Most of my writing begins as one tiny nugget of an idea scribbled on a sticky note or receipt, so I definitely start out as a pantster. If an idea grabs hold of my imagination and won’t let go, then I begin to flesh it out, still by the seat of my pants, though, and often in my head. At some point, though, I have to step back and ask what I’m doing and how I might make this lovely mess of ideas into a story or a poem that could hang together and actually become a book. That’s when my writing becomes more planful.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
A first draft can take anywhere from six months to two years. Revisions can take that long or longer. From inception to final edits, GONE FISHING took about five years to complete. For picture books, the first draft is definitely shorter, but rewriting can take quite a bit of time. When I began THIS OLD BAND in 2008 it had a different title and an entirely different premise and I was struggling to complete a draft. That version was also a counting concept book that featured cowboys and cowgirls, but it featured a duel. Once I figured out that the characters wanted to play in a band rather than fight, I settled in and wrote the entire book rather quickly, but it took a couple of years of duking it out with that older version to arrive at that point.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?
I am a strict multi tasker and typically work on several projects in various stages of completion. That changes if I’m on deadline – then I become a one-project-at-a-time writer. I do think it’s simpler for me to weave from project to project because much of my work is poetry and picture book-length stories. A novelist has to keep many characters and plot threads in her mind for a long period of time; I’ve tried it myself and it’s hard.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
I didn’t exactly have fears related to sitting down and writing – I spent many years in the business world and would secretly write poetry and short stories at nights and on weekends. I did fear publicly declaring that I was a writer; I thought that people might judge me. I got over that fear after I left my job and people began to assume that I was a stay-at-home wife with nothing to do. Some tried to offer ways to help me spend my time. When I did come out of hiding, people did judge, but by that point I had stopped caring because I had protected my writing time.
How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?
I’m unagented, so I’ll answer this based on pre-sale. Before my first sale, I trunked at least a dozen books, many of them picture books, a few readers, the beginnings of a couple of novels, and dozens and dozens of poems.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
Yes…many. I knew it was time when my heart and mind were tugged in other directions, and the old ms didn’t tug back.
Since you’re unagented, how do you submit manuscripts. How did you get that “Yes!” without an agent?
When I first began to feel that my stories were strong enough for publication, started out using Chuck Sambuchino’s Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market book. I had spent several years researching, sending out manuscripts or partials, hearing “no,” then a few “maybes” that became “no.” After several years of that and returning to school for my MFA in Writing for Children, I finally heard “Yes!” from my Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor.
I know that conventional wisdom is to have an agent before you sell your first ms (especially with novels), but if you have a strong manuscript and you’re not getting positive reaction from agents, maybe consider a couple of things. Maybe the manuscript needs to be tweaked just a tiny bit more, or maybe you could try to submit your story directly to a few carefully selected editors on your own. Some publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts; just make sure to follow their submission guidelines.
How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?
I was so grateful and overjoyed! Beyond simply being published, though, my writing goal was to write a story that would find it’s way into children’s hands, so the first time I saw children enjoying my book was the real joy for me. I never get tired of seeing and hearing children read – not just my stories and poetry – anything. When they are confident in their reading, children are so genuine and enthusiastic. I love being swept up in that excitement.
How much input do you have on cover art?
Very little. I have been lucky enough to be asked about conceptual style before final decisions about art direction, but the choice of illustrator, the final cover art, and interiors are mostly a collaboration between the illustrator, art director, and editor. The illustrators for both THIS OLD BAND (Matt Loveridge) and GONE FISHING (Matthew Cordell) have exceeded my expectations with their talent and creativity in visual storytelling.
What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?
This is something that I sensed, but had never experienced: Those working in and around the children’s publishing world are smart and generous, and care about the writing, the writers, and helping books reach the hands of young readers. That network includes a wide range of people from those working within the publishing world, to trade publications, authors, teachers, booksellers, librarians, bloggers, parents, and young readers. Really, anyone who loves and acts on the idea of helping children gain access to great books and reading is part of this global, committed network.
How much of your own marketing do you? Do you have a blog / site / Twitter?
I do a fair amount of my own marketing. I have a website, an online journal, a Twitter account, and a Facebook author page. I also keep an online journal called The Writer’s Whimsy (it’s not a full-fledged blog, but it does allow me the flexibility of blog-type posts when I choose to go that route.)
And I participate in the Kidlitosphere Poetry Friday meme and am a regular blogger with Smack Dab in the Middle Blog. I’ve also been dabbling in videos – something that I’m hearing quite a bit about, so I think it’s time to learn about creating videos and how to use them as an author. A year and a half ago that would have petrified me – I didn’t even have a Twitter account until the 2k13 Twitter was set up in the fall of 2012. Now I don’t know what I was afraid of. I had pretty serious Twitterphobia before that! The marketing idea that I keep returning to is that it’s not always about me. I believe that there is a great benefit to me even when I’m engaging online in helping someone else.
I also reach out to booksellers, teachers, and school media specialists to engage in events and school visits, and occasionally present at conferences. I enjoy face-to-face interaction and feel lucky that my books allow me a fun way to engage young readers. It’s hard to quantify any of these things in actual sales, although schools are great about pre-selling books when I visit.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
Before an agent, before a first sale. When I signed my first contract in 2011 I had email, a rarely used Facebook account, and outdated business cards – that was my entire platform – I’m not kidding. I had been so focused on writing that I had ignored the vast changes happening online. I didn’t recognize how – or feel that – I belonged, so I ignored it. I paid for it royally, too, in overcoming fears, coming up to speed, all the while feeling anxious and ignorant. Thank goodness for leaders like Mindy and my good dumb luck of stumbling into The Class of 2k13 and the Lucky 13s! Looking back, not having any sort of platform didn’t rob me of the joy of celebrating, it just made that time more intense than it needed to be.
Engaging now while you have a little more flexibility in your schedule can be simple: a static website with one or two pages describing you and what you write, a Twitter account, maybe a social Facebook page. You don’t need a blog, but you might consider writing a few essays or short tutorials and posting them on your site, or offering to contribute an essay to a few of your favorite blogs, or maybe even join a group blog that you can tie back to your web site. Then when you’ve made your first sale, you have a solid foundation upon which to build.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
That’s a great question, Mindy. I’m not sure that I know the answer. I do know that we are all in this together and that there are good and smart people online who are more than happy to help authors at any stage from pre published to well published. I have also noticed that those who know me, even if it’s through my online friendships, are some of my strongest advocated. So I guess I would say that social media helps build relationships and that, in turn, may develop into readership.
Thank you for hosting me here for your SAT, Mindy. I had a great time.