ew York based writer Susan Shapiro's work has appeared in many major magazines and newspapers. Her latest book, Only As Good As Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus, tells not only of the writing mentors who shaped her career, but of the struggles and hardships she faced along the way.
In the early days of her career, Shapiro’s work was being seen in all the right places, but she still needed her father's help paying the rent. She persevered and today her books are featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, and she's been on The Today Show, Dateline, Good Day New York, E! Entertainment Network, and primetime on ABC and Oxygen Network.
A Manhattan-based writer, Susan has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Nation, Salon.com, The Forward, Village Voice, People, More, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan and she is a contributing editor for Writer's Digest. She is also the author of Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic, Lighting Up, Only As Good As Your Word, and Five Men Who Broke My Heart.
Susan has taught at NYU's Journalism School, the New School's MFA program, Holy Apostles, and Mediabistro.com and has been able to help many of her students get their work published as well. She says, “By night, I’m a writing teacher who invented what I call ‘the instant gratification takes too long school of journalism,’ where the goal of my class is to publish a great piece by the end of the class to pay for the class.”
Today, Susan takes time to share her advice and writing experiences with WOW! readers.
WOW: You grew up in a family with a strong medical background, so how did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
SUSAN: I hate the sight of blood and faint at pinky tests. Luckily my tenth grade English teacher Jack Zucker, who I write about in Only as Good as Your Word, turned me onto the confessional poets—Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell—and I fell in love. Interestingly, I later learned he—like my father—was a brilliant science student in New York and my father—like Jack—used to write poetry.
WOW: You started off interested in poetry and then your career took off when you began writing for magazines and newspapers. How did you get involved in that field?
SUSAN: I always wanted to write but started out with poetry. But, I needed to make a living and I typed 100 words a minute, so I thought I should try for an editorial assistant type position. A poetry professor at NYU, where I had just finished my master’s degree, helped me get a job at The New Yorker. Gerry Jonas, a New Yorker staff writer, joined a writing workshop I started and thought I was a good critic. He helped me break into The New York Times Book Review.
WOW: What was your first major publication credit and how did you get your foot in the door?
SUSAN: My friend, Monica Yates, recommended to her editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, my first national publication. I said, “I owe you” and wound up introducing her to my brother, who she married and has four kids with. So we’re more than even.
The first piece, in the early ’80s, was about love labels—about if I don't want to call a guy my boyfriend, what would I call him? And just what I'm telling people to do is how I started out—with essays and op-ed pieces. If you write a whole piece, and it's great, and you send it to the appropriate editor, you have a good chance of publishing it. If you don't have any clips or any connections to an editor and you just send a pitch then a lot of times you're not going to get the assignment. You have to have clips and a writing sample already, so what's great about an essay is that they just read it and either say, “Yes, it's great.” or “No.” So, all my classes start with people writing essays.
WOW: You mentioned teachers and people in your critique group giving you advice on getting jobs at The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review. You also share many of your experiences starting out in your memoir, Only As Good As Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus. So what advice would you give an aspiring magazine writer trying to break into the business?
SUSAN: I think taking classes is a very smart thing to do. Usually, there are classes available at a local university and online. I know Media Bistro does a lot online. One of the things I talk about in my book is getting a mentor and I write about how my first one was a teacher. Another was a boss, one was a cousin who worked in the same field (author Howard Fast), one was an editor I worked with, and a co-worker, so I feel that getting a mentor is really essential and the first place to get a mentor is from taking a class. I also talk about how you can pursue someone whose work you admire. You can go to their readings and buy their books and write them an appreciation letter of what you think of them and, if it's appropriate, ask very specific questions.
“…I feel that getting a mentor is really essential and the first place to get a mentor is from taking a class.”
WOW: Having a mentor is obviously key to having success in writing then. You've taught and mentored many students through your classes at The New School, NYU, and Mediabistro.com and helped so many of your students get their work in national publications. Can you tell us about one of the assignments you give your students to help them get published?
