Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Blindsided by a Diaper

Today, I spoke with Beth Levine, who has contributed an essay to the new book, "Blindsided by a Diaper." Beth tells us why she thinks anthologies are especially good markets for humor essays and how she gets all those articles into women's magazines

Tell us about yourself.
I have been writing ever since I learned to write; my mother says I was storyteller even before I could talk. I would just babble nonsense that sounded like complete sentences, with period, emphases and nuances. Let's just say I've always had a lot to say! My first career was as a book publicist in NYC until the day I decided I wanted to write my own stuff, not publicize other people's. I quit cold turkey to go freelance 20 years ago, and have never looked back. I am married to a fellow writer -- he is a lyricist and musical theater writer. We like to say we have rich inner lives because we certainly never have rich outer ones.I have written for dozens of magazines, newspaper and websites. My latest stuff is:Woman's Day, "Not My Mother's Hysterectomy," (August 1)Ladies' Home Journal, "Six Surprising Stress Cures" (September)Woman's Day, "Paging Dr. Scooby!" (October)Woman's Day, "Destress Your Family" (October)You can see more of what I do on my websites, http://www.bethlevine.net/
Tell us about Blindsided by a Diaper
(Three Rivers Press, June 2007)It's a collection of essays about how having a baby changes your relationship with your partner/spouse. There is some wonderful stuff in it from Moon Zappa, Susan Cheever, Greg Behrendt, Hope Edelman, and others. My husband, Bill Squier, also has an essay in it, about our interfaith marriage.
How did you learn about this book?
The editor, Dana Hilmer, lives in Guilford, Conn., and we have a mutual friend in writer Sandi Kahn Shelton (www.sandishelton.com -- go there now! She is hilarious!) Dana asked Sandi to contribute, and Sandi recommended me, and then I recommended Bill. I guess it is all in who you know!
Why did you decide to contribute to an anthology?
I love writing essays, especially humor essays. But they are getting harder and harder to place in magazines. Magazines are really under the gun, they are losing ads at a scary rate, and when the ads go, the first thing to get cut are the essays because they are harder to sell against. I keep reading these essay collections (I can't stay awake at night long enough to commit to a novel) and thinking, Hey! My crap is as good as this crap! Why don't they ask me?!?!?! So when Dana asked me, I was jumped at the chance. The bad part was I agreed to write one before she landed the contract, so I wasn't sure of getting paid. The good part was that since I signed up so early, I got my pick of topics. I get paid a flat fee, and don't get any royalties. However, I put a link on my website for it through the Amazon, and if anyone buys it through my link (hint, hint), I think I get 50 cents!
You write for many women's magazines. How did you get into the big leagues?
By being too stupid to realize that it was a big deal. When I first starting out, the only clips I had were a couple of reports for a free NYC neighborhood paper. I sent them to Self, and the editor actually responded. She gave me a huge assignment -- which I completely screwed up because I didn't know what I was doing. But it was a learning process. I just kept at it. Coming from book publishing, I had a few contacts that I worked like hell, and I don't know, things just started happening. I wrote a humor essay about why does everyone have to touch you when you are pregnant which Woman's Day picked out of the slush pile, and that led to a very long relationship, God bless them. However, keep in mind that even though you might look at my credits and think, "Wow!!" I still make an annual income of bupkiss. It is very hard to actually make a decent living doing this.
If you were speaking to a new writer, what advice would you give them?
Learn your craft.Read constantly.Figure out what you want to write about and then figure out what market wants to hear it.When you figure out the market, study it before submitting. Who is the demographic? What is the style of writing?Write constantly.Rewrites: Expect them. Don't whine, just do them.Remember that editors are people just like you: They want to do their job with the least amount of hassle and get out the door in time to see their families. Anything you can do to make that happen will only work in your favor.If an editor responds negatively to a pitch or proposal but says, "I like your work, please submit more," ask her/him out to lunch. Say, "I'd love to hear what your editorial needs are."
How do you come up with story ideas?
If something is in the NY Times, it's already too late. The trick is to get onto something before it hits the news. I subscribe to various press release services that send me the latest announcements. I also try to look around and feel what the latest cultural zeitgeist is. If something is worrying/annoying/intriguing me, it probably is doing the same to other people. Once, when the 500th mother bored me silly on how "gifted" her fetus was, I wrote an essay on why is every child gifted these days. Where did all the average kids go? It sold in minutes.
What is your dream writing job?
It would be my dream and my nightmare: A weekly humor column. Okay, maybe a monthly. It would be a ball, and I would be permanently terrified that I'd never get the next idea!


Anonymous W. Squier said...

Why, what brilliant insight! What a gifted writer! Okay, maybe I'm a little biased, given that I'm her husband... But, Beth really does know what she'd talking about. And she never gives up! I don't think she has every written anything that she hasn't eventually sold to someone! Even my stuff. One time, after an essay of mine had been rejected from several magazines, Beth was the one who said, "Why don't you try Newsweek?" And guess who printed it...

I'm a lucky guy!

8:50 AM CDT  
Blogger Roma said...

What an insightful interview! Really helpful since I am trying to break out as a freelance writer myself. Is there a way to contact Beth to get advice?

Would love to know your thoughts on my thoughts on my blog at

7:37 PM CDT  

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