Ep 76 Words you might be mispronouncing, does your freelance writing career need to grow up? The hilarious Puss Week magazine (its readers are cats), a one-word writing prompt app, and how to write when you’re sick. And Writer in Residence Stephanie Clifford, author of Everybody Rise.

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Episode 76 artwork. Image of a beach shore line with water coming in and episode title over the top in black

podcast-artwork In Episode 76 of So you want to be a writer: Australia’s podcasting boom, 51 words you might be mispronouncing, freelancing mistakes newbies make, the book Woe is I by Patricia O’Conner, a magazine for cats by cats (yes, you read that correctly), Writer in Residence Stephanie Clifford, author of Everybody Rise, a one-word writing prompt app, how to write when you’re sick, and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Australia’s podcasting boom has finally arrived

51 words you should know how to pronounce

Does Your Freelance Writing Career Need to Grow Up? 4 Ways to Tell

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T O’Conner

Pussweek Magazine

Writer in Residence 

Stephanie Clifford

Headshot of author Stephanie Clifford from slightly above. She is wearing a grey jumper and she has blonde shoulder length hairStephanie Clifford is a Loeb-award winning reporter at the New York Times, where she has covered business, media and New York City. She is currently a Metro reporter covering federal and state courts in Brooklyn. She joined the Times in 2008 from Inc. magazine, where she was a senior writer.

Stephanie grew up in Seattle and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard.

She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son and two cats. Everybody Rise is her first book.

Find Steph on Twitter

App Pick

oneword – word prompt

Working Writer’s Tip

How do you manage your writing commitments when you are sick?

Answered in the podcast!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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episode 76 artwork beach shore line with black text over the top

Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Stephanie.

 

Stephanie

Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be talking to you.

 

Valerie

You’re speaking to us all the way from… where are you, Stephanie?

 

Stephanie

I’m in Brooklyn, New York.

 

Valerie

Awesome.

 

Stephanie

On a very hot day.

 

Valerie

On a very hot day. Well, it’s freezing over here in Sydney, Australia.

 

But, let’s get straight into your book, which has just launched, Everybody Rise. For those readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?
Stephanie

Yeah, it’s about fitting in and figuring out who you are. It follows a 26-year-old named Evelyn, who moves from a small town in the country to New York City. When she gets here she has a really hard time, she gets fired from her job. And, she thinks that she has her last chance at New York when she gets a new job, working at a social network, and begins falling in with this crowd of old money New Yorkers. Suddenly, she’s in these fabulous summer homes and going to regattas and parties, and she begins lying to fit in and the lies start adding up really, really quickly until she gets into pretty deep trouble.

 

Valerie

You started your career as a journalist, can you just take us back to when did you know you wanted to become a journalist and why were you drawn to journalism?

 

Stephanie

I was always one of those kids who was poking around in things that I probably shouldn’t have been poking around in. And at a certain point I think I discovered that you could actually get paid for that.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Stephanie

Which seemed delightful. I did the high school paper, I did the college paper, and it’s long been something that I’m interested in. I’m now at the New York Times, where I cover courts.

 

 

Valerie

You’ve been working as a journalist, you’re covering courts, how did the idea for this book form? Was there a lightbulb moment, or had you been thinking about it for a long time and finally got around to writing it?

 

Stephanie
Yeah, I started taking notes on it almost ten years ago, actually.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

Stephanie

Yeah. There were a couple of things that started me on it. One was I wanted to write about what it’s like to come to a city and struggle. When I moved to New York I came here, thought I would get a job immediately and everything would go great, and it didn’t. It took me two years to get a job. I was freelancing, but I was barely paying my bills. And I felt like I didn’t read about that anywhere, all the movies were about how you reach instant success once you move to a city.

 

Valerie

Yes!

 

Stephanie

And for a lot of us it’s not like that.

 

Valerie

You reach instant success and you marry Mr. Big, apparently.

 

Stephanie

Right, exactly. And your friends are fabulous.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Stephanie

And it’s really hard when you feel like you’re failing, especially at a young age.

 

So, I wanted to write about that.

