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

Final Poll Results

Dash Your Dreams:
A Guide to Finding Happiness
as a Writer

Absolute Blank

 By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Once upon a time, I worked with a bunch of people who disliked their jobs. One guy had figured out the exact number of days left until he could take early retirement. Each morning he would wander in and say, “2,524 days until retirement,” and the next day, “2,523 days until retirement,” and so on. Another guy was a Constant Complainer. Every time he walked in the room, he had something new to complain about. He hated everything. He was miserable. His life was passing him by. He constantly talked about what he would do when he retired (he was only in his mid-40s). One day, frustrated by his constant whining, I asked him why he didn’t do something about it. Look for a different job, go back to school. Something. Anything. “Oh, I can’t do that,” he said. “I’d lose my pension.”

My co-workers weren’t oppressed laborers with no marketable skills; they were educated professionals. If they had really wanted to change jobs or even careers, they could have. But of course, they were never serious about making a change. They were dreamers, and pessimistic ones at that: the kind of people who claim that they want to do this or that but at the same time have umpteen excuses why this or that is not, and never will be, possible. If somehow they had been magically transported to the place that they claimed they wanted to be, they would have found something new to complain about. That’s the thing about dreamers: they’re never satisfied.

Well, they might not have been going anywhere, but I sure was. I moved on, but took with me a valuable lesson: I have no right to complain about things that are within my power to change unless I am actually doing something to address the situation. Not going to do anything about it? Shut up about it, then.

Shortly thereafter, I joined an online writing community and the rest, as they say, is history. Since that time, both at the site where I started out and here at Toasted Cheese, I’ve witnessed many people—who started out just like anyone else, posting and critiquing on forums—achieve various successes as writers—publishing short stories, embarking on MFA programs, writing books, etc. Some have had novels published. I’ve also seen many people who never seem to make it past the newbie phase, who remain perpetually stuck at “I want to write” or seem to have only ever written one piece that they re-hash repeatedly. The difference between those who can confidently call themselves writers and the wannabes is no big secret: the writers write. Wannabes are dreamers. Writers are doers.

Now, I’m not going to tell that you should be writing. Maybe you shouldn’t be. Unless you actually have a deadline to meet (do you?), no one cares whether you write or not besides you. There’s no “should” about it. However, if you talk about writing more often than you actually write and perhaps continually feel guilty about that or if you’ve come to view writing as a necessary evil to be endured because somewhere along the line you put “write a novel” on your life goals list or if your writing is so stagnant that your plan for the year consists of buying lottery tickets (when you win, you will rent a house in Tuscany, be inspired by the food, and write a book about it—oh, wait, that’s been done…), I encourage you to stop, take some time to reflect, and think about why this is so.

There’s a difference between an excuse and a reason.

An excuse is an obstacle that you put in your path so that you don’t have to do something you claim you want to do. Switching jobs might have set my complaining colleague back a little, but no one was going to take away the contributions he’d already made to his pension. That was an excuse, not a reason, for his inertia.

The major difference between reasons and excuses is that reasons are temporary, while excuses are forever. Let’s say you fully intend to do NaNoWriMo this year, but while taking your kids trick-or-treating, you slip on some ice and break your arm. That’s a legitimate reason why you might not meet your goal as planned. But that broken arm only postpones your conquering of NaNo; it doesn’t prevent you from ever winning.

“I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy” are not reasons; they’re excuses. This isn’t to say that you’re not tired or busy. You probably are. But unless there has been a recent, unexpected change in your life, you knew how tired and busy you’d be when you set your goal. And you also probably know that tired and busy aren’t going to go away any time soon. If you really wanted to accomplish what you say you want to, you’d figure out a way to make progress despite being tired and busy.

Unlimited time to write is not all it’s cracked up to be.

One thing I realized when I did NaNoWriMo for the first time is that having only a little free time to work with is a blessing, not a curse. For one thing, it forces you to organize your time. If you want to write, you have to put it into your schedule and do it at the appointed time, otherwise it’s not going to get done. If your entire day is free, it’s too easy to say, “I’ll write later.” For another thing, when that time’s up, if you’ve kept your appointment, you can cross “write!” off your To Do list and forget about it for the rest of the day. No guilt and a sense of accomplishment. What could be better?

A lack of time is rarely a valid reason for not writing. What we really mean when we say that we have “no time” is that we’re brain dead, we can’t think straight, we would rather just veg out in front of the TV or the computer or read a book or go to bed. Which is fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s your life; do what you like.

But be honest with yourself: if a vast swath of uninterrupted writing time dropped into your lap, would you use it in the way you dream you would? How many times have you taken a writing project with you on vacation only to bring it back in the exact same state it left, justifying your lack of progress with: “I deserve a real break.” Again, you probably do. But if writing is something you truly want to do, think about why—given unlimited free time—you’d still rather be doing something else.

Passion for the journey is more satisfying than passion for the destination.

Often people who express dissatisfaction with writing seem more enamored with remote possibilities (acclaim, wealth, fame) and perhaps the mystique and accoutrements (pens! notebooks! black turtleneck sweaters and geek glasses!) of being a writer than they are with the actual writing process. It’s fine to want to emulate your favorite writers (or their cinematic counterparts), but when you nestle into that comfy chair at your favorite coffeeshop and pull out your laptop, is it to open your work-in-progress or check your email? Do all your daydreams segue from first lines to book signings? If that’s the case, then perhaps you find the image of The Writer more appealing than the reality of being a writer.

To become skilled at anything, you have to practice. Putting words down on paper is a writer’s practice. Yes, it can be arduous at times, but we do it anyway—even when we know the entire day’s work will end up in the recycle bin. Sometimes you have to write 500 words of crap to get 50 good words; that’s just how writing goes. And on some level, you have to enjoy this, even as you’re tearing out your hair or pacing away from your keyboard in frustration.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your ideas are or how much you want to hold a finished copy of your work-in-progress in your hands, if you don’t enjoy the process of writing, you’re going to eventually burn out and do whatever you can to avoid it. If this sounds like you, ask yourself: Why do I want to write? When you “should be” writing, what are you doing instead? If you enjoy whatever that is more than writing, it’s quite possible that your passion lies elsewhere. It’s also possible that you’ve lost your enthusiasm for writing because you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Fiction is not the holy grail of writing.

Not every writer’s talents lie in fiction, yet nobody puts “write a feature-length article for The New Yorker,” much less “write a weekly gardening column for my hometown newspaper” on their life list, they put “write a novel.” The pervasive sentiment is that novelists are the real writers and everyone else wants to write a novel but just hasn’t got around to it yet.

This is silly. There are plenty of talented writers who have never written a word of fiction and have no intention of ever doing so. This doesn’t make them lesser writers. Have you been trying to write in a particular genre—be it fiction or poetry or something else—and it’s just not working? Instead of beating yourself up about it, try writing something completely different. Keep trying new things until you find something that clicks.

If you are a writer, something will click. The words will flow better; the sentences and paragraphs will be easier to arrange. Sure, you’ll still have moments of frustration, but writing time will become something you look forward to rather than dread. If, on the other hand, you still find yourself spending more time doodling pictures in the margins of your spiral notebooks than writing, consider the possibility that you’re really an artist at heart.

Writing is work, but it’s not scrubbing toilets. You should get some pleasure out of it. If the thought of writing makes you miserable and all you ever do is complain about it, then something’s not right. Stop and take the time to figure out why you are dissatisfied. You’re not a prisoner chained to your laptop. Take charge of your writing life and change what isn’t working. Finding happiness as a writer is within your power.

Final Poll Results