Over the last two decades, writing professor Susan Shapiro has taught more than 25,000 students of all ages and backgrounds at NYU, Columbia, Temple, The New School, and Harvard University. Now in The Byline Bible she reveals the wildly popular "Instant Gratification Takes Too Long" technique she's perfected, sharing how to land impressive clips to start or re-launch your career.
In frank and funny prose, the bestselling author of 12 books walks you through every stage of crafting and selling short nonfiction pieces. She shows you how to spot trendy subjects, where to start, finish and edit, and divulges specific steps to submit work, have it accepted, get paid, and see your byline in your favorite publication in lightning speed.
With a foreword by Peter Catapano, long-time editor at the New York Times where many of Shapiro’s pupils have first seen print, this book offers everything you need to learn to write and sell your story in five weeks or less, including:
• How to craft a cover letter and subject heading to get read and reviewed quickly
• Who pay for essays, op-eds, regional, humor, or service pieces from unknown writers
• Ways to follow up, build on your success, land a TV or radio spot, become a regular contributor, staff writer, and find a literary agent for your book with one amazing clip
Whether you're just starting out or ready to enhance your professional portfolio, this essential guide will prove that three pages can change your life.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Where to Start
The best way to break into publishing is with a great three-page double-spaced personal essay.
There's nothing more engaging than an intimate tale told with insight, humor, or candor. That explains the acclaim of such anthologies as The Best American Essays, moving first-person forums like The New York Times' "Modern Love" column and podcast, NPR's popular This American Life, and all the memoirs on nonfiction best-selling book lists — often sprung from one essay. Unfortunately, not all first-person narratives are as compelling for the editor and audience as they are for the author. Still, there's no reason you can't turn your private experiences into wise, eloquent, and publishable prose.
Early in my career, I sold short, provocative pieces to women's magazines about relationships, family, and work problems. Coming from a confessional poetry background, I knew that a surface-level appreciation of one's mate, parents, or children would not lead to brilliance. Love letters and light slices of life rarely engendered profundity. Showing off how great you are is superficial and will make readers hate and resent you. Writing usually becomes much richer when you focus on your vulnerability and explore your regrets and struggles. Think in extremes: the night that changed your life, the lover who shattered your heart, the embarrassing addiction you couldn't get over. Trying to tackle unfinished, messy, and uncomfortable conflicts led me to authentic, meaty subjects and often a cathartic release, not to mention money, success, and acclaim.
STEP ONE: WHAT SHOULD I WRITE?
The most frequent mistake newcomers to nonfiction make is to pick a subject that's lackluster, self-congratulatory, or just a diary-like rendering of something mundane they went through. Sorry, but no editors I know want to publish a piece about how cute your cats, gardenias, or grandchildren are. I know it's counterintuitive, but what makes you successful and lovable in real life might make you unlovable and unknowable on the pages of a short essay. So if you portray yourself as strong, wealthy, good-looking, and happily married, audiences might stop reading after the third line. I learned this the hard way when I first brought a piece into my writing workshop about an ex-boyfriend whose surprise visit rattled me.
"She comes off like a well-off, white, forty-year-old married woman with a good husband [but] who still has feelings for her old flame. I hate her guts," one critic told me.
I was hurt and confused by the negative response, since I was the "she" being critiqued. Clearly there was something wrong with the way I was telling my story. I wound up reorganizing the details and reframing the events, offering a deeper, more vulnerable context. In my revision, I confessed that I was going through difficult infertility treatments and rejections from a series of book editors my literary agent had contacted on my behalf. It was at this moment that the college beau who'd unceremoniously dumped me twenty years earlier showed up at my doorstep. To make the timing worse, he handed me a book he'd just published — though he'd been a biology major who used to tell me that my English degree was "worthless." I weaved in the humiliating events that had happened the day before my ex came over when I'd received two phone messages. In the first, my fertility doctor shared disappointing results of tests my husband and I had taken, proving it was unlikely I'd be able to get pregnant. In the next call, my agent informed me that five editors had rejected the novel I'd spent five years on.
