Grammar Girl Nice Guy Transcript
Hello! Today, I have an interview with the authors of a book called “Mr. Nice Guy,” and we’ll discuss a funny story about the semicolon, and what it’s like to work as an author team, and more, but I know some of you listen to the podcast with your kids, and so I want to give you a heads-up that the book deals with adult themes. There’s nothing explicit in the podcast, but it does mention a couple of times that the characters have sex. So if that’s a problem, you’ll want to listen to it later. OK, let’s get started.
MIGNON: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and I'm here today with Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer, co-writers of the new book “Mr. Nice Guy.” Thanks for being here today.
JASON & JENNIFER: Thanks for having us!
MIGNON: You bet! Well, I’m, I'm almost through the book. I stayed up really late last night reading, but I just couldn't quite stay awake to finish it, but it is a lot of fun.
JASON: Oh, thank you.
MIGNON: Oh yeah. You bet. “Self Magazine” describes it as “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Sex in the City.” So Jennifer and Jason, can you give our listeners a little rundown on what the book is about so I don't reveal any spoilers?
JENNIFER: Sure. So “Mr. Nice Guy” is about two journalists who every week sleep together and then critically review each other’s sexual performance in a magazine.
It is in some ways based on Jason and my very long time working in New York City magazines, so it's kind of set against the backdrop of a very lavish and cut-throat industry.
MIGNON: Yeah, I was actually going to ask you about that. So Jennifer, it says you frequently write for the “New York Times” style section, and Jason you're the editor-in-chief of “Entrepreneur Magazine.” So how many of the little details in this book come from your own lives or details drawn from things you've seen while working in the industry?
JASON: Oh, a lot of it. So most of it is drawn from an earlier time in our lives. I moved to New York in 2008 to work at “Men's Health,” and that was a crazy experience. It was also when I met Jen, so we were dating during that time, and we had both gotten out of long-term relationships, and so we were both kind of fumbling our way through the dating scene, and also
“Men's Health” was a unbelievable entry into the weird world of media in excess. I was doing a lot of the coverage of celebrities for the magazine, so we got invited to all of these lavish parties, movie releases, and weird events where whiskey companies would just throw a ton of money at something for no clear reason, and we’d, yeah, we were, we were perplexed and amazed by that time, and that is what we pulled from
JENNIFER: Yeah, and my reporting for the “New York Times,” especially for the style section, you know, I've just gotten to cover some really crazy characters and been to some of the insane parties that they’ve thrown, so you know, a lot of those details also made it into the book. It’s really an insider's look into the world of magazines.
MIGNON: That is amazing because I found it was pretty outrageous, some of the stuff, and to think that some of it might be true or close to the truth that’s, that’s stunning.
JASON: Yeah, yeah, it’s funny, like the conversation that we would have over and over again when we would go to these things is “Why does this exist?” Yeah, like “What, what is, what are they trying to do?” Because nobody will ever follow up with you and ask you for anything. It's just the spending of money for.. we we could never figure out why.
JENNIFER: It’s like, “How did we get here?”
MIGNON: That makes the book even more interesting in retrospect: knowing that there's
elements of truth to it. Wow, okay. So you mentioned that you you met while in the early stage of your career while you were working in magazines, and you told me a great story about how that happened. Can you share that with the readers?
JENNIFER: Sure, so yeah. So both of us like Jason had said had both just got out of long-term relationships. We had never really dated before, so we both spent a long time dating online, and when when we met, you know, this was pre-swiping, so Tinder didn't exist. Bumble didn't exist.
So you put a lot of effort and care into writing your profile, and of course, us being two writers it was really important that, you know, the people that we were going out with knew how to put two words together, and so when Jason emailed me, when he messaged messaged me on OkCupid he, you know, not only was cute and she seem to be a guy I might get along with, but he used an amazing grammatical … an amazing punctuation mark, the semicolon, which is like a pretty serious grammar. You have to have, like, really know your stuff to use a semicolon, so I was like “I've got to go out with this guy.”
JASON: It's a strong move, the semicolon. It’s a power move.
MIGNON: That is some advanced stuff, the semicolon.
JASON: Yeah, well, know, I want to show that I am no dummy.
