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How Meg Donohue Balances Motherhood and Writing

Today's guest post comes compliments of Meg Donohue, whose debut novel, HOW TO EAT A CUPCAKE, has been widely praised from book readers and critiques alike. (Publishers Weekly calls it "clever, sweet, delicious," among other compliments!) I'm often asked how I balance my work and home life, and I love that Meg shared her own perspective on how she keeps things in check. Smart words of wisdom for anyone who is trying to write his or her own debut (or second or third or fourth) book and still stay sane. 

Like many of you, I struggle with juggling parenthood and my career. In theory, writing should be a wonderful job for a mom—and, most of the time, it is. But, like any work-from-home job, it can be tough to motivate to write when your desk is five feet away from an overflowing laundry bin, or when you’ve used the last bit of milk in your morning coffee and know your daughter is going to want her sippy cup filled when she awakens from her nap, or when you’re really only half-awake because you haven’t had a moment to shower and change out of your pajamas.

While I was writing my first novel, How to Eat a Cupcake, I was also caring for my one-year-old daughter and was pregnant with our second daughter. It was a busy time in my life—and with two children under three now and another novel underway, life has only become busier!—but in retrospect, I can see how working to foresee my daughter’s needs taught me an incredible lesson about achieving my own happiness.

Here’s the big lesson my daughter taught me: Schedules are our friend. My daughter, I realized, loved knowing that she would have her meals and her naps and her playtimes around the same times each day. The predictable routine made her feel safe—it gave shape to her days and, I like to think, allowed her to be extra creative and joyful during her playtimes because she was rarely overtired or hungry or confused.

As I worked on my daughter’s schedule, I carved out my own as well. I committed myself to writing ten new pages of my manuscript each week and defined the hours that I wrote (during naps and the eight hours each week when I was fortunate to have the help of a nanny), the hours that I took care of my daughter, and the hours that I took care of the house. I soon found that, like my daughter, the days where things happened when they were “supposed” to happen were my most productive, happiest days. I wrote without worrying that I was falling behind on my duties as mother, I played with my daughter without feeling distracted by work, and the laundry…well, I’ll admit I still struggle with that Sisyphean task.

Who knew I’d learn my greatest writing lesson from my toddler? Next on the to-do list: I need to disable the Internet during my writing hours so email, Facebook, and Twitter can’t eat into my productivity. Like sticking one of those plastic thingamajigs in an outlet, it’s time to baby-proof my writing time.

Meg Donohue was born and raised in Philadelphia and now lives in San Francisco with her husband, two young daughters, and dog. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and a BA in comparative literature from Dartmouth College. How to Eat a Cupcake is her first novel.  


Sarah Pekkanen on Book Trailers

I'm off with my family this week, so I've asked a few friends to stop by. First up is Sarah Pekkanen, whose new book, THESE GIRLS which is an exploration of female friendship, is out April 10th! I adore Sarah's post because I've been iffy on book trailers in the past, and I think the key is finding something cool, unique and ideally, heartfelt/hilarious enough to go virtual. It sounds like she's done just on for her thoughts on book trailers. And then weigh in on whether or not book trailers have ever gotten YOU to buy a book. If so, which one?

For my first two novels, I hired professionals to create book trailers - and I was thrilled with the results. I loved the idea of using mini-movies to help spread the word about my books, and I heard from readers that they enjoyed viewing them as well.

But as my publication date for THESE GIRLS approached, I decided against filming another trailer for a variety of reasons – mostly because I wanted to try something different to gauge its effectiveness in attracting new readers.

Right after making that decision, I stopped by a cocktail party thrown by my hometown’s magazine and began chatting with the young videographer who creates content for the magazine’s website.  Book trailers were on my mind, so I brought them up, and told her about ones I’d seen that I particularly liked (I’m talking to you, Julie Klam!) Then something strange happened; a fully-formed idea for a book trailer lit up my mind. 

“Do you remember at the end of the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ when all the married couples talked about how they met?” I asked the videographer. 

“Sure,” she said. 

“My new book centers around three women who end up sharing an apartment in New York City, and become best friends,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be cool to find real-life best friends and interview them about how they met? And model a book trailer after those ‘When Harry Met Sally’ outtakes?” 

“Yes!” she said. “And I can help.” 

