Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Joyce Sets Me Straight

Many thanks to Joyce Maynard, who took the time to answer my email on publication day of her new novel LABOR DAY. (Run. Buy. Read. Writers need to support each other.)

Joyce says: The best way to get an essay into Modern Love is to write a great essay.

She writes: “although my name is known, and i have a book coming out, i don't
believe this was a factor in the case of my submission, which came in
over the transom like everyone else's, unagented.

in fact, it's my belief that the Times probably prefers publishing
new , unknown writers in this space , when they can find a really good

So this calls into question my recent paranoid fantasy about how agents and publicists are hogging all the Modern Love slots.

In truth, while Joyce’s essay may have come over the transom like everyone else’s, she’s being a little modest (in my opinion) when she says her name is “known.” I was born and raised in New York and I’ve lived most of my professional life here. To say Joyce is known to the New York Times readership is an understatement. Joyce is the author of a seminal New York Times Magazine story. And she’s gone on to many other Times bylines. So she’s not just known. She’s one of their voices. When you’re sending your essay over the transom, a track record like Joyce’s can’t hurt.

That said, her advice hits home. The trick to success as a writer is great writing.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Answering My Critics

You’d think in a blog with six followers, I wouldn’t get much mail. But the critics are out there. And today, I answer them.

“You just make yourself look like a whiner.”

Well, I am a whiner, so I suppose there’s nothing actually wrong (at least not dishonest) about my looking like a whiner. Besides, the literary world has a fine tradition of whining.

“You shouldn’t talk about agents rejecting you. It just makes other agents think they should reject you, too.”

Honestly, I am so over trying to psyche out what agents think. I don’t know why they think what they think. Or how they think what they think. Or if there is even a “they” out there to be analyzed.

“It will never work. The Modern Love column is unattainable.”

Maybe. But I’ve been told my goals are unattainable before. For example, the many many people who told me I would never make a living as a writer and would eventually have to break down and go to law school. First heard that one about 20 years ago. Still haven’t taken the LSATs

“Suppose you get to the end of your 12 months and still no Modern Love essay? Then what?”

Then I’ll have 12 funny, sexy, already-written essays. That’s practically a collection.

“Suppose you are successful with one of the early essays?”

It should only happen to me.

“Suppose you sell a Modern Love essay and still don’t attract an agent or sell your novel?”


“You should put your time into writing a second novel.”

Actually, that’s good advice. I’m on that one. In the meantime, this is as good an outlet as any.

“Maybe your novel just isn’t any good.”


“That could be it. It could be that you just suck and your novel does, too, and no essay you pitch is every going to change that.”

(That’s not actually from a real critic. That’s from my inner critic. He can be pretty brutal.)

Look, inner critic, why don’t you go back to hammering me about my parenting skills and let me have this moment where I feel like I’m making progress in my writing career.

“Okay. But someday, I’ll say: I told you so.”

Well, one of us will get to say that.



Monday Morning Quarterbacking IV

Talk about a small world. I actually know the author of this week’s essay. Sort of.

Joyce Maynard wrote this past Sunday’s column titled “My Secret Left Me Unable to Help.” Joyce was an instructor in the creative non-fiction track when I was pursuing my MFA at the University of Southern Maine/Stonecoast. Joyce was not my teacher, since I was in the popular fiction track. But I enjoyed hearing her work at the faculty readings.

I’ve emailed her to see if she’ll answer a question or two for this blog. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s too busy, since her Modern Love cut line makes this announcement: Joyce Maynard lives in California. Her latest novel, “Labor Day” will be published July 28 by William Morrow.

That means a book tour and other publicity events. Providing commentary for my itty bitty blog may not make it to the top of her to-do list.

Either way, Joyce’s Modern Love column and cut line are instructive because they help to hammer home something I’ve noticed of late: Modern Love authors are often already book authors. In the last five weeks, the cut line has been used three times to highlight the author's book. That suggests that the essays were not over-the-transom submissions, but instead, more calculated marketing efforts, arranged by agents and publicists.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud that. I am all for leveraging this space for marketing. I’m doing it myself (or trying to.) But it does make me realize how hard my task will be. If some – maybe most? – of the Modern Love spots are going to arranged publicity placements, that lowers my chances of making it through the publicly available email address.

