By Alex Shapiro
Aaron Krach is a writer and artist presently living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a B.A. in Visual Arts and continued his studies at the University of Copenhagen. A former editor at Empire magazine and Gay City News, he is currently a senior editor at CARGO magazine and columnist at A&U Magazine. Half-Life is his first novel, published by Alyson Publications.
You’re a writer, an artist and an editor. Which comes first? Do you favor one over the other?
Financially, being an editor because it pays my rent. Then writer and artist equally below that depending on what project I’m working on. When I was finishing the book, it was all Half-Life all-the-time. Now that my book is out in the world, I’m taking a lot of pictures again and working on a couple of exhibitions planned over the next year. But inside my head: I’d say writer and artist fight each other for supremacy. I’ve been told by so many people to focus on one thing or the other. Really, since high school I can remember a teacher pulling me aside and telling me that I could go from a B+ student to an A student if I’d only settle down. It was very frustrating advice to hear because I was happiest doing as many things as possible. And I still am. So I try to block out that advice (which keeps coming from bosses, agents, fans, boyfriends, family) and just do whatever I want. As long as the work gets done, and it gets done well, then all is well in the world, I think.
You are a young artist, yet you have quite a career: from editor, to columnist, senior editor and first time author, not to mention your national and international photo shows. When was the first time you realized you wanted to become an artist? What triggered this decision?
I had this bizarre experience as a child where I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I wanted to be cutting edge. I wanted to be doing whatever was the newest. For a while this meant being an astronaut because I thought they were dealing with the most advanced science, not to mention true adventure and discovery. Then this translated into becoming a radio disc jockey because that was “right now”; their work was in the immediate present tense. This was all before I knew what I was talking or thinking about. Really, probably before I was 12. Then during my high school years, it started to come together as art, writing, publishing, exhibiting. These were the things that were most up-to-the-minute because you/me/the artist chooses to make them the newest, most current item/idea/experience.
How did your studies abroad (international experience) influence your work as an editor and as a writer? Would you recommend it to other writers or artists?
Beyond question. The world would be a completely different place if everyone had traveled around the world. My experience in Copenhagen was scary and exciting and so illuminating. Denmark isn’t very exotic, but it got me to Europe where I could travel more easily to Turkey, Italy, France, Morocco, Holland, Poland and Spain. I didn’t know it at the time, but the classes I took were secondary. It was the experience of being “foreign” and being a “traveler” not a “tourist” that changed my outlook and my life. When President Bush was “elected” and admitted to never having been to Europe, I was sick to my stomach. Really, you can probably trace his ignorance of the world to every bad decision the man has made in regards to foreign policy. I was chastised by friends for judging him harshly.
“Not everyone is a fortunate as you,” they said. “Forget it!” I replied. It is not about money. It is about opportunity and everyone has the chance to be open to the world. They just have to open their mind.
What comes first: editing or writing? How do you wear the two “hats” successfully and what is your advice for others who may want to follow in your steps?
First comes reading. I can’t say enough about reading. I am in a constant state of shock when I read or talk to other writers and editors and they are not voracious readers. Newspapers, magazines and books (both fiction and nonfiction) should be a staple of the writer/editor’s life. There is no excuse. “I don’t have time to read the paper every day” is not acceptable. Make time. You can only learn how to write by reading. And you can only learn to edit by knowing how to write. Editing is rewriting. Plain and simple. I wrote my book in five years from start to finish. I “wrote” the first draft in 3 months. I spent 4 years and 9 months rewriting/editing. Obviously you can see what was more important.
There is nothing worse than overwriting something. I wish desperately I could go back to my novel and rewrite it now. I am such a better writer/editor today and I would cut about 40 pages of excess.
As an editor you work with writers on a regular basis. What do you expect from potential writers? Can you share with us a few dos and don’ts of breaking into a magazine and “catching” the editor’s attention?
First, meet the editor. In person or on the phone. You have to connect personally. I realize this is difficult. It’s practically impossible, actually. But the best writers that I go back to again and again as an editor are people I trust to hand in what I need. So, send in clips and pitches, email and snail mail. Then call. But do not become a pest. If the editor shows little interest, don’t take it personally. It probably has nothing to do with you. Really. He could just be having a bad period in his life. So drop your pestering for a few months and come back to him later. You only get one chance, usually. Become a pest now and you’ll never work with that editor again.
Getting the editor’s attention is great, but not enough. Writers need to keep the editor interested in their ideas. What do you think is the secret to a successful relationship with the editor?
Once you get a foot in the door, say, once you get a first assignment: Kick butt! I mean, do it so well, so thoroughly and so creatively that you knock the editor’s socks off and make a great impression. There are just too many writers out there who want your job. So . . . Never ask for an extension; in fact, hand it in early. Tardiness is evil. If you have to hand something in late, you better have cancer or a death in your immediate family. Really. Once you have a relationship, then you can get flexible and ask for more. But before that, don’t even think about it. And, most importantly, and this is something I’ve told every intern/friend/beginner: Never say “No.” Always say yes to every single assignment. Flexibility is so attractive in a writer. Unless you’re a superstar and can afford to say no, just don’t.
