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Author interviews

Writing your own perfect ending

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry SterryA magical moment happens when a writer takes a deep breath and launches into a passionate one-minute elevator pitch of a book concept before hundreds of other would-be authors.

“It’s very touching,” says literary agent Arielle Eckstut about the emotion-charged atmosphere at Pitchapalooza. “These writers are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.”

Adds her writer-husband David Henry Sterry: “This is the first time some have said in public, ‘I’m a writer.'”

At the March 31-April 2 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, 20 randomly selected writers will get the opportunity to make a one-minute pitch — and perhaps write their own perfect ending. One winner, selected by Eckstut, Sterry and two other publishing experts, will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for the book idea.

Welcome to Pitchapalooza, billed as the “American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler.” Since 2005, Eckstut and Sterry have taken Pitchapalooza to approximately 150 bookstores, writing conferences, book festivals and libraries — from Cape Cod and Chicago to the far-flung states of Hawaii and Alaska. It has drawn standing-room-only crowds and captured attention from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NPR and other media outlets.

“Our whole goal is to help people improve. There’s never a sense of humiliation,” said Eckstut, an agent-at-large with Levine Greenberg Literary Agency in New York and the author of nine books.

The event also illustrates the importance of tenacity. “In 2010 at LitQuake in San Francisco a woman pitched an idea for an anthology by American-Muslim women writing about their secret love lives,” Sterry recalls. “You could hear the murmur throughout the room. That pitch is a book waiting to happen, but an agent had dropped the idea.”

The lesson: an initial rejection doesn’t always determine a book’s fate.

“There’s a great expression, ‘Don’t quit five minutes before the marathon ends,'” says Sterry, who’s written 15 books himself. “I called up a publisher I knew, and it took about 10 seconds to sell that idea.”

The couple came up with the idea for Pitchapalooza after co-writing The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and trying to figure out how to creatively promote their own niche book. They’re the founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get successfully doctor logo

“We were at a party in San Francisco, and writers in the room heard the rumor there was a literary agent in the house. People started buzzing around Arielle like moths to a flame,” says Sterry with a laugh. “There were some great drunken pitches made that night. Later, we realized we might have hit upon something that could help us help writers and sell our own book.”

When the couple introduced Pitchapalooza at New York’s iconic Strand Book Store, “we thought it would be a terrible bust,” concedes Sterry. “We show up, and there’s a line out the door. We looked at each other and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ If it’s not Michelle Obama or a celebrity, it’s hard to get more than 15 or 20 people at a booksigning.”

Over the years, Sterry says they’ve heard “some amazing and some horrifying pitches.” One writer tried to pitch five book ideas in a minute. Another had an idea for a 30-book series. Another didn’t win at Pitchapalooza, but still ended up with a book contract.

“The writer was an arborist who had an idea that took off on The Elements of Style — only for fruit trees,” Eckstut says. “She had incredible expertise, and I knew just the right publisher.”

Writers don’t have to win or even participate in the Pitchapalooza contest to receive a professional critique of their book ideas. Eckstut and Sterry are offering writers who buy their book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, a free 20-minute telephone consultation after the workshop.Essential Guide cover

The two offer these tips for making a great pitch:

1.When pitching a narrative, memoir or creative nonfiction, make sure you have a hero we can fall in love with.

2. Don’t tell us your book is funny. Make us laugh.

3. Compare your book to a successful one. Show us where the book fits on the shelf in a bookstore.

And finally, “Don’t say you’re the next Erma Bombeck,” Sterry says with a laugh.

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. By day, she serves as executive director of strategic communications for the University of Dayton.

Ahoy, matey!
Pirate parenting can ease stress of moving

(Nancy LaFever’s humorous interview with Tim Bete, author of Guide to Pirate Parenting and former director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, originally appeared on mymove.comPhotography courtesy of iStockphoto/Thinkstock and Reposted by permission.)

Moving your household is challenging, and such a big change is especially tough on kids. Leaving their friends and starting over in the new home will be an adjustment. So how do you get your kids in the spirit of the move and motivate them to pack up their rooms while also keeping your cool? It’s somewhat unorthodox and may be unfamiliar to you, but one option is incorporating the techniques of Pirate Parenting.

