Speaking With: Allison Winn Scotch

As I begin porting posts from my old website, I’ll be sharing a few of the more popular ones here. Below is an interview with Best-Selling Author, Allison Winn Scotch, which I conducted on assignment for Writer’s Market. Originally published December 6, 2008.

Allison Winn Scotch

Allison Winn Scotch, the New York Times Best-selling author of Time of My Life and of The Department of Lost and Found, had the chance not long ago to read through some of her earliest writing.  “My parents moved recently and packed up my childhood room.  There were some diaries that I don’t remember keeping, but they had really fostered this love of writing,” she says from her home office in New York.

Winn Scotch tells me she is hard at work on her third novel which she sold on a pitch, an enviable perk of her successful writing career.  And, while her first New York Times best-selling title was a huge success, she says it took a lot of varied experiences in her career to get her ready to write The Department of Lost and Found.  “I started writing fiction at twenty-eight,” she says.  “I started a manuscript and got stymied.  I didn’t know how to finish it, didn’t know what I was doing.  A year later, I finally finished it and got an agent, but it didn’t sell.”

She pauses, then, to talk a bit about her writing life before books.  A graduate of Penn State, she began her career with a public relations firm, pursued a career in acting – landing a few shows and acquiring a SAG card along the way.  “I was out in L.A. auditioning when a friend called me.  She was beginning this start-up, so I helped her launch itsybits, which catered to petite women.  I started writing for the online magazine that went along with the website.”

One thing led to another, and soon Winn Scotch found herself ghost-writing for celebrities.  With a ghost-written title under her belt, she set her sights on the magazine industry, where a litany of magazine articles in such heavyweights as Family Circle, Cooking Light, and Glamour kept her busy.  “I don’t do much freelancing anymore,” says Winn Scotch.  “I still do some celebrity stuff, but I make my income from being an author.”

Winn Scotch, now married and the mother of two young children, says that her best advice for aspiring writers is to “… trust your instincts, but only to a point.  Sometimes authors think what they’ve written is really, really good.  They don’t let it sit long enough to be objective.  The accomplishment is not in finishing the book; that doesn’t mean it’s done.”

Winn Scotch also maintains a popular blog she created to help take some of the mystery out of the business end of writing, Ask Allison.

Update: Winn Scotch has gone one to publish two new books since this interview: The One That I Want and The Song Remains The Same.

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Speaking With: Molly Friedrich, Literary Agent, NYC

I recently received a private message on my Facebook page asking about an interview I’d conducted with NYC literary agent Molly Friedrich for an assignment with Writer’s Market. Here is the original blog post about that interview.
Originally published November 22, 2008

When Molly Friedrich, a respected power-house literary agent, calls me in the late afternoon, she is just back from one of those famed New York City “publisher’s lunches” with one of her high-performing clients.  “I don’t get to meet with her all that often, so, yes, it was a wonderful lunch,” she says.  In a town known for being brusque and down to business, Molly is a refreshing blend of straight-forward honesty and next-door-neighbor warmth.  Named one of the most influential literary agents by Portfolio.com, Molly can lay claim to almost a handful of Pulitzer prize-winning authors and a long list of titles on the New York Times bestseller list.

I’ve arranged this interview to gain her valued insight for an upcoming feature in the Writer’s Market 2010, and from my initial emailed request she is surprisingly accessible and willing to share advice.  I have a list of questions I want to get through during our interview, and she answers them all and even manages to take off on a different tangent or two.  She talks about some of the more outlandish queries she’s received.  When I ask her what a good query letter is like, she jostles the phone, “Hold on,” she says, calling to her assistant.  “Bring me that letter, the one that …” her voice trails off as she moves about her office.

Soon she is back with me.  “Okay, here it is.”

“Dear Ms. Friedrich, “ she says, and then stops reading.  “See?  She doesn’t try to buddy up with me.  She doesn’t know me, so she addresses me with professional courtesy.  Ms. Friedrich,” she enunciates the name again for emphasis.  “Also, she spells my name right.  There is nothing more annoying than having someone send a query when they haven’t even done enough research to get the name right.  Get the name right.  It’s important.”