But then nobody said it would be easy. Successful writers make their own breaks. Indeed, this is not Joyce’s first appearance in the Times. She secured her first byline at the age of 18, writing a cover story for the New York Times Magazine. A gig she landed by pitching the Times via good old-fashioned snail mail.

Back to writing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking III

Yes, yes, I know it’s Tuesday. So sue me.

The first thing I want to point out about this week’s ML column is that it is by a man. Again. Three of the last four ML columns have been written by men. Nothing against men. I’m just saying. I wonder if in the early years, ML was so female dominated that they are now trying to swing the other way to demonstrate their attention to equality. Political correctness is a powerful force in the media.

“A Time to Put Aside Armor” by Ariel Sabar is a rather gentle tale of fathers and sons through the generations. It’s kind of an evergreen-- an adult learns to see a parent through the new eyes of a child It’s not really all that unusual for men to be strict with their children but putty with their grandchildren. I was 12 before I learned that my sweet and devoted Grandpa was actually quite the tyrant to his own kids. But the writer of this essay brings nice original detail to his own telling of this familiar saga: the Iraqi background of his father, for example, the generation gap that often exists between new immigrants and their American-born children over things like clothes, language, freedom and responsibility.

Ultimately, this essay works because it blends the universal father-son drama with this writer’s individual experience. I tell my students a great essay is at the intersection of the personal and the universal. So you need a topic that is both intensely yours and immensely the world’s. When I wrote “Imagine My Surprise” (an essay penned when I was so very young that I was shocked shocked to discover sexism in the workplace) that essay worked because it was my personal story – and the universal experience of a young woman in her first job. When I wrote “Mom, What Are Asses of Evil?” (thanks editors for that nifty headline) it worked because it was about me and the event that was all over television that week. It was about my experience – and the experience of every parent in town at that time.

That’s my biggest challenge – trying to write something sexy and funny that is both personal and universal. It’s a lot of bases to hit in one essay. For my next topic, I’ve picked Sexing the Mammogram. I can’t say I’m 100% confident it’s a good topic. Can I get a laugh around the topic of breast cancer and not sound like a jerk? Is what I’ve got in mind even funny or am I just weird? But I’m already seeing public service ads for breast cancer awareness events coming up in September. And editors like a news hook. So I’m going for it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Green is My Sex Life?

Thank you for writing to Modern Love at The New York Times.

If you are sending a letter in response to a column, thank you
for your feedback. Correspondence sent to this address for the
writer of a particular column will be forwarded if appropriate.

If you are submitting an essay for consideration, please allow
3-4 weeks for a response. If you don't hear from us within a
month, you should assume we won't be using your essay.
-NYT Modern Love Auto Responder.

And so begins my odyssey. Today is the 15th of the month and as I promised, I submitted my first essay to Modern Love. From my list of possible topics, I picked Green Sex. I like the way the essay turned out. We’ll see if anyone over at the NYT agrees.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking II

Is sex just for young people?

This week’s ML essay is penned by a 70-year-old artist from New Jersey who faces what she feels is a decided backlash against sexual activity in the Golden Years. She bristles at ignorant doctors who assume she’s long past her sexual prime. She relates stories about the elderly denied the comfort of the human touch in hospitals and nursing homes. And she lets us in on a great married life chuckle when she and her husband (who see the same urologist) prepare for his visit to the doctor by comparing notes to make sure the husband and wife are each reporting the same amount of sexual contact. God forbid the doctor should compare charts and find a discrepancy!

Love that bit.

I’ve hit this very issue in my writing since the porn star in my novel is not the daughter in the mother-daughter story. It is the mother. And she is 60.

It’s the age of the porn star that inspired the agent who told me “Yuck.” (It was at a conference, so I do know exactly where I lost him. At the word “porn” he lit up like a Christmas tree. It was only a few sentences later that my pitch disappointed him to the point of interjection.)

I got roughly the same reaction from one of my instructors in my MFA program about a year ago. I knew I was in trouble when he handed back our papers and on my manuscript, he had scrawled CREDULITY??????? To his credit, he did not say yuck. But he was thinking it.