A few weeks later, I’d located more than a dozen sets of best friends – pairs of women as old as 93, and girls as young as 10 – who shared incredible bonds. I drove around town in my minivan with Emma the videographer riding shotgun, and we knocked on the doors of these women, who welcomed us into their homes and opened up their hearts. Some friends wiped away tears as they talked about the tough times they’d helped each another through (divorce, death of a parent, bankruptcy); others pairs of pals couldn’t stop laughing. They interrupted one another to fill in missing details, finished each other’s stories, and filled up their wine glasses and toasted to all of the adventures they’d shared. More than once, I had to pause before asking my next question because I was wiping away tears of my own. 

The experience was incredible, and left me with a new appreciation for the power of women’s friendships. The raw footage we shot is now in the hands of my videographer, who has the daunting task of editing hours and hours of interviews down into a 3-minute trailer for THESE GIRLS. I can hardly wait to see it.

I’ve also asked the videographer for one final thing: to create a DVD for each of the women we interviewed that includes both the finished trailer as well as their full interview. I’m also planning to give all of these best friends bottles of wine to open while they watch their personalized DVDs. I’m hoping they’ll raise their glasses and toast to all of the adventures their futures hold.


Interviewing Dos and Don'ts

Question of the day: I'm just getting my feet wet in the freelancing world and find the thought of doing interviews a little terrifying. Any tips for what to do right (or wrong) when I'm interviewing someone?

What a great question - one that I don't  think I've been asked in the six years of this blog. And it's funny because I was just listening to an interview I did with a celeb, and thinking that I was totally tanking it. (Sidenote: I HATE transcribing my own interviews - I usually send them out to a third-party - because I think I sound like such an idiot.)

Anyhoo, here are a few things I've learned - I'd LOVE for others to chime in with their own thoughts!

1) DO LISTEN. One thing that I think I did in my earlier years of interviewing was interupt the subject too often. Let them say what's on their mind and try not to interject too much. Sure, of course you want to keep the flow of the conversation going, but let them articulate what they want to without you jumping in too, too much.

2) DO ALLOW FOR SPONTANEOUS MOMENTS. Now, keep in mind that a lot of what I now do is celeb interviews (so this may be slightly different for scientific-based interviews or what not), but to my point above, I really like to follow the flow of conversation. For my celeb interviews, I often write down five or six questions that I definitely want to ask, and that I double-check before we wrap up, but I also try to allow for the fact that the conversation may not go as planned - as that's usually a great thing. If the interview is a little stiff and the subject doesn't feel like opening up, then I can refer to those six questions and still get the info I want, but the best interviews are often more like back-and-forth conversations, so I aim for that sort of spontaneity. 

3) DO RECORD YOUR INTERVIEWS. I never type during my interviews anymore. I used to but I found that my brain space was too divided, and I didn't have that flow of conversation. So now, I record everything - sometimes I take notes (and I know a lot of people DO prefer to take notes) - and just talk with the subject as if I'm having any other conversations.

4) DO ALL OF YOUR RESEARCH, EVEN IF YOU'RE NOT ASKING ABOUT IT. I find that I'm most nervous before an interview when I haven't read/listened/watched all that I can about the subject. Again, I'm mostly chatting with celebs right now, but I try to know about their hobbies, their pets, their old projects. This allows for a friendly, more casual conversation because you can discuss a whole host of subjects other than the, "Tell me about this movie," question.

So those are a few tips. I'm sure that there are DOZENS of others. Who wants to weigh in?



Deadline With Myself

Question of the day: You mentioned in your last post that you set a self-imposed deadline. Can you talk a bit more about why and how you do that?

Sure. Here's the simple answer: without a deadline for a project, I very likely won't get it done. Or I will procrastinate it or put it at the bottom of my list, such that it weighs on me to the point of resentment. SO. To combat this, I almost inevitably impose my own deadlines that I stick to as closely as I would a deadline assigned by an editor.

So, for example, right now, with the promotional stuff, one of my publicists sent me a long list of original content that she needs with me. I read it, and thought, "Sure, that sounds fine." And then a week went by, and then another, and I realized there was just no way I was going to ever write that stuff. So I wrote her back and said, give me a deadline for every single one of these, and I will get them done. She did as much, and that firm line in the sand motivated me to write all of those articles in the next two days.

