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.

Would you vote for your favorite logline for my Horseshoe script?

Autobiography and Fiction in Love on the Big Screen

With the first readers finishing up Love on the Big Screen, questions like this one have begun to roll in via Facebook, email, and text:  Did the Sunday meetings in underwear/helmets really happen?  Am I right that Moon is actually_________?  Isn’t The Dini based on______?   In other words, these readers want to know from me How much of your actual life is in Love on the Big Screen?

Let me start to answer this with something I wrote at the request of the publisher, Cherokee McGhee:   While many people I know would be able to claim they see parts of themselves in the characters I have written, they would also have to admit that I’ve told a lot of lies about them.  In this case, for me, if my book is some sort of fruit smoothie, then my life and all the shades of personalities I came across in college are all a bunch of different berries.  I’ve taken them all up as a part of a creative recipe, added a bunch of additional ingredients I either made up or collected in the years since my undergraduate graduation, and I threw all of that possibility into a giant writing blender and created my book.


William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Bon Jovi

Me back in my "Billy" days rocking my Bon Jovi Concert t-shirt

My main problem with my own Smoothie Metaphor is that it is too violent; otherwise, I think it does the job.  Take for example my protagonist Zuke, whose last name is Zaucha.  The last name of one of my good college friends is Zaucha and we used to call him Zuke.  In choosing that sort of nickname, I am going for something I’ve experienced in my own life:  people who know me tend to call me Torg.  This happens even when I move, and I move often:  it’s like secret DNA social code that people call me “Torg.”  Unless my dad is around and then I’m Little Torg or Billy.


The personality of my friend Zaucha does not additionally seep into my protagonist.  As I recall, my friend did have a new car and he wouldn’t let us eat in it and he wouldn’t let us roll down the windows.  I also remember him keeping to the sidewalks to keep his sneakers clean.  Sure, I’d make fun of him for that, but his car and sneakers stayed immaculate long after mine had been “trashed.”  I gave that aspect of the real Zaucha’s personality to my character Moon.  Another friend of mine has emailed me and noted that he thinks Moon is a combination of himself and the guy with the last name Zaucha.  Writing this, I recall that I’ve often heard the writer Sedaris talking about this aspect of his writing.  That he is always thinking about what he will use and that his friends and family seem to try and watch themselves because they know they are likely to show up in the next book.  Recently, some people have started to point out to me when they say something clever and they suggest that maybe that should go in a future story.

Here are some similarities I have to my protagonist Zuke:  we were both English majors for non English-y reasons (me because my parents were English teachers and Zuke because he wants to be around “Glory,” we were both bench-warming college basketball players, and we both went to plays in Chicago where we were surprised by nude witches. Certainly we share exactly the same taste in movies.

What is very different about us is that Zuke learns his lessons much more quickly than me.  I think I’m still learning but it probably took me until around the age of 32 to pretty much get what Zuke gets at the close of Love on the Big Screen.  I certainly did not experience any “love storms” of the sort Zuke experiences in the book.  There were no balcony collapses in my ONU life but I’ve come to learn (I think) that there was one of those in ONU’s history.  Not sure if I repressed that or if it’s just coincidence.  I read once that Stephen King made up a pornographic cartoon magazine for The Green Mile and that later in his life someone sent him a copy of the publication that he made up.  I think if you can dream it up, it’s probably out there.  (and much more!)

A bit about the names and the nicknames.  Some names I’ve made up but most are from my life.  It was a common criticism of my work in just about every writing workshop I’ve been in that the nicknames were confusing.  Readers, what did you think?  However, I find that in my life, nicknames are everywhere and I list a lot of those in the book.  i.e. Charles Barkley was the Round Mound of Rebound or most of us have heard of the NY Yankee, A-Rod.  When people pick at your work, instead of editing it out, that might be something that can become MY STYLE.  Part of my style could be an affinity for nicknames.  I notice that Chekhov uses a  lot of them.

While revising Love on the Big Screen, I knew I had a novel-in-stories called Horseshoe (Zuke’s fictional hometown) and I had in mind that someday I wanted to write a modern-day tragedy that I was thinking about calling Knucklehead.  I knew this guy with the last name Nuckles, and obviously if a character is going to have a tragic fault, Knucklehead has some nice play in it to work with.  So I made up this guy Knucklehead in the revision thinking down the line of books I might write, and now I’ve got people identifying who they think Knucklehead is.  For example, I have him being the son of a school superintendent, and so now for every place I’ve ever attended or worked (this list is kind of long: at least nine schools) there are suggestions from each geographical area that they think they know who I’m writing about.  I guess writers of fiction always answer these sorts of questions? In Love on the Big Screen, I have Zuke hitting a last-second shot and the homecoming queen is waiting for him after the game.  Later, there’s another surprise in the form of a young lady.  None of this happened to me.  It represents what I’ve experienced about being a basketball player but as with the lessons of the novel for Zuke, my experience took much more time to unravel.

I’m glad to have the questions about the book, and it’s been fun to try and think where the ideas come from.  To understand, I think you have to work with language daily and experience the surprise of what occurs to you to write.  I lived a life and everything I’ve experienced is certainly fair game for any situation or character that I’m trying to create.  I’m sure some things creep from my mind to the page without me realizing their origins.  Maybe most of what I write is like that?  But to answer the question about the helmets and the underwear:  yes we did have matching boxer shorts with our nicknames embroidered on them. Yes they shrank and were obscenely tight.  Yep, you had to play naked if you missed but unlike the novel, I don’t remember there being any legitimate excuses.  If you missed, you were naked the next time.  We had Toys R Us-bought medieval helmets too small for our fat twenty-something heads, and something not in the book, we even borrowed hymnals from the dorm’s prayer chapel and sang ourselves an opening song.  That, I don’t think, was my idea.