Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chatting with Sarah Jio and What it Takes to Be a Productive Writer

Today I am chatting with Sarah Jio, debut author of The Violets of March (Plume, April, 2011).  Sarah never ceases to amaze me or her editor. She is the mother of three young boys (Colby is three weeks old) a journalist, a blogger, a cook, has already written her second book (now under contract with her publisher) and is working on her third one.   Yes, she makes the rest of us look bad. So I wanted to talk to her about how she does it all, and if life in the magazine trenches helped train her for this busy schedule or if she was just born that way.

Q: You come from the magazine world, which is how you and I met (Thank you, Allison Winn Scotch for the introduction!)  Do you think your background as a magazine writer helped your fiction writing? And how?

A: Yes, absolutely. I think writing for magazines these past 11 years has definitely prepared me for fiction. You have to be enormously creative--and quick--to do well in the magazine world (which is so competitive these days), and I’ve made it my business to keep churning out good ideas and creative copy at a rapid pace (for instance, I write 5-7 blog posts a day for, so I have to be quick, or else I’d be writing all day and into the night!). I also think it’s helpful to have my head in the news every day, following trends and current events for the articles I write. This also helps feed fiction ideas—everything from character quirks to plot.

But after reporting for magazines for so long, I have to say it felt like a vocational vacation to transition from strict reporting of facts to writing novels, which is basically making stuff up entirely. When writing THE VIOLETS OF MARCH, I absolutely luxuriated in the fact that I could let my story go wherever my mind wanted to take it. That was very freeing and fun for me, and made the process feel more like a hobby than work. I think this is ultimately why I tend to write so fast (that is, why I write first drafts so fast--there is always an editing process, as you know!). I just find the whole process of putting a novel together so enjoyable and satisfying and I can’t wait to get the concept to the page. There are grueling parts, too, yes, but 80 percent of the time I love it.

Q: A lot of authors ask me to help them break into magazines. To me it seems so hard, especially now. What advice would you give book authors trying to break into the mag world?

A: I get several emails a week from people who want to break into the magazine world. Some are stay-at-home moms who dream about writing articles while their kiddos nap (been there, done that, um, like today!); others are new college grads who want to become freelance writers. I always try to offer a few encouraging words, but the truth is that it’s very hard to break into magazines these days--hard, but not impossible. I had the advantage of starting out with a degree in journalism, but when I set out to freelance for major magazines straight out of college, I had little more than some good ideas and determination. What worked for me, and I think can work for book authors, too, is just to reach out to editors with excellent, well-thought-out story ideas. Speaking to book authors specifically, there really are many opportunities in major women’s magazines for first-person or essay-type pieces. Think about what unique experience/advice you can offer and craft an un-turndownable pitch that will hook a magazine editor. Also, it may sound minor, but having a terrific headline and subhead for your pitch can really help sell your idea. I’ve sold stories based entirely on the concept of a great headline (true story!).

Q: You manage to write for magazines, keep a blog, raise three boys  and write books at record speed. 
I often joke that most of the authors I work with have superwomen capes in their closets, but you take the cake in your ability to manage it all. (And if you've read Tina Fey's piece in the NYer, I do not mean this as an insult. I am truly in awe!)

I have a 4 year old, a 2 year old and an infant, a more than full-time load of magazine work and then my novels, so yes, it’s a wild and busy life. I have no magic skills or superwoman powers, unfortunately. Oh how I wish. My secret to getting it all done probably boils down to a crazy work ethic (AKA, no life), and my motto to get my butt in my chair and write whenever I have a bit of time away from the kids (which frequently boils down to naptime and nighttime). I’ve also trained myself to write in fragmented bits, which as many writers know, isn’t easy. But, I’d rather hammer out a few pages here and there—as annoying as it is to start and stop—than get nothing done. I also happen to have an amazing husband who is very hands-on with the boys, and I tend to do a lot of my fiction work on the weekends when he’s here to be on boy patrol. I can also say that I watch very little TV (except my guilty pleasure: The Bachelor), see my friends less often than I’d like, and frequently work late into the night, which is the only time when the house is truly peaceful (then again, now that we have a newborn, that’s not entirely true!)

Q: You have been very busy these last few months, doing an amazing job laying the ground work for The Violets of March, contacting bloggers, getting into magazines, and getting advance endorsements from authors such as Jodi Picoult and Beth Hoffman.) How did you do it?

A: It helps that I love what I do so much that this all hardly feels like work—truly! Just as I loved writing VIOLETS, I’ve found that I’ve really gotten a kick out of the pre-press marketing and publicity work. It’s been fun reaching out to my magazine contacts as well as book bloggers and so exciting seeing early reviews and buzz building for VIOLETS. As for advance praise, I (shyly) approached some authors who I admired about reading my book and was fortunate to get some incredible endorsements from Claire Cook, Beth Hoffman, Sarah Pekkanen, and Kelly O’Connor McNees. I approached Jodi Picoult, too, and nearly passed out with joy when she emailed me back to say that she’d like to read VIOLETS. You guessed it--I marched myself down to the UPS store that day and expedited an ARC to her. I held my breath for about a month, and then she emailed to say she’d finished the book in time for our first printing and included her beautiful blurb. I called my editor (after calling you, Elisabeth!) right away to read the blurb to her over the phone. I loved hearing the excitement in her voice. It was such a memorable moment for me! If I’m ever fortunate enough to be an established author in the years ahead, I hope to be as generous to an up-and-coming author as Jodi Picoult was to me. 

Q: I don't see any signs of you slowing you think having an infant will change things? Seriously, how do you do it?

A: An infant in the house is chaos, but I’ve been through this process twice before and know that things do calm down (at least, this is what I tell myself!), so I’m confident that I’ll return to my normally productive place soon--and I have to! THE VIOLETS OF MARCH comes out in late April, my second book (already written) needs to be edited and turned into my editor this spring, and I’m eager to jump back into my third novel, which is already in progress, as soon as possible (those characters are absolutely haunting me!). I’m excited for the challenge of the year ahead. I may not get a lot of sleep, but I know I’ll love the journey. And I have a great new Nespresso espresso machine to keep me caffeinated. That helps too.

Thank you, Sarah! To read more about Sarah and The Violets of March (and watch her awesome book trailer, go to

Next I'll be posting a great query letter and the reasons it worked. Very excited that the publishing world agreed and that we sold it yesterday. 


  1. Excellent post, Elisabeth! She is so inspiring to those of us trying to juggle life with our writing. Thank you for sharing!

  2. It sounds like, along with her Superwoman cape, Sarah has a stash of power surge bracelets and shoes with wings. Truly amazing and inspiring. And I cannot wait to read The Violets of March!

  3. Heidi, thanks so much! And, Sere, ha! I wish I had shoes with wings! I do have a new pair of Tory Burch flats that will have to do the trick, tho. :) I hope you enjoy VIOLETS! xo

  4. Thanks for sharing another great interview!

  5. Not only is Sarah a Wonder Woman, she's also most thoughtful and kind.

  6. Larramie, what a kind thing to say!! Thank you so much. xo