Course:Food Writing Boot Camp with Kate Krader.
Output:During the class I developed the idea for my first book: Farms and Foods of the Garden State. In the lessons, we explored what we had access to and I came up with the concept.
How I Found the Class:The course was recommended by the people at ICE: the Institute for Culinary Education, one of the nation’s top cooking schools.
What I learnedThe thing that was most important was the importance precision and proper format. When editors look at food writing, they take format very seriously. Are recipe ingredients in the proper order? Are items described correctly? Has the dish been properly tested? Are the English and foreign language names proofread and presented in the proper order?
How the course helped me do what I did:These details sell books. High concept is all well and good, but when a publisher sells a cookbook, they want it to be correct and understandable first and foremost.
Course:Food Writing Boot Camp with Kate Krader.
Course:I took the 12-Week Novelist eclass with Nicole Bokat
from November to February 2004-2005.
Output: Completed novel manuscript.
How I Found the Class:I saw an ad for the class during one of my too-numerous stops by the mediabistro bbs (goofing off is one of the perks of full-time freelancing).
What I learned:The class gave me the needed deadlines to get “write a novel” on my to-do list and, once it was on the to-do list, it actually got done.
How the course helped me do what I did:During the 12 weeks, I cranked out the draft of a YA novel called “The Cortlandt Boys,” about Max, a sports journalist who goes back to her old high school to cover the 10th anniversary of the boys basketball team winning the state championship. She finds the boys still stuck in their lives from ten years before until a mystery from the past yanks them into the present. I then spent the spring revising the manuscript. Having
proven to myself I can write a novel when I make time to do it, I’ve signed up for another 12-week novelist e-class this fall. My next novel will be about a girl who decides God is talking to her, told in the voice of her more conventionally religious roommate at the
boarding school they attend. As the last book never writes the next one, this may become a yearly tradition, or at least a welcome change of pace from the non-fiction articles I normally write.
Laura Vanderkam is a contributing editor at Reader’s Digest, and a member of the USA Today Forum page’s Board of Contributors. She is co-author with Dr. David Clayton, of the upcoming “Healthy Guide to
Unhealthy Living” (Simon & Schuster, Jan 2006) and is co-author, with Jan and Bob Davidson of “Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds” (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
When was the panel you took, and what MB classes did you take?
I’d taken a few mediabistro classes in the past (pitching with David Hochman, an afternoon copyediting seminar, “How to Find Anything” with the brilliant Don MacLeod), so on a lark I thought I’d take the “How to Break Into Radio” panel. It was $25, which is cheaper than a pair of tickets to the Arclight, so why not? I wasn’t really looking to break into radio so much as dabble in radio. I was happy freelancing for print, so my only aspiration was to do a little more radio work, something I’d done in the past.
What job are you at right now? And did your other classes net any other published work or jobs?
Now I’m an associate producer for “The Business,” a public radio show about “the business of show business” produced out of KCRW in Santa Monica. And after my class with David I sold an article to Budget Living.
What did you learn from the panel?
I learned that public radio is hungry for fresh ideas, and that, just like magazines, they’re looking for a good pitch — you don’t have to wrestle with your cheapo laptop version of CoolEdit to pull together a complete produced piece. If they’re interested, they’ll work with you on the tech stuff. I also learned that being in the right place at the right time is really, really helpful (see below).
How did the panel get you your current job?
The brilliant thing about the panel was that there was a post-panel meet and greet scheduled at a nearby bar to give attendees a chance to meet and mingle with the panelists. I asked Matt Holzman, the producer of “The Business,” how I could learn ProTools and how tough the transition was from CoolEdit. All I was really hoping to get from the panel was an idea of whether or not I needed to buy new software, and whether my sad little radio “kit” was out of date. But we talked a little bit, he asked me to send him my resume, and that Monday I went in, we talked some more, and suddenly I had a job. So, instead of dipping a toe in public radio, I pretty much dived in the deep end. In the last few months I’ve produced segments, been on-air, tackled ProTools, and learned a lot more technical stuff than a person who can’t figure out her DVD player without help ever imagined possible.