SUSAN: The first assignment in all of my classes it to write a first person humiliation essay about the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to you as an adult. Those are the ones that get published the most—in The New York Times Lives column and Psychology Today’s Two-Minute Memoir.
WOW: That's great advice—and some good places to start submitting. Can you give us an example of a good humiliation essay?
SUSAN: There's a section from Only as Good about a mentor of mine who was the editor of The New York Times Book Review and a blunder that happened with a book review I was assigned. There's an excerpt of it on my website: www.susanshapiro.net
WOW: Great example! When first starting out, when you have no clips, how do you go about getting writing jobs from big publications? How do you handle having a complete lack of publication credits when you write a query letter?
SUSAN: I wouldn't send a query letter if you don't have clips. I teach in my classes that writing a personal essay for one of the many personal essay columns or an op-ed piece for a newspaper—you're just going to have much better luck than querying an editor with an idea. Most editors, if you don't have any clips or they don't know you, they're not going to say yes. So your best bet, and what I teach, is that personal essay columns you don't pitch, you just write the whole piece and the same with op-ed pieces.
WOW: Wonderful advice—send an entire essay rather than trying to pitch an idea. What do you think the key elements are when writing a personal essay or article? In Only As Good, you write, “Nothing good ever comes from keeping feelings veiled, hidden or repressed.” When should people hold back and when should they put themselves out there?
SUSAN: I just wrote a Writer’s Digest column about what makes a good personal essay. Drama, conflict, tension. And start timely. If you write a great one and follow the rules (making it timely, dramatic with an appropriate geographic connection), it’ll probably get published.
(You can read the column Susan wrote about personal essays for Writer's Digest.)
WOW: Thank you for sharing your article with us. You write about some great advice you were given early in your career: “Write about the people you love.” You have since published some hilarious pieces about your family—and your ex-boyfriends. What kind of reaction have you gotten from the people you've written about?
SUSAN: My husband and my family hate everything I write. But that’s okay. I’ve had a lot of therapy and realize they aren’t my audience. If your goal is to be popular and a nice person, you should write cookbooks. I did agree to change my husband’s name…
When my parents came to New York for my book party for Five Men Who Broke My Heart, I heard the relatives greeting them by saying: “Are you okay? How are you holding up?” Like they were at a funeral. I joke to my students that the first piece they write that their family hates means they’ve found their voice.
I thought with no drugs, sex, or rock and roll, my parents would like Only as Good as Your Word, but they didn’t. They called me to say that I made it sound like I had an unhappy childhood, so they felt on some level they were to blame. Then the Jewish News published an excerpt where my dad was a total hero. And all of their friends called to tell them how great it was, so then they decided maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. They liked my book “Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic” the best because it’s a self-help book about the benefits of marriage. I dedicated it to my parents “and their miraculous 52-year marriage” and mention I fixed up my brother with his wife and how they have four kids. But they don’t love the first person stuff about my ex boyfriends…
I had an editor who once said, “If there are three I's in a row, I just delete it.”
WOW: I can imagine! With all of the students that you've helped over the years, there must be several mistakes you see them making again and again. What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make when they start out trying to get published in magazines?
SUSAN: Too many people write whatever the hell they feel like writing instead of paying attention to the rules, marketing concerns, and who their audience is. They don’t read the publication they want to write for or Google the editors they are submitting work to. They write myopic entitled cover letters starting with how great they are. Then they complain editors don’t buy their work and it’s too hard to get published.
The biggest mistake I write about is with cover letters where people start showing off and talk about themselves a lot. I think that people aren't even going to read your stuff if you write a stupid cover letter. I had an editor who once said, “If there are three I's in a row, I just delete it.” If you're writing someone you want to be your editor, agent, mentor, or teacher and you start with, “I just graduated college a Phi Beta Kappa with a double minor in psychology and English, and I have written seven essays, and I think...” It's like “Delete!” Why are you writing me? I'm not going to take my time out of my day.
WOW: Interesting. I'm sure many people would have assumed that talking about what they had accomplished was the way to get an editor's attention. Thank you for your insight! What is a good way to start a cover letter?
