a nice companion to Time of My Life and The One That I Want—somewhere in between the two of them in terms of voice and gravity, and hope that readers agree when it comes out in June 2011!
To find out more about Allison, visit her website:
Sara Hodon is a freelance writer based in Northeast Pennsylvania whose work has appeared in History, Harrisburg Magazine, Young Money, and WritersWeekly.com. She discusses the trials and triumphs of the writing life on her blog, Adventures in the Writing Life. .
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