We’re a dime a dozen….those of us who dream about writing The Great American Novel, or a children’s book or even a magazine article for that matter. But few do, and even fewer find a way to repeat the success of one book and turn it into a career as a writer. But Lisa Willet Becker did it even though she never actually fantasized about being a writer. “I do remember writing short stories and poems as a little girl, and I remember telling myself I’d write a book one day but never really knew what that would be.”
All through her time at the University of California, San Diego, the practical California native had her sights set on becoming a lawyer. She majored in English and American Literature, applied to law school, got accepted but then decided to defer for a year. She took a one-year position as a field representative with her college sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. During that year, she traveled to 30 universities across North America, meeting with students, school administrators and alumni, to help further the scholastic and philanthropic goals of the overall organization. It was a year of introspection and growth which enabled Becker to make some career changes.
“I decided I would make an awful lawyer. I didn’t think I would be disciplined enough and I didn’t think I would enjoy the work. And I really enjoyed what I was doing in the moment.”
What she was doing in the moment she defined as public relations. Years later she realized it wasn’t really “PR” but it still turned out to be a fortuitous decision. “Never mind that PR turned out to be a lot more writing and strategizing and media relations than what I was doing which was more interpersonal communications. But it still turned out to be what I really enjoyed doing and what I think I was meant to do.”
So, again, always the practical one, she decided to hone her skills and back them up with a degree. Heading East, Becker applied for and secured a spot in Boston University’s College of Communications where she earned a Master’s in PR. She reveled in the coursework and her part-time job as a writing fellow and graduate teaching assistant. She loved Boston as well, but when it came time to graduating and looking for a job, she knew she had to look elsewhere.
“Boston is full of great PR firms, but it’s also full of talented graduates looking for local jobs. There just are not enough jobs for everyone.”
A professor of Becker’s suggested, “Hey, why don’t you move to New York and get a job at Burson-Marsteller? They’ll work you to the bone for two years, but then you can write your ticket.” Becker remembers thinking, “Gosh, I’ll never work for a big firm like Burson-Marsteller.”
Although the professor’s suggestion would prove to be prophetic, at the time Becker had no interest in living in New York or working for a big agency. “I was from California and I loved Boston, and while I didn’t need to go back to California right away, I didn’t really have any interested in New York.”
It was 1995 and the Olympics were heading to Atlanta, Georgia, that year. Becker smartly assumed that the city would be ripe with marketing jobs in advance of the events. So despite knowing just one person in the city, she moved there, crashed on a couch for two weeks and networked nonstop. Within three weeks she had a job and an apartment: “I wound up working for a small boutique PR firm called Cookerly and Company. It was just six people at the time so I got a lot of experience in the three years I was there.”
Becker believed she did everything at a small agency that would have taken her twice as long to learn at a large one. Responsible for everything from making copies to figuring out how to dial up to AOL (1996 remember), Becker also was responsible for managing client budgets, strategizing and writing communication’s plans for the year, and managing client relationships.
After three years, when Becker was feeling the pull of her native California, she felt equipped to go after jobs at bigger agencies that once turned her off. “My professor was right after all. I decided I really needed something different, and I wound up working in the Los Angeles office of Burson-Marsteller.”
Becker settled nicely into her career at Burson. She loved the people, the work and despite it being the boom years in California where job offers were aplenty, she stayed put for about 14 years.
During that time, Becker also met her future husband during the nascent days of online dating. “I figured people were married to their cell phones and laptops, so why not really use that technology to get married, right?”
After the wedding, she began to jot down funny stories from their courtship as well as stories from friends. For a while the stories seemed to be working themselves nicely into a novel, but with a full time job and two children they sat on her computer, mostly untouched for years.
But when Becker turned 40, she had a novel idea. “I decided that instead of buying a red convertible to symbolize my midlife crisis, I would quit my job.”
Although she stayed on for an additional two years as an on-call employee with Burson, Becker relished the idea of more time with her children and more time for projects that she had set aside in the crazy days of working and child rearing.
