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Friday, September 12, 2008
Author Q & A: Christina Katz on Writing, "Writer Mamas" & Platform
That noise you heard this past week was the sound of writers who work at home exhaling when the school bus pulled away. Christina Katz has clear advice: Now, put your writing first. Katz, with an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, maintains a busy writing life and has developed a niche promoting professional development for mothers who write. Over at Writer Mama, Katz is giving away cool gifts on the blog for writers every day this month (you don't have to be a "writer mama" to win). Today's give-away is a book in which one of my essays appears. Katz's newest book, "Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Build an Author Platform," is about to be released.
LR: Christina, you run three websites, write books and freelance journalism, and are a tireless cheerleader to thousands of what you call "writer mamas." Which came first, and how does each activity feed the other?
Christina Katz: A long apprenticeship as a freelance writer came first, followed by teaching, followed by having a baby, followed by my first e-zine and website, Writers on the Rise, followed by editing an anthology of my students’ writing, followed by teaching via e-mail, followed by more prestigious freelance gigs, followed by an invitation to appear on Good Morning America, followed by my first book, "Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids". Thank you for reminding me what the lead-up was like, Lisa. It’s good for all of us hard-working writer mamas to remember that success is not an overnight occurrence!
LR: When you are immersed in a project, do you put other projects aside, or do you go from back and forth?
CK: I am one of those folks who juggle a lot. What makes us all different is which projects we choose to juggle. I am a slow writer, not a prolific writer. I enjoy working with others as much as writing, so I balance writing with teaching. I enjoy working with the same students over time, so I’ve developed a series of classes from absolute beginner to ready to land a nonfiction book deal. I have students who are getting book deals now, who took their first class with me years ago. I get a lot of satisfaction being a long-term partner in a writer’s process. It’s win-win-win.
I also speak and conduct live workshops -- the most time- and energy-consuming of all I do. So when I’m writing a book, I cut back on live appearances out of necessity. I don’t mind being tied to my desk when I know it’s a temporary situation.
LR: "Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids," – packed with writing career essentials, work/family advice, resource guide, humor, work plans, and more -- reads and visually resembles a website, deep and rich with offshoots and asides. Was that your intention, or did it organically evolve?
CK: Interesting question. The idea that the content would resemble web content never occurred to me. I set a very high standard for Writer Mama, since it was my first book, and so did my two editors. But the process was 100% a book-writing process, which evolved organically.
With book-writing, we are talking about a long, arduous process compounded with the anxiety of the first-time author, learning to jump through new hoops. Nonfiction writing always involves a lot of research, interviewing, compression, and rewriting. It’s almost never written on the fly, off the top of the head and then turned. There is nothing easy about writing a book unless, perhaps you’ve written five or ten already. Then, just like anything else, it can only get easier.
The upside was that I took what I learned from the first book-writing process and had a bit easier time with my second. But that first book. Phew! It was just a lot of hard work, a lot of long hours, a lot of sleep lost…and did I mention that I had a toddler who became a preschooler as I worked on it? I worked hard for the benefit of my readers, determined that the book be enjoyable to read. If the reader is happy, I’m happy.
LR: Ever feel boxed in by the moniker "writer mama"? Or that others in the writing world see it as a negative?
CK: I have never felt boxed in by “writer mama” because both writing and motherhood are inherently evolution-oriented. I’m not one to get caught up in debates about semantics; life is way too short. Besides, writer mamas are such an incredibly diverse group, I have no delusions that I am the ultimate or original mom writer or anything like that. Seriously, how could I be? We’ve been around forever.
Writers have always written about our life circumstances. I took my life circumstances, identified others like myself and then did my best to offer sound, practical, measured advice about how to go as a writer from ground zero to successful. That advice works for everyone, not just writer mamas. Becoming a mother has been instrumental to my writing career, but motherhood is not static. Every stage leads to another. And as writers, every single project we undertake is a stepping-stone to the next. I’ve had a few people take a swipe at me and at writer mamas in general. I’ve learned since becoming an author that this just comes with the territory.
LR: As a writer who is also a mother, what is your current biggest challenge?
CK: A big challenge at the moment has little to do with writing -- balancing my many roles with being a member of the sandwich generation. Fortunately, I know that some great writer mamas have written on the topic. Since my daughter just entered first grade, I have six+ hours a day to work, so I'm grateful to have the “luxury” of working a full day. I feel quite fortunate. Prioritizing and reprioritizing time has become less a challenge than a habit.
LR: For parents who write at home (and without jobs outside the home), September brings a huge block of kid-free writing time. What are some pitfalls, and tips to transition from cramming in writing here and there to a more opened-up schedule?
CK: The challenge of juggling constantly changing schedules is compounded when you have two or more children, a spouse and a writing career. But if you don’t factor your writing career into that equation, it will never gain momentum. Develop the habit of prioritizing and reprioritizing all the time, just like you find rhythms in your kids' schedules, cultivate your writing rhythm.
Once the kids are out the door in the morning, get your writing done first. Don't volunteer your time away until you've created a business plan for what you will accomplish this school year and set it in motion. Some things will likely have to give, because career/family success is all a matter of energy management. When you know what your personal and family priorities are, and all the cards are on the table at once (in the weekly family meeting I suggest), it’s easier. I consider my commitments just as important as my daughter’s and husband’s. If you don’t, trust me, they won’t either.
LR: For many who write part-time, so much of the work available is low-paying, sometimes non-paying (literary markets, small niche publications, upstart websites), and/or comes with long droughts between good-paying gigs. Advice?
CK: In any career, you have to pay your dues. Writing is no exception. Writers must be willing to take 100% responsibility for our writing careers. That’s total responsibility for your success with no finger-pointing allowed. Ever. When I meet a writing student who takes 100% responsibility for her attitude, I am in heaven. I am sure editors feel the same way about writers who write for them.
I would say the three key factors in success are not “out there” but in the writer’s control at all times: managing your time, having goals and leveraging past successes. To be successful, you must do these things consistently. At the very least, you must have a business plan or a list of short- and long-term goals.
With practice, you learn to instinctively scope out the best opportunities with the most potential for repeat success and you can avoid the cul-de-sacs you described above. Once a writer has paid her dues, she typically realizes that 100% of the choices were in her hands all along.
LR: Talk a bit about your new book, "Get Known Before the Book Deal."
CK: I skimmed the surface of platform development in Writer Mama but there was a lot more to dive into on the topic. I’ve developed and built my own platform as a writing-for-traditional-publication specialist, and over the past seven years working with others as an instructor, I noticed the need for platform development among my students. I developed two platform-development classes and a presentation, which I was offering around the country before I landed this book deal. So, Get Known was a natural extension after Writer Mama, only for a wider audience.
For years, there has not been enough information on platform development and suddenly, there is a flood of it everywhere, not all necessarily comprehensive, useful or well organized for folks who don’t have a platform yet. Get Known discusses platform development in-depth for writers who are not yet authors, and I think it is going to save a lot of writers from wasting time and money. Getting known doesn’t take a lot of money, but it does take an in-depth understanding of platform and then the investment of time, skills and consistent effort to build one. I show how to avoid the biggest time and money-waster, which is not understanding who your platform is for and why – and hopefully can save writers from the inertia that can result from either information overload or not weighing the big-picture.
The style, tone, and structure of Get Known are all very different from Writer Mama, which might be a bit of a shock for folks who read and liked my first book. But ultimately, I needed to let Get Known be its own book. My hope is that readers will gain a fundamental understanding of platform and how it works in the publishing industry. Stay tuned to see if I succeeded.