Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”
I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.
HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.
To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.
Name: Kate Spencer
Location: Los Angeles, California
Profession: Comedian, Writer, Recovering Coffee Addict
You are a comedian, writer, and a mom. How do you juggle all of those balls at once? What does a typical day look like for you? Do you manage everything serenely like a graceful swan, or is it crazy-town-madness from dawn till dusk?
I’d like to think it’s graceful madness! But that’s probably wishful thinking. I juggle all those balls by dropping them a lot, then picking them up and trying again.
A typical day involves mornings spent nagging my kids to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush their teeth, make sure they have their underwear on, and then hustling everyone out of the house. My husband and I tag team the mornings but it’s still always a frantic rush.
I work on my writing (freelance assignments and books) when they’re at school, and at night after they’re in bed and on weekends. Then after I pick them up, it’s Costco, dance/art/gymnastics lessons, walking the dog, cleaning the house, and on and on and on.
I’d love to say we all sit down and eat dinner together and have meaningful, heartfelt conversations about our day, but that’s not an everyday thing around here because we’re all busy and on different schedules. But I think those moments happen throughout our days together, so I don’t try to get too hung up on it. We do homework, playtime, books and bedtime with our kids (er, and the occasional bath), and then it’s back to the grind of cleaning up and making lunches and snacks for tomorrow.
I’ve recently stopped having my iPhone with me in our bedroom so I am actually reading books again at night before I go to bed! Then I pass out to my white noise machine and do it all over again.
Your writing has been published in so many places: Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Women’s Health, Salon, The Huffington Post… the list goes on and on. How did you line up those kinds of writing opportunities? Did you email each publication and say, “Hi, I’d love to write for you, and here’s my article idea…”? Did a colleague recommend you for a project? Or something else? Walk us through the sequence of events.
It is a combination of all sorts of things. Some editors I pitch cold, on my own. Sometimes someone recommends me for something, or an old colleague or friend reaches out. I’ve had people read a tweet I wrote and asked if I could expand it into a longer piece. I think the most important thing is being consistent, communicative, meeting your deadlines and delivering good work so that they ask or recommend you again.
Here’s my advice if you’re cold pitching: be professional, concise and clear in your email. State who you are, your experience, and then a 1-2 line pitch of your piece in the email. Then attach it as a Word doc AND paste it in the body of the email, if you don’t know how the editor’s preference. Have your entire piece written out, revised, spell-checked, and crafted before you send it. Make sure your name is on the document. If you don’t hear back, follow up in 2 weeks. If you don’t hear back again, give it another 2-3 weeks and check in once more. If your piece is rejected, pitch it somewhere else!
I think the most important thing when you’re cold pitching is not to half-ass it. Professionalism really counts (at least it did to me when I was an editor). I always appreciated people who had checked their work for mistakes and typos.
You have a book coming out this fall about women whose mothers died when they were young, as yours did. It sounds like such a beautiful project, and I can’t wait to read it. Your book is being released by Seal Press, a division of the Hachette Book Group. I’m always curious to find out how people get their book deals. Did you have to find a literary agent first? Did the publisher approach you, or did you approach them? Tell us the story, please.
My story is unique in that I did not land my agent by querying. I have a good friend who is a literary agent, Holly Root, and she and I often talked about my writing. She was always open to hearing about projects I was working on, even when they were just seedlings of ideas, and left the door open for me to send her something when I was ready. It took me a long time to do this!
I spent about 8 months working on my book proposal. (I wrote one whole proposal, tossed it, and started again from the beginning.) I have no idea if this is a normal length of time but I was very particular and precious about it, and wanted it to be perfect(ish) before I showed it to her. I didn’t want to waste her time, or hand her something that didn’t feel like it could actually become a book. So when I was ready I nervously emailed it to her. I’d long admired Holly for her expertise, professionalism, and vision (she represents so many amazing authors), and was thrilled when she offered to represent me and my book proposal.
She then sent my proposal out to various editors at different publishing houses, and I’m so thrilled Stephanie Knapp at Seal Press saw something in it and picked it up. She’s been wonderful to work with and I’m really excited to be at Seal.
I’m making this process sound very easy breezy, but please know it involved lots of nail biting, soul searching, fear, and self-medicating with In-N-Out, too!
(Note from Ellen: You can pre-order Kate’s book, The Dead Mom’s Club:A Memoir about Death, Grief and Surviving the Mother of All Losses, It will be released on November 21, 2017)
Ten years from now, what type of work do you imagine yourself doing? Exactly what you’re doing now? Or something different?
I’m currently working on a screenplay with a friend and am outlining a novel that’s totally different from my memoir, and anything I’ve ever written. Ideally I’ll be doing work that challenges and excites me, and brings happiness to others. That’s all I can really ask for.
What are your top 3 pieces of advice for someone who wants to be a professional writer—specifically, a hysterically funny comedic writer like you?
• Do the work.
Write. Do it even when it feels miserable. I learn this every single damn day, over and over again. The only way to write is to write. The only way you’ll ever finish The Thing is to just finish it.
• Anne Lamott’s advice is the best in the world: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”
I have re-read her book Bird By Bird so many times because her advice and knowledge is so spot on. Everything I write is terrible in the beginning. Most of it stays terrible, but occasionally one thing keeps growing and growing and you find the thing. And then you have to REVISE it, over and over again, to get it to shine.
• Make your own opportunities.
I wrote for myself (for free) on my personal blog long before I ever wrote professionally. When it came to my improv comedy teams, we’d put together our own shows if we couldn’t get on the stage or show we wanted. There are so many platforms these days on which to create things. No one can stop you from making the stuff you want to make.
ONE MORE THING…
Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Kate? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)
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