With the screenplays I'm working on, I actually give deadlines to my producers...they are happy to get what I turn in whenever I turn it in, but I can't work that way. So, for example, I'll say: I intend to get you 50 pages by X date, and then I work backwards from there. I calculate how many pages a day I'll need to write to meet that deadline...and I write them. Often times, I write faster than I imagined but without that date looming over me, there's no chance I would.

I think this can be a really useful tool when you're working on a spec manuscript. You really don't have a lot of incentive to get to it every day, but if you put that incentive on yourself, you're much apt to do, IMO. Just saying, "Oh, I'm going to write a book," can be really daunting. Saying, "I'm going to write ten pages in ten days," is much less so.

Do you guys work this way with your own deadlines? Have you found it to be helpful?


Picture The Book

Today, I'm over on The Divining Wand (which is a fantastic blog for book lovers!, be sure to bookmark it), sharing a few of my musical picks from THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME, along with the reasons whyI made those choices and the music videos. Larramie, the blog master over there, does a wonderful job in pulling together a bunch of different elements to help you envision the book. A perfect way to procrastinate for a few minutes this morning!

Speaking of picturing the book...I'm getting my final copies today!! And I'll post a picture and will be doing a FB giveaway within the next day or do, so be sure to check back here or click over to FB to stay in the loop!

Don't forget, you can pre-order the book now, and I'd be eternally grateful if you did! 


Promo Duties

So a few of you guys asked what makes the lead up to a book release so busy, so I thought I'd answer.

It actually made me evaluate how I've spent my time this past week, and this is what I've realized: it's not that it's ALL promotion all the time, it's that the time that I spend on promotion stuff is time I'd spend on things like blogs, vegging out, turning my brain off and ancillary items like returning non-urgent emails.

This is what I mean: here's a snapshot of my day yesterday:

1) Took son to the doctor, then ran him up to school.

2) Got home around 10ish, ate quick breakfast.

3) Started working feverishly on a screenplay that I've been hired to write. Have set a goal for myself of a certain amount of pages a day to reach my (somewhat self-imposed) deadline, so I try not to waver from that.

4) Took a break for a workout/lunch around 12:30.

5) Back at my desk by 2pm - worked on screenplay until 4:00pm.

6) At this point, I looked at my to-do list and realized that I had a lot of smaller items to deal with: I had to transcribe a celeb interview that was due in two days (ack!), I had three outstanding Q/As for my publicist to manage, I had an interview that I'd done for a blogger that I was asked to read and approve, and I had to pick my daughter up at 5:45 at a tea party.

So...this is where the promotional stuff takes up your time. For the launch of The One That I Want, for example, I probably did about 40-50 Q/As or guests posts or essays (I think I wrote a few essays in one day when they were asked of me)....I write each one of them individually, and that time adds up. Additionally, you have an increase in emails/phone calls with your agent or publicist or editor, and when you have other things to attend to - like the screenplay (I'm actually working on two, so I'm really drowing/juggling) or celebrity interviews (I have four due this month), this extra time means that you can't find a moment of downtime. Not to mention, once the book goes out, you'll spend time traveling or speaking or doing radio interview or, for example, writing a key note address at an event I've been asked to helm.

So that's really where the busy-ness comes in. It's not that you're spending 24/7 on the book promo, it's that the other work doesn't stop in order for you to due that exlusively. Make sense?


Busy, Busy, Busy, Busy, Busy

Or...also known as my excuse as to why I don't have a new blog post for you guys today. Sorry! I have started down that pre-publication crush of work that I always forget about until I run smack into it. Too many articles to write, too many things to reply to, too many...well, too much of everything. (Except sleep. There is never enough of that.) I just realized that THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME is out in just about a month (craaaa-zy!), and so naturally, things have started to amp up. But this also means that I missed writing something for the blog. One thing I'm reminding myself of these days is that sometimes, I'm going to have to let some things slide if I want to stay sane...over the next few weeks, I might have to let a blog post or two slide. I'm going to try not to, but...I might.

Just in case I do. :) You know that it's not that I'm not thinking of you guys.

Anyhoo, I promise I'll have something new next week. In the meantime, this is a good time to post your publishing-related questions below. Whenever I'm procrastinating, I find that the best way to generate new blog posts is to have some really interesting questions to answer. So feel free to lob one in the comments.