When she was cleaning out her files at work, she stumbled upon her old draft of a manuscript, called Click: An Online Love Story. The story is told entirely in emails between the heroine, her friends and the dates she goes on. She took it home and made the commitment to work on it a little bit each day. “I wrote at night or while the kids were napping. I like to say it was a year’s worth of writing spread out over the course of eight years.”
When the book was done, she shopped for an agent but found the process discouraging. “It’s a lot of waiting and a lot of rejection.”
But one person who read it suggested she self-publish and Becker decided she was ok with that. “I thought, I’m not planning on being a writer anyway. This way I can get my book out there, and my mom and dad can say their daughter wrote a book.”
Oh how silly she was.
Unlike many authors, Becker wasn’t intimidated by the idea of self-publishing because she felt her marketing background gave her an advantage in the competitive world of self-publishing. So with no agent or publisher biting, Becker went ahead and published Click, her fictional account of an online romance. She put a marketing plan together just like she would have for one of her clients and started promoting it.
“Surprisingly people started reading it and then people I didn’t know started reading it.” The readers came in droves, and they liked what they read. In fact, they liked it so much, and grew so attached to the characters that they wanted to know, “What happens next? When’s the sequel coming out?”
Becker responded and started work on a sequel, Double Click. When she completed the sequel, she assumed correctly that she might have an easier time landing an agent already having one book with great reviews under her belt. But after letting the agent shop the book for a year unsuccessfully, Becker decided again to self-publish. The second one did well enough that she wrote a third, at which point, Becker didn’t even look for an agent and went straight to self-publishing.
Becker’s third Book Right Click came out this past summer. And Becker made it clear to her fans that it was a trilogy, and that was the end.
But it wasn’t the end of her creativity.
“As the third book was being edited I had an idea for another book but when I started writing it, it seemed more like a screenplay to me.”
So Becker bought some software to coach herself through the screenwriting process for what became, Clutch, the story of a handbag designer searching for true love told by comparing men to handbags, i.e. “the Hobo bag” (the loser boyfriend who steals money from you) and “the Wallet” (the one who lavishes you with expensive gifts but nothing else.)
As she was wrapping up her screenplay, Becker got a call from a family friend who asked if she’d be interested in optioning her first book.
“I said yes of course, and sent him Clutch as well.”
The ink is still drying on the deal, but as of last month, Becker’s first book and first screenplay have been optioned by a production company housed at Sony. She is now working on her fifth screenplay and pursuing a career as a screenwriter. See you at the movies.
Some personal words from Becker on getting published:
As a graduate student studying public relations at Boston University, I was asked to interview Charles Rosen, a producer for the original “Beverly Hills 90210,” for an article in the alumni magazine. During our chat, he said, “Don’t fall in love with your words, because somebody above will probably change them.”
During my 18+ year public relations career, I’ve worked with some of the biggest consumer companies in the world including McDonald’s, Ford, Sony, and Gatorade. And, I’ve spent countless hours writing news releases, bylined articles, marketing proposals, brochures, advertising copy, public service announcements, radio copy, mat columns, fact sheets, photo captions, media alerts, pitch letters, letters to the editor, video news releases, etc.
I carried Mr. Rosen’s words with me every day as colleagues, bosses and clients have “changed my words” sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
When it came time for me to write something personal, based on my own experiences and initially for my own pleasure, I relished the opportunity to write what I wanted, how I wanted and when I wanted. It was only after I considered publishing the book that I nervously harkened back to Mr. Rosen’s advice.
But, I took the plunge and explored the traditional publishing route, getting feedback from multiple literary agents. One suggested that I rewrite the book into a typical format with just a few emails here and there. But, I wanted to stay true to the narrative that I thought worked best.
Another agent explained the current economic state of the publishing industry to me. Due to the large investment to edit, produce, distribute and market a work by an unknown author, many large publishers won’t take the risk. She recommended self-publishing as a way to get my work out there and allow me to control the process.
And, so, I decided to self-publish my novels. And honestly, I couldn’t be happier. For better or worse, this is the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it. Thankfully, readers and reviewers seem to be enjoying it. And so, thanks to the popularity and ease of self publishing, I say to all of the aspiring writers out there, “Go ahead and fall in love with your words.”