Tim Bete is the author of Guide to Pirate Parenting (you can download the free electronic version or purchase the paperback here.) In his book, Tim and pirate contributor Cap’n Billy MacDougall outline the benefits of raising your kids to be pirates. More than a cool fad, pirating can be an exciting way of life and kids readily take to it. Any lifestyle that eliminates regular bathing and encourages the use of colorful language is an instant hit.

Common pirate activities Tim suggests include turning the minivan into a pirate schooner, packing gunpowder for ye cannons and, of course, plundering. My Move asked Tim how he would use pirate parenting techniques when moving and settling into the new home and neighborhood.

My Move: If a parent has no previous pirate parenting experience, how would you suggest they get up to speed for the move? Is there an accelerated program?

Tim: “The accelerated program doubles the rations of grog each hour until you forget that you decided to move. What happens after you’ve consumed that much grog is anyone’s guess. Drinking while packing is fun, but it often makes it difficult to find things when you reach your destination. Make sure to mark boxes and don’t give into the temptation to get a tattoo of a shark or hula dancer.”

My Move: Let’s say you’ve used the Pirate Parenting Method since your kids were small, but have been a little lax lately. They’ve developed some undesirable landlubber habits. How might you get them back to prime pirate shape for the upcoming move?

Tim: “A night in the brig works wonders, but most parents don’t have a brig. But you do have packing boxes and tape. Quickly fashion a temporary brig out of the boxes and tape. While your kids are doing their time, feed them only hardtack and water. If you’re out of hardtack, feel free to substitute Pop Tarts.”

My Move: One of your pirates hasn’t even started to pack up his room. How do you discipline the little “powder monkey?” Is walking the plank still a viable parenting option?

Tim: “You’ve probably already packed the plank, so walking it won’t be an option. Swabbing the deck is an appropriate punishment. If you don’t have a deck, have your powder monkey scrub the driveway using a toothbrush.”

My Move: Is it ever acceptable for your kids to call the moving men “scurvy dogs?”

Tim: “That’s an awfully kind term for a pirate to use. But if your kids like the moving men, it’s fine.”

My Move: Your Pirate Parenting mentor Cap’n Billy advises a full immersion pirate program for kids including pirate attire with accessories like the standard eye patch. Keeping true to the pirate code, but wanting your kids to fit into the new neighborhood, what would you suggest?

Tim: “First, before you move, make sure to visit your neighbors and retrieve any items they’ve borrowed from you. It’s best to wait until they’re not home. While you’re there, “borrow” any items you think would be useful in your new home. Empty their liquor cabinet, too. The best way to greet your new neighbors is with cannon fire.”

Adapting to Pirate Life

If you decide to embrace Bete’s pirate parenting techniques, you’ll be using a new language. Remember, “Matey” replaces “Mom” or “Dad,” but isn’t disrespectful. Your child may now refer to the top bunk as the “crow’s nest.” Use this lingo to get him to pack his Xbox by calling it “ye treasure chest of gold doubloons.” Just be prepared to put your foot down when he asks to get a parrot after you move.

— Nancy LaFever

Nancy LaFever is a contributor to and pens the blog, Single People’s Grocery Lists. As a freelance writer, she has published more than 150 magazine articles and hundreds of blog posts on topics including fine crafts, business, women’s issues, travel, humor and popular culture.

From the irreverent trenches of motherhood

Anna Lefler, author of The CHICKtionary: From A-Line to Z-Snap, the Words Every Woman Should Know, will be offering humorous takes on motherhood on a new Nick Jr. show that launches Oct. 1.

“Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder-Taylor” airs on Mondays at 8 p.m. (PST) and 11 p.m. (EST). It’s repeated on Fridays at the same time. The show is part of a new block of comedy programming on Nick Jr. dubbed NickMom that’s aimed at mothers.

“Stefanie is a fantastic comedian — as well as author — and her self-deprecating style is a perfect match for parenting humor,” Lefler says. “She’s a natural as the host of the show, which features a variety of takes on motherhood, including a monologue, hidden camera segments, entertaining looks at vintage commercials and more.”

Lefler, who served on the 2012 EBWW faculty, will appear in several episodes of the new show. “I’m in the segment in which Stefanie conducts a discussion among three funny moms on a specific topic of motherhood, such as kids’ birthday parties and traveling with children,” she says.