SUSAN: Start smart, which is, “My friend ___ gave me your name,” then I have to read that one. Or if you start, “I love your publication. I specifically loved the piece you just wrote last week.” That's an engaging way to start.
If you want something from someone, you have to be smart about the way that you approach. People just starting out don't realize it's very off-putting when you start showing off about yourself. There's a fine line between Johnny Confident and not, but I'm not going to read ten lines of an email from a stranger if they're just babbling incoherently about all their achievements. Naked ambition is really ugly. If you're going to ask someone a favor, then you should do it in a very polite, respectful way. In every single class and every seminar, I teach how to write cover letters. I don't think most of the writing books do it very well.
WOW: I speak from experience when I say your seminars are incredibly informative! These days many publications expect writers to submit work without getting paid. What are your feelings on working without payment? Is it ever worth it just to get a publication credit? Why or why not?
SUSAN: It’s not working for free. It’s writing something great worth printing before you get paid. I find a lot of young writers who expect to get a contract from a short pitch or a book deal from a proposal before they’ve proven themselves or done any of the work. Unless you’re already famous, or have the most amazing dramatic story in the world, I think that’s being unrealistic, impatient, and entitled.
WOW: When you write for non-paying markets to get started and list them in your query letter, can editors tell paying markets vs. non-paying markets?
SUSAN: They know the difference. There are huge clips like The New York Times and Oprah’s magazine and there are clips (from places) you've never heard of, so it's pretty obvious usually. It can be a little confusing if say the South Dakota Times is a big paper versus South Dakota News, so that can be a little confusing, but there are publications that everyone's heard of and millions that people haven't and I think editors definitely know the difference.
WOW: Is it easier to get published online than in a magazine or print publication?
SUSAN: There are a whole bunch of small places online, so it's probably easier to break into a small place that doesn't pay online, but that clip isn't going to be thought of in the same way as The New York Times. So, a website is a good place to start, but you might not get paid and there's not a lot of editing and people don't know about them. The biggest ones are Salon.com and Tango.com. Any place is a good place to start, but there's definitely a hierarchy to what editors are going to pay attention to.
WOW: Since we're talking about publishing work online, blogs have gotten very popular lately. Can people ever break into publishing by writing blogs?
SUSAN: If you start a blog, get a fantastic title that is very specific to what you want to write about. An example would be Stephanie Klein's book, who I just wrote a blurb for, Straight Up and Dirty. She started a blog called “Greek Tragedy” about her relationships and that led her to memoirs. I also do a how-to-sell-your-first-book seminar. I've had protégés who've gotten book deals from blogs.
WOW: That must be a great feeling to see people you've helped succeed. Describe what it was like seeing your name in a national publication for the first time.
SUSAN: Exciting! I loved it. I always say clips are addictive, like crack. Since I quit smoking and drinking, I’m now addicted to seeing my byline in print, email, and book events.
WOW: Speaking of bylines, who are some of the journalists and magazine writers who have careers that you admire? Is there anyone you read on a regular basis?
SUSAN: I read Ian Frazier, who I write about in my mentor book, along with the poet Harvey Shapiro whose work I love. I’ve been in some anthologies where there have been essays. I love works by Daphne Merkin, Erica Jong, my cousin Molly Jong-Fast, Susan Cheever, Pam Houston, Rebecca Walker, and Wendy Shanker.
I quote my cousin Howard Fast as saying: “Plumber’s don’t get plumber’s block. Just get to work. A page a day is a book a year.”
WOW: What is your writing routine on a day-to day basis? Do you have a set amount of words or pages you try for per day?
SUSAN: Wake up, say good morning and goodbye to my husband, turn off the phone, and go to work on my book. I quote my cousin Howard Fast as saying: “Plumber’s don’t get plumber’s block. Just get to work. A page a day is a book a year.” So, I make myself write at least a page a day, usually more. It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to get on the page. Then, I teach these big, fun, exciting, energetic journalism classes at night, which is perfect, because after being alone at the computer all day, I love having company.
