Are You Ready for Your Close-up?

You’re sitting at your desk in your bathrobe thinking you’ll spend the morning writing when you get an email from the Huffington Post.They want you to join a live panel discussion later today and need to test the connection NOW. They want you to connect to something on Google called “Hangout” so they can hear and SEE you. You haven’t brushed your teeth yet, your hair is going every which way, and you haven’t even thought about putting on makeup. Suddenly it’s like those nightmares where you show up at work in your pajamas and everybody’s laughing at you.

In theory, people who work at home never have to get dressed. There are advantages to that. A couple weeks ago, some door-to-door evangelists rang my doorbell mid-morning. When I answered the door looking like I had just gotten out of bed, they said, “Oh, I see this is not a good time,” and went away. Thank you, Lord. They would have been amazed to know I’d been up and working since dawn.

People who give advice about productivity often suggest that we can be more efficient if we dress as if we were going to a job. There’s supposed to be a psychological advantage to suiting up. They may be right. I find I’m better at the business end of being a writer when I’m dressed for success. When I’m actually writing, however, I don’t think it matters what I’m wearing. I enjoy being comfortable, and my dog Annie, who likes to sprawl beside me while I write, would get fur all over my good clothes. However, if a client or media person is going to actually see me, I guess I’d better pull myself together instead of putting on my pants during “The View,” brushing my teeth during “Kelly and Michael,” and maybe finishing with a shirt sometime after lunch when I decide I have to go to the post office or the grocery store.

Or I could just keep the Internet turned off and miss the email that might make me famous. Makeup! An important fact that I rarely hear about in all the advice for writers is that when media calls, whether it’s a newspaper reporter, a blog editor, or a radio, TV or webcast producer, they usually want you to act NOW. A while back, I got an email from a newspaper reporter in the UK who wanted some quotes for that day’s paper. I was already behind because of the eight-hour time difference, but this sounded like a good thing. I answered her questions immediately, before breakfast or shower or getting dressed, and wound up being quoted as the author of Childless by Marriage in the same article as actress Dame Helen Mirren. Very cool. But if I hadn’t checked my email and reacted right away, I suppose some other writer would have been quoted or Ms. Mirren’s words would have stood alone.

When Huffpost Live called, the webcast panel was only hours away. So while I downloaded the Hangout program, I got dressed in a hurry. In my newspaper days, I frequently asked people to provide quick answers to my questions. I was on deadline. I needed information, a quote, or a photo right now. Later would be too late. So if I couldn’t reach someone, I ditched the story, tried someone else, or wrote the story without their input. Now reporters have even less time because their stories are published online as well as in print.

Writing must have been much more relaxed in the days when one could only communicate by mail that might take weeks or months to arrive. Day after day, no input from the outside world. No email, no Facebook, no telephone calls startling you out of your story. Sounds nice. But writers probably didn’t sell nearly as many books as today’s bestselling authors do, and their publishers had much more patience with slow sales.

If you want to sell your writing today, you have let people know what you have written and who you are. It’s called building a platform. Sometimes you’re lucky to add one little nail or screw to it. But sometimes responding quickly to one phone call or email can add a whole section to that platform that will make people want to read everything you write.

If it interrupts your writing time, so be it. We all have times when we write best, but if necessary we can write any time and any place. Prima donnas don’t last long in this business. So get up, get dressed, get to work and be ready for whatever comes. Meanwhile, keep writing.

Guess I’ll trade my nightgown for a shirt now. Maybe I’ll even comb my hair.

Interviews: Put Yourself in Their Place

Interviews are a key component of research for nonfiction writing projects. They can also be one of the most challenging. I was reminded of that at a recent interview where, no matter what I asked, the person never gave a straight answer. Mostly he complained about how people weren’t supporting his work, spoke in jargon that only people in his field would understand and tried to control the interview by telling me what to write. This is not unusual. We show up with our notebooks and recorders, hoping to get straight answers, but it doesn’t always happen.

Some people are great interview subjects. Ask them a question and they answer at length in wonderful quotable statements that provide just what you’re looking for. Others don’t have much to say, or what they say is not helpful to what you’re writing.

Before you decide they’re just no good, think about how you would feel if you were the one being interviewed. Having been on both sides of the notebook, I know that it’s a lot more uncomfortable than one would expect. Imagine yourself being asked questions, often questions that are based on wrong assumptions, and having someone write down every word you say. Some people are used to being interviewed, but most of us will feel at least a little stage fright.

What to do? Do your best to relax the person. It should be more like a friendly conversation than an inquisition.  Make sure your questions are clear and that you have the facts as straight as you can when you arrive. If you don’t understand something, be honest about it. Ask their help in clearing things up. Also, let them talk. Don’t be so agenda-bound that you don’t take time to listen. You might not use everything they say, but let them say what they want to say. Allow enough time, so you don’t have to rush.

In an interview, you both have an agenda. The subject wants publicity (or to satisfy a friend/boss/co-worker who does), and he wants someone to hear what he has to say. You want a good story. Looking at both sides and empathizing with the subject will help you come up with an interview that works for both of you.

I welcome your questions and comments.