Write Meg! Another Take On Reading, Writing, Loving, and Eating

I first became aware of Megan the journalist and blogger (not Megan my wife) when I saw her moderate a hilarious and informative panel at a book blogger conference run in conjunction with Book Expo America (BEA) in New York.  You can find a list of Megan’s fellow panelists at the end of this post. As for why Megan might be someone interesting to listen to when it comes to the craft of writing for bloggers,  she has a B.A. in English Language & Literature from the University of Maryland, and she writes for three local newspapers in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Her personal column reaches more than 50,000 readers.

Meg from "write meg!"

My questions for Megan below are in italics and her responses appear in bold:

Can you talk to me about your writing process for doing a book review?  For example, do you take notes while you read?  On  a piece of paper or in a Word document?  

My English background definitely comes into play with my book reviews! I don’t take notes while I’m reading, though I do dog-ear pages with passages or quotes that strike me. I typically sit down and write a review straight through, just going on my initial reaction to a book. Occasionally I’ll open a few tabs (like LibraryThing) to help jog my memory of characters’ names or places, but I don’t do much research in the background. My reviews are written directly in the WordPress blogging software.

Each discussion functions basically the same way: first, I summarize the book in my own words (careful to avoid spoilers). Then I typically discuss my personal reaction to the novel and critique writing style, characterization, setting, etc. Few of my reviews detour from this formula, but I’d like to think it’s not too stale. Each story is so different and, of course, I react in different ways. And I always write my reviews ahead of time, usually a few days after finishing a book, and publish after the fact.
You do a number of different posts.  Could you give some examples of the sorts of posts you do and why it’s not just book reviews? 

My blog didn’t begin as a “book review” blog, and I still don’t think of it as just a book blog. write meg! is a collection of everything I like: photos, novels, food, relationships. I enjoy writing about a variety of topics and, though reading is a major part of my life, it’s not my entire life. So covering topics like family, love, work dilemmas and photography feels natural to me.

When I work to branch out of just bookish posts and news, I typically think about how to tell a good story. Rarely do I break the “fourth wall” on my blog — that is, I don’t blog about blogging. I launch right into funny anecdotes and share personal stories (even embarrassing ones) because I find people fascinating, and writing about crazy experiences helps me make sense of them on a personal level.

I love writing food and recipe posts, too — I mean, we’ve all gotta eat! As I’ve gotten more into baking and photography, I’ve blended those things into write meg!, too. I enjoy working on those posts and hope others find them interesting.

You write a newspaper column and a blog.  Why both?

Well, the newspaper column and blog exist in very separate spheres for me! My column is print-based and runs in my community, so I have to be very careful with the topics I choose and how I discuss my friends and family. Though I still consider my blog to be personal, the column is comprised purely of stories from my own life. My blog is a little more detached from the everydayness of it all — write meg! can be a little random, haphazard and fun, where my column is more structured. There’s a place for each, I think.
Can you tell me about the novel/s you’ve attempted or written?  What would you say to a blogger who wants to tackle that form? 

Like many writers, I’ve had a pen in my hand and a story in my heart since I was in elementary school! I wrote my first novel at 10, meticulously typing more than 200 pages’ worth of family drama (not my own), but didn’t return to writing full-length books until I was in college. I’ve completed four novels to date and started countless more, though few are fit to see the light beyond my laptop.

Like everyone, I’m learning all the time; the books I wrote five years ago don’t incorporate the life I’ve lived and skills I’ve learned since then. They could be much, much better. To others interested in writing a novel, we all know the biggest hurdle: just doing it. It’s carving out the time to write and sticking to a schedule. Working for a newspaper has definitely taught me the importance of deadlines, and creating one for yourself — however flexible it may end up being — could do wonders for just getting you to write the darn thing.

Writing with “reckless abandon,” as the folks at National Novel Writing Month would say, can be the key to finally getting your book down in a Word document. If you want to write a book but aren’t sure where to start, just start. You’ve probably read a million stories by now — and you know what makes a narrative click. Don’t worry about whether it’s terrible; early drafts usually are. There will be plenty of time to edit after you’re finished. And hey, by that point, you’ve written a book!

How do you think about audience?  I imagine the first posts you ever did you had very little idea of who might read them. To what degree do you write sensing who is out there?

You’re right: when I started writing back in June 2008, I had absolutely no clue how or why anyone would even find my blog. It began as a creative outlet during an otherwise stagnant period in my life, and I initially kept the blog completely to myself.

Over time, it became apparent that friends and family were stumbling across my stuff — either by accident or design. An ex-boyfriend saw something I wrote and emailed me about it. My grandmothers began to regularly check in to see what I was posting, and I realized that my more personal musings would have to be kept off the Internet (probably for the best, anyway!).