 

And then I was really taken with this world of New York in 2006 and 2007, when the book is set. For us, it was right before the financial crisis and there was so much money and people were spending in these crazy, lavish ways, taking private planes everywhere and ordering bottle service at clubs, and it seemed like such a weird moment in the culture that I really wanted to capture that.

 

Valerie

Did you always want to write fiction, though? Or was there a point where you thought… because journalism is so different. It’s non-fiction and it’s a very different beast. Did you always know you were going to do both, or was there a point where you thought, “I’m going to give this a go…”?

 

 

Stephanie

I didn’t. I had that moment where I thought, “I’m going to give this a go…” and I remember where I was and I opened my laptop and I started writing at the beginning of what was a very different story.

 

But, I have always loved fiction. I’ve loved fiction sort of in the genre where it’s a great tale, but also hopefully says something a little bit more about society. And, I wanted to give it a shot. And, I thought… it was such a long shot. I did it sort of in secret for year after year after year, not knowing if it would go anywhere.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Stephanie

But, I thought, “At least I want to finish this and see what happens.”

 

Valerie

You say that you remember where you were, what was that turning point? What made you decide, “I’m going to write fiction now.”?

 

Stephanie

I was out at a friend’s house and I had my laptop with me. I was out at her summer house, and I had been memorising poetry…

 

Valerie

Oh, OK.

 

Stephanie

… as sort of a thing to do. And I had just memorised Prufrock by Eliot. And I just found it so inspirational. Something about it made me think, “Well, I have something to say too, maybe I should try this…” And so I flipped open the laptop and started writing and that led to all of this.

 

Valerie

You started taking notes ten years ago, when did you actually decide, “I’m going to put down a first draft.”?

 

Stephanie

I had done it in bits and pieces, but it was… I would write for an hour every three weeks or something, just getting nowhere. About five years ago I realized that in order to get this thing to the finish line I had to structure it very aggressively.

 

With my job it becomes really unpredictable after about 8:00 AM, because sources are calling, news is breaking, you’re running off to cover something. But, between 6:00-8:00 in the morning it’s almost always quiet. I began writing in that period, and I would get up every day at 6:00 and make myself sit there until 8:00, even if nothing was coming. That helped me get in the rhythm of writing and it took sort of the choice out of it, where I had to get up every day and sit there no matter how tired I was.

 

And that got me to a draft.

 

 

Valerie

Wow, so it was a book that was written between 6:00-8:00 AM. There wasn’t —

 

Stephanie

Yes!
Valerie

Did you at any point take time off to decide, “I’m going to spend a month now on it…”? Or did you continue working through that time?

 

Stephanie

I didn’t, I continued working. And, part of that was practical. I needed a salary. But, part of that was also that it weirdly took the pressure off, if nobody knew I was making this big bet, and if I wasn’t taking time off to do it, it almost gave me more freedom and more quiet space to work on it.

 

Valerie

Then tell us what happened, you’ve done your first draft, did you do many drafts and then send it to a publisher? How did it get published?

 

Stephanie

I finished a first draft and I wanted a professional editor to look at it and tell me whether I should forget this or keep going. And, I knew it was far, far away from being ready to submit to actual publishers.

 

I found a freelance editor who went through it and said, “Yeah, this is really good,” but, there were also some fiction basics that I didn’t even think about. Like, I kept changing point of view, which when you’re writing fiction for the first time… she said, “If you’re doing that it has to be deliberate and there has to be a reason for it. You can’t just randomly switch from an omniscient narrator to one of the characters. So, that was really helpful and that gave me enough for like another year’s worth of revisions.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Stephanie

Then once that was done I had a couple of friends read it, give me their feedback. Finally, I sent it to agents and then the agent read it. We kind of sharpened it a little more and then sent it to publishers.

 

Valerie

Great.

 

When you were writing it… are you the sort of person who knew what was going to happen at the end? Or knew what was the key points of your plot? Or did you just let it flow out and see what happens?

 

Stephanie

I let it flow. I think for writing this novel it was a good way to go, because I had this very clear idea of Evelyn, the protagonist, in my head. But, I had no idea what she would do once she got into this world, how badly she would want to be a part of it, what she would do in order to stay there.

