Today’s featured debut author is my friend and colleague Denise Schipani, who has written a nonfiction book about the importance of doing the “hard stuff” when it comes to parenting. Here, Denise also discusses working through the “hard stuff” of writing – how she took on the longest and biggest writing assignment of her career and came out a published author, and the mother of two very proud little boys, on the other side.
Name of book: Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later
Book genre: Nonfiction/Parenting
Date published: April 1, 2012
What is your day job? I’m a writer and an editor; I write for magazines and websites, and my own blog. I’ve been fulltime freelance for seven-plus years, and before that was a consumer magazine editor for 16 or so years.
What is your book about? It’s pretty much as the subtitle says: That parents are wise to do the “hard stuff” (teaching values, saying “no” where appropriate, teaching skills, remaining in control) early on, with the end goal of raising good kids later. It’s a reversal of sorts of the more loosey-goosey parenting style that’s been in vogue the last couple of generations, and that to me seems centered on the here and now. That said, though I’m clear on what I think and what I mean, my tone is neither didactic nor dull (I hope!). In fact, I go for the funny as much as I can.
Why did you want to write this book? I started blogging in 2009, because – and I mean this literally – the idea leaped into my head and “spoke” to me. Turned out, I had a lot to say. I wasn’t necessarily thinking “book,” but a couple of agents got in touch and got me thinking, and eventually I turned out a book proposal.
C’mon, you can tell us… Do you really consider yourself a Mean Mom? I do. I knew I would be before I had kids. But I am careful to point out that I’m “mean” not because I’m harsh, unkind, or not affectionate. I’m mean because my style of parenting is out of the mainstream a bit. And because there are times it’s harder (for me to do, and for my kids to receive), but not because it’s not benevolent. I’m a big hugger, and my kids don’t want for anything. The thing is, when I say they don’t want for anything, I’m the one who decides what they need, not them (because they think they need Club Penguin cash and an iPod and a 10 p.m. bedtime, none of which they are getting right now).
What would you say was the most challenging part of writing this book? The time it took, and the daunting number of words it is! I’d never written anything this long.
Your book is about your own experiences as a mother. Did you conduct any kind of additional research in order to write this book? No, unless you call observation of other parents and stories about other parents “research.” But on this book, I am the expert. After writing and/or editing approximately 4,000,000 service pieces for magazines or websites, let me tell you, being able to use my own voice and not interview anyone else was very liberating. (As my mother has been pointing out since I could talk, I have a lot to say!)
Did you find it easy to write this book, since you are a freelance writer by trade and it is an extension of your blog? Or did you find the writing to be more difficult in some way? On the one hand, it was harder because it was much, much longer than anything I’d ever written. On the other hand, it was much, much easier because I do have a lot to say on these subjects. And here’s a little secret about me: once I know what I’m going to write, I find the writing itself easy, like turning on a water tap.
What motivates you to write? Well, if you mean what motivated me to write the book, or the blog before that, it was the burning need to get my voice out there (did I mention I have a lot to say?). I’ve always wanted to write a book, full stop, and this was the book that presented itself to me. What motivates me to be a writer in the everyday/workaday sense? Not to put too blunt a point on it, but the mortgage motivates me quite a bit. A writer is what I am, and I am paid for it, so my motivation is to take care of myself and my family via the only talent I have that’s marketable (or, at least, the only one I have that I’ve ever cultivated). I can’t separate me the person from me the writer, so there’s that.
Did you experience writer’s block at all? I can’t say I experienced “traditional” writer’s block with this book; it was pretty well organized and outlined before I wrote it (maybe I had writer’s block with pulling together the proposal, which was hard because it was from scratch), and as I mentioned above once I get writing it tends to flow. But I impose writer’s block on myself at times because the job seems big. and I will find just about anything to keep myself from doing it. And since I also had to do immediately paying work, and take care of my kids and my house, there was always plenty on hand to legitimately allow me to create a convenient writer’s block! To overcome it, I kept obsessive track of word count and kept writing down my totals and announcing them on Facebook. I still have that piece of paper with the growing word count written and crossed out over and over.
How long did it take you to write this book? Let’s see… I’m not going to count writing the proposal, or shopping it around, or revising it and shopping it around again. But I got the contract for the book from Sourcebooks in January 2011, I think. I finally set aside everything else and got down to writing in late February 2011, with my first draft due at the beginning of July (I created my own earlier June deadline, though), and the revised draft by the end of August.
Tell me about the publishing process. Was it easier or more difficult than you thought it would be? If you mean the process of working with my publisher, that was FAR easier than I imagined. I may just be fortunate, but I have a great editor and a very supportive publisher. In fact, thinking back, after I got the deal itself it was almost too easy, which made me nervous at first. I had no “directions,” just “hey, great, turn in a manuscript by July 6.” That said, I did get quite a bit of revision notes back later last summer, that at first seemed like a crushing, daunting task all over again, and revising WAS a lot of work, but once I got into that process I felt like running out to the Chicago suburb where my publisher is so I could hug the two editors who worked on it. Their suggestions took it from good to (I hope) great, leaving my voice, as well as my ego, quite intact.
