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May 9, 2017

How Senior BuzzFeed Writer and Author of ‘Startup’ Doree Shafrir Writes: Part Two

In Part Two of this interview the senior culture writer for Buzzfeed News and author of the debut novel Startup, Doree Shafrir, took a few minutes to talk with me about the early days at Gawker, her highly-anticipated fiction debut, and her tips for getting words onto the page.

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The veteran online journalist started out at the Philadelphia Weekly before taking a position at Gawker in 2006. She went on to work as an editor and staff writer for Rolling Stone, The New York Observer, and has contributed to publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, The Awl, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, and WIRED.

Her whip-smart debut novel is Startup, a satirical skewering of startup culture in New York City “…that proves there are some dilemmas that no app can solve.”

Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton, former tech and business columnist for the New York Times, said of the book, “I was hooked from the first page and found myself lost in a beautifully-written fiction that so succinctly echoes today’s bizarre reality.”

Doree also co-hosts a podcast with husband and Nerdist alum, TV writer Matt Mira, titled “Matt and Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure,” described as an “…unintentionally hilarious journey through the world of infertility.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

In Part Two of this file Doree Shafrir and I discuss:

The Transcript

How Senior BuzzFeed Writer and Author of Startup Doree Shafrir Writes: Part Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Hey. Welcome back to the Writer Files. I’m your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brands of renowned writers. In part two of this interview, the Senior Culture Writer for BuzzFeed News and author of the debut novel Startup, Doree Shafrir, took a few minutes to talk with me about the early days at Gawker, her highly anticipated fiction debut, and her tips for getting words onto the page.
The veteran online journalist started out at the Philadelphia Weekly before taking a position at Gawker in 2006. She went on to work as an editor and staff writer for The Rolling Stone and the New York Observer and has contributed to publications including The New York Times, New Yorker, Slate, The Awl, New York Magazine, the Daily Beast, and WIRED.

Her whip smart debut novel is Startup,” a satirical skewering of startup culture in New York City that proves there are some dilemmas that no app can solve. Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton, former tech and business columnist for The New York Times, said of the book, “I was hooked from the first page and found myself lost in a beautifully written fiction that so succinctly echoes today’s bizarre reality.” Doree also cohosts a podcast with husband and nerdist alum TV writer Matt Mira, titled Matt and Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, described as an unintentionally hilarious journey through the world of infertility.

In part two of this file, Doree and I discuss the reality and frustration of writer’s block, why she made the revelatory move from Microsoft Word to Scrivener, how the author manages stress (hint: HGTV), the city as muse, and why done is sometimes better than good. If you missed the first half of this show, you can find it in the archives on iTunes on WriterFiles.FM and in the show notes.

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The Reality and Frustration of Writer s Block

Kelton Reid: Have you ever run up against writer’s block? Is that something you believe in or is it a myth?

Doree Shafrir: I think writer’s block is totally real. Yeah. I mean there were … I went on book leave for two months from BuzzFeed. I really wanted to make the best use of my time because I knew I only had two months. The days during those two months that I wasn’t able to write anything were so frustrating because I was like, “Ugh, I have this time.” Some days, I would just sit in front of the computer, and I was like, “I don’t know where this is going, what to write.” I just felt so stuck.

People say like, “If you’re stuck, you should just try to free write.” I think that that can be helpful. I also often find it helpful to just go on a really long walk, do something that takes you away from the actual writing. I find that it is very rare that just staring at a computer or being in front of the computer and surfing the Internet, that does not tend to break writer’s block.

Kelton Reid: No. All right. Well, let’s talk about your workflow as a journalist and fictionist. Now, are you a Mac or a PC user?

Doree Shafrir: I am a Mac user.

Why She Made the Revelatory Move from Microsoft Word to Scrivener

Kelton Reid: When you were writing the book, were you doing it in Word or Scrivener or something else?

Doree Shafrir: Actually a combination. I started the book in Word, and then, probably … I was quite far along in the book when a friend told me about Scrivener. It changed my life. I don’t think I would’ve been able to finish the book if I hadn’t switched everything over to Scrivener. I was kind of a pain in the ass to switch everything, because in Word, it was one big document. Scrivener doesn’t detect chapter separations from a big document in Word, so I had to kind of manually put each chapter in, but once I did that, and I could have a split screen and have an outline and also be working on the actual text at the same time, that was very revelatory.