You get the, you just get the dumbest dumbest messages on these things, and I don't even really remember using a semicolon intentionally. I think I actually just dropped it, but I was definitely aware that I was competing in a marketplace of a lot of noise, and so especially if I'm going to reach out to somebody who I know is smart and accomplished, I wanted to make sure that she
understood that I can roll like that.
JENNIFER: Yeah, Jason also put into the search bar “Jewish journalist,” so he was looking for a writer, which is…why would you look for a writer? Like I had been dating a lot of musicians and, like, you don't actually want a serious relationship with a musician. I kind of think you don't want a serious relationship with a writer either
JASON: Just because of the anxiety?
JENNIFER: Yeah, totally.
MIGNON: Well, actually, so you're a married couple, and you wrote the book together, and I'm absolutely fascinated to hear what it's a like because I keep trying to get my husband to write with me, and he won't do it because he thinks it would be bad for our relationship. So tell me the truth: What's it like? The good and the bad.
JASON: Oh, I thought it was great. I mean, it was great for us. I can totally appreciate that it isn't right for everybody. We had laid the foundation for this a long time ago. When we were dating very early on Jen had asked me to edit a version of her very first novel, and you know that could have gone south in any number of ways, and I really, I tread very carefully, but what I did is instead of editing it the way that I would a magazine piece, where, like, I think of myself as the gatekeeper for the magazine, and instead I was just thinking okay, if something doesn't work in here, if there's a scene or something that doesn't work, I will just circle it, and I'll ask her what she was going for—like what was the intention of this moment—and then we'll work together on it, which actually was really good for, I think, the book and me learning as an editor, and our relationship, so we've collaborated quite a lot in the past. I would show her something I was working on, and she would show me stuff and and neither of us are particularly precious about our work, which I think is really important if you're going to collaborate, but also I think that if you're just going to be a writer in general, it's really important not be precious. So by the time that we decided to do this, I think we each understood how the other works, how we work well together, and what we can each bring to the project. But that is not to say that everybody…you should, like, baby step your way into it. I would not suggest diving into a project like this as the first thing, but collaborate in small ways and see if you can calibrate to each other.
MIGNON: Yeah, that's good. I am I edit his stuff sometimes, and he does give me feedback on my work too, but not a lot, like, you're right maybe maybe a short story or something like that would be a place to start.
We’re going to take a quick break for our sponsors, but stick around because when we get back, we’ll hear more about how Jason and Jennifer work as a writing team, why they favor straightforward language, and even though the semicolon brought them together, why they are both so attached to using the colon.
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JASON: I think it's really important to know what each person's strength is, like, what they bring to it, so that you understand how you fit together as a puzzle, and Jen really understands narrative and character development. That is not my strength because I come from nonfiction, and but she's written prior novels, and I because I come from magazines, am really good at punchiness and condensing things, and so Jen, we plotted this book out together, but then Jen wrote most of the narrative.
JENNIFER: Right, so when we decided to start working on “Mr. Nice Guy” together almost from the beginning, we figured out who was going to kind of own which part of the writing process.
So like Jason said, I wrote bulk of the narrative, but then, you know, because this book is about two people who are columnists, and they are critiquing each other in a magazine, we needed to put all of the columns in the magazine so, you know, I really thought that Jason, you know, being a magazine editor and having written columns, would be great, would be really great as the person to write those columns, so that was the role that he took on, and it was it was really fun, it was like kind of fun to get inside each other's heads to understand, like, how we see the world, like how we see sex because we're writing a lot about sex in this book actually, and you know, but that's a whole other level for our partnership as a artistic collaboration and marriage.
MIGNON: Yeah, no. It’s fascinating, and in the book, I will stay too about the writing, it was really clear and straightforward, like, I can tell that you both come from the magazine world because it's just, it's a fast read, it's it's just really…the writing is just so straightforward. I really liked that part about it. I could just go through it and I didn’t have to dig out all the different meanings.
JASON: Thank you. yeah, can I just say something about straightforward writing? I had and I appreciate it that you call that out, so as many young writers do, I used to think that the key to successful writing was to be as complex and dense and flowery, right, like bells and whistles, and then when I got that job at “Men's Health,” which which had a a real house style to it of crisp writing and very straightforward, I tried to adjust to that style, and I remember writing this piece, it was like the first profile that I ever wrote, which I think might have been on Paul Pierce who is a Celtics player the time, and I got a bunch of emails from readers, and they were all like, “Hey, I really like how, like, I really like how how simple and understandable this was.” It was like things that if people had said this to me a year or two ago, I would have found as an insult, but instead I came to understand with something that they really valued, and that made me think very differently about my own writing, and I developed a very different writing voice that I really like now, which is how I speak. I think I speak fast, and I want my writing to read fast. I wanted it to feel like a slip and slide, like you get on it and you just moooo just move through it, and and that means, yeah, that means not tripping people up unnecessarily.
