Authors to reveal tips on publishing first book

The Detroit News

Susan Shapiro, a West Bloomfield native who’s also a New York Times bestselling author and writing professor at New York University and the New School, visits Barnes & Noble in Troy on Wednesday evening to moderate “Free Secrets of Publishing,” a presentation with seven local authors on the business of writing that benefits The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills.

"The Byline Bible: Get Published in 5 Weeks" by Susan Shapiro (Photo: Writer's Digest Books)

Shapiro will be joined by the following authors: 

Dr. Rana Awdish, author of “In Shock.”

Aaron Foley, author of “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a JackAss” and “The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook.”

Mark Crilley, “Chibi: The Official Mark Crilley How to Draw Guide.”

Detroit News reporter Michael Hodges, “Building the Modern World” and “Michigan's Historic Railroad Stations.” 

Journalist and ghost editor/writer Brian O’Connor, “The 1000 Dollar Challenge.” Special guests include Lawrence Tech professor Cindy Frenkel and Dr. Olaf Kroneman.

A graduate of the University of Michigan and The Roeper School, Shapiro is publishing her 12th book, this month, “The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks,” a guide for aspiring writers. “I’m launching it in my Detroit hometown so I could be with my mom on my father’s birthday, our first without him,” Shapiro said.

Question: Your event at the Troy Barnes & Noble on Wednesday night benefits The Roeper School. Why do you credit Michigan with so much of your artistic inspiration?

Shapiro: Yes, a portion of the book sales go to Roeper’s scholarship fund. I was so lucky my parents sent me to Roeper, where I went from grades six to 12. The school was perfect for an artistic weirdo; I fit right in. I found great writing mentors with Shavi Diara and Jack Zucker who encouraged my poetry. Jack Zucker even first published my work in his literary magazine, “The Bridge.” Since Roeper gave me my first artistic inspiration, it feels like good karma to try help other kids who might not be able to afford to go there otherwise.

Did you also have other Michigan mentors?

After my time at UM, my mentor Laura Berman introduced me to Ruth Coughlin. Laura was the metro columnist at The News and Ruth was the book editor. I was able to write book reviews for The News and the paper also ran my syndicated book column. And even though my family hated my personal writing about us, they were really very supportive — my brother, Eric Shapiro, is a computer genius in Ann Arbor and he does my website and helps with all my social media.

Why does your new book, “Byline Bible,” encourage beginners to write revealing first-person essays, even though your own relatives aren’t always pleased by the results?

Yes, my mother detests anything that implies that my Michigan upbringing wasn’t perfect and joyous. And when I published my first racy memoir “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” my conservative doctor father emailed that I should stop running naked through the streets. I had an emergency shrink session and told him, “You can be proud of the accomplishment of my writing a book without loving the book.” After that, whenever I had a work triumph, my dad would mumble, “Proud of your accomplishment.”

I realized that my father finally had come around when, right before we lost him last year, at 85, I got an email from his favorite doctor, Olaf Kroneman, asking me for publishing advice. My father was thrilled when a former student of mine published a great piece by Dr. Kroneman about helping inner-city Detroit kids learn to box. I included it in my book and asked Dr. Kroneman to read it Wednesday night, as a tribute to my father. I also just wrote a piece about realizing how I couldn’t have been successful without my father.

I’ve explained to my family that what works in real life — being happy, loving your family — would be tedious on the page. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, the only thing worth writing is the unspeakable. The rule I give my students is, “The first piece you write that your family hates means that you found your voice.”

You encourage writers to find the extraordinary within the ordinariness of their lives. How do we go about this?

Well, I don’t embrace “ordinariness” as some writers do. I don’t like or use the word “ordinary.” Too many day-to-day domestic details bore me — in writing, life and social media. Just because something really happened is never enough reason to share it. I encourage students to write about their obsessions, to dig deeper, to explore their darkest, most dramatic moments. Someone once told me, “You could get blood from a doornail.”

I tell students to study the kind of writing you want to emulate. Read your work aloud. Take classes with tough critics who’ll tell you the truth. Keep revising. If you don’t have time or money for a whole semester of study, I recommend a one-shot seminar or panel.

How can your book be so upbeat about becoming a writer in such tough economic times?

I admit it used to be easier for my students to publish pieces for $1,000 in big magazines and journals, and now your average first piece sells for $100 to a webzine. But there are tons more outlets for diverse voices these days. And my students have published 150 books. So publishing still is happening, you just have to understand the new rules. They say you’re supposed to teach the class you wanted to take and write the book you wanted to read, so I’m doing that now.

West Bloomfield native Susan Shapiro.

Book writing event

6-8 p.m. Wednesday

Barnes & Noble

396 John R, Troy

Shapiro also will speak at 6:30 p.m.  Aug. 21

Temple Israel

5725 Walnut Lake Road

West Bloomfield Township

Tips for publishing your first piece

*The best way to break into publishing is by writing a short personal essay or an opinionated op-ed using your own experience as a “platform.”

*Don’t pitch the idea, just write the whole piece, usually 400-900 words.

*Pick the publication you’re going to aim for first, before you start writing.

*Read a several pieces from the publication so you understand their voice and tone.

*Make sure you get the right editor’s name (never send to Dear Sir) that you’re writing a great cover letter.

*Google the editor and start by saying what you admire about their writing or what they’ve run instead of launching into what you want and how great you are.

*Be humble and very polite.

 Sue Shapiro, author of “Byline Bible”