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How To Be A Professional Writer, Part I

November 27, 2009

Many people have written to me over the past few months to very kindly congratulate me on having my first humor book, “It’s Not PMS, It’s You” on the verge of being published.  Usually those who have some sort of history with me also write to politely inquire exactly how I managed to pull off such a thing in the first place.

“Deb”, they basically ask, “how is it possible that you were able to convince someone to let you write an entire book?  When we were in college you couldn’t put two coherent sentences together, mostly because of your propensity for experimenting with adult beverages, and when you did, they usually came out as a random quote from some obscure British comedy sketch.”

I don’t take any of this personally.  I just spend a lot of time secretly thanking whomever is making the Universe run and hoping that I have more books in me.

But the question of how someone becomes a writer still intrigued me, mainly because I still don’t know myself.  Most people who practice this exercise in masochism probably find their muse at a fairly young age.  They probably go on to write short stories, manuscripts, screenplays, take writing workshops, and major in English or Literature in college.  They probably own at least one really fancy pen.

I had done none of that.  My writing career up to that point had consisted of  the occasional letter home from sleep-away camp, a lot of e-mails and business reports, a wonderful foray into the world of crossword puzzle construction and stumbling upon this new thing called Facebook.  None of these, as far as I know, qualified me to write a humorous book about relationships.  So when I got a call from Sterling Innovation asking me to write the book, I naturally assumed they had the wrong person.

“Deb Amlen?” I repeated more than a few times. “Are you sure?”

They were sure.  So I went into their offices and smiled my way through a meeting where mysterious terms such as ‘ms’, ‘PP&B’, and ‘bluelines’ were bandied about.  After signing the contract and gratefully shaking everyone’s hands, including those of the janitorial staff, I went home and immediately Googled “how to write a book”.

Anyway, it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to someone who is looking into a career as a writer to gain a better understanding of the creative process and exactly what goes into producing a laugh-a-minute tome at a professional level.  I can’t speak for any other writers’ methods, of course, but I thought I would share my typical day of writing.  Let me know if this sounds like the career for you.

7:30-8:30 AM: Wake up with a panicky start, realizing that there are only (insert random number of months) left until my manuscript FORANENTIREBOOKOHMYGOD is due.  This will be my main emotional state for the entire time the book is being written.  Wake child up for school and make breakfast.  Remind toast-munching child that we have to get to school on time because Mom has a full day of writing ahead of her and really has to get down to work as soon as possible.  Child nods mechanically without looking up from his GameBoy.  He has heard this before.

8:30-9:00 AM: Drop child off at school and head home to begin productive day of writing.  Piles of laundry make getting to laptop computer impossible, so brief detour to throw in a load is necessary.  Make coffee.  This will be a full day of work, so a major injection of caffeine is non-negotiable.

9:00-10:00 AM: OK, down to work now.  For real.  Boot up the laptop for what will surely be a fruitful day of creativity and hopefully award-winning humor.  Stare at blank computer page for longer than I’d like to admit, waiting for funny ideas to come.   Realize that I used up all of my good ideas in yesterday’s writing session.  Make more coffee to distract myself from the growing sense of panic that is dominating my life.

10:00-11:00 AM: Dig Professional Writer’s Notebook out of backpack.  Thumb through pages of illegible scrawl for inspiration.  Find a potentially good idea in a phrase that looks like it says “On top of furnace.  But this time with marshmallows.”   Spend some time mulling over this nugget of brilliance before I realize that I no longer have any idea at all what I meant by that. Rip page out of notebook, crumble, and shoot for the wastebasket.

11:00 AM-12:00 PM: Clinical depression.

12:00-12:30 PM: Lunch and brief internal debate about faking my own death to get out of contract.  Decide against this plan mostly because of the inconvenience of having to explain the term “undisclosed location” to my children.