These days I’m fortunate to have regular readers who stop by to comment, and I try to bear in mind that anything I post is truly out in the ether. Authors, publishers, bosses, former classmates, my dad or boyfriend — they all have access to what I’m writing, and I’m not secretive about the blog anymore. So I’m pretty aware of that audience and careful not to say anything that could jeopardize me personally or professionally.

What nuts and bolts advice might you offer to a writer?  And I mean from getting ideas, to thinking in terms of a theme or subject for the blog, or keeping track of the posts to come?  Is there a dry erase board or scheduling on a computer or phone?

Whenever anything funny or silly happens to me, I mentally store it away for future use in a column or blog post. That’s the biggest thing writing regularly in both formats has taught me: to keep my eyes open to what’s happening all around me. To find inspiration in the simple, even in the mundane.

When you think of an interesting idea for a blog post, take a second to write it down or text it to yourself. Though I don’t keep a calendar of blog posts, I do schedule them in advance and have a huge folder of drafts. I head there when I need to be inspired and see if I can develop any seeds of ideas into something larger. No matter what I’m discussing, I like making it personal. I read others’ blogs because I want to know them as people, not blog-typing robots, so I enjoy peeking “behind the curtain” at what they’re actually feeling or experiencing — especially about their reading.
What strategies do you have for titles?  For first sentences?  For structure?  Anything important about endings?

Titles are very tricky, and I’m afraid I’m not very good at coming up with those for my books! In terms of blog posts, you always want to title your entry with something titillating. In the newspaper world, that’s the “tease” — something that piques your curiosity and encourages you to click through. The same principle applies to your lead, or first sentence — you want to propel the reader into hearing what you have to say. In novels, I like being dropped right into the action . . . and that’s true of blog posts, too. I don’t need a lot of build-up. Just get to the meat of the story and run with it.

Regarding endings, I always appreciate a close that leaves things just a little uneven. I like some ambiguity. Though too many loose ends can frustrate me as a reader, I don’t like having everything tied up like a Christmas present. It’s okay to leave the ending open to interpretation — I think that’s part of the fun.

Are you in steady contact with other writers or bloggers?   Who do you talk shop with?

Oh yes — the blogging world is amazing. Whether we’re chatting through Twitter or dropping each other emails about books or life, I feel incredibly fortunate to have met so many wonderful people through blogging. My primary contacts in the publishing world these days are book publicists and publishing representatives, but I love talking to writers about their own publishing journeys and trading tips with other bloggers. It’s a big world out there.

Having a blog and incorporating pictures the way you do, how have you learned the technology side?  Help with friends?  Surfing YouTube or what?

I’m pretty self-taught. I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, but I just purchased my first “big girl” camera (a Canon Rebel T1i) last year. As I’ve gotten more into blogging, I started to see the correlation between an aesthetically-pleasing blog with awesome content and the likelihood that I would come back to visit that site. I wanted to have something interesting to say and something pretty to show. I have a lot to learn, no doubt about it, but I love being able to share my own photos on the site. Plus, providing my own photos means I don’t have to try and find stock imagery to use! And that’s definitely a good thing.

When and under what conditions do the posts get written?  Email open?  Checking phone?  Need quiet or doesn’t matter?

I write anywhere and everywhere. The daughter of a sportswriter, I learned early on to silence all the chaos around me and focus on what I’m doing. Dad talked constantly about writing on a tight deadline with thousands of screaming fans all around him, and I worked to cultivate that same presence of mind.

My columns get written with a newspaper staff buzzing all around me, shouting and chatting and laughing, and I typically write my reviews at night with the TV blaring. I’ll definitely admit to being distracted by email and text messages pouring in.  I do sometimes close my email and switch my phone to silent until I’ve completed a project. As soon as that “1” appears on Gmail, my concentration is blown.

As promised, here’s the list of bloggers Megan presented with at BEA:

Look for more posts from me regarding the craft of writing.  I’m beginning to line up writers and bloggers of all sorts to interview about the ways they complete their work.  Thanks to Megan for taking time to talk with me.  If you’d like to check out her blog, you can connect by clicking here.

Hey English Teachers and Writers, any suggestions for a class that looks like this?

When I begin to write a syllabus for an upcoming class, I usually first think about the course’s goals and what the assignments should be.  Once that’s decided, I try to plan a schedule that will help us reach the objectives.  As I began this process for my upcoming summer courses, I was feeling kind of bummed out thinking about diving back into that same old work.  Class never ends up much like my ideal writing day, and so I’ve decided to mix up the structure for how I think about planning a course.  I’m starting with what is closer to an ideal writing day for me, and using that routine to give the class structure.  Here’s what I’ve got so far.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Daily Course Structure for Prof. Torg’s Composition Class

For me, to be a writer and thinker means to live within a mass of habits. I believe there might be as many ways to write and think as there are people engaged the acts.  By living in this routine three days a week for six weeks, I hope you’ll begin to think about how to craft your own routine for thinking, or it might be that you’re more of a person who will create an anti-routine.

