Today, I interview Mary Beth Temple, author of the new book The Secret Language of Knitters. In it, Mary Beth explains what S.E.X. means to knitters and today she tells us how she transformed her life long love for knitting into part of her writing business plan.
Tell us about yourself.
Writing is pretty much my third career. I spent my post-college days working in the theater and in film and television, first as a stage manager, then as a costumer. After my now ten-year-old daughter was born I ran an antiques business, because Broadway hours are not convenient for parents. I wrote my first book, Rescuing Vintage Textiles, in 2000 because the subject went along with my business, and the next one Touring New Jersey Lighthouses in 2004 because the opportunity dropped in my lap. In 2004 I decided to get out of the antiques racket because it was taking more and more work to make less and less money so I turned to the other thing I loved - writing. I got my early clips writing about theater and antiques - now I mostly write craft and shelter.
Tell us about your book.
The Secret Language of Knitters is a small format humor book. The entries are in alphabetical order like a dictionary (with printed tabs along the side, for which I worship the book designer!) and explains the jargon that knitters use, as well as some of the moments that knitters everywhere share. It can be read cover to cover like an essay book, or the reader can look up a word which puzzles them. I refer to it as a smart-aleck knitting dictionary. It was published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, and has a list price of $9.95.
How did you come up with the subject - is there really a different language in the knitting world?
There really is a different language in the knitting world - and the word developments have been pushed along at high speed by the internet. One of the joys of being a knitter is that knitting is a community oriented craft - there are knitting groups both online and off, and knitters love to talk to and spend time with other knitters. But if you are new to the community, even if you have been knitting for a long time, you hear others talking or typing in these special words, and you feel left out. Sentences like "Oh man, I had such major S.E.X. last weekend I am now to the point of SABLE - the stash is totally out of control. Then I got so excited about the new yarns I screwed up my sweater back and had to frog back five rows, so I gave in to a fit of startitis instead" show up on blogs and bulletin boards and make a lot of people scratch their heads in confusion. And knitters don't want anyone to feel left out, we want you to join in! So I wanted to provide a "welcome to the gang" sort of book - new knitters find out about the words they hear and don't know, knitters who have been knitting for a long time find entries about my life as a knitter and smile in recognition - happy to know they are not the only obsessive compulsive sock yarn hoarder in the world.
You're a lifelong knitter, but did you find any surprises when doing your research?
I don't want to make it sound like I wrote this book in a matter of hours because that was not the case, but I didn't do a whole heck of a lot of research - this stuff really is my life. I guess the real surprise was how many words and phrases I actually found to write about.
When I turned in the first draft, the editor suggested I make the manuscript a little longer, even if that exceeded our original guesstimate on the word count, to better fit the proposed layout. I happily complied - I can go on and on about knitting with no complaint. But then it turns out I got a little too carried away and it was a stretch to make it all fit! So if you look at the book you will see that the acknowlegements, which were originally several very funny (if I do say so myself) paragraphs, are now three cramped lines squished in over the copyright info!
How do you come up with subjects surrounding the craft of knitting you know a publisher will buy?
That's a tough one - not only because I have to find something the publisher will buy, but something that I actually want to do - that I think gives value to the knitter rather than just something the publisher can sell enough of to make us both some money. Not that I don't want to make money - of course I do - but I also want to write books that are a welcome addition to the knitter's library.
We are batting some ideas around now about a possible follow-up book. I hope we can agree soon on the next book, but it is not nearly as easy as I had hoped - they don't love some of my ideas, I don't love some of theirs. But it an amicable process, and I hope to do another book for knitters soon. Thankfully I write on other subjects - I think it is very difficult to make a good living solely as a crafts writer or designer.
How do you successfully make the transition from writing magazine length articles to book length manuscripts?
This one wasn't too difficult - the final manuscript was less than 30,000 words, and much of it was written on the laptop late at night after too much coffee - there were no stats to confirm or interviews to do. I wanted to thank Starbucks in the acknowlegements, but as I said I ran out of room! The book I am writing right now is a whole 'nother ball game - 85,000 words with some technical information. In that case I spent a lot of time on the outline first so that I could attack each section on its own as if it were a longer, researched article. 85,000 words scares me, forty two 2,000 word articles do not.
Many freelancers have difficulty juggling the articles, which is usually what pays the bills, with writing books, how do you balance each world?
Well right now I am broke, but I hope not to be soon! Seriously though, that's another tough decision. There comes a point where you decided to tighten your belt another notch and hope that the investment you are making in your long term financial success (books over articles) is the right choice. If any of my books don't earn out the advance, well, I made the wrong choice. But I think to some extent it is like making a well researched investment in the stock market - you hope the long term gains that you are pretty sure will come outweigh the risks of turning down something with a set in stone return. But you can't just jump blindly, you have to do the research - in the case of books it's comparative titles and the track record of the publisher in marketing your type of work.
What I do when things get too tight is to keep up with my regular magazine clients, because while I have to spend the same amount of time writing articles, the marketing/pitching/waiting for an assignment time is much less. I will not pitch new to me editors unless I have such a sure-fire lightening bolt of an idea that I can bang out a query in minutes. I also drink a lot of coffee and work insane hours - I don't know what I would do without my laptop and internet coffee shops.
The mantra, "Write What you Know" seems to fit your niche, you've written on travel and on textiles/knitting. Any plans to jump to either another subject or genre?
The next two books I have coming out are about shelter topics - I write quite a bit for the log home consumer magazines which led to The Soapstone Book (Schiffer Publishing, summer 2008) and The Log Home Owner's Handbook (Storey Publishing, fall 2008). The soapstone title is in edits, I am still writing the first draft of the log home book. After that I would love to do another crafts book or twelve - they are much more fun to me to do. Not that I don't love log homes and soapstone fireplaces, but there is no yarn involved in those topics.
What's one quirky writing habit no one knows about you (yet)?
I write in bed - a lot - like right now. I have a major aversion to getting started working in the morning, so if I leave my laptop on the nightstand and roll over and dash off a few paragraphs or a bunch of emails as soon as I wake up, then my work day is started and I find it easier to keep working all day. If I get up and go right to running errands, dropping the kid off at school, going to the gym, it will be 3:00 in the afternoon before I know it and I will not have written a word. At which point I decide that it is too late in the day to get started and I should just go knit socks instead. So I trick myself into starting the work day before I wake up enough for my genetic laziness to kick in - it sleeps later than the rest of me I suppose.