Today’s guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Mike Grosso, author of I AM DRUMS, which is his MG debut, releasing TODAY from Clarion Books. Mike is a musician and a fourth-grade teacher who always keeps a guitar in his classroom. His father gave him his first lesson, and his mom taught him how to keep a steady rhythm. Mike continues to write and record music at his home in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, son, and a drum set he plays much too loud.
You’ve had some major speed bumps along with the milestones to publication. What can you tell us about that?
One of the worst things that can happen to a debut author is not being a debut author anymore. My first thought when Egmont USA closed its doors overnight, orphaning I AM DRUMS, was that the universe was correcting itself. My book deal was a freak accident, so it made sense that it would vanish because I was out of my league in the first place.
I was astounded and grateful when it ended up selling the second time around to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at auction. My agent and I joked that the second time’s the charm!
Are you a Planner or Pantster?
I’m a pantser who writes occasional notes. I have ideas for how things will play out, but I’m always forcing it when I outline. I spend too much time planning, getting angry, and throwing out ideas before I’ve properly explored them. If I play around with a book’s voice, I usually get a clearer sense of where the plot’s going.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
It varies quite a bit depending on the toll of the story and the current level of insanity in my teaching and parenting life. The first draft of I AM DRUMS was written in a few months, but I just finished a recent first draft that took a little over a year. And finishing the first draft does not mean you are done. Not by far.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?
I try to work on one thing at a time, but multiple projects are always competing for my full attention. I have a tendency to tackle whatever’s working at a given moment.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
Multiple ones: Is this a waste of time? (It isn’t) Do I actually remember any of those silly grammar rules? (I did, and still do) Are people going to read this and make fun of me? (Perhaps, but who cares? And people make fun of me anyway.)
I think the big fear, though, the one that almost ruined me, was “Who died and made my words important?” (Nobody did, but I’m going to write anyway because I love it and it’s cheaper than a canvas and art supplies)
How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?
Four, and for good reason. Three are awful, and the fourth needs a lot of TLC before it can see the light of day.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
I’ve quit on quite a few short stories when I was trying to write like someone I was not. I’d never quit on a big ms, though, until recently when a great idea wasn’t coming out right. I was 20k words into it when I finally admitted that most of it was garbage and set it aside. I switched to something that wanted to be written instead, and just recently went back to that terribly executed, great idea. It’s working a lot better now!
Who is your agent and how did you get that “Yes!” out of them?
Eddie Schneider is my amazing agent, and I landed him through the traditional query process. He called me a few months after requesting a full ms and gave me some helpful suggestions. I revised and resubmitted and got “The Call” a few months later.
I didn’t know at the time that he would have to sell my book twice when my first publisher disappeared into thin air. In hindsight, agents are amazing advocates, and I’m glad I didn’t attempt this crazy debut author thing on my own.
How long did you query before landing your agent?
Querying four books without landing an agent taught me to target my queries. I sent out only 23 queries for I AM DRUMS, and I had a good reason for each one. This is drastically reduced from the 100+ I sent out for my awful first book, an unpublished fantasy that should be locked in a box and thrown into Lake Michigan.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
Always be working on something new. It makes waiting for the next rejection letter a little less terrible. I avoided the dumps by having a new project ready before giving up on the previous one. If you have something new to submit, you will still have hope!
There isn’t a magic word count, genre, or method. The publishing industry has its issues, but agents, editors, and other publishing folks are cool people who love books. They want to fall in love with your writing, but it makes statistical sense that in most cases they won’t. When someone finally does, they will be your first real advocate!
Look ahead to the next query and the next book. Keep honing your craft and sending out your best stuff.
How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?
Relieved! Egmont USA closed its doors and cancelled I AM DRUMS’s release when I already had ARCs in my hand, so I didn’t think I’d make it to the finish line until I saw the Clarion Books edition available for preorder.
How much input do you have on cover art?
My editor flashed it by me at different stages in development to get my thoughts. It was really cool, because she didn’t contractually have to do that. I’m very happy with the final cover!
What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?
I did not expect the sheer anxiety of being a debut author. Everything is new and frightening. The process feels surreal and fragile, and the closing of Egmont USA certainly didn’t help.
You can read all the articles about being a debut author and still not know what to expect. Every author’s experience is unique and filled with bizarre questions. You feel lucky to be along for a ride, so you worry about a lot about screwing it up.
How much of your own marketing do you?
I try to stick to marketing ideas I enjoy doing. I work hard to give excellent school visits that showcase my experience with kids. I wrote and recorded an original soundtrack called “Songs for Sam(antha)” that’s free if you preorder I AM DRUMS. I have a website and blog where I blog anywhere from once a month to every day when I’m doing a special feature.
Worrying about marketing is a great way to panic. That’s not to say it isn’t useful, but I’ve been in three debut author groups and they’ve taught me that writers have little control over how their book sells.
I’m also on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
For fiction it’s most important to keep writing. Building a platform is a great way to distract yourself from the job you’re actually supposed to do.
Agents and editors fall in love with your writing voice, not your marketing plan. You can worry about your platform after you’ve landed a book deal.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
Social media is fun, but plenty of authors sell a ton of books without sending a single tweet. In middle grade, where our readership isn’t as likely to be on social media, it’s more important (and more fun) to use those platforms for connecting with other authors and people who love books.