heroine in Real Women Eat Beef is a jaded workaholic PR exec who relocates to a suburb outside of Boston to escape a bitter divorce and start a new chapter in her life. She spends most evenings alone coming up taglines for Fryman Meat or scarfing down take-out for dinner (generally not the red meat she's charged with marketing). The author, also a PR powerhouse residing out of Boston, spends many of her evenings perfecting dialogue and brainstorming plot points for her latest book. And unlike the fictitious alter ego in her contemporary “city mouse/country mouse” novel, Tracy McArdle has managed to find a bit more balance.
This marketing maven by day and novelist by night proves that with hard work and some serious time management skills, it is possible to have your career and a novel, too. Tracy's debut novel, Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa, about a frustrated Hollywood publicist, her Jewish actor fiancé and their ailing pets, was published by Downtown Press (a division of Simon Schuster) in 2005.
Then came Real Women Eat Beef earlier this year. Now a mother and a vice president in the entertainment division at Arnold Worldwide, Tracy is at work on Dear Orzo, which she describes as “a book about pregnancy after thirty-five but before self-realization.”
I asked Tracy how she seemingly managed to do it all: the career, the family, and several books. Her answer? “I wasn't,” she says simply. She goes to explain how “I hated that I had to spend nights and weekends and holidays writing but loved that I could use four hour business trip plane rides to the west coast working on my characters.”
“...the importance of prioritizing:
how to be disciplined without
driving yourself crazy.”
She may sound like Super Woman, but Tracy is realistic about how much work she can actually handle. “You don't really juggle - you sacrifice,” she explains. “For example, when my husband and I went on a trip to northern California for a friend's birthday in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, guess who went back country skiing all day and guess who stayed in the motel room with her laptop?”
Tracy knows the importance of prioritizing: how to be disciplined without driving yourself crazy. She says “friends understand if you can't make it to social engagements because you have to write. It also helped that I did not force myself to a strict schedule. If I could spend a couple hours on a Wednesday night writing, great. If not, I'd do it over the weekend.”
But she also manages to squeeze in writing time in small spurts during the week: “I recommend parceling up your writing into 'difficult, creative processes that take thoughtful, slow and quiet time' and the edits and re-writing that you can do on the train, waiting in line at the bank, hanging around at press junkets or yes, sitting in traffic. I don't recommend that; but yes, I did it. If you are really mindful about it, you will notice there is a lot of downtime at work. Lunchtime, waiting for people in meetings, etc. Use it; don't waste it.”
I attended one of Tracy 's book readings for Real Women Eat Beef and admired her sarcastic sense of humor and witty use of dialogue. She began by reading the novel's opening, which parodies a wedding announcement and draws parallels to the divorced protagonist's high hopes for her new job. Those first few paragraphs were so well crafted that I had to read the rest of the book (and I did shortly after).
“...the New York Times wedding pages - you know, the sports section for chicks.”
Tracy explains her strategy for drawing in her readers: “I needed to get all the exposition with Jill's previous life out of the way in an entertaining way, and the wedding announcement was something that came to me after reading the New York Times wedding pages - you know, the sports section for chicks. I didn't want to waste pages detailing what had happened up to that point, and I didn't want the dialogue to ring false with excessive expository detail.”
Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa uses a different device: lists of phone calls (or call sheets) recorded by the heroine's assistant begin each chapter. Some of them are completely off-the-wall requests from quirky directors and television types, some are mundane (like “your mother called”), but many of them are copied from her own call sheets at the time. According to Tracy, “I thought it was a quick way to introduce the reader to the daily absurd struggles of the main character.”
So where does she get that sharp sense of humor? “I hate to say it but I think it comes from my family,” Tracy admits. “I have an older brother and younger sister and growing up, there was a lot of teasing. We also were merciless about ribbing my father concerning his unfortunate lack of grace. I also read a lot - like a freak, I mean - when I was a kid, so I was a little bit advanced with vocabulary from an early age.”
Her experiences working in the entertainment industry include jobs at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Turner Broadcasting System and Twentieth Century Fox and consulting work for clients such as the Boston Red Sox, Harper Collins Publishing, Volkswagen, and PBS, that have also given her ample material.
During her stint in Hollywood, she worked with a documentary filmmaker who wouldn't speak for one day a week, dealt with reprimands from Carrie Fisher's friend during a premiere party, and organized last-minute press conference that involved Ted Turner and Robert Redford, all of which made their way into Tracy's repertoire of funny and too-crazy-to-be-true stories. She's performed her humorous essays about work and life for the “Live with VCR” series in Los Angeles and the “Four Stories” series in Cambridge, MA.
“I must have truth serum
running through my veins...”
“I'd have to say my experiences in the working world and especially the corporate realm have always fascinated me,” Tracy continues. “I must have truth serum running through my veins, because I have to see things the way they are, and when they are ridiculous or absurd I have a hard time pretending they're not (writing creative copy to sell tires, for example, or agreeing that an $8500 hair and makeup bill for a bald actor is perfectly reasonable).”