12:30-1:00 PM: Make executive decision that it is impossible to get anything done at home, what with all of the distractions.  Try to ignore internal voice reminding me that I am the only one in the house and therefore a total loser.  Pack up laptop and head for local Panera restaurant.

1:00-1:30 PM: This is more like it.  Endless supply of iced tea, clean bathrooms and free WiFi.  Added benefit that no one distracts me here.  Boot up laptop and write the three words “If you are…” before Panera Cookie Lady comes around with sample tray.  Time for a cookie break.  It would be rude not to engage in a brief conversation with her about the merits of chocolate-chocolate-chip over macadamia-white-chocolate.

1:30-2:00 PM: Log onto Facebook.  This is just good business.  These days, you can’t sell books without a solid social network.  Spend half hour looking for the skank who stole my boyfriend in high school.

2:00-3:00 PM: Make last ditch effort to get something written before I need to retrieve my child from school.  Realize with horror that yesterday’s chapter draft makes less sense than an H. Ross Perot campaign speech.  Re-write.  Make solemn promise to myself that original material WILL be generated tomorrow.  Ignore internal voice that is actively betting against me.

Of course, at this point in the day, it’s time to pick up my child at school and between homework, dinner and other things that need to be done at home, no more writing gets done for the day.  Besides, I’m told that it’s important when you work for yourself that you set strict hours for work and leisure.  So it’s almost imperative that I take the rest of the evening off.

Stay tuned for future posts that will elaborate on the editing process and why it’s a good thing my editors have such a good sense of humor.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Karli Dwyer permalink
    January 31, 2010 8:07 PM

    I especially liked 12:30-1:00. I, too, am a software developer. It’s kind of interesting how similar humor writing and software development appear to be.

  2. November 28, 2009 2:00 PM

    Thanks for this delightful piece…I woke this morning…pointed my browser (that’s the correct phrase, right?) to debamlen.com for my fix (yes, I became addicted quickly) of your incredible wit. Upon seeing your title, I immediately became excited, thinking “oh boy…I too can become a writer!!!”
    I am thrilled that those of you in the Ivory Tower on Mount Olympus face the same challenges as us mortal folk.
    May I suggest that you teach some of the other household members how to fill the washing machine, add the detergent, turn it on, come back much much later only to find that they will need to rerun the rinse cycle to get the funky smell out. This may reduce your laundry woes by, oh I don’t know…20% (too generous?).
    I am impressed that you have one of those Professional Writer Notebook things. Upon my son Tom’s suggestion, I began saving some of my “routines” in my computer a few years ago. This is much more legible than the hand written scribble, but the ideas are equally incomprehensible. It seems that humor is context dependent (darn!). This is an obstacle that you professionals clearly know how to maneuver.
    I have gained the reputation of being the “good joke teller” in social gatherings. I find it extraordinarily challenging though, when someone says “hey, funny guy…tell me a joke…RIGHT NOW! I barely can get by “Knock Knock).
    I think that must be a lot like trying to get your ideas down on (paper) for a deadline, except I don’t have a contract obligation to fulfill (minor details).
    I will be ordering a copy of your book from Amazon, and I am hoping that you will be doing a signing somewhere. Let me know.

    • Deb permalink*
      November 29, 2009 2:23 AM

      Hi Rich,

      That’s very sweet, thank you. If I slip you some cash, can I persuade you to review my book as well? 😉

  3. Eric LeVasseur permalink
    November 28, 2009 1:49 PM

    I’m a software developer. Almost every morning starts with the plan to have a full day of uninterrupted productivity. After all the years I’ve been doing this, you’d think I know better. Sometimes I think I’d be better off working from home, but I realize there are even more distractions there than in the office.

  4. November 28, 2009 11:30 AM

    Writng for me was like the mandolin. I didn’t find it; it found me, and it wouldn’t let go.

    drtombibey.wordpress.com

  5. November 28, 2009 7:00 AM

    I especially enjoyed the time spent between 1.30 and 2pm! That made me laugh the most!

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