Within 24 hours of posting information about my new book, someone was already complaining on Amazon. This person was nice enough to repeatedly state she was a fan of my writing, but found the title to be disappointing, and wildly lacking in imagination. I’d been planning to tell the story of how Why Moms Are Weird came to be, so here goes.
Four years ago, while waiting for Why Girls Are Weird to come out, worried that reviews would keep me from wanting to attempt another novel, and coming out of a very dark period in my life, I wrote a novel. It didn’t sell. It was deemed everything from “too dark” to “too literary.” My publishing house liked the book, but they felt it’s too much of a departure from my first book to ask an audience/bookseller/fan to jump from one genre to the next.
Broke and frustrated, I was working at The Bachelor, logging raw footage into a database, literally transcribing the unimportant seconds of other people’s lives. I watched The Bachelor eat, sleep, sunbathe, do push-ups, fix his hair, talk about beer, hit on women, cry about his mother. I watched another man’s life in thirty-minute pieces of tape. I also watched the lives of all the women as they primped and wished and pouted and drank and drank and drank. While I had a strong disdain for all of the women, there was one whose voice was so piercingly perky that I was planning on finding the mansion they were living in to explain calmly and rationally to the Bachelor why that bitch had to go at the next Rose Ceremony.
And that’s when I realized that job might make me lose it.
If I were a slightly more insane woman, the kind of woman who was starting to get desperate for either fame or love, this job could have really gotten to me. I sent a story idea to my agent, about a woman faking her way onto a reality show in order to win a cash prize, but ends up falling for the “eligible groom.” She sent the paragraph to my editor at Downtown, and they came back with an offer for a two-book deal. They were happy with the success of Why Girls Are Weird, and were glad to hear I sounded relatively girly again, and wasn’t writing about bitter comedians.
So. Creating a novel out of a passing thought, a late-night paragraph. It was a bit daunting. I got to work and turned in the first draft of the novel in the winter of 2004, as I was finishing planning my wedding. In fact, they were worried I’d have to do rewrites while on my honeymoon.
They wanted a title that would stand out from the stack of paperbacks on the bookstore table. That’s why I called it “Pick Me.”
I turned it in and waited, prepared to do notes in Hawaii. They called.
That’s not the sound you want to hear from your editor or agent. I was sitting in the exact restaurant I’m sitting in right now, hearing my editor say what was wrong with the manuscript, which is exactly what I thought was wrong with the manuscript. “See, it seems like you don’t like reality television.”
“But the people who are going to want to read this will like reality television, and they don’t want a satire of reality television.”
“What do they want?”
“You have written an excellent season of The Bachelor here, but I’m not sure why someone would read this instead of just—“
“Watching a season of The Bachelor?”
“Yeah. That’s what I think, too. I don’t like the book.”
“Oh, I’m so glad.”
I’m just glad she didn’t want to talk about the ending, the one that I was embarrassed to turn in and needed her help, the page where she wrote a single sentence: “I’m so confused.”
She wanted to salvage the parts she did like, and I started thinking about what happens to a person after they finish a reality show and become a semi-celebrity. What if you were on a show that made you look like a total dick? I went on a honeymoon, came back and rewrote the novel from page one. This time I made the reality show even more of a satire, but got her out of there quickly and tried to make her live a selfless existence while still trying to live in Los Angeles. This leads her eventually to the Peace Corps and a Hollywood actor boyfriend and… well, being in a hospital/orphanage, learning about fistulas.
I was going through a very Angelina Jolie phase, actually planning a trip to West Africa, where I’d help restock a school with supplies. I was having regular email contact with a boy in The Gambia who was now the owner of my father’s laptop, and was using it to write his own story, while teaching me about what life is like for him.
Then I got the Mencia job, which cancelled all plans for Africa. I turned the manuscript in to my editor in April of 2005, the day before I started. I waited and waited.
I got the call on a lunch break.
Let me tell you a little tip, for those of you who want to write Chick Lit, or for those of you who already do. There’s a word editors don’t want to read in your girly novel. And that word is “fistula.”
“Oh, Pam,” she said. “I don’t… this isn’t… I… Africa? Really?”
Strike Two. Three, actually. I was nervous and seriously disappointed in myself. I was going to have to start all over again. She told me to take some time to think, and scheduled a phone call with me for the upcoming weekend.
By the time we got on the phone, I was extremely frustrated with myself.
She delicately started: “We’ve been talking around the office. The sales department thinks you should write Why Girls Are Weird 2. Or Why Girls Are Weirder. Even More Weird?”
“Please. I will vomit. Please.”
“I knew you wouldn’t like it. But isn’t there anything else to Kurt and Anna?”
“Please let me write a different book. I’ll do it right this time.”
“It’s not that you’re doing it wrong,” she said, her words sounding so carefully chosen I wondered if I was supposed to be crying.
“I have female characters going through a crisis! There’s a love story! Girlfriends. Wacky adventures! What am I missing?”
