Irene Zutell’s most recent novel is Pieces of Happily Ever After, which Publisher’s Weekly calls, a “sassy, sweet tale of love lost and found.” Her path to becoming a novelist starts in childhood and takes an turn through People Magazine before finding it’s way to her first novel, They’re Not Your Friends. – Meg
I was always writing stories.
As a little girl, I loved rainy summer days when we didn’t go anywhere. I’d sit at the table or lie on my bed, and write elaborate stories about runaways and orphans and children living on city streets and families with a dozen kids who were always getting in trouble.
Even when I wasn’t writing, I’d imagine the lives of the people at the table next to us in a restaurant, or walking past me in the street. My sister and I were professional eavesdroppers and we’d expand on what we heard and concoct elaborate stories. In school, I was the kid whose stories and essays were read aloud by the teacher.
So I always imagined I’d grow up to be a writer. It seemed to be a given. At least, that’s what the voice inside me seemed to be saying—either I was born to be a writer, or I was crazy.
But the real world called. You couldn’t just stay home and be a novelist. I took jobs in journalism. I imagined coming home at night and writing my great American novel. But there were too many distractions—parties and boys and more parties and boys. I was twenty and living in Manhattan. There was never enough time and there was too much to do. I’d force myself to write, but I didn’t feel it the way I did when I was younger. I’d start on an idea and give up. Then I’d get dressed to go to a bar or club. I thought maybe it was gone. I thought maybe I never had it. Maybe that voice was wrong. Maybe I was just crazy.
I worked at newspapers and magazines in New York City. Then I got married and moved to Los Angeles, where I worked for People magazine. When I started, I thought, ‘wow, this will be an easy job. How lame is People?’ But it was the toughest job I ever had. People magazine editors are meticulous. You can never get enough detail for a story. You can never get people to tell you enough about themselves. Just when you think you covered it all, an editor would come back with a question that would make you either reevaluate your career or at least look at the story with fresh eyes. And each story was like a novella. While three pages might make it into the magazine, there were about twenty-five pages that were edited out.
The more I worked at People, the more I fell in love with writing again. I was in Los Angeles with access to every major celebrity. Plus, L.A. seemed to be at the epicenter of every big news and human interest story. There was so much to write about. My head buzzed with ideas.
One day, I was driving home from a full day at work. I thought, what about a novel about all of this? Los Angeles was like another planet to me. When I’d tell people I worked at People magazine, they were fascinated. What about an insider’s look into this bizarre world? I remember thinking of something an older journalist had once told me, “they’re not your friends.” It echoed in my head as I wound my way around the serpentine Sepulveda Boulevard. I thought, what a great title for a novel about a magazine like People magazine. On that ride home, the novel unfolded. I saw a young, impressionable woman being seduced by the glamorous world of magazine journalism. I saw an older, jaded journalist uttering the phrase, “they’re not your friends,” as a warning. I saw cars with vanity plates–because every car in Los Angeles seems to have a vanity plate. I saw a parade of stars and has-beens.
I got home that night and couldn’t stop writing They’re Not Your Friends. It seemed in some ways it wrote itself.
When I was finished, it was time to find an agent. I think an e-mail subject hed is even more important than the actual query. I was lucky. With a subject that read, “People Magazine Writer Writes Tell All,” I knew I’d get lots of interest. I did. My inbox was a writer’s dream–it was crammed with agents begging to see my novel.
And I lived happily ever after.
No. It’s never that easy. Well, maybe it is for some people, but never for me.
I couldn’t get an agent to represent my novel. My story was told from three perspectives—two male and one female. “Male voices don’t sell,” I was told. Get rid of the men and focus on the story of Lottie Love, the young celebrity journalist, they said.
But I didn’t want to. I felt the men were integral to the story. I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to without them. After all, it was a man’s voice that echoed in my head during that ride home. They’re not your friends.I finally found an agent who loved the book and agreed with me. That’s what I’ve learned—it’s a numbers game. If you query enough agents, you’ll find the one who is right for you and who shares your vision.
It’s just a matter of not getting discouraged. Or rather, it’s about realizing you will get discouraged, often, and fighting it. It’s about remembering that voice that told you you were born to be a writer. And realizing you’re not crazy. Well, okay, you’re a writer, so you’re a little crazy. But good crazy. – Irene