Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Spotlight Interview from the Archives: Jenna Glatzer/Part 1
Jenna Glatzer is an award-winning writer who has authored several books, including Celine Dion’s authorized biography, a Marilyn Monroe bio, and exclusively for writers Outwitting Writer’s Block and Other Problems of the Pen; Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer; and The Street-Smart Writer.
She’s also written for countless magazines and online publications and is a contributing editor at Writer's Digest, as well as the founder and former editor in chief of the infinitely respected writers’ resource site, Absolute Write (http://www.absolutewrite.com/).
To learn more about Ms. Glatzer, please go to her site at:
The following is an exclusive interview I conducted with Jenna several years ago:
Mike: When did the idea of writing first appear in your life?
Glatzer: Well, first off, my mom was an English teacher. And then, when I was in the first grade, I wrote a short story pop-up book that had to be passed around to all the classes and read out loud. On my report card, my teacher wrote, “What an amazing job you did on that little book!” And she went on to write that she fully expected to see me on the New York Times bestseller list one day—which my mom held over my head all the way through college. I never believed it would be as exciting and as fulfilling as it’s been, and I never thought you could make a real living at it.
Mike: How did you get started as a professional writer?
Glatzer: I was 21 and fresh out of college. I was an actress at a children’s theatre. And all of a sudden I got this terrible panic disorder, began having attacks every day from the time I left my house, and had to quit my job. It was absolutely debilitating. It ended up I was suffering from agoraphobia. So I wound up completely house bound and had to find a way to make a living from home.
I knew I was a good writer, because in college and high school my writing professors would always encourage me. And I liked writing too, but I never thought it a career choice. I guess I bought too much into the idea of the starving writer, and that didn’t appeal to me very much. But for time being, I figured I’d break into a few magazines, make enough money to buy some groceries.
I had no other ideas at the time. There are not a lot of ways to make money from home. And I didn’t want to get trapped in all those work-at-home scams, though I did try one and pretty much got scammed. It was one of those back-of-the-magazine ads, where you send away for a kit. I ended up doing nothing more than cold selling people. What a waste of $50.
From there, I began sending out query letters. In fact, believe it or not, I sold the first story I wrote a query for. I did a profile of some college friends of mine for a magazine that was distributed free in college dorms. (By the way, I never included in my pitch that this would be my FIRST article.)
I did what people said you should do: write what you know. I took that advice to heart.
And I definitely knew how to write for the college market having just left there. So I kept pitching these small pieces, around 300-400 words, that I knew couldn’t be assigned out from under me and got fifty cents a word.
Mike: Did you have talent for writing right away?
Glatzer: I did. But with that first piece I was so over-eager that it read more like a press release than an article. I mean, the only writing I’d really done before that was school reports. The editor was nice about it. He gave me another shot and I did much better the second time around.
It must’ve been beginner’s luck, because I ran into a long dry spell after that. Ended up getting only a lot of 10-cents-a-word stuff, or assignments that paid a flat rate of $100 but that were heavy in research and difficult to do.
I was willing to pay my dues. But I said to myself, “Am I ever going to make a living at this?”
Still, I’d write the story pretending I was getting $1,000. That’s my advice to people now: Even if you’re getting paid garbage, you need to write and work like you’re getting paid a lot.
Your writing can supersede the publication. Sometimes writing an impressive piece for a small local newspaper can be more impressive than writing a not-so-great piece for a big publication.
In the end, it’s the great pieces—not where it appears so much—that will move you up the ranks.
Mike: How long did it take you to click as a freelance writer and start making decent money?
Glatzer: It took about two, three years. I carefully followed the instructions of all the books and Web sites and magazines I was reading, followed the rules to a T, such as query letters having to be on no more than one page—and to include a self-addressed stamped envelope. But I wasn’t getting the prime, high-paying assignments that way. I was stuck in the 10- and 20-cent-a-word markets, and I didn't know why.
So I decided to test the waters and start breaking some of those rules, to take some big risks. Just to see how it goes. I got much more informal, began sending queries that were more friendly in tone and more of my own voice and sometimes two pages, if that’s what it took. I wanted to give them some juicy information and quotes and research. I wanted to show that I was capable of doing this story.
I would also send thank you letters even after a rejection. I never argued ever. Never told them they were wrong to not accept my story or idea. I didn’t bother trying to change the editor’s mind. I just thanked editors for considering my work and asked if there was anything else I could do for them, something that would be more on topic for them or something else about the same topic.
I felt that building relationships with these editors was the most important thing.
I was always asking what I could do for them, what they were looking for, rather just trying to guess.
I learned how to get past the gatekeepers and figure out what it really meant to “study the market,” negotiate, and present myself as a top writer.
From there, my career exploded and I was suddenly able to pay all my bills with money to spare.