Then she finally said it: “It doesn’t sound anything like you.”
“What does that mean?”
“Pam, the only reason I’m not suggesting we cancel your book deal — [insert sound of my heart slamming into my stomach and the very chilling, very real fear that I was going to have to sell all of my belongings to repay the advance] — is that I read your website, and I know you still write the way I want your books to sound.”
This is a moment my editor will probably forget about, and probably it wasn’t that big of a deal for her to say because she was doing her job, which is something she’s good at. But this is a conversation that changed everything. It made my brain click.
“When I’m on my website, that’s just me writing whatever,” I said. “That’s me dicking around.”
“No, that’s your voice,” she said. “That’s what I want your books to sound like. You. Not you removed from the story, telling us a story that has nothing to do with you, that you can’t even relate to because you’ve got nothing invested in it. I want the book to be like hanging out with you for a little while.”
The room was a little spinny as she continued. A flashback to my second one-person show, where the criticism from the girl who wouldn’t book me at her club was, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this show. It sounds like talking to you for an hour. Why don’t you do some characters? Something different. Challenge yourself? I mean, if I wanted to hang out with you for an hour, I’d come to your apartment. Which is why I’m here in your apartment right now. You’re funny. But why should anyone pay money to watch you talk if you’re not going to do a bunch of voices and wear lots of costumes?”
I didn’t invite that person to my apartment after that. I figured if she wanted to hang out with me for an hour, she’d have to at least buy me a drink. And my next talking-to-me, no-character, no-costume change show landed me a spot in Aspen. So, suck on that.
My editor then said this: “The girl who buys your book buys it because she liked the last one. And maybe she was going to Spring Break, or maybe she read it in her bed at night, or she read it when she was trapped in her house with her family. But she is reading it not to see how you’re growing as a writer, but to let you tell her a story for a little while.”
“So she wants to laugh, cry, and then want to call her mom?”
“That is exactly what I’m getting at. Don’t you have any wedding stories? What’s going on in your life right now? What aren’t you writing about that’s a big deal in your life?”
I was quiet for a few seconds as I knew that what I was about to say was the right thing, but was also asking me to become a very vulnerable writer again. “I could write about my mom dating.”
“That sounds perfect. Also, make sure you find a really good title, because the sales department is ready to go out and sell it. They just have to know what it’s called.”
“It doesn’t exist yet!”
I felt vulnerable after Why Girls Are Weird, because there are stories in there that, while fictionalized, are still rather intimate. And even if I change what happened, I’m pretty honest about how these things effect me. I knew I’d been removing myself from the other novels. Not the stand-up novel – that’s a very vulnerable novel, but it’s in third person, and dark and… I’m sure one day it’ll get on a shelf. My editor says she’s interested in revisiting it as my fourth book, so I have faith that it’ll be seen.
That night I was at a party, talking to AK, BK, Skelton and Todd. I was depressed about starting all over again-again, my fourth page-one rewrite on a novel. Why did anybody let me write anything?
I told AK about this epiphany I had on the phone, about the difference in tone and voice, how I wasn’t thinking of my books as an extension of my website, and how my editor made everything suddenly make a lot more sense.
“So what’s this one going to be about?” he asked.
“My mom dating.”
“Yeah. It’s totally going to be Why Moms Are Weird.”
This is where it got quiet, when AK and I stared at each other. “Pam…” he started.
I closed my eyes. “I know.”
“You have to.”
“Dammit. They’d love that title.”
“You must. Pam. You have to franchise. You have to do it. And then Why Husbands Are Weird, Why Cats Are Weird.”
“Oh, my God.”
Skelton and BK joined in: “Sell! Out! Sell! Out!”
Stee offered up only this: “Whatever gets me a plasma.”
Todd said, “Pam, every day I attempt to become a sell out. Please don’t miss the opportunity to do it.”
“I will run it past them.”
I wrote the new novel on weekends, mornings and late nights while working on Hot Properties. The first draft took about three months, and I named it “I AM NOT YOUR PROBLEM.” They were like, “Yeah, no. We’re going with the other title.” By December of 2005, I had turned in a draft that they were more than happy with. “We’ve been dancing around the office, shouting, ‘She’s back! She’s back!’” (This is a weird image to have in your head, because it’s about you, but it kind of seems like a scene in a romantic comedy movie trailer, and it’s hard to imagine people dancing because of you on the other side of the country because you stopped sucking so hard. )
Anyway, at this point, I was in no condition to argue over the title. If it’s easier for them to sell copies with a franchise-like title, then who the hell am I to tell them anything different? I’m just lucky they still let me write books and then they put them in stores. Because it was a bleak year and a half where I pictured them in closed-door meetings in New York, heads in their hands, asking, “How do we get rid of her?”
So I hope you like Why Moms Are Weird. I’m feeling extremely vulnerable about it, as it came from the very edge of my sanity, patience and self-doubt.