You mention the proposal… Many people don’t realize that when it comes to writing nonfiction, you generally have to put together a proposal for a book, rather than write the entire thing as you do in fiction, in order to snag an agent and/or publisher. How did you find that process of putting together a proposal? That process was like pulling teeth – I guess, not having ever pulled any teeth myself. The book is based on my blog, but is not an extension of it. It’s the idea, the founding principle, and it’s what some agents initially liked as a book idea (neither of the agents who originally put the idea of a book in my head took me on, but that’s neither here nor there). So I had to essentially come up with the whole concept for the book, for how I imagined it would be structured, for what the chapters would be. Writing the proposal was a hard slog, and scary. I had help in the form of generous nonfiction authors who shared their proposals with me, and with other veteran advice. And I had a friend who was also working on a proposal, so we pushed each other along virtually. Once I hit on the idea of separating my ideas into mean-mom “manifestos,” I had to decide what, exactly, would be in each chapter, and outline it. Then I had to write an overview; research my potential competition; and create a marketing plan. Then I wrote an introduction and a sample chapter. In all, it was something like 38 pages of blood sweat and tears, a lot of tears.
How long did it take you to find an agent? And, once you did, how long did it take to find a publisher for your book? I am very bad about remembering time, but given how much it could have taken, it wasn’t all that long. I sent it to those two agents who’d cold-called me the year before, and both rejected it (parenting books are a hard sell, etc. etc.). I have a lot of writer friends, so I got some more ideas on potential agents, who also rejected me. I went then to a fantastic writer and editor I met through Freelance Success, Jennifer Lawler. I’d run this book idea by her before I even started my proposal (at the time, she’d recently started a job as a literary agent), and she’d been encouraging, so I sent it to her after that batch of rejections. She told me she’d send it to her boss, Neil Salkind of the Salkind Agency, who took me and the book on.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about writing a book? That you’re “set” now and will make a lot of money. I want to be clear: I did not have this misconception, ever. If this book earns me money, it’ll be either down the line in royalties, or, more likely, in ancillary work like spokesperson gigs, or blogging or speaking that’s connected to the “brand” I build as a Mean Mom. If I thought I’d somehow live off my advance, well, let’s just say it would be gone before I’d paid a month’s bills. But I’m sure many people do have that misconception. Certainly some folks do clean up on a nonfiction book like this. Take Amy Chua, for example, the Tiger Mom; I’m sure she got an advance and is enjoying sales that would make me weep with joy, not to mention finally book a well-deserved vacation!
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? I think it was what I said before about turning on that tap and doing what I love to do best – getting the endless thoughts in my head out on paper and arranging them the way I love to do. I loved looking back on a completed chapter that I just knew I got right and get that “damn, girl, that’s good stuff feeling!” I am a communicator; this is how I do it.
What do your boys think about their Mom’s book? I have to say, I think they’re pretty impressed. Could be they are too young yet (9 and 7) to be embarrassed by my very existence (though the older guy is getting there)? They’re tickled that they are in the acknowledgments. And my younger son is quite impressed with the fact that I am that word he’s learned in school since kindergarten, an author. I heard him explaining that to a friend of his, when this other boy was over for a playdate. My son was showing him around the house, and I heard them in my office: “This is my mom’s office. She’s a author. On her book, the mom is watching TV and the kids are doing all the work!” Smart kid, that one. The older guy has suggested he set up a lemonade-and-book stand to help me sell. I may take him up on it. He’s excited to see it in stores. (So am I!)
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I was, and am, fortunate in that I’m not flying blind here. I have many friends who have written nonfiction books, parenting and otherwise, and I’ve seen up close and personal what they’ve done. I had no illusions about how much of the publicity my publisher would handle (though to be fair, Sourcebooks is doing a great, hands-on job), so I went in eyes open. I took a book publicity course (Sandra Beckwith’s, which I highly recommend). I had my blog already, and I had that redesigned (by Ron Doyle of Waterday Media, whom I highly recommend!) to match with the book and be a built-in publicity vehicle. One piece of advice I’d offer is to be on your toes all the time about your subject. Get out in front of news stories, big and small, that pertain to your subject matter, and blog about them, or leave comments on blogs, or FB or tweet stories. Act your brand.
Do you plan on writing another book? I have no immediate plans, but I can see it, definitely.
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I don’t know if there’s such a thing as luck. In a knee-jerk sort of way, I’ve been prone to say that I’m “lucky” that I do for a living what I’ve always felt was my passion, since I was a little girl. But am I lucky that I ended up a writer? Or did I just make that decision so early that everything else I did just led up to becoming what I wanted to be? I think far more that it’s the latter than the former. I think a lot of people, in a well-intentioned way, demur to luck rather than step up and say they worked hard for what they got. I suppose you could call it lucky that I got a stepping-stone magazine job two weeks out of college (right place, right time? I could have taken that junior copy editing job on law textbooks, which would have been a small death, but then again, maybe that other job would only have been a brief detour). Was I lucky to join the book group that led me to meet the friend who led me to meet her husband’s friend who then became my husband? Eh, luck. Who knows – but I do know that I work bloody hard at what I do, even if it is sometimes almost embarrassingly easy for me. Not the publishing books part, but the communicating part. I had a college friend who said that when we end up working in jobs doing something we love, it feels like the biggest scam in the world: They’re PAYING me? I used to agree with him 100 percent. Now I agree only about 90 percent. I’m stunned that I make a living doing what I’m doing, but then again, I did turn this “scam” into something satisfying through all that blood, sweat, and tears!