The Jersey Shore
Today, I'm really excited to have Jen Miller, author of "The Jersey Shore, Atlantic City and Cape May." Jen talks about writing a guidebook, where she got the idea (see www.freelancesuccess.com) and working with her brother for the illustrations. Jen's waiting to give a book away to one lucky person who will be randomly drawn. It can't be easier to win. Before 5 p.m. CST today (Tuesday), simply click on the word "comments" at the end of the interview and ask Jen a writing related question. You don't even need a google account. If you don't want to sign in with a google account, just click on the option that says name/URL. I will randomly draw one question and Jen will answer it on Thursday and the person will also win a book!
Easy-peasy and FREE
Tell us about yourself.
I'm a cancer who enjoys candlelight and long walks on the beach...Kidding. Though I do like the beach.
My name is Jen A. Miller, and I've been a full time freelance writer for over three years now. I write about health and fitness for Men's Health, Oxygen, USAirways Magazine and Figure, to name a few, and I'm also a book critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and St. Pete Times. The reason I'm here today, though, is because of my book, which is about another area I write about a lot: the great state of New Jersey.
Tell us about your book, "The Jersey Shore, Atlantic City to Cape May"
It's a travel guide to the South Jeresy Shore -- yes, just the southern part. While New Jersey may be one state, it has two region identities -- North and South. The Southern part of the state identifies closer with Philadelphia than New York, and I wrote the book for those people who don't go to the beach, but Down the Shore.
The guide includes the basics of where to eat, stay and play, plus a lot of information for nature lovers on the 46 mile stretch between Atlantic City and Cape May. One of the reasons I did the book with Countryman Press is because they allowed me to write about my connection to the shore, too. I spent every summer at the Jersey Shore since I was born -- literally. I was born in July and on the beach in August. So I was able to provide some of that inside information, like what you're better getting at Hoy's 5&10 as opposed to at Seashore Ace. It's those little things that I've been told make the book something you can sit down and read to enjoy.
How did you develop the platform to write your book?
The platform started from my first writing area of expertise: South Jersey, which is where I grew up and lived most of my life. I started freelancing part time when I was 22 years old and in grad school. I didn't have a lot of money or time to dedicate to it, so I stuck with what I knew. I then became editor of SJ Magazine, which is all about South Jersey, and learned more about my own backyard. When I went freelance, I kept NJ as one of those speciality areas -- I do a lot of work for New Jersey Monthly and have written about New Jersey in USAirways Magazine, Bust, Arrive, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer. I've done travel writing gigs where I'm sent somewhere to research and write about an area, but I've always been more comfortable digging deeper into an area I already sort of know.
This book is about a place you've loved all of your life. Do you think it is important, especially on a long book project, to write about things you are so passionate about?
I don't know if you have to be THIS passionate about the area, but you should be fascinated and invested in your topic because nonfiction books take so much time and work, especially travel guides. Someone asked me if I'd ever do this kind of guide book about the North Jersey shore, and I'm not sure because I don't know if I'd have that same fascination. I think a good sign that I picked the right area is that, when the book was over and I wanted to get away for a short vacation, I went to the shore for that break. I didn't think it was work -- now that I knew where to go and what to do, I wanted to do it and enjoy it.
When we are familiar with certain things, we become so acquainted, that we miss the obvious. How did you keep your eyes open for new things that you might not have known about?
By reading what other people have written about the area. I have a google alert set up for every town in the book, and I read through them once a week. That pointed out what other people thought was impotant, and kept me in the loop on news. I also read magazine articles about the shore (Philadelphia Magazine and New Jersey Monthly both publish extensive shore issues), the Jersey Shore Zagat Guide, and even older books from the library about the shore area -- older travel guides I found in the library were priceless sources of information because they showed me what had been around and noticed and needed to be written about.
I also spent a lot of time on the ground. Just walking the areas gives you a different point of view. Sure, I may have passed Dreamcatchers in Ocean City a zillion times, but looking at it with a notebook in hand is a lot different than browsing. It was very time consuming, but necessary.
You told me you talk to strangers. Alot. Did you ever listen to your mother about not talking to strangers (HA!) Seriously, how do you just approach people and ask for inside scoop?
This is probably what made my parents most nervous about my research! But it's necessary because I'm only one person with one point of view, and I knew I needed other perspectives.