MIGNON: Yeah, and I would say you're definitely achieved that, and also the, it’s funny because I can tell now that this is sort of based on your real life experiences, because Lucas, the main character in the book, he also goes through those sort of thought processes about his writing. He starts out, you know, wanting to use… wanting to impress his editor essentially, and and thinking about his writing in that way.
JASON: Yeah, oh, I, I very I drew a lot we drew a lot of from my own experience and put it into Lucas and in a way Lucas felt like, like an airing of my embarrassments.
MIGNON: Well, so, I was thinking, you might have a sentimental attachment to the semicolon because it helped you meet, it helped you hook up on online that very first time. But you told me that you also love another punctuation mark and tend over use it—the colon.
JENNIFER: Oh, man.
MIGNON: I thought that was so fascinating because most people over use the dash.
And the dash, and a lot of times you can use them interchangeably—the dash or the colon—so I want to hear why you prefer the the colon to the dash.
JENNIFER: You know I think that it is, it is, with the dash you, you almost use it more intentionally. So I think that like, like perhaps the reason that we don't overuse em dashes is that it's easier to know that you're doing it. Whereas there’s something about the colon which is just sneakier or, like, it just kind of, you know, suddenly it's there on the screen and you’re and you’re, you know, describing a list. It’s so strange. I recently had an article in “The Washington Post Magazine” and it wasn't until I was looking through the final proofs on the page that I realized I had put a colon in like every single graph. I was like “This is no good!” and
fortunately, like at the last minute I was able to get them to like go back and excise all the colons, but yeah, Jason why do you use them all the time?
JASON: I think I use them all…it really goes back to that slip and slide thing. like. I want every sentence to feel like it connects to the next sentence in a really fluid way, and so I think I end up
being tempted to use the colon because it announces that the sentence that follows is connected to the sentence previous, and I do want to lock everything together so much, and I'm thinking like a lot about how one thing leads exactly to the next and one thing sets up the next, and then I end up over relying upon this punctuation to announce that, which you don't really need because if you're writing it, it just should connect, and that's the thing that I always learn every single time that my, my piece goes through a copy edit, is my copy editor will just take out all these colons, and it reads exactly the same. They just weren't necessary. They didn't need to be there.
MIGNON: They just help you get to that first draft.
JASON: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Right, it's like, it's like the scaffolding, right, and then you take the scaffolding down and the building is still there.
MIGNON: Right. So tell me about your editing process. How do you, you know, do you do lots and lots of drafts, do you, you know, write it out once and then go back and change the wording, or like, how do you put it all together?
JENNIFER: So I think it's different for a novel than it is for writing a piece of journalism. For “Mr. Nice Guy,” we really…so I really just kind of banged it out. I, I did not, I try really try not to go over sentences again and again and again because I find that when I'm writing fiction, I will never actually move forward. I will just kind of be retreading my steps, and I think, you know, when you're writing a novel, it's really really important to have that forward momentum because it's hard, it's hard to look at a blank page. It's hard to…I find it difficult to use my imagination I mean, I love doing it, but it's actually like very strenuous and exhausting, and so I need to kind of get that momentum, which means that if I try to edit while I'm writing, it’s going to be a complete disaster, but then once I've actually got a chapter written or I’ve got a couple of chapters written, like, then I can go back and, and now start looking at the language and refining and, like, making sure that it’s, you know, exactly what I wanted to be, and then it's great to then, you know, with me and Jason, to have a partner who can then take a look at, you know, that raw material or even the edited material and then punch it up even more, and so that's really what we did for each other, is, is we know we kind of wrote our own parts of the book, we edited our own parts of the book and then we swapped, and then we edited each other's writing, and I think that's hopefully, what, what makes the book feel like it's fluid and not piecemeal because,
you know, there are two authors.
JASON: Right, yeah. People have told us that they've been trying to guess who wrote what, and it's hard because both…everything in the book has multiple passes from both of us on it, so it has blended our voices.