"I felt like she was saying, 'The only baby you have is ugly and we don't want it,'" I wrote, holding back tears.
"Wow, you should have gotten old and bitter a long time ago, because this rocks," remarked the critic after she heard the new passages a week later. Indeed, that much more dark and vulnerable revised version of my essay wound up being published in Marie Claire magazine and launching a first memoir about all my horrific breakups: Five Men Who Broke My Heart.
After learning how important it was to express vulnerability on the page, I began my first feature journalism class by asking everyone to write a "humiliation essay," revealing their most embarrassing secret. I shared the basic, technical writing rules for the type of short nonfiction personal essays I'd had so much luck with.
1. Aim for 500–900 words, around three double-spaced typed pages, the most likely length an editor will publish fast by a new scribe. Not 3,500 words. Stick to the word count.
2. Put everything in New York Times formAt, which most publications use. You can buy their style manual, or just pick up their Sunday newspaper and emulate the way they title every piece, put bylines under those titles, and indent for each new paragraph and line of dialogue.
3. PICK A STORY THAT YOU CAN PUT YOUR REAL NAME on.The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, TIME magazine, and others will not allow you to use a pseudonym (though a few women's and men's magazines might allow you to use a maiden name or "anonymous").
4. DON'T USE FAKE NAMES FOR THE OTHERS, which many editors will also not allow in nonfiction. To avoid specific monikers, try using labels like "my old best friend," "my former flame," "my ex-girlfriend," "my relatives," and/or using pronouns throughout. Sometimes you can get away with saying, "My ex, let's just call him Pete," as long as you indicate to the reader and editor you're making a change. Or you can use real nicknames or labels you make up, as I did in my memoir (about Mr. Studrocket, Beach Boy, Root Canal, Hamlet, and The Biographer).
5. SHARE YOUR BACKGROUND AND ETHNICITY so people can picture, relate, and like you. You're familiar with your family lineage, background, and physical looks. But your photograph or bio won't necessarily accompany your pages. So describe yourself with unique, idiosyncratic details. My student Saba Ali began her first New York Times piece: "Born in Kenya of Indian heritage, I came to the United States at age six, settling with my family in upstate New York, growing up Muslim in suburban America." Include specific religious, ethnic, cultural, and class conflicts, especially since multiculturalism is hot.
6. focus on one current scene or one Problem in Adulthood. Since most editors are over eighteen, it is much harder to publish a piece about childhood, though strategic flashbacks later in the piece can work.
7. Show, Don't Tell. Use very specific, fleshed-out details, including dialogue, external settings, and physical descriptions. Some novice writers think staying general is more universal, but it's just the opposite.
8. DON'T OVERLOAD THE READER WITH BACKSTORY or expository facts that ruin the momentum. Nobody wants to read "then-this-happened-then-that-happened." Playwright David Mamet says only three things are relevant to drama: Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don't get it? Why now? Make sure you answer those questions on your first page. If you need to, you can subtly weave in important background details later.
9. DON'T LIE. In nonfiction, you can't make things up. While you can exaggerate a little or re-create dialogue from the best of your ability, you can't make up stories, actions, or characters. Everything you write has to have really happened. Some editors work with fact-checkers or will Google you to test your veracity. The New York Times' "Modern Love" editor often shows a piece to the ex-spouse, mother, or brother in the story to double-check the essay's accuracy.
10. GATHER PROOF. Just in case an editor, fact-checker, or book publishing lawyer asks in the future, keep your old diaries, letters, and photo albums. Ask if you can tape conversations with loved ones (several ex-boyfriends surprisingly agreed when I interviewed them for my first memoir). File printed-out e-mails and texts, as many journalists do. In order for someone to win a lawsuit against you in nonfiction, he'd have to prove you lied, with malice intended, and show damages. So keep any evidence that shows you're telling the truth.