Lefler describes her segments as “unscripted, entertaining exchanges about contemporary motherhood.” The panel retells “instances from our own parenthood experience in which we might (not) have turned in our finest motherhood performance,” she says. “The women who are in this segment are comedians and comic actresses, and the results are fun and irreverent.”

“Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder-Taylor” is produced “by folks who have written for SNL, SCTV and many other laugh-inducing acronyms,” Lefler says.

Lefler is an award-winning writer and humorist. Her work has appeared online at, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel and Funny Not Slutty, and her essays have been nationally syndicated. She has performed standup comedy in Los Angeles clubs, including the Hollywood Improv and the Comedy Store. She writes the popular humor blog Life Just Keeps Getting Weirder. Read her blog posting about the show.

“It’s a thrill to be a part of the show,” she says. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with Stefanie and the amazing writing/producing team behind the show.  I can’t imagine a lovelier  — or funnier — experience.”

Don’t roll your eyes

Ruth Nemzoff talks about her latest book, Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, to be published Sept. 4 by Palgrave Macmillan. At the age of 66, Nemzoff published her first book, Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children. Like Erma Bombeck, Nemzoff addresses family issues with wit and wisdom.

Why did you write the book?

When I visited more than 300 venues in five countries on a tour for my last book, I found the most common question about parents and adult children centered around in-law children. Usually, the question was about a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship — i.e., a mother-in-law feeling pushed aside or a daughter-in-law feeling criticized. Questions about a son-in-law tended to be around whether he was earning enough or failing to do jobs around the house. What these questions said to me was that our society has not caught up on changing gender roles. The expectation still seems to be that the husband will be the earner. If he’s not, it is suspect to the older generation.

What are some of the tensions between two or more sets of in-laws?

The weapons of choice tend to be money, time and grandchildren. With the grandchildren, grandparents compete over who gets to spend more time with their adult children and the grandkids, and who loves them more. Money can come into play when one set of in-laws feels that the other group is able to spend more money, and, as such, is bribing the children/grandchildren to like them.

What do parents want?

Most parents want some relationship with their child. They want credit for what they’ve done for their child — an understanding that they tried the best they could — and perhaps forgiveness for the mistakes they’ve made knowingly or unknowingly. After 18 years of making decisions and sacrifices for their children, they want to move forward and be a part of their children’s future life adventures.

What do children want?

I think most young couples want a chance to bond with each other — to create a comfortable home for their families. They don’t want somebody checking on, and commenting on, every decision that they make. They want to make their own mistakes, and figure out how to make a life for themselves and their families.

However, having a relationship with your in-laws and enjoying marital independence are not mutually exclusive. Just as we have friendships with people whom we enjoy but don’t want intervening in our lives, we can have loving relationships with our in-laws without feeling steamrolled by them.

Can you provide a few hints on how to foster better relationships with your in-laws?

I give a comprehensive list of tips in Chapter 11 of Don’t Roll Your Eyes, but here are few of the highlights:

• Try to put yourself in your in-law’s shoes.

• Don’t make a big deal out of everything — we all make mistakes, and we need forgive each other for slights.

• Reframe things with a positive view. For example, if your kids don’t call you, don’t complain that they never want to talk but rather consider that it’s nice that they’re good parents who are spending time with their own children.

• Forget fantasy; deal with reality. As mother-in-law, you may be frustrated that your daughter-in-law isn’t very physically affectionate towards you, but you should be pleased at least that she’s very polite — enjoy what you’ve got!

• Don’t hold on to grudges.

• Be curious about your in-laws’ culture, beliefs, traditions, lives. Try to understand why people think the way they do — don’t discount and dismiss their ideas out of hand.

• Remember that we’re all new to this game and trying to figure out how to make it work.

— Ruth Nemzoff

Author and activist Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. The mother of four children, she lectures on parenting adult children, relationships and family dynamics. She served three terms in the New Hampshire Legislature and was New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare.

An authentic life

Some people know they want to be writers from the day they are born. Jim Higley isn’t one of them. Here’s the story of his successful but unlikely writing career:

I’m an accidental writer. Making a career out of the manipulation of 26 little letters was never on my radar screen.

But I’ve always been a passionate storyteller. A card-carrying member of the Heartstring Club. One of many Pied Piper-types who enjoy taking people on journeys of self discovery. Finding their own memories and emotions.