Goodreads Giveaway - Last Day!

I can't remember if I posted about this earlier, so apologies if this is a repeat, but if you want to get your hands on an early copy of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME, my wonderful publisher, Putnam Books, is giving away twenty copies on Goodreads. The only hitch? The contest ends today.

(Don't worry, I'm getting my own copies shortly, so I'll do my own giveaway too.)

Go enter here and now, and if you're feeling game, you can always pre-order it right now, right here too. :)


The Non-Fiction Query

Question of the day: How do you construct a query letter to an agent when you're not trying to sell a novel?  I wrote some children's poems and a couple of stories. The poems can work as picture books, or a collection of poems.  I can't do the hook with the essence of the plot, nor the  synopsis,  that suggests as a tried and true formula. Also, do I paste the poems in the body of the query email, or send them as an an attachment? 

I'm not 100% sure of this answer, but I'm posting it in hopes someone else can answer it. But a few things I can offer: 1) NEVER include attachments, whether you're sending fiction, poetry, etc. NEVER. It is an instant delete from an agent. After he or she has requested pages, then sure, but upon querying, then no. 2) I would discuss why your poems are relevant, whom they'll appeal to and the general themes. Again, I'm not an expert, but I'd assume that agents would want to know who you're targeting in your writing and why. 3) I might open with a stanza from a poem. Why not? It will give agents an idea of what you write and what you're going for.

That's all I got. Anyone else?


Four Things Eleanor Brown Did Right

I am thrilled to host the fantastic Eleanor Brown today on the blog. When I saw that her bestselling novel, THE WEIRD SISTERS, was released this month in paperback, I asked Eleanor to stop by and share some of the secrets to her success. Below, find her fab tips. Then (or now), click over to Facebook for a chance to win a copy of the book! 

I Started Small

Though my ultimate ambition was to write and publish a novel, I started small, both in my writing and in my aspirations. I wrote short stories and essays and articles, and worked to have them published in small literary magazines, local newspapers, small magazines, and anthologies. That process taught me a great deal about how to write an effective query letter, work with editors, and research markets. By the time I had my novel and was ready to search for an agent, I had a series of publishing credits and contest wins to include in my query letter, and the experience to feel confident in what I was doing.

I Was Honest with Myself

Before I wrote The Weird Sisters, I wrote four other complete novels. Learning to write a novel took time and energy, but, despite all that effort - they were terrible. Cliched and awkward, with plots that collapsed in the middle like an undercooked cake (and they weren’t even fun to eat!).

It’s incredibly tempting, in any creative endeavor, to mistake the triumph of finishing for having a finished product. And you should definitely celebrate finishing a draft of a novel – it’s an achievement! But I’m a fan of Stephen King’s advice in On Writing to step away from a project for a while and then return to it with fresh eyes. When I did that, I had to be honest with myself, and admit that the manuscripts were…not good. In each case, I elected not to revise, but I definitely took what I’d learned from writing each one and used that knowledge in the next, until I wrote something I was truly proud of, and that one, I saw all the way through to the end, until it was good enough to share.

Job Interview

I learned far too late in life that a job interview is just as much about your determining whether you want to work with them, as whether they want to hire you. Agents and publishers are no different.

Jennifer Weiner tells a great story about an agent who read the manuscript of Good in Bed, and suggested, while expressing interest, that a better title would be Big Girl. Jennifer wisely recognized that suggestion indicated the agent was not the right person to represent the book. I had some similar experiences – agents or publishers who were interested in the book, but wanted me to make changes that I felt would have robbed the book of something important.

Writers are trained to jump at any attention, but it shouldn’t be that way. We need people on our team who understand and care for our work as much as we do, and we need to remember that we’re interviewing agents and editors too!


Writing, for me at least, is a slow process. The traditional publishing industry is even slower. It took seven years for The Weird Sisters to make it out into the world, and at times it was hard to wait. But I am a believer that things happen when they are supposed to, how they are supposed to. If I had rushed things, I might not have ended up with an agent I adore and trust, an editor who transformed my book into a better story than I ever could have dreamed, and a team of people at my publisher who are so generous and supportive there aren’t enough fruit baskets in the world to thank them. When I wasn’t working on The Weird Sisters, I was working on other things, trying to be patient and working on other projects, and I believe that patience paid off.