11. CLARIFY YOUR EMOTIONAL ARC. There's a saying you should "start in delight, end in wisdom." Though I can also understand the Seinfeldian rule "no hugging, no learning," you certainly don't want to start angry and end angry. Something has to be resolved or changed from your first line to your last. What did you learn or have to unlearn? What did this occurrence teach you? How can this experience help others? In my New York Times Magazine essay "The Bride Wore White — and Black," I was proud to wear all black to my cool, bohemian wedding, shunning convention. I concluded with the second ceremony, where I wore a white dress, with a rabbi and cantor, and we married all over again, for my mother, realizing it was worth it to make her happy.
12. DON'T START BY GIVING AWAY YOUR END. While provocation can get attention, if you confess "We broke up and then my first love died" right away, why would we keep reading? Add suspense, intrigue, mystery, or counterintuitive irony. Let your last line contain a big surprise.
During the second week of that initial class, my students turned in chronicles of their bad breakups, addictions, illnesses, and domestic fissures, as well as assaults, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and trouble with their families, bosses, and the law. I was so blown away by all of the brave, beautiful, and distinctive and dramatic essays they handed in — and later, by how many of those wound up published — that it soon became my signature assignment. It's tough to argue with stellar results. Over the last twenty-five years, this exact prompt has led to thousands of wise, well-crafted first bylines for my students. (Many I'll quote and offer links to throughout this book to make them easier to look up and read.)
While some critics find confessional writing to be self-indulgent, editors of almost every newspaper, magazine, webzine, and book publisher buy them constantly. That's because audiences love to read personal writing, the most popular of all types of pieces. Best-seller book lists show millions of memoirs sold every year. The chance to get paid for a big byline has been dwindling — along with newspaper and magazine pages. Writing the "humiliation essay" is one of the best ways to beat the odds and break in.
Your first idea may not be your best one. So write a list of several topics you might consider. My student Sarah Herrington, a yoga teacher, at first complained, "But I don't have anything humiliating to write about." After hearing the other students' ideas she came up with: "Teaching a kids' yoga class, a little girl had a panic attack. I helped her through it since I'd had panic attacks myself." That wound up in The New York Times, the first of a long series of revealing essays Sarah went on to publish. Here's the advice I give my classes when it comes to figuring out good essay topics for my infamous humiliation essay assignment.
1. LEAD THE LEAST SECRETIVE LIFE YOU CAN (without getting sued, divorced, disowned, killed, or arrested).
2. EXPLORE YOUR WORST ADDICTIONS OR OBSESSIONS THAT YOU CAN PUT YOUR NAME ON. Pick a subject you find enthralling or that you have expertise on, especially if it's in the news or permeating current culture. My only students who've published pieces about the Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam wars have been veterans, military spouses, or children of vets. Conversely, pupils have aced essays on being addicted to buying makeup at an all-night Duane Reade drugstore, getting tested for HIV, and firing a nanny after reading her X-rated blog. Don't worry if the subject is small compared to world events. You'll bring a theatrical freshness to what fascinates you.
3. FOCUS ON DRAMA, CONFLICT, AND TENSION. Don't write an idealistic appreciation of your spouse, parents, or children. Confront unresolved emotional issues about something that's bothering you. As writer Joan Didion said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking."
4. FAILURE IS FASCINATING. Do you remember losing an internship, job, lover, friendship, money, contest, or your pride? Go back there! An author friend suggests starting when you're about to fall off a cliff (literally or figuratively).
5. CUT TO THE CHASE. In a 900-word essay, there's no time to meander, explain your entire history, or include the highlights of your résumé. Be as blunt as you can about what your humiliation is. "In December, my husband stopped screwing me" was the first line of a piece I published in The New York Observer that led to a book deal. (Of course, I would not have sent that piece to The New York Times or The Christian Science Monitor. I chose The New York Observer — known for Candace Bushnell's "Sex and the City" column — because I knew they preferred very revealing first person.)