(20 minutes)    Writing Studies / Annotating a Text

Let’s see what other people have to say about writing.  When I say annotate, I mean that I want you to try and have a conversation with the writer on a copy of their text.  After that, let’s practice using MLA guidelines to integrate the thoughts of others into our own texts.

(5 min)           Warm Up with Rich Language (I provide or you choose?)

Read something that will challenge your intellect, the sort of text that might introduce you to a new word.   Log the word, the context, the title of the work and the author into your daybook.  I think I’ll start you with Poetry magazine.

(10 min)          Teacher as Text.

This is like the first twenty minutes, but you’ll do this on your own with a text of your choosing.  Read something that you’d say is among the best of the sort of text you are trying to write.  I recently adapted my novel and so early each morning I tried to challenge/inspire myself by reading from Alan Ball’s American Beauty and Diablo Cody’s Juno. Look for one writerly observation of which you might make use.  Log the example in your daybook.  Make sure you take good enough notes that you could quote from this text and cite it in a works cited entry for your Writer on Writing Paper.

(20 minutes)    Write a Draft of Something you Need to Write.

Most, if not all of us, write on a computer screen with lots of distractions.  Here, we’re going to try something different:  we’ll write on paper ignoring our cell phone, instant messages, and the latest email to come dinging into our inbox.

(20 minutes)    Small Group Workshop.

Here’s something you might not be used to:  a real audience.  You can share what you just wrote or something that you’ve written and brought in.  It’s best that we all have a copy, but it is also fine if we don’t.  Readers should annotate the text:  underline phrases that get your attention, challenge the thinking, explain what you learn, and ask questions of each other and the writer.

(10 minutes)    A Lesson From Prof. Torg. Usually, there’s something coming up that I need to explain.

(10 minutes)    Work on Your Group Technology Project.

Your group is to make a movie and write a paper that focuses on one aspect of writing studies.

(5 minutes)      What happened worth mentioning today?

Let’s hear from a couple of the writers in the room.  What happened today that you can share?  Is there something you’ve written or read that you are willing to read to us?

(10 minutes)    Prof. Torg on a Text for Grade.

For this portion of the class, I want to show you the best I can what goes on in my head as I read a text written by someone I’m going to have to give a grade.

(10 minutes)    Research at Work.

I’m going to show you clips from a variety of documentaries and/or the work of previous students.  I see these films/texts as examples of those who are asking meaningful questions and pursuing answers.

How Do I Find Time to Write?

“The dawntime is precious; the world is quiet.  No one will interrupt you; you are rested and ready.”  –William Stafford

When I’m asked how I find time to write, I begin my answer by talking about my wife.  Because I try to write everyday, at least a page, that means that she spends at least the first three hours of everyday by herself taking care of our two kids while I’m holed up in the basement talking to myself and zipping away on the keys.  If I were a father with no wife, I am sure I would write much less.  I’ve heard of writers who practically resented their families because of the time it stole from their writing, but I write much more a married man with children than I ever did single.  There was too much time spent late-night in bars, too many sleepy and lazy mornings.  I work best when I am working off the foundation that my family provides.  I work best when I know that if I don’t write first thing in the morning, I probably won’t write.

When I first decided that I wanted to write, I re-arranged my life so that I could do it.  I taught at Vance High School in Charlotte where classes began at 7:15 in the morning.  I quit that job and began teaching at Weddingtion Middle School where school started at 8:30 and I knew the janitor got there at 6:00 to open the doors.  That gave me at least two good hours of work before my day actually began.  Back then I thought 5:30 an ungodly hour to get up, but I wanted to write more than I wanted to sleep.  Now I get up at 4:45 three days a week when I am teaching.  I’ve decided that I like to write more than I like to play golf, more than I like to watch sitcoms or see the New York Knicks play seventy of their games.  I’ve read that those who read on the web like bulletted lists.  Here’s my list, in order of importance, of how I think I’m able to write:

  • I have my wife’s blessing to do it first thing
  • I get up early
  • I try to write everyday
  • I know that work leads to more work.  What feels like work today is a little closer to fun the next.

Note:

My novel, Love on the Big Screen, is forthcoming with Cherokee McGhee press in January of 2011.  If you’re on Facebook, I’d appreciate it if you’d become a fan of the press and send me a message hello.