Genuine, widely applicable career-hacks are rare in the writing life. But I do know of one. In all honesty, it is the single greatest writing-career secret I’ve ever stumbled across—like really stumbled across, feet flying out from under me, coffee mug launched into space—and I won’t even make you skim 800 words to discover it.
The secret is fandom: dedicated and even obsessive engagement with another writer’s work. I learned this firsthand, the hard way, and it led to the agent, auction and “Big 5” book deal of my nerdiest dreams. I just never thought to codify until I heard it discussed on a podcast.
A couple of weeks ago, on You Are Good, a film-discussion show, the journalist Sarah Marshall happened to be analyzing Julie & Julia. “You can reach your dreams by loving another person’s work,” Marshall said, identifying this as the central dynamic of the 2009 movie. In case you haven’t seen it, Julie & Julia tells the true story of Julie Powell, a frustrated young writer who, in the early aughts, started blogging about her attempt to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
The blog eventually grew so popular that it became a book, then a movie directed by Nora Ephron. Which is a way of saying that, through her fandom of Julia Child, Julie Powell most definitely reached her writing dreams, and then some. Meanwhile, Sarah Marshall recognized her own career in this fan-guru dynamic. Turns out she’s a giant Nora Ephron fan, and Ephron’s work had helped her become successful in just the same way.
This is my story too, I thought, listening. Other people have had this experience??? We should call it the Julie & Julia Formula!
How the formula works in general
Step one: Desire to have a writing career.
Step two: Try to write. Fail.
Step three: While stewing in frustration and envy of those who’ve somehow made it, develop an obsession with the one person whose career looks so great, so transcendently beautiful and awe-inducing that you just want to puke.
Step four: Use this obsession as either less direct inspiration or very direct inspiration.
Step five: Profit.
How it worked for me
The process sounds simple and easy, and in one sense—the retrospective sense—it is. In my case, living it felt different. Sadder. Less funny, less straightforward.
I stewed literally, in a too-small bathtub in a too-small house I didn’t want to be living in. I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my writing career, either, and this fact helped tip me into the sheer worst depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t eat, sleep or function. I had to take mental-health leave from my job.
Some strange intuition led me to take Edgar Allan Poe off the shelf for the first time since I was a kid. My brain had gone limp, too broken down to make sense of TV or any other book than, apparently, The Complete Tales of Mystery & Imagination. Looking back, I reason that it was because only Poe’s work was bleak enough to match my mood. I was searching out evidence to confirm my darkest feelings, and I found it in Poe. But not only that.
Before I knew it, I’d grown completely obsessed, tearing through his stories, essays and poems, then moving on to the biographies—and there are dozens of Poe biographies. That’s before you get to the fan art or the academic criticism or the film adaptations. It’s hard to believe (a) how much he created and (b) just how much he’s inspired, and all this in spite of or possibly because of his tragic life. I was fascinated, drawn out of myself, weirdly yet wonderfully enlivened.
Betting that I wasn’t alone in finding Poe a perverse hero, I pitched an essay about all this to The Millions, and when it came out in September of 2017, it went viral in a literary-world sort of way. My inbox swelled with emails from fellow travelers. About this time, out for a drink with my longtime mentor, I rambled on about the experience and the larger Poe phenomenon.
“That sounds like a book,” he said.
Initially, I scoffed. “Oh yeah, I’m going to write a book about reading Edgar Allan Poe for self-help and call it How to Say Nevermore to Your Problems.” (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)
Soon enough, I got cracking on a book proposal, and in the week after I sent that to agents, I received four offers of representation. Eighteen months later, my book sold at auction to Running Press, a subsidiary of Hachette.
The delay in the sale came, in part, from me not understanding my book’s genre. Because what do you call an intensely personal take on a famous writer? Figuring this out took me lot of googling circa 2018; let me save you the trouble. It’s called bibliomemoir, and there are many, many comps in case you want to go this route. Look to Harry Eyres’ Horace and Me. Michael Perry’s Montaigne in Barn Boots. John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche. The genre is prominent enough now that there are viral tweets dedicated to mocking it.
In time, I realized I wanted to take myself out of the project and focus entirely on Poe. For this, too, there is ample precedent, stretching back decades. Check out Alain de Botton’s 1997 How Proust Can Change Your Life. Or more recently, Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café. Or any of Ryan Holiday’s mega-popular books on Stoicism.
They’re just the nonfiction examples. Anna Todd’s After and Robinne Lee’s The Idea of You both grew out of an obsession with Harry Styles, that great rival of Chekhov and Trollope. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Gray began as Twilight fan fiction. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies explains itself. Grady Hendrix, for his part, essentially earns a living as a horror fan, burlesquing the genre and racking up bestsellers from The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires to The Final Girl Support Group.
How the formula can work for you
You may be laboring with a novel or focusing on nonfiction. It doesn’t really matter. To get a traditional book deal, you need a specialty—a story only you can tell, a topic only you can cover—plus an audience wanting that coverage.
So ask yourself: What writer does it for you? Who’s the Julie to your Julia? Is there some literary IP that you love so much it’s a borderline problem? Bingo.
Your audience may flow either from your own platform or, far more handily, from your subject. Anna Todd didn’t invent One Direction from whole, sweaty cloth. Nietzsche remains a lot more famous than John Kaag. The point is, it’s far easier to tap into a large existing audience for a subject than it is to try to build a platform of equal size. And if your subject is popular enough? Your own platform just became a lot less important.
Suddenly, agents return your emails. Acquiring editors call. Sales numbers start to stack up. And you’re launched.
This is the Julie & Julia Formula, some heretofore hidden wisdom coming to you via a Russian doll of influence that nests back to literary time immemorial, and for what it’s worth, you have my blessing. Go forth and publish. Lose yourself in envy, obsession, love. Maybe lust, too, why not? Could be your ticket.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, just came out from Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.