6. AVOID THE OBVIOUS. While being opinionated or sardonic is great, we already know that terrorism is bad, public schools need money, breakups hurt, and online dating can suck. Be counterintuitive, find idiosyncratic angles, play devil's advocate, twist clichés. When my student Rainbow Kirby explored her thirty-year-old boyfriend's living at home, she smartly began with the film Failure to Launch, which had just opened, and sold the flip side — the perks of dating a man residing with his folks — to Newsday. My protégée Amy Klein's New York Times' "Modern Love" column about being addicted to JDate ended with her missing her Internet stalker.
7. EDIT YOURSELF. Just because something really happened is never enough reason to write it. Much of life is boring. Try to get rid of the in-between actions, all tedious back-and-forth talk, and stage directions ("and then we went to the parking lot, got in the car, put on our seat belts, and turned on the engine"). Only include the most significant, fascinating beats to your story.
8. END AS A VICTOR, NOT A VICTIM. Personal essays must get personal. But even if you bravely revisit your worst struggles, acting victimized and reciting a litany of injustices inflicted on you is boring and cliché. Question, challenge, reveal, and trash yourself more than others. One colleague wrote about her ex-husband of twenty years who was an abusive alcoholic, listing all of his evils. When she admitted she knew he was a problem drinker after the first year, I suggested refocusing on why she stayed for nineteen more. Turned out her father was a drinker and her mother helped him give up the sauce — at age sixty. So that was her model for marriage. Her revision was a standout.
9. DON'T FORGET THE WISDOM. If you heard good advice, repeat it with attribution and share your own solutions to your problems. My favorite essays about quitting addictions include the nitty-gritty on how the writer nixed cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, pills, pot, rampant sex, shopping, or sugar. For example, I chronicled how, when I was going through nicotine withdrawal, my addiction specialist instructed my husband to hold me for one hour every night, without speaking, as we watched a TV show or film. That calmed me down and replaced my toxic habits with love.
10. REMEMBER, THE FIRST PIECE YOU WRITE THAT YOUR FAMILY HATES MEANS YOU'VE FOUND YOUR VOICE. (If you don't want to offend anyone, try writing a cookbook.)
LIST HUMILIATING MOMENTS TO MINE
Like Sarah Herrington, many of my students at first complained that they couldn't come up with any enthralling ideas. I could relate. I always feared my life was too boring to compete with such internationally acclaimed authors as Mary Karr, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Etgar Keret, Alison Bechdel, or A.M. Homes. After all, I was a straight white girl from Michigan who'd had stupid affairs and addictions. Moving to Manhattan, therapy helped me quit my toxic habits and I married someone nice. That was it. I'd become a workaholic who sat at the computer most of the day. My parents were not raging alcoholics. I wasn't adopted. I had no children. Nobody important in my childhood died on me. I wasn't a world traveler. I'd never been in a war, race riot, on food stamps, in the hospital more than overnight, divorced, or the subject of a fatwa. There were many other typical freelancers and teachers like me in the world. What could I possibly add to the cultural conversation?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Byline Bible"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Shapiro.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Peter Catapano, 1,
Chapter 1 Where to Start ASSIGNMENT #1, 13,
Chapter 2 The Joy of Getting Killed, 92,
Chapter 3 Finding Your Essay a Home, 102,
Chapter 4 Under Cover, 108,
Chapter 5 After Yes: Now What?, 134,
Chapter 6 Writing Regional ASSIGNMENT #2, 146,
Chapter 7 It's My Opinion Assignment #3, 173,
Chapter 8 Selling Short Humor Assignment #4, 201,
Chapter 9 Secret Service Assignment #5, 223,
Chapter 10 Pitch vs. Writing, 249,
About the Author, 264,