Kelton Reid: I’ve heard this before that getting up to speed with Scrivener at first is a little painful, but then, it’s, again, like you said, a kind of a revelation. Do you have some best practices for beating that dreaded procrastination when you’re on a deadline?

Doree Shafrir: I am a big proponent of I guess it’s the Pomodoro method where you set a timer for … I forget what Pomodoro actually … Pomodoro has a specific amount of time. It might be like half an hour, but I find it very useful to set a timer for a specified amount of time and turn off the Internet. I use the Freedom app and just focus. That can be in as small a chunk of time as 15 minutes. If I have a dedicated amount of time that I know at the end I will be allowed to look at Twitter and check my email, then I can focus, but I find it very difficult to focus with large unstructured blocks of free time.

Kelton Reid: I forgot to ask you before, but do you stick on headphones or are you someone who prefers silence?

Doree Shafrir: It depends where I am. When I’m working in my house, I usually don’t wear headphones. If I’m in a public place, like if I go to a coffee shop or somewhere else, I will listen to … There’s a Spotify playlist called Deep Focus that I listen to. I can’t listen to anything with words, so that music is sort of calming, like vaguely electronica, not stuff I would ever really listen to just on my own. But, I find this kind of ambient noise of it to be very helpful.

How the Author Manages Stress (Hint: HGTV)

Kelton Reid: I’m with you on the ambient. How does Doree Shafrir unplug at the end of a long writing day? Besides blackjack.

Doree Shafrir: If you ask my husband, he would say I can’t unplug. I’m not great at relaxing. I find it very hard to relax. Although last night, I was like, “Okay, I just need to just chill out and not get … ” I was feeling very anxious, so I just watched a couple of episodes of House Hunters, and that calmed me down.

Kelton Reid: It is very calming that the … I actually don’t find that calming. The house hunting is cool. I’m very jealous of every home on those shows. That makes me kind of anxious, because I’m like, “Oh, man. Look at that cool place.”

Doree Shafrir: I also watch Tiny House Hunters. I’m not jealous of those living spaces. I also do yoga. I do Pilates. I try to stay active, and that definitely helps with stress and kind of unwinding. I also read a lot. That is also just kind of like getting lost in a good book is like very … It’s good to take myself out of the world for a little while.

Kelton Reid: For sure, for sure. How would you define creativity in your own words?

Doree Shafrir: I would say being imaginative, being curious, being expressive. Those are all hallmarks of creativity, I think.

The City as Muse

Kelton Reid: I think for a lot of writers, creativity is kind of the bedrock of what you do, but do you have something that makes you feel most creative or like a creative muse right now?

Doree Shafrir: Hmm. A creative muse …

Kelton Reid: Something that spurs your interest.

Doree Shafrir: For Startup, New York was a muse for me. Because I live in Los Angeles now, it was interesting for me to have that distance on New York and to be able to romanticize it a little bit, which I was not really able to do while I was living there. Los Angeles, I kind of want Los Angeles to be a muse in a similar way, but I’m not quite there yet. I love living here, but I … Yeah. I’m not totally there yet.

Kelton Reid: Interesting, interesting. I’ve heard the New York muse story often, actually, by some story fictionists such as Jay McInerney for instance. That is his muse, for sure. Just kind of plugging into the city. And it seems like when you’re in Manhattan or really anywhere in New York, but especially in Manhattan, there’s that … I don’t know, there’s that kind of spirit of New York that you don’t sense in LA. I mean I did live in LA myself.

Doree Shafrir: Totally. Oh, okay.

Kelton Reid: This vast sprawling mini-mall, but … Manhattan has this history and these ghosts that you don’t sense in LA, but …

Doree Shafrir: Yeah. I mean I guess if I were like living at the Chateau Marmont, I might feel differently, but I am not, and that’s probably not going to happen.

Kelton Reid: Is that why every cool rock star lives at the Chateau Marmont?

Doree Shafrir: Yeah because I think it is one of the places in Los Angeles that has that kind of mystique and feels old even though compared to stuff in New York, it’s not that old, but it has that kind of mysterious, cool vibe.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. And the ghost of John Belushi …

Doree Shafrir: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.

Kelton Reid:The Sunset Strip is probably the beating heart of that weird universe.

Doree Shafrir: Totally.

What Makes a Writer Great

Kelton Reid: What do you think makes a writer great?

Doree Shafrir: Oh, boy. What do I think makes a writer great? Certainly having imagination and being able to create characters and worlds and narratives that take people out of their worlds, like kind of what I was just saying. I think it’s really hard to write a book that people feel completely engrossed in. I always admire writers in any genre who are able to do that.

