Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A conversation with Allison Winn Scotch

In any given month, Allison Winn Scotch is one of those writers who has a byline in a half-dozen magazines. (Don't believe me? Pick up a magazine and scan. You're likely to find her!). That would be a mere feat in itself, but then she also is the author of two books (one was published recently (see below); the other will be out next year) and is the mother of two small children. All this, and she finds time to keep a blog, Ask Allison, about the publishing world, which is read by thousands of people, both veteran writers and newcomers alike. Oh, and to top things off, she's really nice.

Here is what Allison has to say about time management, procrastination, what it really feels like to publish a book, and some darn good advice about writing:

SJ: You recently had your first book published, The Department of Lost and Found (William Morrow, 2007). What did it feel like to have your "baby" on bookstore shelves, on Amazon.com, and in the hands of readers across the nation?

AWS: I felt, er, ill. Honestly, you don’t really think about how you’ll feel once the book is out there, being judged by (hopefully) thousands of readers, each of whom is forming an opinion not just about the book, but probably about you and your skills as well. I’ve spoken to other writer friends who agree that the actual publication is about as stressful as anything in the process, but the anxiety caught me off-guard. I expected to feel utter euphoria, and sure, there was that too, but primarily, I felt stressed.

SJ: You write for a zillion magazines, are the mother of two, and have just finished your second book. It's the question on everyone's minds: How in the world do you squeeze it all in? Extra shots of espresso? Three assistants? Please share your secrets for successful time management with us!

AWS: Ha! I only wish I had three assistants. Unless you count my dog, Pedro, who spends the day lounging at my feet, I sadly, however, have none. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I do have a wonderful nanny, without whom, I wouldn’t be able to work. I’ve mentioned this on my blog before, but I do treat my job like any other job, and no one would expect a lawyer or executive to show up to work with her two kids, so I don’t show up to work with mine. True, I do have the fabulous luxury of spending more time with mine than someone who goes into the office, but still, when it’s work time, my nanny takes over. Also, I’ve gotten really good with time-management. I think that any working mom has to. I’ve been writing magazine articles for long enough now that I really know how long each one will take me, and I don’t accept assignments when I’m already feeling harried. I used to do that, and it’s not worth it for me. My mental health suffers, and then everything else suffers: how I interact with my kids, how I treat my husband, how, really, I enjoy my life. So I do think that learning to say no, as well as creating real expectations of how long assignments and other work will take you, are critical. Finally, I also always try to carve out some down time for myself. Which, on paper, might sound counterproductive, but for me, it keeps me ticking. I like to try to get to the gym most days of the week, for example, because that one hour allows me to tune out and rejuvenate. I’m much more likely to return to my computer with renewed gusto if I’ve taken a break and done something that I enjoy.

SJ: Can you give us a quick, sneak preview of your second book? And, when can we read it?

AWS: Sure! Thanks for asking! Time of My Life should hit stores next fall. It’s the story of a 35-year old woman who, from an outside view, has a pitch-perfect life -- a cherubic toddler, a successful husband, a gorgeous house in the suburbs. But despite all of this, she’s haunted by lingering “what ifs:” what if she hadn’t broken up with her old boyfriend, what if she hadn’t abandoned her career for motherhood, etc. And via a freak massage, she wakes up seven years in her past and has the opportunity to do it all over, and see if her new path will grant her greater happiness and lay to rest all of those lingering “what ifs.” I wrote it because I think that so many of us occasionally question the road that we’ve taken, and it’s something that’s so rarely discussed, but in my mind, is completely normal. There’s no shame in looking at our past and trying to learn from it, and using it to correct mistakes that maybe we’re still presently making…and hopefully, readers will find something in the book that resonates for them too.

SJ: When approaching the monumental task of writing a novel, how would you characterize your writing process? Do you sit down and pound out 10 pages a day, then go back and revise? Or, do you take it slower, perfecting each sentence as you go?

AWS: I tend to write quickly and furiously – sort of like a snowball tumbling down the hill, accelerating as it goes. I’ve found that if the writing is painstaking, then I’m probably not doing something right: not fully understanding my characters or not providing them with enough conflict. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy: it’s not. I’ll do just about anything not to start writing. I mean, I can seriously procrastinate my fiction like you wouldn’t believe. So, to ensure that I actually get it done, I set goals for myself – usually a minimum word count for the day, say, 1,500 words, and even though I hate opening up the document and writing those first few sentences, once I get going, it comes pretty easily. And again, as I said, if it doesn’t, that usually means I have to reassess and find out where I’m going wrong.

SJ: In your career, what has been one of the most important bits of advice, on writing, that you have received/read/heard?

AWS: I think that people tend to think of editors and agents as demi-gods, and one of the most important things I’ve learned and been told – through editors themselves – is that there’s no need for reverence. Which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be treated respectfully…of course they should!! But elevating them on this pedestal does everyone a disservice: it makes you more timid to approach them; it makes you less likely to follow up to a pitch; it makes you less likely to walk away if a relationship isn’t working out; it makes you less likely to enjoy the time you spend working together…well, you get my point. One of the things that I’ve consistently heard from my editors in the past is how so many of them enjoy working with me, and I truly believe that this is because I treat them sort-of like friends. I don’t mean to imply that they’re your buddies: they’re not. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t know about their lives and have some fun banter and enjoy each other. I do and they do, and I really do believe that this is a big reason for my success: I meet my deadlines and write well, but I’m also easy-going (never underestimate the power of being an easy-going writer – I hear that from editors all the time too) and like the company of my editors.

SJ: For me, emailing friends, random Googling, online shopping (and OK I'll admit it, PerezHilton) are big contributors to procrastination when I sit down to write. What are yours?

AWS: Yes, I’m an online shopping whore too – even if I’m not buying, I’ll surf. And I am a total glutton for online gossip. I should go to a Gossip Anonymous group, I swear. DListed makes me laugh like no one’s business, and Television Without Pity’s forums could eat up my entire day. My husband makes fun of me, but in all seriousness, these sites are just a way for my brain to tune out a bit when I need a break. Oh, and yeah, I have a Google problem too. If I’ve ever even passed you on the street, I’ve probably Googled you. For no reason at all. It just kills time in my day when I could be writing!


Julie said...

I found your blog through Allison's. I'm a food blogger and beginning freelance writer, so your blog covers the 2 things I'm most interested in...perfect!

Trish Ryan said...

Great interview! I'm always awed when I read Allison's description of how she juggles so many things during the day and still creates such good writing.

Sarah Jio | www.sarahjio.com said...

Hi Julie, Hi Trish!

Nice to "meet" you two! Thanks for stopping by! I'm visiting your Web sites/blogs next.