 

I knew that I wanted to pull the bottom out from under her, with regard to her family support. Her father, who’s a lawyer gets indicted, her mom puts all of this pressure on her to be a part of the social scene.

 

That part of it I always knew was there, but I didn’t know what would happen or where that would go.

 

Valerie

What research did you do for the book? Or was it just the life around you?

 

Stephanie

No. I mean I’m in Brooklyn, I cover courts, which is gangs and wrongful convictions, and it’s a very, very different world. This is not my world. I had a little bit of exposure to it here and there, but I reported a lot of it. Some of that was primary research, reading etiquette books, reading memoirs, reading newspaper articles about these parties.

 

Then some of it was talking to people who are a part of this world, to understand what they value and how they speak. And some of it was when I found myself at some of these events I would pay careful attention.

 

One of the strange gigs I had when I was freelancing, and barely staying afloat in New York, was I got a job covering fashion shows for, like, a supplement to a fashion week publication. It was $30 a day, but I went and it was so interesting to me where people sat and who got to go backstage, and how everybody was circulating that I began taking notes on that. So, those kind of early struggles and weird jobs can actually lead to useful things down the line.

 

Valerie

Yeah, for sure.

 

You mentioned you cover the courts now, and I understand you’ve previously covered business, is that right?

 

Stephanie

Right.

 

Valerie

I was interviewing a business journalist, Jill Margo, who recently wrote a biography of Australia’s richest man, sometimes second richest, depending on the day. One of the things she said to me was she actually believes that business journalism is one of the hidden secrets, one of the uncovered gems in a sense, that people underrate in that there’s so much drama and soap opera in the world of business that it’s actually far more interesting than anything you could make up.

 

What are your thoughts on covering the business beat, so to speak? Is it something that you enjoyed?

 

 

 

Stephanie

I did. I have a similar reaction, where I think people tend to frown on it, and they think it’s just sort of reporting that the stock market went up and the stock market went down. Instead it’s money and it’s power and power plays, and so when you’re doing stories on what happened inside of a company as one CEO got ousted and his junior executive set up his ouster, it’s like Machiavellian, and so interesting and fun.

 

And there’s a good part to the rigor around it, you can’t get numbers wrong. People can lie to you, but you can check it against how their financials are. So, there’s a lot less non-sense than there is in some other worlds, like, politics, which I found really interesting.

 

Valerie

Now you’re doing courts and it sounds like you’re doing news in courts, which is very deadline-driven, you have to file that day, you have to research very, very quickly, get the story out there, how did you switch hats from such a long-form thing as a novel compared to, “I’ve got to write 500 words on this by lunchtime…”? Did you have to do anything to switch gears to get yourself into that space of, “I’m writing a long piece of fiction and I don’t have to finish in three hours.”?

 

Stephanie

Yeah, I did. Initially when I started doing those morning writing sessions I would set word count goals, as though it were almost a daily newspaper. I found that really didn’t work, because then I felt this enormous pressure that if I didn’t reach 2,000 words in the two hours my day had been ruined. And it didn’t give me room to sort of think about how a character would act or daydream about what she might do.

 

I actually had to take out that sort of daily production pressure in order to have the room to write creatively.

 

Valerie

Yes. This book has been with you, or in your brain, for ten years.

 

Stephanie

Yeah.

 

Valerie

But, now that it’s out, what do you think about it? Is it weird not to have it with you anymore, in a sense?

 

Stephanie

There is a funny nostalgia or sort of sense of missing the characters, especially Evelyn and her two old friends, Preston and Charlotte, they had been friends since high school. Evelyn sort of betrays them and they pull her back. I keep thinking about those three and what they’re up to. What conversations they might be having now.

 

You do miss it, because it’s a part of you and it’s in your head for so long.

 

Valerie

Does that mean you’re already thinking about the sequel?

 

 

Stephanie

I am. I’m thinking about one. I think there’s probably more to do with Preston and Charlotte, but I’m also so interested in the criminal justice world now, that I’m also thinking of doing something set there.

 

Valerie

You mean a fictional piece set there?

 

Stephanie

Yes.