For my own stuff, I tend to think about whatever I'm writing, whether it's a 300-word piece or a 3,000-word a piece or longer, I try to think about the architecture of it, you know, your trying… the each piece has a couple different acts, and you're trying to get…there's the setup and then there's the expressing this idea and that idea and so they end up feeling like blocks, and so what I tend to do is work through one of those blocks and then go back and read it all, and see if it feels like they connect, and then I work on the next block. And sometimes those are actually structured out, right, if you're writing a long magazine piece, it'll have three, four, five sections and so you can work on sections, but for example, a podcast script of 5,000 words, that, that,
that will have six or seven blocks in it of topic or information, and the listener may not really see it, and in fact shouldn't see it, they shouldn't see that architecture, but I think of it that way, and so I just try to push myself through one of them and get to the finish line and then reassess.
MIGNON: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That sounds like a really fun way to write, to be going back and forth like that with a writing partner, and I will say when I first started reading "Mr. Nice Guy,” I was trying to guess which part each of you had written, and I quickly gave up because it feels, it's a very cohesive. There's no way to tell who wrote what. It all flows as though it's one wonderful author.
JASON: Thank you that's that's awesome to hear.
JENNIFER: Yeah, thank you so much.
MIGNON: Yeah, so Jennifer, we also emailed about our favorite words, and I particularly loved yours, which was “gloaming.”
JENNIFER: Oh, yeah.
MIGNON: And I had never heard it before, and I would just love to hear why you love it.
JENNIFER: So, “gloaming” is one of those words that I feel, I feel like it just…the word itself and the sound of the words really expresses the feeling of the word and the definition of the word. So, so the gloaming is kind of that, that period of the day that is right around dusk. It’s kind of the moment of the day just before, it's like a specific part of dusk, just before,
you know, it totally becomes night time and everything is kind of blue-violet and has, has this kind of melancholy glow. And there's something about the, the “GL” like
so it's got that glow but then the “M” that kind of shows up in the middle of the word kind of gives it a darker tonality in a way, and yeah, it's just so atmospheric. I think,
and I don't know where I first encountered that word, but I've got to think that it possibly came, it must have come from some British literature that I was reading as a kid, maybe Tolkien something like that, so you, so yeah, it's just the atmospheric and just it's so specific is why I love it.
JASON: The phrase “in the gloaming” seems to, I feel like that's the only time I've ever heard the word “gloaming" is in the phrase “in the gloaming.”
MIGNON: Yeah, well, because I hadn't heard it, I looked it up, and the Oxford English Dictionary says it's rare and it's primarily Scottish, so it was probably, probably right there was something British or Scottish that you were reading because it, it just doesn't show up very much, and it is actually—so I love word history—so it comes from the same Proto-Germanic word that gave us the word “glow,” and so you're right: it does have that feel of the night time and it's modeled after “evening," so it probably means something like “the glowing,” which is sort of what the sky does at that time of night, so it’s, it's a beautiful…t’s my favorite favorite word that an author has told me so far.
JENNIFER: Wow, that is such an honor. I love it thank you.
MIGNON: …small honors in the world, right?
Well, thank you so much for being here today. Um, tell people where to find both of you online and most important where they can get “Mr. Nice Guy.”
JENNIFER: Sure, so you can find “Mr. Nice Guy” anywhere that you get your books. Go to Amazon; go to your favorite independent bookstore.
We, we’ve also recorded the audiobook, actually, Jason and I recorded Carmen and Lucas’s columns. That's where all the kind of sexy, saucy stuff is.
JASON: That was very awkward!
JENNIFER: Very awkward! Our parents will not be listening to that hopefully.
So, yeah. We really hope that you pick up a copy of “Mr. Nice Guy.” And then in terms of finding us, Jason?
JASON: Yeah, so we're both on social media…Twitter and Instagram. Our handles are the same. I'm at @heyfeifer. I will warn you I am far more active than Jen is and then she is @propjen (prop Jen), which is a reference to “The Wire,” Prop Joe. And, and you should, if you read the book or if you have thoughts about the semicolon or colon you should reach out.
MIGNON: Excellent. Again, I was talking with Jennifer Miller and Jason Pfeiffer, authors of “Mr. Nice Guy,” and I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.
ADDITION: A listener wrote in to point me to this song from the Girl Guides that uses the word "gloaming."