But bluntness has its costs. Tracy says she has “always been intrigued by the things everyone knows and feels, but no one talks about. I have weathered my share of criticism for being 'brutally honest' and 'blunt' but I've always felt that's preferable to being a liar.”
Since both novels are loosely based on her own experiences (in fact, Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa was inspired by a semi-autobiographical essay she wrote after breaking off her engagement to a devout Jewish man), Tracy is careful to separate fact from fiction.
“Writing novels at night has
also improved her day job...”
“The line (for me at least) is that you don't do anything that would personally hurt someone if they read it,” she says. “What I try to do is to take characteristics and/or quotes from people and blend them with others, so it's not obvious that the heavy guy who says 'dude!' and leaves coffee rings on the table is the guy in your office from accounting.”
She continues, adding that “it's more freeing to write fiction, so if you start with some real traits, you can build a fictional character from there that is both more interesting, with fuller dimensions and also un-offensive to your friends and family. Of course, there's always someone who's going to think they 'know' which characters are based on people you know. Play it safe; never reveal your intentions.”
Writing novels at night has also improved her day job: “you tend to view things - meetings, conversations, assignments, in a more narrative, literary way. You notice traits and idiosyncrasies of your colleagues, too. Of course, you're always on the lookout for a good piece of dialogue. You also tend to write better presentations and memos and even emails - I've found that words matter to me, in every context of my life, and it makes my work more enjoyable.”
“'Hey, guess what, I wrote a novel!”
Her current employer, advertising agency Arnold Worldwide, boasts other writers among its ranks and was supportive when Tracy needed time off to promote her first novel. “ Arnold is a very progressive company when it comes to work-life balance and keeping valued employees happy,” Tracy explains.
While she admits that not all companies are as flexible or understanding, Tracy encourages other writers to ask, even if it means taking unpaid time off like she did. “I would suggest being honest,” she says. “'Hey, guess what, I wrote a novel! And it's actually being published! How would you like to save two months salary by letting me go promote it?' is a good way to start.”
One little caveat, though. “You should also have a plan on how your workload and clients will be handled while you are gone,” Tracy advises. “That helps tremendously. Make it easy for them to say yes and maybe they will.”
However, before she could promote the book, Tracy needed to find a publisher for it. Like many new writers, Tracy received over a dozen rejections before Downtown Press gave her manuscript the green light. She teaches writing to other aspiring authors and suggests that they “get a good agent who believes in you - and come up with a list of targeted editors / publishers together. If you don't have an agent, find out who the editors are at the houses where you think your book might belong.”
“The clichés are true: Less is more.
She continues, offering this tip: “agents and editors are almost always mentioned in the acknowledgements up front. And of course, network, network, network. Talent and luck help, but like anything in life, it's who you know (or who you find) that sometimes makes the difference. Don't be afraid to ask people to recommend agents or editors - you have nothing to lose.”
Another important writing tip that emerged during her book reading was the importance of staying focused on advancing the plot when you're writing a short story or novel. It's easy to fall in love with your own perfect line of dialogue or a great metaphor, but it's harder to be objective about what's working in your story and what's not. “This is the toughest thing to do as a writer,” Tracy admits. “Ask yourself one question: What does this scene do to advance a) the story or b) the reader's understanding of the character or c) the character's journey. Be careful with b), because that's a broad field.”
Tracy believes workshopping is an important step in the writing process. She says “above all, if three readers you trust tell you it feels superfluous, (did they get antsy and wish, “Get on with it!” as they were reading?) swallow your pride and listen to them. The clichés are true: Less is more. I promise. And finally, if your editor wants to cut it, she or he is usually right. Remember, they sell books - you don't!”
“Stay true to your voice;
it's the most original thing you have.”
Working in the entertainment industry and trying to find a publisher for her first book, Tracy has developed a thick skin. She encourages would-be novelist not to get “discouraged by people who don't get your voice. Stay true to your voice; it's the most original thing you have. In fact, depending on your talent, it might be the only thing you have. But it might be enough.”
Tracy offers one final piece of advice: “Have something to say, and say it in a dramatic narrative structure. That sounds simple but it's really important. People read books for one reason: they want to find out what happens. Your glorious command of the English language and splendid style is not enough. Keep us wanting to know what happens. We're all dreamers who love to escape in a good story.” Well said, Tracy.
Learn more about Tracy McArdle at http://tracymcardle.net
Susan Johnston (http://www.susan-johnston.com) is a two time National Scholastic Writing Award-winner and a contributor to publications including 100Hats.com, Chick Lit Review, Cicada, Next Step, Shecky's, and Young Money. Read about her adventures in writing at The Urban Muse (http://www.theurbanmuse.blogspot.com).
This is Susan Johnston's second piece for WOW! Her 20 Questions Interview with Kristen King was featured in the WOW! May issue.