 

Valerie

What fascinates you about the criminal justice world? I encourage listeners to go to your website and read some of your pieces, especially the one about the man who was wrongfully convicted, your piece on him. What fascinates you about the criminal justice world?

 

Stephanie

Again, it’s one of those underrated news beats where it’s certainly not glamorous and it’s not like the top people always want to cover courts, but I think it’s so fascinating because you get to see people’s lives in these really raw moments, and often people are crying or their family members are in tears. You get these interesting pictures of defendant’s lives, where they came from how they got into crime, the circumstances of lives that otherwise you might not cross paths with. It’s just story after story after story.

 

Honestly, if writers out there are having writers’ block and can’t come up with ideas, just spend a couple of days in court and you will have nothing but tales.

 

Valerie

You’re covering courts now, you’ve previously covered business. You’ve also written about fashion, you’ve written about pets… if you could have your choice of any beat next, what would that be and why?

 

Stephanie
I just started the courts beat about a year ago, and it’s so much fun that I don’t want to leave. I get to go hang out at the courthouse every day and you get to argue with lawyers, which is always fun. That one I’m having too much fun to want to move on right now.

 

Valerie

Sure.

 

Back to your book then, can you tell me what was the most challenging thing about writing it?

 

Stephanie

There’s a point when Evelyn gets very deep into this world, and she becomes arguably unlikeable. She starts being harsh with her family, she’s mean to her old friends. And, that was hard to write because I loved her all along, I was always rooting for her. And to see her acting so badly was almost upsetting to me, even though I was writing it.

 

And trying to explain why she would be so attracted to something. Not necessarily this world, but we’ve all fallen in with something that’s not great for us. We’ve all tried to be someone we’re not, so trying to write her acting in this rather devilish way when I still loved her and wanted her to behave was hard.

 

Valerie

Now many people might think, “OK, she’s a journalist, she has some kind of base level of writing skill at least,” did you ever doubt yourself that this was going to make it?

 

Stephanie

Oh yeah, all the time.

 

Valerie

Tell us a bit about that, how did you get over those doubts?

 

Stephanie

Part of it was not telling people about it, because I knew that if people were asking, “How’s the book going?” You know, you feel like… I just didn’t want the pressure of having to answer to people or announcing that I was a novelist when I thought I had no business being one.

 

Valerie

So you told no one?

 

Stephanie

I mean I told my husband…

 

Valerie

I imagine.

 

Stephanie

After a couple of years I told my parents, but, like, I really kept it under wraps.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Stephanie

And there’s a wonderful little book called, I think it’s The Art of Writing, it’s by Dinty W. Moore, and it’s just thoughts on sort of peaceful writing and how to quiet your brain around all of the anxieties. And when I was having anxious moments I would read something from that. And it’s all of these writers just saying, just get the words on the page and the rest of it is not your business. So, that was a helpful thing.

 

Valerie

And do you feel more confident now?

 

Stephanie

I do. Yeah, now that the book is out it’s really neat to hear readers talk about it, because you made up these characters and this world, and to hear readers respond to it and say, “I liked when Preston did this…” “I was angry when Charlotte did this that…” is so cool, because it feels like you’ve actually created something that’s resonating.

 

Valerie

What’s the future for you? Do you want to run your journalism and fiction writing in parallel and still write it from 6:00 to 8:00 every morning? Or, do you think you’ll move into one more than the other?

 

Stephanie

I’m trying to figure that out. I loved fiction writing much more than I even expected to. I found it… it’s often hard and often I was in tears because something wasn’t working or I had lost confidence, but when it does work it’s so delightful.

 

I want to write a second book and I’m starting work on that now.

 

But, I also love journalism, because it keeps you in the real world.

 

I wish I knew, I love them both for now.

 

Valerie

What do you enjoy most about writing fiction? What’s the feeling or what do you love about it?

 

Stephanie

Well, when I was writing in the mornings, even when I was in a really small apartment, I would never write in the same physical space as I did the New York Times work in. So, I would actually turn around my chair and put like a plant in the window so that it looked different and felt different. It felt peaceful and it felt flowing, for lack of a better word. At the times when the words were coming and I was just sort of describing what I saw Evelyn doing, it felt really wonderful.