Why does our society think sex over 60 is yucky, but sex at 16 is not? Which one of those age groups is best prepared to come out of the sexual encounter without lasting negative effects?

The good news is, this particular stereotype is on its way out. I predict it. Over the next ten years, sex over 60 will become the Hot New Thing.

How do I know? Because the boomers are turning 60. And everything they do is great, or haven’t you heard? I’m not a boomer myself so I can say this with all possible love and affection for my elders. There has never been a group of people on the planet more in love with whatever they are doing at the moment than the boomers. When they were young, they glorified youth. When they became parents, they glorified parenthood. Believe me, as they turn 60 in significant numbers, it will be the in thing. The biggest segment of the generation will start hitting the big 6-0 over the next five years. About which time, watch for the Time Magazine headline: Super! Sexy! Sixty!

This is the generation that believes it practically invented sex. Will boomers give it up out of a sense of maturity etiquette? No way.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

Welcome to a regular feature of Making Modern Love in which I will critique the previous Sunday’s Modern Love column and thereby display my raging jealousy of the author.

Today we have “In My Fantasy, I Caught Up To Reality” where we find our hero is so incredibly introverted he misses the many signals that his life partner is about to ditch him. Then, once ditched, he consoles himself by ogling the really hot runner chick at his gym.

Men are so dense.

But this is about the writing.

I admire the writing of this essay. It is clean and spare, without extraneous detail or florid description. It also has several really nice twists. There were at least two moments in the essay in which I was genuinely surprised, yet not thrown out of the story. That’s nicely done – he was able to keep me engaged as I read and yet not telegraph the plot twists in this tale.

One way the author achieves this is by staying exactly in the moment when he writes – not analyzing it beyond its defined space in time. So when he is at the gym, watching his fantasy lover run on the treadmill, he relays information, thoughts, details, only in the gym. His narrative does not wander. That keeps us rooted to the moment, and prevents us from looking ahead to what might be happening next. So when his ex meets him on the beach and says she wants to come home, we are as surprised as he must have been at that moment. Come to think of it, the real genius of this piece is that it succeeds in making the reader – at least temporarily – as dense as the writer. Now that’s skill.

This strikes me as a classic Modern Love essay, in that it is heavily relationship oriented. It raises an interesting problem for me in my quest to use that space to leverage my novel. Although my novel is certainly relationship oriented, it is also about sex – sexual politics, sexually explicit material, sex lives.

Can sex and relationships mix?

You’d think that’s an easy yes, but I’ve encountered some resistance to this combo in the literary world. My rejections have taken an interesting pattern. The agents who rep “women’s fiction” find the porn angle too explicit and frankly, too over the line. Porn, they say, cannot be portrayed positively. It’s not possible. It’s ironic that this mindset gets me a rejection, since it is exactly the mindset of my main character at the start of the novel. And I’m not surprised by that mindset – I recognize it. Those of us raised by the first generation feminists were taught to view pornography as rat poison. Nothing, but nothing, could make it okay. Apparently, there’s not a lot of willingness in the women’s fiction community to challenge that particular assumption.

No worries, I moved along and began to target another set of agents – those with an interest in erotica. And they said: love these sex scenes, can you take out all the boring plot and character elements?

It appears with both relationship and explicit sex, I am between genres. But I’m undeterred, since genre crossovers are all the rage now. I figure if Jane Austen can mash with zombies, I must be able to make the case for feminism and porn in the same story. It’s not any crazier than Abe Lincoln, the Vampire Slayer.

Is it?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Getting Started

The key to success in this marketing effort of mine is not to over-think it, but just sit down and write write write. If I ponder it too long, I'll just talk myself out of it.

I've set myself a deadline: I'll send on the 15th of every month. For that to happen, I need to pick and idea and get going.

My idea list (and goal for the day: pick one and start writing.)

Sex on Shabbat. My split screen life, as a member of an Orthodox shul and teacher of explicit writing. Takes place on the Saturday I went to Minneapolis to teach Sex on the Page with Ann R-F and missed the farewell Kiddush for our MFA-holding rabbi.

