Interview with author and writing mentor, Christina Katz
Christina Katz, The Writer Mama, is the author of three books from Writer’s Digest: The Writer’s Workout, Get Known Before the Book Deal, and Writer Mama. Her writing career tips and parenting advice appear regularly in national, regional, and online publications. A “gentle taskmaster” over the past decade to hundreds of writers, Christina’s students go from unpublished to published, build professional writing career skills, and increase their creative confidence over time. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and a BA in English from Dartmouth College.
A popular speaker on creative career growth and writer prosperity, Christina keynotes for writing conferences, literary events, MFA writing programs, and libraries. She lives near Wilsonville, Oregon with her husband, her daughter, and far too many pets. Learn more at ChristinaKatz.com.
How did you choose your current career path?
I am not sure that I chose my current career path as much as I said, “yes,” to the opportunities that showed up right in front of me. One thing that most writers don’t realize is that nothing happens until you start saying, yes. As writers, once we master yes, we get to work on no and maybe. But the kiss of death for any writer is when all you say is maybe, maybe, maybe without ever committing to a focused path.
Your book, Writer Mama details how to grow a career while raising kids. How do you balance being a mom with being a “gentle taskmaster” of writing?
Everything I write is a natural extension of who I am. I’m a mom writer, and I’m committed to supporting mom writers, so this is the group I most often teach and coach. I also write parenting articles, which is fun because I am part of this tribe. I am also a member of a larger teaching-learning writing community and I’m considered a writing career expert in this community. So I speak, and keynote, and teach workshops around the country, sharing the best of what I have learned with others. Since everything I do is a natural extension of who I am, I feel integrated and happy as long as I don’t overdo it. Everything I do is home grown. When I keep what I write integrated with who I am and what I am passionate about, everything else works out.
Have you ever been tempted to publish anything other than non-fiction?
Not really. Or I suppose I would have by now. I’m not ruling out any options for the future but I find writing nonfiction to be expansive and satisfying. I also feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible to express with nonfiction and I’m looking forward to expanding into personal essay writing. Despite the fact that I am a trained fiction writer (I have an MFA from Columbia College Chicago), I probably won’t move in that direction until after my daughter is grown, if I do at all. Two areas I am considering exploring in the future include writing romantic comedy film scripts with my husband, Jason Katz, and writing middle grade novels, because I love that age group and reading was so instrumental to me when I was that age.
How did you get your first book published? What was your journey?
I stood up at the Willamette Writers Conference in August 2005 and read my pitch to a panel of agents and editors with my hands shaking and my voice trembling. My target editor, Jane Friedman, was on the panel. She was an editor at Writer’s Digest Books back then.
I was fortunate to get published at a time when it was still possible for an author and an editor to form a deep professional bond. I worked with Jane on three Writer’s Digest books, all published within five years of each other. I went from being “the writer mama,” to becoming one of the pioneers of author platform, to becoming one of the most sought out writing coaches in the country. I have worked hard to earn my place in the publishing universe and Jane Friedman has been a terrific mentor, answering questions, opening doors, and steadily being there for me along the way. I also have a terrific agent, Rita Rosenkranz of Rita Rosenkranz Literary in New York. I think it goes without saying that the quality of the people you choose to associate with has a major impact on the quality of your career growth, both in the short run and the long run.
What are some common mistakes that aspiring authors make on their journey to publication?
Most writers want to publish a book quickly, long before they are ready for the responsibility and considerable work that comes with becoming an author. There is still a common misperception that a book deal is going to deliver a writer from anonymity to fame, whereas much more often the journey has phases with a writer progressing from aspiring writer to working writer to professional writer to first-time author to multiply published author. And there are plenty of growing pains to overcome at every level of the journey despite the widespread perception that successful authors stare out the window all day and when they are not walking to the bank to cash huge royalty checks.
The cure for wishful thinking is for writers to embrace where they are on the journey right now and look to the short-term and long-term goals they can build upon. I suspect this sounds boring and tedious to daydreamers who have swallowed the fantasy that they are destined for celebrity authorhood and, who would rather fantasize about someday success rather than take concrete steps towards the success is achievable today. I made a decision a long time ago to focus on working with writers who live in reality and I am happy to report that when writers do they can make surprisingly steady and satisfying progress in a writing career. Despite a million reports to the contrary: writing is not a very good profession for daydreamers.
What is your definition of a freelance writer? What, in your opinion, is the most challenging part of being a freelance writer?
I think a freelance journalist is a working writer who reports the truth. I prefer the phrase freelance journalist to freelance writer because if we’ve learned anything from the Jonah Lehrer scandal, where he was accused of fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan that Bob Dylan never uttered, it’s that there is no room for creative nonfiction in journalism.
