Au Paris: From Blog to Book

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Au Paris - Rachel SpencerThis is a story about serendipity. A young woman bored with work lands a dream job as a summer nanny in Paris, her previous employer allows her to blog about her adventure on its website, a book editor reads the blog, a little over a year later a book is published.

Au Paris is Rachel Spencer’s memoir about her whirlwind time as a Parisian nanny. In Rachel’s words, here is her story of blog to book.

“Why don’t you write for us?”

I had been working in the advertising department at the Houston Chronicle for about three years when I decided to resign from there to pursue graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, with a summer in Paris in between. It was May 2005 when I resigned. The day I told my manager my plans to leave, she told her boss, Stephen Weis, who is now the Executive VP/GM of chron.com.

When I told Stephen I really wanted to write—and I had even thought of trying to get a travel column going through the Arkansas Traveler, my school paper—he suggested I write for the Chronicle instead. I remember his casual, can-do, energetic but laid-back expression when he said, “Why don’t you write for us?” as if writing for one of the nation’s largest newspapers was something anyone off the streets could just take a stab at.

I laughed a little but he assured me he was serious. He told me to contact Jeff Cohen, the executive editor, and tell him my plans. Mr. Cohen, as I called him, was kind and witty and rather prompt in his reply. He’s a jovial, flirt of a guy who wears bow ties regularly and in doing so, manages to look both debonair and astutely academic. He directed me to Scott Clark, the only VP of chron.com at that time, who was strictly editorial. Scott came from the print side where he was the Business Editor. I would have much rather exchanged ideas with Mr. Cohen.

Scott’s right-hand man and the technology columnist, Dwight Silverman, was in the early stages of developing blogs on chron.com. There were just a handful then, all written by editors of the paper and maybe one or two in the archives from reporters who had gone to some offshore destinations.

Dwight and Scott were skeptics—and they had to be. But Dwight was thirsty for hot online content and, as much of a tech geek as he is, is a real romantic. I think he applauded my gumption to quit my job, flee the country temporarily, and return to my first love (writing). So I persuaded Dwight, and Dwight stroked and courted the idea to Scott. I don’t think I ever had a face-to-face conversation with Scott until after Dwight had already, unofficially, granted me permission to write a blog on chron.com.

It took a series of “interview” posts and a series of critiques and second chances from Dwight, but eventually, they said yes. Scott was still skeptical whether there would be any reader relevancy, but they took the risk. The opportunity to even write for chron.com and hold my own blog—the first by someone other than editorial staff—was a huge dream come true for me.

“I think your blog is amazing…”

Au Paris (the blog) did well, and exceeded expectations. It often ranked number one above the other blogs and received daily comments from readers worldwide. I was on a combined high from writing, living in Paris and fulfilling dreams by the end of the summer.

Dwight took me to dinner when I returned to Houston; I was leaving for Arkansas the next week to settle in before grad school started. We sat at Maggiano’s Restaurant and talked about future plans. He asked me if I could do anything after the unexpected success with the blog, what would it be. I told him I wanted to write a book based on the blog and include all of the things I just couldn’t fit in while I was in Paris busy taking care of the kids.

Dwight looked doubtful, but encouraged me nonetheless. He told me to high tail it to New York City and just start voraciously reading anything and everything. I left dinner with stars in my eyes, no doubt. So much of what I’d always wanted had already happened and I felt satisfied and inspired.

The next day, I went to the Chronicle to say farewell to friends and to thank those who helped with the blog. As I was stepping on the elevator, my cell phone rang. It was Dwight. He wanted me to come back in his office.

When I rounded the corner to his office, his face looked aghast. I wondered if some reader had posted an inappropriate comment or something. But then, why would Dwight need to show me that to me?

He called me to his desk. “Look at the screen,” he said. “Read that.”

The screen was indeed displaying a comment from a reader, but it wasn’t an inappropriate one.

I used to have it memorized verbatim, but the comment went something like this:

Hi, Rachel. My name is Danielle Chiotti. I’m an editor with Kensington Publishing in New York. I think your blog is amazing and I’d love to talk to you about book ideas. This is the only way I could find to contact you. Please feel free to contact me at…

Before I could say anything, Dwight read my mind and said out loud, “I didn’t write that!”

“Is this a joke?” I said, still stunned.

Dwight was just as stunned. Instinctively he began googling “Danielle Chiotti” and “Kensington Publishing New York.” We were both amazed to find real results. This was a real editor at a real publishing company and, we thought, we hoped, she really wanted to talk to me about a book deal.