Reading Forever with Henry. I’ve long had a copy of Forever stashed away to give to my daughter on her entrance into high school. She’s 9. But it’s my oldest, my son, who will make that transition first. He’s 14. And I realize: it’s my job to educate him, too. Am I up for that conversation?

One, and that’s not funny. My search for humor in the feminist movement.

Sexing the Mammogram. What the breast health industry can learn from The Hard Rock Café.

Writing Porn at the PTA Meeting. My year of writing dangerously, researching and writing a novel with a pro-pornography slant whilst dodging the Morality Moms.

Green Sex. Can I (should I?) fight global warming from between the sheets?

Thoughts on these ideas:

The key is to keep the core theme of the novel in mind. If it’s a great essay, but doesn’t accurately sell My Mother, the Porn Star, it flops as a marketing effort. My novel’s key themes are sex and humor. If this essay isn’t funny and just this side of explicit, it’s not selling my novel.

What are my rules for mentioning the family? Might be wise to leave the family members out of this. Especially Henry. Maybe he doesn’t care now, but next year (when he starts high school), he might. And the Internet is forever. Also, how funny is this idea anyway? I’d have to find a graceful way to work the novel into that essay, otherwise it’s a disconnect in theme and tone.

Sexing the Mammogram is pretty out there. I think applying the methods of experiential marketing to a mammogram is funny. But is that because I don't have this disease? Have never had a family member with it? Does it cross a line? Would I write a funny essay about heart disease screening? Might have to write this and test market it a bit to get outside perspective. I want to sell a novel, not be a jerk.

I like Green Sex and I think it’s timely. The question is, is there enough story to carry a ML column. Is there enough relationship in it?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What's This Blog About?

Did you hear about Ellen Graf, the writer who snagged a book deal after publishing an essay in Modern Love? How about Melanie Gideon? Or Alison Buckholtz?

Yeah, me too. In fact, it’s pretty well known in aspiring author circles that the Modern Love column is a favorite fishing hole of New York literary agents. At least nine book deals have been officially tied to essays published in the New York Times Sunday Style mainstay. All the lucky authors say they were just, well, lucky. But I’ve been a business journalist for 20+ years and I know a marketing hot spot when I see one. Modern Love is a great platform for a writer hoping to flag down an agent.

Thus, the genesis of my marketing plan for my novel.

A year ago, I finished writing "My Mother, the Porn Star." It’s a comedy about a 30something magazine editor whose mother refuses to retire quietly and instead starts a second career as a porn actress. It’s funny and sexy and thought provoking. And really well written, if I do say so myself.

Yet, it is, as they say, still seeking representation.

I’ve done the whole research-query-wait thing. I’ve had plenty of nibbles. I’ve sent the first 50 pages out ten times. But so far, I’ve just managed to rack up a blackly humorous collection of the ways agents say “No.”

“I didn’t fall in love with the pages as much as I hoped.”
“I have so many projects I would not be able to devote the time your novel deserves.”

Seriously, one agent said yuck.

Now I believe in patience, but I also believe in making one’s own luck. So this blog will chronicle my uniquely conceived marketing plan to sell my novel. Over the course of the coming year I will write 12 essays and pitch them, one per month, to Modern Love. I’m banking on the fact that as a professional writer, a published essayist and a person who’s spent the last two years thinking and writing about sex, I should be able to come up with something that will catch the eye of the Modern Love gatekeepers.

And then, when my essay graces that inside left copy hole, drop your eyes down to that tiny paragraph of Italics at the bottom of the column. It will read: Ellen Neuborne is a writer, editor and ghostwriter living in New York City. She has just finished her first novel My Mother, the Porn Star.

I won’t add And agents, you should call her quick quick and sign her up. I think that’s pretty well implied.

Will this really work?

I’ve covered sales and marketing for a long time. Judging by all that I’ve seen succeed and fail, my marketing plan has promise:

1. It’s targeted.
2. It’s cheap.
3. It’s out of the box.

So in this blog you will find me brainstorming for ideas, testing out nut grafs, posting the rejects and jealously critiquing the essays that do make it into Modern Love each week. And I’ll be writing. Writing my way out of the slush pile. Damn it.