Name: Jeff Miller
Course:Boot Camp for Journalists with David Hochman.
Output:The new video game “Shout About Music.”
How I found the class:I met David right when I was out of college, and I’d moved back to L.A. with no plan whatsoever. I grew up here, so I was living with my parents, and I was interning at a major record label and hated it. I took David’s class on a whim — I’d written about music for my college newspaper and really enjoyed it, and thought a class might be a good way to pass the time. David basically looked at me one day and said “you either need to decide to do this or not — but I think you should.” I really needed someone to kick my ass into gear, and David did that. I’ve also got to give some credit to Variety staffer Claude Brodesser, who was a student in that class with me and later ended up being my teacher in a Writing about Entertainment class. He pulled me aside at a bar one night and told me I was ruining my life, in his inimitable way, and that if I ever wanted to write for Variety to give him a call. About 6 months later, I was on the beach reading Variety when I realized that they ran music reviews. I called Claude, and got my first assignment for them the next day. I really consider that the beginning of my professional writing career.
What I learned:I think the number-one thing I’ve learned — and it’s helped me in more than just my freelancing career — is not to fear rejection. Based on some things that David said and advice I’ve gotten from other writers (most of whom I’ve met through mediabistro), I’ve devised a theory that goes like this: I want to write for Spin. Spin is my number-one place to write for. I don’t currently write for Spin. If I pitch Spin, and they decline or reject me — I STILL don’t write for Spin. Nothing’s changed. But I never will write for Spin if I don’t pitch them. That’s great dating advice too, by the way.
How the course helped me do what I did:I just finished working on a video game called “Shout About Music,” which is in stores now; I was one of the head writers on it. Without my Mediabistro classes, not only would I not have had the credentials to get a job like that, I would never have had the confidence to do it. At this point, I’m not sure which is more important.
Name: Rachel Pine
Course:“Humor Writing for Journalists” with Lynn Harris
Output:The novel Twins of TriBeCa, published this month by Miramax books.
How I found the class: I can’t remember why I signed up for that course in particular, so it must have had to do with the time that it was given, and that I was impatient and it was starting soon. I honestly have no idea how I heard about it. At that time Mediabistro was quite small, and I don’t even know how I heard about that. I do remember that I angsted for a couple of days because Darby Saxby was the person to whom you had to email a writing sample, and I couldn’t figure out if this was a man or a woman, and I’ve always hate addressing someone I don’t know by their first name. I eventually called Darby to hear who answered and then hung up. [ed's note: I deal with this a lot in my day job a lot. In this case I would just write the letter "Dear Darby Saxby"] Major hurdle solved, I emailed my writing sample to her and waited to hear back, because the application said that the class was very selective and everyone’s samples would be read and then it would be decided who would be allowed to take the course. I waited a while and I called Darby a couple of times, but now I left voicemails. I was growing frantic and browsed around the site, and saw that there was someone who worked at MB named Taffy. I knew instinctively that a Taffy would let me into the class because there are no nasty Taffys. In the end it was she who enrolled me.
What I learned:The best lesson I learned over this time, which was a time of many, many lessons, is that it’s every bit as hard to write a book that doesn’t get published as it is to write one that does. It’s only luck and a fickle marketplace that separates the two.