Dwight, being the overprotective father-type by that stage of our mentor/student relationship, told me to let him handle the initial contact, and I was fine with that. I was too shocked to know what to say.

I had an official book deal.

In a matter of days after Dwight’s contact with Danielle, I was on the phone with her myself. I don’t remember much—it was one of those adrenaline-pumping moments when sheer elation blurs the memory. I do know that very quickly, I was agreeing to a 65,000-word non-fiction manuscript with a December 15, 2005 deadline. (It was early August.)

Dwight handled the agent part too and within a couple hours of his first email to an agent he knew, I was on the phone with the agent, giving him a fax number where he could send the author-agent agreement form.

I moved to Arkansas despite the new whirlwind turn-of-events, but I was quickly moving further from thoughts of sitting in a classroom. It was August ninth when I moved to Arkansas and I hadn’t registered for classes. I wasn’t going to grad school, but I hadn’t said it out loud yet.

On August 23rd, I received confirmation that I had an official book deal. In the days in between Danielle had pitched the idea and my platform to her boss and company. I had no other work but my blog, so I know she had to pull some strings and beg a lot of people to trust her. That same day, Danielle was named a Senior Editor of Citadel Press—the imprint on my book within Kensington Publishing—and my book, Au Paris, was her first under her new title.

The agent negotiated my contract, the advance, the royalty percentages, etc. I was in complete trust of a stranger because I had neither the knowledge nor the legal resources to find out on my own whether his negotiation was fair. (It was; it’s a first
book—you can’t complain!)

The whole process was an extremely personal, risky, emotional process for both Danielle and me. We had a very close working relationship and both learned a lot along the way. I missed the December 2005 manuscript deadline and several other deadlines after, but we still made the publication date. The book was released in December 2006.

What were the challenges of turning your blog into a book?

The contract for the book stated that all work must be previously unpublished material, based on the chron.com blog. There were a couple of occasions where I used sentences or perhaps even paragraphs from the blog simply because I had already written exactly what had happened, but the book is actually quite different. Not to mention that I think maybe one or two sentences total in the published edition of the book survived without any editing.

Two things made writing the book extremely difficult: one, chronology, and two, that I was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas at the time I was trying to mentally, physically, and emotionally place myself in Paris and then in several places throughout France.

The chronology part is difficult, I’ve heard, for any writer and requires quite a bit of training to master. My editor was constantly correcting my tense and reminding me that, for instance, if I arrived in Paris yesterday on a Saturday, today cannot be Monday morning with three family dinners under my belt. Things like this are very difficult for me to sort out and place correctly and accurately in the writing. This inhibited my writing more than I expected.

After you had the contract with Kensington, what was the editing process like?

Rough, but fantastic. I couldn’t have had a better editor. (Well, obviously. She is the reason I have a book published!) She was extremely patient, motivating, and honest with me. I could have stood for her to have been even more honest, as I was regularly begging for someone else besides myself to tell me how wretched my writing was. There was a lot of insanity while working on this project—besides the fact that I’d never attempted a book before, we were editing the manuscript as I was writing it. I now know that if I really want my style and voice to shine through, I need to have a finished manuscript before any editors snatch up my work. Of course, that is the normal process.

Danielle had to work very hard with me to extract action and sequence of events and plot from my overly descriptive, and often passive, writing. We referred to Stephen King’s On Writing to work through the passive voice mistakes, and I wished I could have read and studied that well before we began the book.

Additionally, my book was Danielle’s first project as a senior editor at Kensington, so we were both invested emotionally and personally throughout the writing and editing process. The success of the book was just as important to Danielle—if not more—as it was to me. Working with someone whose stakes were as high as my own was the foundation I needed to accomplish the often-intimidating challenge of writing my first book.

In brief, I wrote the first seven chapters of the book to meet my first deadline. I think I had about three months to do this. About three weeks went by before I received the first round of edits back. Almost every word on every page was red-lined, if that says anything about the editing process.

A few words from editor Danielle Chiotti:

Blogs are not often cohesive narratives. Rachel’s blog was not the bulk of the book. After I received a chapter from her, I would line edit and send it back to her. We talked over each revision.

What I liked about her blog was that it was not forced; it showed she was having fun, yet was a fish out of water. There was a realness that every woman could relate to.

Read Au Paris:
Au Paris Blog
Au Paris: True Tales of an American Nanny in Paris

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