Today’s guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Jennifer Prescott, author of THE HUNDRED: FALL OF THE WENTS. Jennifer has written everything from satire to humorous YA to literary short stories, but is assiduously attempting not to jump genres in an effort to finish her middle-grade trilogy.
Are you a Planner or Pantster?
I am an unadulterated Pantser, although I think we need a fresh term. How about Reckless Fool? For me, the story grows up organically, root by shoot, and every fresh growth surprises me (much as I hope the reader will be surprised). That said, with The Hundred I wrote the climactic chapter, which takes place at the cliff’s edge by the sea, very early on in the process. And a big plot twist is revealed here. I couldn’t fathom at first how I was going to find my way from point A to point B, with 20 chapters to go in between.
Once, as an experiment, I wrote a query for a novel before I’d written the novel. So I’m not immune to a bit of planning. I wish I were better at it. I’d probably avoid more ripping of threads and painful restitching.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
If I’m working assiduously, I would say a full year. I have a full-time job and three boys so the only time I have to write is in the evenings. The Hundred took me more than five years to complete. I have jottings from at least seven years ago that formed the seed of the novel.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?
I’m a multi-tasker, although I’m trying to arrest this tendency. At one time I was working simultaneously on a comedic memoir about panic disorder, a madcap YA about a pimply teen’s adventures in space, and a literary mystery about a canoe trip in Maine. I’m a genre-jumper. I’ll probably need about eight pen names.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
I’ve been writing as long as I can remember; it’s in my blood. So I’m not afraid of writing pure crap any more, because I’ve churned out pages of it. I used to be afraid. The things I feared most were: 1) Not writing due to Writer’s Block and dying a lonely death because of it 2) Forgetting something. But the subconscious never forgets. It weaves in the most insignificant sensory moment from 15 years ago, seamlessly, into today’s sentence. Especially if you once took the time to once write it down.
Writing is like falling into a dream where you are home again. It’s not writing that’s scary—when you avoid the laptop and wander around tidying the house.
How many trunked books do you have?
None. I refused to trunk this book. But I have numerous trunked short stories and other wretched bits of prose languishing in my attic. I even have some ghastly poems.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
I quit on a screenplay a few years back. Yes, I write those too! I’ve completed two, with a few others dormant. Screenplays are NOT GOOD for Pantsers. You really, really need an outline for a screenplay. They are hideously tough structurally. I knew it was time to bag it after the file was labeled something like “Screenplayv45aNEW_NewVersion_THISTIMEFORREAL.doc.”
Do you have an agent?
Nope. I am a lone wolf. I stopped waiting for affirmation from someone and gave myself my own Yes. It’s been a challenge, but kids and adults who I don’t know are reading my book. I get reports from across the country about a child devouring the story of Tully, Copernicus, and Aarvord after lights out, and I feel a surge of happiness. Maybe one day it will take off like wildfire. Maybe not. But it’s out there. There are some regrets. I have seen the effort that agents and publishers put forth for their authors. For example, to be considered for an Indie Kirkus Review you must pay at least $425. Really? I don’t have $425 to spare and it seems smarmy. But I also don’t have the Kirkus seal of approval.
How long were you querying?
I’ll answer this another way—how many times did I query before deciding to go Indie? According to Querytracker, I sent 81 queries for this book. 26 of those requested manuscripts. The rest of them said “No, thank you” or never responded. Of the 26, 22 declined (whilst comparing me to writers like Phillip Pullman, telling me I was at the forefront of something “new,” and saying how innovative and magical I was but…Not Right For List!) Believe it or not, four agents still have the manuscript. They held onto it for two years or more. I nudged. I got bored. It seemed rude, after a while. During the time I spent querying, I could have written another book. I realize I had pretty good stats. “The One” could have been just around the corner.
But, I think when you do something that’s out of the norm it takes a unique person to take a risk. The Hundred doesn’t fit neatly into any category. There are no dragons and no elves. No vampires. No unicorns. I invented just about every creature in the story, excluding a little snake and two human children. It’s its own blend of fantasy, sci fi, magic, and time travel—and I think genre blending and bending worries some people who want an easy label. It doesn’t seem to worry kids, though. I wrote this book for them, not for the agents.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
One tip is to try a completely different query if the one you have is not resonating. I don’t mean just clean it up—try something entirely different. I revised mine from scratch and got about ten immediate requests for The Hundred. I knew, then, that this particular query was a winner. Overall, querying is debilitating and humiliating, with occasional stabs of hope. I will say that none of those wonderfully hopeful moments matched the way I felt when a seventh-grade teacher let me know that two of his students finished the book in one night (500+ pages?!) and begged for the sequel. Or when another teacher, in an underserved school in the Bronx, passed print copies to three of her students and one said, “When I started reading this I almost had a heart attack, it was so good.” That’s gold. I did something right.
How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?
I handed the book to my 10-year-old son, who had read it prior to publication, and said, “I did it.” It was a rough proof copy that I was about to savagely dog-ear and proofread, and it felt heavy and proper. I had granted my book a spine, a book that was a haphazard stack of printed pages. I know that’s not “for sale” but that’s when it was real to me. If I one day see it in an actual bookstore I think I’ll get a nice jolt of electricity.
How much input do you have on cover art?
Complete input from start to finish. I had two talented design professionals create my cover, but I was able to give them a lot of guidance and feedback. I even researched and found all the bees that are used on the cover—public domain and free of charge! That said, the result is something I never pictured when I was just imagining it in my mind. The designers were able to take a beginning concept to the next level and surprise me.
What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?
I should have known, but I learned very quickly that independent booksellers want nothing to do with Amazon-created products. I used CreateSpace, which makes things incredibly easy and affordable for writers, but it is pure poison for the indie bookstore. They Hate Amazon. Don’t kid yourself that your local bookstore will want to host an author reading with you with tea and cakes and that they will stock their shelves with acres of your new book. No, they will not, unless the owner is your sister. I have heard that Lightning Source may be a less offensive service. Don’t know ‘em, haven’t dealt with ‘em.
How much of your own marketing do you?
All of it, although I do have some very energetic friends who make it their business to pass out bookmarks at the gym and call the local libraries to insist they carry my book. These people are amazing. I myself have a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and am on Goodreads.
I also have a blog for my other “personas.” It’s a little more edgy. Note from Mindy: Also, frickin’ hilarious. The Feral Pony makes me feel dull and boring next to her wit.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
I’m really torn about “platform,” especially for a fiction writer. Guy Kawasaki, author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur suggests that an indie author should dedicate months to building a solid presence before publication. It’s not very different for traditionally-published authors. I’ve heard numerous times from my traditionally-pubbed friends that they have to do a great deal of their own marketing. That said, the whole business of “platform” is somewhat abhorrent. Did Emily Dickinson have a platform? If I am literally constructing something on which the trust of my readers is to be based, would I rather stand atop a slew of inane tweets or a stack of great stories? Unless your platform-building is incredibly useful and clever, stop exhausting yourself. Just write good stories. Here’s a recent post on this topic.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
Yes, despite what I said above!