How the course helped me:The class was great, and Lynn was and is an excellent teacher. We had a lot of guest instructors, among them Andy Borowitz, A.J. Jacobs and Ben Greenman from The New Yorker. They added a lot to the course because each was incredibly positive and enthusiastic, while providing fantastic advice to our class. Most of all, I would say they were generous with their time and with their wisdom. We focused a lot on satire, which has always been a favorite literary form of mine. The best part of the course was learning how to start with something rooted in reality and just go from there, wherever you liked. When the course ended, I didn’t pursue any writing projects, except for one, a story that I submitted to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Every woman has had a haircut that made her cry, but in this essay, which was 100% true, I was crying before the haircut even started. When Tom Beller published that on his site, it was an unbelievable adrenaline rush and all I wanted to do was write a novel. After all, I’d gotten 500 words published, so it was the next logical step (see Taffy, above). I had an idea for a book about someone who worked at a place that was like Miramax, but not really, and that this person could be a hipper, smarter, better-looking version of me. I met an agent through a friend, and the only thing I had to show her was that story on Mr. Beller’s. Believe it or not, she read it and said that if I wrote a proposal, she’d take me on as a client. She had just a short slug about the book, and put it on her agency’s menu. One night as I was walking into the theater to see “Matt & Ben,” of all shows, she called and said that something like 13 publishers had expressed interest. I was pretty shocked. I wrote the first three chapters and an outline of about 90 additional pages, which is what she pitched. It was sold pretty quickly. Then I wrote the rest of it, and wrote it a few more times for good measure. I wrote Chapter One 87 times.
Name: Mike Chorost
Course: Introduction to Magazines with Sally Lehrman.
Output: Upcoming article in the September issue of Wired
How I found the class: I think I learned about the class from email from MB. The timing was exactly right, as I’d just finished my book and was ready to start pitching articles to support it (the strategy being to get my name and the book’s title out there.)
What I learned: Specific things I learned include the rule that a query has to answer four key questions (what, why, why now, why me?) Mediabistro’s guide to pitch letters is also excellent and extremely helpful.
How the course helped me: Sally ran the course as a workshop, which I really appreciated, instead of dominating the class by lecturing. She was very organized and gave terrific feedback. I must have rewritten the pitch 20 times for different audiences, and it was rejected by three or four other major mags. But the process of rewriting it helped me clarify what I wanted to say. Contacts made the key difference in the end, though. A writer friend of mine knew someone at Wired, and that opened the door. But it wasn’t just dumb luck. I’d made my own luck by getting to know that writer friend over two years. He knew my work well and was able to pitch it convincingly — and successfully. So this underlines the tremendous importance of networking and contacts.
It’s nice when MB teachers can weigh in with some tips from the courses they teach, much like the celebrity interviewing advice we have today. But why should you listen to us? Of course we’re going to say our courses are good. Starting today, though, actual students from Mediabistro classes weigh in on what they learned from the courses they took and what it did for them.
Name: Paul Clinton.
Course: Boot Camp for Entertainment Writing with Claude Brodesser.
Output: Lengthy investigative piece.
How I found the class: I was in job-hunting mode and
I signed up for the media notes newsletter and saw the class there. I have written entertainment stories and reviews for various magazines; it sounded relevant, so I jumped at it.
What I learned: Taking the Boot Camp helped immensely, not only in learning how to go about pitching ideas to magazine editors. The class helped to demystify Hollywood, since it was taught by a working journalist at Variety. Claude and the class inspired me to tackle more ambitious projects, to push my reporting and writing to the next level. Without Brodesser’s aim-high mantra, I may have been reluctant to spend nine months investigating a San Pedro mental health facility and producing a piece that reflected that effort. Claude preached extreme detail in reporting, filling a story with well-observed descriptions and a compelling narrative. I also still try to pratice his mantra about writing stories that readers would want to tear out and send to a relative or recount at a cocktail party. If you can tell a lively yarn, people will read.
How the course helped me:Getting the piece published wasn’t as tough for me, since I have a staff job with the Daily Breeze. But it took planning, discipline and a stick-with-it approach. I interviewed dozens of sources, poured through stacks of records and staked out a facility where we were denied access. A photographer and myself went along on ride-alongs with undercover officers, used cigarettes to get the mentally ill residents to talk to us and met with residents of the facility in their rooms after hours. I gave the editors regular updates on the progress of the project.