Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Author Ethan Watters Delivers

by Cindy Bailey, 3.31.09

As you may know, I belong to a vibrant writing salon called the Writing Mamas (www.writingmamas.com), which meets at Book Passage in Corte Madera. We have guest speakers every month and our most recent one was author and San Francisco Grotto co-founder, Ethan Watters.

I come to the talk filled with preconceptions and expectations. In my intimate circle of writers, he’s famous—not only as an author and magazine writer, but as an accessible, patient, nurturing teacher and mentor. Writer friends rave about him, and finally I get to meet him!

There he was on deadline for a book (due in 10 days!), yet he took time off to come talk to us. And not just to rip thoughts off the top of his head, either. Oh, no! He came prepared, with a stack of detailed notes, a gorgeous sample query (by Todd Oppenheimer for his first ever piece in The New Yorker), and a genius, witty sample book proposal (by Mary Roach for her now famous book, Spook).

In his casual, approachable manner, he engaged us with insider information and tips on the business of writing magazine articles and books, asking us targeted questions, answering our own questions, and reading from the aforementioned samples along the way.

Here’s just a smidgen of the hot stuff he gave up:

The four main goals of a query letter (to a magazine) are:

· Get the magazine to say “Yes”

· Show that you’re the one to write it

· Sell the editor on your writing skills

· Develop a relationship with the editor

I can honestly say, I don’t often think of the fourth item because I’m so focused on the first, and I can see what a mistake that is! The ultimate goal, Ethan says, is to develop a long-term relationship with the editor.

Another hot tip: when you call the editor to check on the status of your query, if the editor says “No,” be ready to pitch him or her something else.

Another: editors almost never get back to you. You have to call them, and Ethan suggests calling about 10 days later.

I took down pages of insider notes. If you want in, I highly recommend taking Ethan’s nonfiction writing class, which he teaches at the SF Writers’ Grotto. One of my writer friends has taken his class three times, she loves it that much. Click here for more info: http://www.sfgrotto.org/classes.html. Classes start soon! April 13, 2009.

Ethan’s bio (from the SF Writers' Grotto site):Ethan Watters is a co-founder of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto. His most recent book is Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family? He's written for many of national magazines including New York Times Magazine, Spin, Discover, Details, Men Journal, Mother Jones, GQ, and Esquire. He has written two previous books about recovered memory therapy and the mental health profession. The movie rights for Urban Tribes have been optioned by Ira Glass and are in development for a feature film at Warner Bros. Currently, he is working on a book about evolutionary medicine.

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