Of course, unlike a purely mechanical prose level, there is a way of writing prose that I think is instantly recognizable to people who appreciate good writing. You want someone who feels original, who has their own voice, who doesn’t resort to clichés or standard writing tropes, and who has an original story to tell.

Kelton Reid: Do you have a couple faves that are sitting on your nightstand right now? Or in your Kindle, I should’ve said?

Doree Shafrir: I actually I’m one of those people who has been going back and forth, ebook and paper. I kind of appreciate both of them for different reasons. Certainly, traveling is a lot easier with an ebook. There’s just no question about that. Often, when I’m traveling, I will load up my Kindle with long books that I would not want to lug around.

I also really appreciate a hardcover book. I think especially now that I have written a novel, I appreciate a hardcover book even more. There is something really powerful about being able to hold a book, a physical object in your hands. For someone like me who has worked on the Internet for so long, that was really powerful when I first was able to hold my book in my hands. It had this power that I wasn’t expecting.

To answer your question, some books that I really liked recently. I loved Jami Attenberg’s last book, All Grown Up. I just thought it was so smart and funny and poignant, really well done. I really liked Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I thought that was such an amazing book. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, Americanah, I loved. What else have I … My colleague, Scaachi Koul has a book of essays coming out called One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, which in my opinion is like the best title for a book of essays ever.

Not just because I know Scaachi, but her book is just so good. I’m always a little bit skeptical of people in their 20s who write books of essays or memoirs, but she is so talented and so funny and so sharp. It’s such a good book. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants and grew up in Canada and has really smart things to say about race, and it’s in immigration, and Canada. It’s a really, really great book.

Timeless Inspirational Quotes for Writers

Kelton Reid: Nice, nice. All right. Before we wrap it up here, I could keep you all afternoon, I’m sure, but you have places to be. As most writers do, do you have a best love quote kind of floating over your desk or in your mind?

Doree Shafrir: I don’t really have a quote like that, but I did … No, I saw that question on your list, and I was like, “Huh. Nothing really comes to mind,” But, I did once do a post for BuzzFeed called 24 Quotes That Will Inspire You to Write More. I actually worked pretty hard to find these quotes, but …

Kelton Reid: I’m looking it up now. All right. We got it. I’ll link to it.

Doree Shafrir: Okay. Cool. There’s Harper Lee saying, “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent, he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”

Kelton Reid: I love it.

Doree Shafrir: Ray Bradbury, “Just write every day of your life, read intensely, then see what happens. Most of my friends who were put on that diet have very pleasant careers. Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So yeah, you know. All those kinds of quotes, I appreciate.

Kelton Reid: I love it. I will link to it. I will link to it often. Before we wrap up with some advice to your fellow scribes, maybe we’ll do one fun one here. If you could choose any author from any era for an all expense paid dinner to your favorite spot in the world, who would you take and where would you take them?

Doree Shafrir: It would definitely be Dorothy Parker because she’s just so fascinating and so funny and of a New York that I am fascinated by. I think I would take her to Keens Steakhouse in New York City, which is a very classic New York steakhouse. I would just kind of want to see what she was like in that environment. I think we would have a great time and probably get very drunk.

Kelton Reid: That’s awesome. All right, I can picture it. Before you offer advice to your fellow scribes, we will mention the novel one more time. Startup. One of the most anticipated books of this year or any year, really, a hilarious debut novel that proves there are some dilemmas that no app can solve. It’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying it, get sucked right in, and it’s definitely a page turner.

Doree Shafrir: Thank you.

Why Done is Sometimes Better than Good

Kelton Reid: Listeners, find Startup: A Novel. Can you offer some advice to your fellow writers on how to keep going, how to keep the ink flowing, how to keep the cursor moving?

Doree Shafrir: I think really writing everyday, which is something that I don’t always do, but I try to do is really important. I think that quantity influences quality. I think that if you are so concerned with always having everything perfect, you’re never going to write anything. It’s better to finish something than to not finish something because you’re worried that it’s not good.

Kelton Reid: Very good, very good. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Best of luck with finishing up your tour out there.

Doree Shafrir: Thank you.

Kelton Reid: We hope you come back and chat with us again sometime.

Doree Shafrir: Yeah, I’d love to. Thanks for having me.

Kelton Reid: All right. Cheers. Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show, and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. And you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.