The word journalist sends two messages: one to the writer and one to the world. To the writer it says, I’m going to need serious professional skills to do this well. And to the world it says, a journalist’s job is to report the truth. I invite writers to take my classes and coaching, but my ultimate goal is to turn them into journalists.
I think in the current economic climate in publishing, it’s a mistake to see freelancing as the ultimate goal, and yet often writers who have skipped this step can benefit from learning journalism basics. Many successful novelists, memoirists, and authors of many stripes have been or still are journalists.
What are “Dream Teams” and how do they work? What are the benefits of participating in a Dream Team?
Successful writers are champions. They are workhorses. They are magicians of time management. They are kings and queens of focus. They are bottomless pits of determination. And yet most writers I meet do not seem like workhorses or time management magicians, or kings and queens of focus, or champions of anything. They are often neurotic, insecure creative types who are so anxious they can hardly sit still, never mind write anything.
I have been developing my teaching and coaching skills for eleven years. My job is to help folks go from anxious bundle of nerves to writing workhorses. This is the work of Dream Teams: to take the skills I have taught writers in theory and turn them into habits writers master through repeated successful use. In other words, my classes are the how-you-do-it-phase and my dream teams are the apply-what-you-just-learned phase. This balance between absorption and action works well when a writer works alongside a professional writer, who can help them troubleshoot and answer questions as they make professional strides.
What tips do you have for writers trying to build their platforms? Guidelines for self-promotion?
A lot of writing jobs do not require a writer to invest time and energy in self-promotion. So, if you don’t need to become known for a particular reason, conserve your energy and channel it into writing better and selling your work instead. However, at the same time, if you don’t enjoy platform development and building and do not intend to do it consistently for the long haul then authorhood is probably not a good option for you.
My best advice on platform is don’t start building yours until you have spent at least six weeks immersing yourself in who you are as a professional writer, figured out what you specialize in, understood who your audience is, and discovered a unique platform dynamic you want to express in the world. Until you have this information written down in a clear, concise way that is appropriate to share with the world, do not purchase a URL, do not start social networking, and do not start counting the money you think you are going to make as an author. Successful authors invest major time, energy, and often money into communicating a clear, inviting platform, and so should anyone who is just getting started with platform development if they want to participate on a professional level.
How big of a role does social media play in building a larger following? How can aspiring authors using sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc to their advantage?
If you don’t know what you are doing, who your audience is and why you are online in the first place, then all the social media in the world is not going to do you much good. However, I have seen writers with a wide-range of backgrounds, bring their strengths to the social networking table, and translate them into an ever-widening network of connections and influence.
Authors used to have to travel to bookstores where they would hope for an assembled audience. Today, audiences are already assembled online based on shared interests. So it’s our job as authors to go to them and invite them to come to us. Social networking is a great way to pave and nurture real life connections, regardless of what channels you use, but I always suggest balancing real life interactions with readers and colleagues with virtual networking.
What’s your most important piece of advice to writers looking to start a career as an author?
Don’t try to get discovered. There are much less opportunities for new authors than just seven years ago. I do not advise writers to strive for authorhood until they have already become seasoned professionals with ownership in a profitable platform. I think this is standard advice for any business professional that has been slow to dawn on the writing community.
My advice is: start your business, build your business, grow your business, profit from your business, and then consider whether or not it makes sense for your business for you to become the author of a book. At that point you can decide whether or not it makes sense for you to partner with a publisher in order to become the author of a book or if it makes better sense to self-publish your book first, initially in digital and eventually in print, striving to make a profit and leveraging that profit back into book sales.
You want to come to the negotiation table a fully actualized professional who mutually agrees to partner with others not a nobody who hopes to be plucked out of obscurity and magically transformed into a somebody. If there is any trace of this fantasy in your psyche, make pause and double check you prep work. If you have not built sturdy steps that lead up to a book deal, your hopes will likely come crashing down when the reality check comes.
Do you have any upcoming books or events you are offering that we can look out for?
Sure. I’m always learning, teaching, and growing. I have a steady stream of classes, training groups, workbooks and e-books coming down the pipe at ChristinaKatz.com. I’m very excited about my latest workbook Discover Your Platform Potential, because it’s where a writer can find my full explanation of “Platform Dynamic,” a term I coined to describe the origins of a sane, prosperous, and happy long-term writing career, and get to work discovering his or hers. I am proud of my recent work helping mom writers with established niches micro-publish digital e-books so they can make the most of their content while on the way to a traditional book deal. I think micro-publishing is the most exciting opportunity on the publishing horizon right now, and that’s where I plan to focus most of my energy in the upcoming year, both personally and in my teaching and coaching.