Not only is Susan Shapiro a great writing mentor to many (including me!) she’s the bestselling author/coauthor of 12 books her family hates including Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up, Unhooked, The Bosnia List & the new inspiring writing guide The Byline Bible. She and her husband, a scriptwriter, live in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular “instant gratification takes too long” classes at The New School, NYU and in private workshops & seminars.
Q: The road to publication is twisty at best…tell us about some of your twists.
I loved studying English at the University of Michigan and graduate creative writing at NYU, but after two degrees, I didn’t even learn how to craft a cover letter to submit any of the work I’d spend six years perfecting. I was actually was writing full-time for 23 years before I had my debut hardcover book Five Men Who Broke My Heart. They say you’re supposed to teach the class you wanted to take and read the book you wanted to write. So I teach what I call “the instant gratification takes too long” method, where the goal of my New School feature writing class is to write and publish a great piece by the end of the class. (Many people do – and launch books – nonfiction and fiction.) And in my new writing guide The Byline Bible I spill all the secrets I’ve learned writing, teaching and helping students get published over the last 25 years. I even link 27 short pieces by my students that led to books. It’s exciting to be able to turn all my rejections and mistakes into something inspiring.
Q: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
When I couldn’t sell Five Men Who Broke My Heart, my therapist (a substance abuse specialist who’d help me quit cigarettes, alcohol and drugs) encouraged me to ask the advice of two older mentors who’d just sold their books. Over lunch my biographer friend whispered that he’d used a great ghost editor named Sally—a former Doubleday editor—and gave me her number. At dinner the novelist told me “I worked with this great ghost editor Sally and handed me her email.” But she was expensive – $2200 to go over 220 pages and I told my shrink I couldn’t afford it and he said that “sometimes you have to spend money to make money.” He reminded me how many years I’d wasted not being published and said I couldn’t afford not to. So I put it on my credit card, took another teaching job and worked with her. My first advance was $50,000 with 7 foreign editions, film and TV rights. It wound up being an e-book bestseller. My next book was Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex. The shrink says that now that I quit all my other addictions, I’m addicted to book deals and book events.
Q: What time of day do you love best?
I’ve always been a night owl. If I can help it, I sleep from 3 to 11 a.m. My husband is too, which is lucky, and we don’t have kids. (Though if I’m on deadline I get up early to finish and he worked on TV shows with 5 a.m. calls.) Unfortunately jury duty can screw up the whole applecart.
Q: Share one quirk you have that most people don’t know about.
My students see me very energized at night classes and think I’m a gregarious firecracker. They don’t realize that I spend 70 hours a week in sweats and a T-shirt silently at my computer. (Lucky I married a writer who also thinks a great day is having no plans but to write for 10 hours.) By the time I go out to teach two nights a week, I’m so happy to see a whole bunch of young humans. I never teach online since I’m on the computer all day. I love the burst of energy from big classes in the evenings. The New School gives me stipends so I can pay all my editors and agents to come speak and do panels with me. That’s how so many people get published. It’s a vicarious thrill.
Q: Tell us about one of your writing disappointments or failures.
I had tons of rejections for my first novel Overexposed. I was about to give up on it when a great new young agent sold it to a great new young editor at St. Martin’s in a two-book deal. An entire generation of editors had passed on it, so maybe I had to wait until a new generation took over to sell it. Since it took thirteen years from start to finish instead of a Book Launch, it got a Book Mitzvah.
Q: Tell us about your next big project.
For the last ten years I’ve been working on a new memoir called The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology, which is actually a sequel to Lighting Up.My shrink said “You published a lot of books quickly that didn’t do as well as you wanted. Now slow the fuck down on this one.” I joke that after writing 1,000 pages, 1,000 words are finished. Here’s a short excerpt: https://www.salon.com/2016/10/11/the-forgiveness-tour-when-the-only-thing-better-than-hearing-im-sorry-is-saying-it/
Q: Publishing a book is a bucket list dream for many people—are there any other accomplishments on your bucket list right now?
Publishing another one! My shrink says I’m like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. My first book was so thrilling I can’t stop.
Newspaper, magazine, and web editors are desperate for new voices and anyone, in any field, can break in. So why not you? Over the last two decades, writing professor Susan Shapiro has taught more than 25,000 students of all ages and backgrounds at NYU, Columbia, Temple, The New School, and Harvard University. Now in The Byline Bible she reveals the wildly popular “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long” technique she’s perfected, sharing how to land impressive clips to start or re-launch your career. In frank and funny prose, the bestselling author of 12 books walks you through every stage of crafting and selling short nonfiction pieces. She shows you how to spot trendy subjects, where to start, finish and edit, and divulges specific steps to submit work, have it accepted, get paid, and see your byline in your favorite publication in lightning speed.