What are the main mistakes that freelance writers make and how can they be avoided? What makes a good/bad query?
First, find out exactly what the editor wants and needs. For example, right now I’m a senior editor at CARGO magazine. It’s a very unique publication about shopping. We don’t have many traditional articles, but we have a lot of short newsy items and a lot of in-depth reporting that gets translated into short service articles. So I need very specific pitches about products. Before a writer contacts me, they should . . .
- Know CARGO inside and out, and know what sections I’m in charge of;
- Target their queries to something I cover and write them in a format that matches CARGO style.
Everything else is useless to me. I think this is appropriate to any editor. You wouldn’t write an editor at The New Yorker and ask to review a book. They already have a high-power book critic. But you might write them a query about a big story on the invention of the VCR, something just quirky and yet timely enough to be of interest to The New Yorker.
Always ask editors exactly what they mean. In fact, ask all the questions you can think of because you don’t want any misunderstandings. For me, if someone asks if they can send me pitches, I say yes. If I like one, I’ll contact them or call them and discuss moving forward. If the pitches are on the right track, but not right for me today, then I’ll email them back and say “Thanks, but not thanks right now.” And then, unfortunately, if the queries are completely out of left field and inappropriate for my publication, or they are too long, and poorly explained, I’ll just delete the email.
Your novel, Half-Life, was published in May of this year. Why a novel and why at this time?
Nonfiction journalism is highly creative and challenging, but a novel is so completely different and fantastic (and fanciful). It is a pleasure for me to write under no restriction or guidelines. Writing a novel let me do whatever I wanted. Because remember, everyone has a boss. As an editor, I’m the writer’s boss. But I have an editor in chief who is my boss. And even he has the owner of the company judging him. Life is strange that way, but it works. And my key to keeping my wits about me is to have a creative outlet like novels and photographs to help me focus.
How did your editorial experience help you write your own book? Did it influence your marketing and promotion strategies?
Yes, yes and yes. Being an editor I knew how bad my first draft was. And it helped me spend five years rewriting. Marketing and promotion was intense because I knew exactly what to do and what not to do. I knew what kinds of letters the publisher should send out. I knew what kind of press release I wanted sent because I know what I want to receive as an editor. Short, sweet, timely.
And it cannot go unsaid that being in the media helps because you can pull in favors with friends. I could make calls to editors at papers and magazines and ask them “when” not “if” they were going to cover my book. This really helped. Because I couldn’t have written the best book in the world (which I didn’t) and if I didn’t know a few people to help me get press, then nothing would ever have happened with the book.
Half-Life is a captivating read, with fully developed characters and an intriguing yet, realistic plot, I’d say. Tell us about your sources of inspiration and how you managed to write and publish a novel while still working as an editor full-time.
Thank you. I’d say that keeping Half-Life fully human and subsequently “believable” were two very important goals. I’m not interested in science fiction or fantasy. I like stories about real people with real feelings.
Half-Life was very much imagined by taking a “What if?” approach to my own life. My mother is clinically depressed and has attempted suicide. What if she succeeded? I grew up gay in Los Angeles in the early 90s before it was very cool to be gay. But what if I had grown up in 1999 when it’s a lot easier (in big cities) to be openly gay? And what if I had those perfect, cool friends that every high school kid dreams about? This is how I wrote the book. Took my life and made it a hell of a lot more interesting. (I hope!)
As to how I finished it while holding down a day job: simple. I got up and wrote for two hours every day before work. I was so resistant to the whole discipline thing for so long that I tried writing when I got home from work at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I can tell you what happened. I would begin working and it would take about 30 minutes to begin to focus, to let go of the dramas of my day and get inside Half-Life. Then I would write for about 30 minutes and get so tired I would crawl the few feet from my desk to my bed and fall asleep. It was pretty funny, actually.
Then one day, I don’t know what changed my mind. I got up and tried writing in the morning. No radio, no TV, no newspaper. I wouldn’t look at anything that might distract me. I made good coffee and sat down so fresh and sleepy and my mind entered Angelito (the fictional town in Los Angeles where Half-Life is set) and I would have to pull myself away in order to get to work. They became the happiest two hours of my day.
What are your plans for the future? Are you working on a new book?
Yeah, I’ve started another one. This time about New York City, or at least set in New York City, although the setting always becomes a character to me. The book tour and promotion have kept my mind buzzing and unfocused, but hopefully soon I can settle into the new book and get it done. I know one thing: I don’t want to wait five years before publishing again!
Alex Shapiro (a.k.a. Alina Oswald) is a freelance writer and author of “Poetry of the Soul” collection. To learn more about her work, check out Alex Shapiro’s Web site.