WOW: Speaking of your books, you've written several memoirs, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up, and Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus, and a poetry book. Are you planning to branch out and write other genres?
SUSAN: After five nonfiction books, and learning how to sustain a narrative for 300 pages, now I’m trying fiction again.
WOW: What kind of advice on writing did your cousin (and mentor) Howard Fast (bestselling author of Spartacus) give you? I know he said even with his fame that writing was not an easy profession.
SUSAN: When I once said I was blocked, and he said, “A plumber never gets plumber’s block.” And “a page a day is a book a year.”
WOW: Very good advice! What other writing advice has stuck with you?
SUSAN: Write about your obsessions. Write about what you're obsessed with, write about what you know and come up with a cool title and see if you can get an audience and that's one way to start. Take all kinds of classes to help you with your writing and to help you figure out what you want to write about.
I'm also a huge advocate of therapy because I feel some people can't figure out what they want to write about. I get a lot of undergrad students who don't know, and I say, “Write about your obsessions,” but they don't know what their obsessions are or they feel blocked. In that case, a mentor, or in some cases, a shrink can help. Lighting Up was all about a brilliant addiction specialist who taught me what my limitations were and taught me how to unblock myself, which was amazingly helpful.
WOW: Tell us about your upcoming projects?
SUSAN: I’m in an upcoming essay anthology called Behind the Bedroom Door that is being excerpted in Tango.com, and I’m waiting to hear about my novel. My New School classes and seminars are starting up again soon. My most exciting event is moderating this fantastic “Future of Publishing” panel for charity on September 10th in New York City that twenty of my students are helping me with. I’m listing it on my website susanshapiro.net and I just sent out a big Facebook invitation. That’s the benefit of having tons of great young students—they keep me current.
Thank you for your time and for your great the insight into the world of magazine publishing. You've provided some great tips and examples!
Susan's class, NEW SCHOOL WRITING FOR NYC NEWSPAPERS & MAGAZINE CLASSES 14-week term, starts again Monday night September 8, 2008 with two sections, from 6 to 7:50 pm and 8 to 9:50. Meets in Greenwich Village 66 W. 12th street. For more info call 212-229-5690.
She will also be part of THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING PANEL Wednesday September 10th from 7pm-9pm at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, 7 East 7th Street in Greenwich Village with panelists: New Yorker editor Susan Morrison, agent Ayesha Parde, nytimes.com digital editor Jim Roberts, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, Wired’s NY Bureau Chief John Abell, Harperstudio President Robert Miller & Time Magazine Arts editor Radhika Jones. Moderated by Susan Shapiro $20 at the door/ $15 advance registration for students & PEN members to benefit PEN American Center’s Emergency Writer’s Fund.
Susan will hold a SECRETS OF SELLING YOUR BOOK SEMINAR on Sunday September 21st from 2pm-8pm in Greenwich Village with guest star Bantam Dell book editor Danielle Perez and literary agent Ryan Fischer Harbage. $175. For more information contact Profsue123@aol.com
For those in the New York area, a FREE NYC MENTOR/PROTÉGÉ READING & HOW TO REALLY GET PUBLISHED TALK with Liza Monroy will be held on Tuesday, October 7th at 6pm Barnes & Noble at 18th Street & 5th Avenue.
Updates and information on Susan and her work can be found at www.susanshapiro.net.
Krysten Lindsay Hager is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for several Michigannewspapers. She's published both fiction and non-fiction in Natural Awakenings, Working Writer, Absolute Write, Chronicles of Power, Once Upon a Time magazine,New Works Review, The Qua literary magazine, The Michigan Times newspaper, Mike's Writing Newsletter, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators newsletters in Michigan, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, and the Plumb Line's Women of Passions anthology. She received an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest’s writing competition as well as several for Byline magazine and won the Deadwood Arts Council “People’s Choice Award” for best short story. Her work will appear in Conceitmagazine and the Patchwork Path anthology out later this year.
She splits her time between Michigan and Portugal. Her blog can be found at: www.krystenlindsay.blogspot.com