 

Valerie

What do you enjoy most about journalism? What’s the thing that really makes you happy about journalism?

 

Stephanie

It’s such a rush, especially when you’re on a tough deadline and you’re trying to get a competitive story in. You just get this high, because you’re working so hard in order to get the story in by four o’clock or five o’clock, or whatever it is. And when you do it, it just feels like you’ve leapt over a bunch of hurdles, or run a track race or whatever. You get that same, almost sport high from it.

 

Valerie

There’s much discussion these days about having an author platform, particularly for a first time author or novelist. Is that something that you were aware of? Is that something that your publishers maybe mentioned to you? What are your thoughts on an author platform?

 

Stephanie

I think they were happy that I was on Twitter, which I am @stephcliff and I’m on Facebook a tiny bit more. Like, they wanted me to be a little bit more active on Facebook, so I’m trying to be.

 

But, I also think that there are so many people out there with personal brands. I’m not sure. I think it helps connect with readers, but I don’t know how important it is.

 

Valerie

Sure.

 

Stephanie

I’m certainly not a star.

 

Valerie

I know this is a bit off-topic, but I can’t resist, I know that you have met Jackson Galaxy…

 

Stephanie

Yes!

 

Valerie

Listeners may know he is the unusual-looking guy from My Cat from Hell, because you have two cats. Can you please tell us about your experience with Jackson Galaxy?

 

Stephanie

He’s like my favorite celebrity. I was dying when I met him.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

Stephanie

Yes! It was so exciting.

 

Valerie
Why is he your favorite celebrity?

 

Stephanie

Because I love that show, and he’s so gentle with cats. That was for a story I was doing for
the Times on trying to get your cat to walk on leash, which, like, it was so absurd. Of course, my cat wanted nothing to do with it. So, I had Jackson Galaxy come in to see if he could work his magic, and he did. My cat now loves walking on a leash.

 

Jackson is so wonderful. He’s really authentic. Like, I wondered if he was sort of putting on a show for the show, and he’s not. He was so authentic. He loved the cat. We were actually walking the cat in the woods on a sort of cold October day and Jackson took off his jacket and kind of wrapped the cat in it when he saw that the cat was cold. Like, he’s so nice.

 

Valerie
Do you regularly walk your cat on a leash now?

 

Stephanie
My husband is really embarrassed by it, so… when he’s on vacation I do.

 

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

 

 

 

Stephanie

It’s so weird. This is Brooklyn, where, like, you could walk a human on a leash and nobody would bat an eye, but people are still like, “What?”

 

Valerie

Really? So, people stare at you when you walk your cat on a leash?

 

Stephanie
Oh yeah. People are like, “What are you doing?”

 

Valerie

I guess that’s one of the fantastic things about journalism, you actually have this excuse to contact your heroes.

 

Stephanie

Yes.

 

Valerie

And to go through experiences that normal people wouldn’t be able to because they don’t have an excuse.

 

Stephanie

No, completely. It was, like, it was so exciting meeting Jackson Galaxy.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

You’ve previously worked at INC, and now you work at The New York Times. They’re such iconic mastheads, in a sense. Presumably when you were much younger you thought that as well, because they really are iconic mastheads. Does the reality of working there match with your initial perception?

 

Stephanie

I think every place you work becomes a workplace after a couple of weeks. But, the other reporters at the Times are just incredible. You work with people who broke these huge political scandal stories and who did these amazing investigative pieces, so you can learn so much from them. And, that’s really thrilling.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Finally, what’s your advice for aspiring writers who might have a day job, like you had a day job and who are secretly writing from 6:00-8:00 in the morning as well and not telling anyone, who hope to get published like you are one day?

 

Stephanie

I think the main thing, and it’s simple and it may sound stupid, but is to finish it. There’s so many excuses that we have and so many people who have put aside creative projects for many, many reasons, but there is a way to fit into your daily life and to keep going with it, even if it takes years and years, as it did for me, you can get there. Even if nothing happens after that, I think finishing a novel is a pretty amazing thing and you’ll always have that to fall back on.

 

Valerie

Wonderful. On that note, thank you so much for your time today, Steph.

 

Stephanie

Thank you, this was great.


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