When I started freelancing, I did a lot of concert reviews. I usually had to go by myself, and while that was uncomfortable at first, I soon realized that it gave me an amazing opportunity. Not only could I move all over the concert floor, but I could strike up conversations with other concert goers, and I soon found that there are a lot of people who go to shows solo, and they're great fun to talk to. I also go to meetings and conferences by myself, so I started trying to read people to see if they were open to conversation.
Two things that usually help are "I'm a writer" and alcohol, and I usually approach people in social situations. Quizzo nights at shore bars were perfect because people are already in groups talking, and they're not going anywhere until the end of the game. I joined a Quizzo team of shore locals one night, and they gave me pages of insider information that I researched that then went into the book. Sometimes people just look darn friendly. I can usually find something to comment on, and if the person smiles and seems friendly, I keep asking questions. If not, I drop it and move on. It's almost like being a pick up artist!
Your blog has helped you develop your platform and a reader fan base. Tell us about structuring that, making it interesting and keeping some tidbits only in the book and not giving them away on the blog.
I started the blog while I was writing the book, in part because I had seen how blogs can help you find your fan base, and because I wanted an outlet for what I couldn't put in the book -- news that wasn't that relevant to the research, my experiences writing the book and, honestly, a place to vent about the process because it was incredibly stressful. I also think (and hope) that it make me more a 'person' rather than a name on a book jacket, and that people want that personal aspect when reading a blog. For example, I posted about when the book was done by listing stats for what my life was like that last month and what my office looked like: http://downtheshorewithjen.blogspot.com/2007/09/aftermath.html
That's not something for the book obviously, but I'm glad I did it.
I eventually developed some regular features. On Moday, I post a Q&A with someone who has ties to the Jersey shore. This sprung from realizing how many people love the Jersey shore, even if they don't live in Jersey, and that they all have wonderful, rich memories about the area. It also drives traffic to the site, especially if the person I'm interviewing has a blog and links back to the post. On Thursdays, I go through those google alerts and write a round up of Jersey Shore news, which one person described as "People magazine of the shore." I inject comments here and there, and also link to other shore blogs -- again, increasing traffic. On Saturday, I'll post a video of something shore related -- more for fun than anything else.
None of the stuff I just described fit in the book, but it keeps the blog going. Now that the book is out, I'll start drawing features from the book, like cheap eats, best shopping, and things like that, but not reprints from the book. I need to leave something left to buy!
Your brother did the maps for your book. There must be a lot of talent in your family. How was it working with a relative? How do you resolve creative differences without causing a rift?
There is a lot of talent! My younger brother is a budding writer, too, and my sister a pastry chef. My dad said he'd always hope that of his four kids, one would become a doctor, another a laywer, another an accountant and another a mechanic so he'd have all his bases covered, but all in all, he's pretty happy with how we turned out..
I was really excited that my brother Jim [link: www.jmspark.com] got to do the maps. He approached me about it, and the publishers were thrilled with his samples and then his finished work. We had to follow the publisher's protocol, which was a little odd -- I had to send the maps to the publisher who then sent them to him when what I really wanted to do was call him and say "hey, here's what we'll do." He did call to gripe a few times about how difficult it was to map that coast, but I rolled with it because I knew he needed to gripe. But I like working with family. Jim also did my websites, and my cousin designed my business cards. They do good work, but I've learned you can't lean on them too hard because they're doing you a favor. Patience is key.
How did you develop the idea for the book and sell it in a book proposal?
I've written about the Jersey Shore here and there, but I never really thought about doing this book until I saw on a market guide at Freelance Success that Countryman Press was looking for guidebook proposals. I wrote the editor a quick note seeing if she would be interested in a book on Atlantic City, and she said that they needed a bigger area. So I thought about regions and looked at what would fit with AC and proposed the South Jersey Shore book. That's where most people in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs go on vacation. They go down the shore, and that region has created its sort of own identity. She gave me the tentative thumbsup, so I wrote the proposal, drawing from my previous articles and knowledge. I also pointed out how connected I was with local media and that it would roll over into possible promo for the book (which has turned out to be true). Plus, I couldn't find another book that catered just to the South Jersey area, and I think that cinched the deal!
Now, Jen is waiting for your questions...the winner will be posted on Thursday