I type fiendishly on my Mac to keep up as she talks a mile a minute.  Molly continues reading the letter, detailing why the different parts appeal to her and even asking what I think of it.  She is right, of course.  Not only is it well written, the concept is a winner – a modern-day dilemma delivered in a fresh perspective with a compelling voice.  And I realize that on top of an excellent interview, I’ve just been privy to a one-on-one mentoring session with one of today’s most coveted literary agents.

I thank her for her time and promise to get back with her at a later day for a follow-up.  We are not off the phone five minutes when an email arrives in my inbox with a quick note to tell me one more piece of advice she wants to share.  I hit the reply button and then panic.  How do I start?  Molly – … we’ve just talked, but is that too familiar?  Dear Ms… no.  That’s just stuffy.  Leave off the salutation altogether?  I finally settle on Molly and thank her for her generosity of time.  After all, I’m from New Mexico, where formal means you wear you new Levi’s as opposed to the comfortable ones.

Be sure to check out Molly Friedrich’s stellar advice in the 2010 Writer’s Market.

Sharing A Piece Of Ourselves

I think the thing I liked most about being a freelance writer was telling someone else’s story. I would listen to a business owner, entrepreneur or local celebrity as they shared with me their own story. They answered my questions – even the ones that I could tell they really didn’t want to. And then they had to trust that I would be fair with the words that finally appeared on the page. And I was.

But like most writers, I eventually wanted to tell my own story. After I’d been writing a few years, I pitched a humor column about dieting and exercise to the lifestyle editor the local afternoon newspaper. From that meeting forward, I turned in a new column every other week, and when the Albuquerque Tribune finally closed its doors, my column was one of the features that appeared to the end. It was a new experience telling my own story, learning how much of my own life was fair game to the public and how much was off limits. And while the words came easily, there was a downside as well. Because my photo appeared in the paper, regular readers recognized me when I was out shopping. People sometimes recognized my name when I was called at the doctor’s office. It was an odd and almost uncomfortable realization that I wasn’t just sharing a piece of myself through my words, I was trading some of my own privacy as well.

Most of my interactions with readers and fans were very pleasant, even inspiring. It felt great to receive an email (my column was back in the day before blogs and instant comments and pins and shares and tweets). Sometimes a reader connected with my words and felt inspired to exercise or diet because of what I’d written. I read heart-breaking stories from readers who had faced cruelty or painful experiences. I even had my column featured on the website of then national talk show host Dr. Laura, on the now defunct MSN Spaces, and a couple of contestants from The Biggest Loser sent me comments in the early days of my first blog – long before I knew enough to be excited about it.

And then there were the emails that hurt to the bone. The ones that called me ugly names, who mocked my efforts or were filled with scathing, angry comments that were often laced with more obscenities than a locker room full of mid schoolers. At first, the nasty grams made me question myself, question whether it was worth it to put myself out there for a few hundred dollars a column. These people didn’t know me, didn’t know anything about me. And yet they had no problem unloading a lifetime of anger and resentment on me because of something I wrote.

I was reminded of all this recently as I witnessed the same thing happening to a friend of mine, only on the new grand scale made possible by the wonderful viral nature of the web. I first met Kara Gebhart Uhl when she was an editor at Writer’s Digest. I not only wrote for her, but we often conversed on a popular writer’s forum. We’ve kept in touch through Facebook, and I’ve watched this young woman face obstacles life has thrown her way with a beautiful spirit and grace that has obviously come at great cost. For several years, she’s blogged about her little growing family, making the mundane moments of home life seem magical. I was so excited for her when a recent entry was picked up by Huffington Post and garnered wide attention. And when a second entry was published earlier this week, I don’t think any of us who knew Kara were prepared for the onslaught of nastiness that followed. Hateful, angry, ugly vitriol filled page after page of comments. At one point, I literally watched as comment after comment appeared in real time.

I’d had a little taste of what Kara was facing, and so I told her what I’d learned from my own days as a columnist. I’m sharing it again here, because I think it is important to remember for any of us who put ourselves out there, sharing a piece of our own lives in the hope of connecting with others through our words. One of the best litmus tests of good writing is whether it makes the reader think beyond the words on the page. By being honest and vulnerable in what we choose to share, we can be far more effective as writers, sparking a conversation. And we all know that any conversation worth its salt will have two sides – both of which will likely be defended passionately. So as writers, we mustn’t let the unkind posts discourage or wound – we’ve made readers articulate their own values – right or wrong – and that’s a good thing.