I never met a goose bump I didn’t like.

A few years ago, life tossed me a couple of back-to-back curveballs. Part One was titled, “Surprise! Here’s Cancer!” That was immediately followed by another life-changing sequel, “Surprise! You’re a Single Dad Raising Three Kids Alone!”

While those story lines brought a fair amount of pain, they also gave me the resolve to live a more authentic life. Fear of failure no longer was a roadblock to my dreams.

And I decided to become a professional storyteller. Whatever that meant.

That decision came one morning as I lay in bed after spending the night with a sick child who had projectile vomited his way through the wee hours of the night. And, as tired and grossed out as I was, what I found myself reflecting on was how much I loved this boy. And how crazy — and fulfilling — this parent gig really was.

So began my blog. And I wrote my first story about finding meaning in life’s nooks and crannies.

Somehow that turned into a weekly column on parenting in the Chicago Tribune for their suburban paper, TribLocal. That leveraged into other writing opportunities for the Good Men Project, Man of the House, LiveStrong and others. I was pinching myself. More importantly, I was finding fulfillment as a person. Enriched.

Very few stories received compensation. But I worked my way through the maze of it all believing there was bigger value in what I was doing and with the people I was meeting. Soon I was named the first “Dad” correspondent for NBC Universal’s iVillage. Then I was given a weekly radio show to host. And there was a book — Bobblehead Dad — which was really a collection of letters and lessons I wrote for my children durng my cancer journey. No one wanted to publish it when I first wrote it. Not a soul. But somewhere, somehow, through this crazy trip it found believers and people who made it happen.

And it all started with a puking son. And a belief.

In the power of storytelling.

—Jim Higley

Jim Higley, a member of the 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty, is a full-time stay-at-home father, writer and the inaugural winner of Man of the House’s inaugural “World’s Greatest Dad Challenge.”

Alternatives and attics

Kyran Pittman, a 2012 Bombeck Workshop faculty member, talks about making the jump from blogging to holding a copy of her book for the first time:

It’s a strange and interesting time to make a debut as an author in traditional media. It felt almost anachronistic to hold the hardcover of Planting Dandelions for the first time.

I grew up in a culture rooted in oral storytelling, and I cut my teeth as a writer through blogging, so I’m not especially sentimental about the passing of the age of print.

But I felt a pang for future authors who are unlikely to experience their work as a tactile object, as a made thing. I thought, my God, this could turn up in a yard sale or someone’s attic a hundred years from now. It was an extraordinary moment, and it’s not one I could talk anyone out of seeking, though there are so many alternatives open to writers today.

Kyran Pittman

Kyran Pittman is the author of  Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life, which will be published in paperback in 2012.

A peek inside the Bombeck Workshop

What’s it like be at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop? Really inspiring, not too overwhelming, really fun.
That’s the upshot of a conversation between two past attendees who are coming back in 2012 as faculty members: Tracy Beckerman and Nancy Berk. They talk about the workshop, what they’ve learned and why they keep coming back on today’s episode of Berk’s podcast Whine at 9.
Registration opens tomorrow at noon. Hope to see you in April!

Almost a decade later, author resurrects a print book for Kindle

When Saralee Perel first published Raw Nerves in 2004, it was a traditional paperback. And why not?, nine years old at the time, had only just finally started turning its first profits, and the concept of digital books was largely just that, a concept.

But despite being a “recommended mystery” by Independent Booksellers, “the book just didn’t get any distribution or traction,” said Perel.

Welcome to 2011. Perel, a nationally syndicated columnist, has re-released the book on Kindle, hoping it will find an audience the second time around. A “comedic thriller,” it tells the story of a Cape Cod psychologist with a patient who wants her dead. Balancing the terror and humor requires deft use of transitional scenes, Perel said, for example, following a scene with a scary patient session with a transitional drive home before something funny happens when her character opens the door.

“That transitional scene can be a drive, a phone call, anything that makes the changeover to humor flow smoothly,” Perel said. “That also works for any emotional change — from terror to humor to sadness.”

She’s hopeful the rerelease through Kindle will help Raw Nerves make the transition to sales success. “The good thing about Amazon’s program is that it gives the book a second chance,” she said. “And me, too.”

Reflections of Erma