Roxanna Elden is one of our favorite authors. We met her in a class at Miami Dade College where we were teaching. From the very first time she raised her hand and opened her mouth, we knew she was something special. One of the consistent things we’ve found in our years of teaching and doing Pitchapaloozas is that teachers make the best public speakers. Anybody who can wrangle a class full of kids and live to tell the tale is prepared for anything. With the publication of her debut novel, Adequate Yearly Progress, we thought we’d check in with Roxana and see what it was like to go from nonfiction to novel, from novice to fighting-sophomore-slump author, from wide-eyed debutante to grizzled veteran.
The Book Doctors: Congratulations on your debut novel. Tell us about Adequate Yearly Progress.
Roxanna Elden: Adequate Yearly Progress is a workplace novel that captures teaching with humor, insight, and heart. It switches perspectives among a diverse group of educators as their professional lives impact their personal lives and vice versa. As an elevator pitch, I often describe it as being, “like the TV show The Office, but set in an urban high school.”
TBD: Your first book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, was non-fiction. Is it different taking your experience as a teacher and writing fiction instead of nonfiction?
RE: I started writing See Me After Class during my sister’s first year as a teacher. The specific goal of that book was to help teachers make it through their first years with a mix of humor, honesty, and practical advice. As an unexpected side effect of trying to spread the word about the book, I ended up in situations I might not otherwise have seen as a classroom teacher: Silicon Valley ed-entrepreneur conferences, television panels, and schools around the country where I got to talk to thousands of fellow educators. During all this, I was still spending most of my time doing daily high school teacher things, like grading essays and watching students play with their phones underneath their desks. It felt like there had to be a way to capture this panoramic view of the education world, with all its colliding ideas and interest groups, and how all of this played out at the school level. A novel told from many different points of view turned out to be my best answer.
TBD: Tell us how you used the Miami Writers Institute to find an agent and start your publishing career.
RE: The idea for my first book hit me in 2005. This also happened to be the first year of the Miami Writers Institute, which brings well-known authors and publishing industry people to Miami. The first class I ever took was The Book Doctors’ course on the process of getting a book published. That class provided a roadmap through the whole process of finding an agent and publisher for the book that became See Me After Class. Over the following years, I went on to write a children’s book and, most recently, a novel. I also continued to take classes at the Miami Writers Institute every year, and found that each year’s class corresponded to specific events in my writing life. Recently, I distilled the notes from the classes and the lessons learned from twelve years as an author into a twelve-day email series. The result is part creative writing crash course, part mobile-friendly memoir of what it takes to build a writing career.
TBD: What did you learn as a teacher that helped you in your publishing career?
RE: Teaching builds the type of thick skin that helps in the writing world. Agents and editors might not return your emails, but at least they don’t fall asleep on their desks right in front of you. As an English teacher, I also taught a lot of the skills that improve writing at any level. Constantly discussing the qualities of good writing helped in writing the book. And writing the book made me feel like the advice I’d been repeating to students actually worked outside of the classroom.
TBD: Do you approach promoting and marketing fiction differently then nonfiction?
RE: The common wisdom about marketing nonfiction books is that they should have a specific target audience. Literary fiction is expected to have a wider appeal, with authors that seemingly rise from the ether as debut talent. Adequate Yearly Progress, however, always felt like it was somewhere in between. My goal was to write a page-turning story that anyone would enjoy, but it was especially important to me that all the details rang true to teachers. The audience for my first book also included many teachers frustrated by Hollywood versions of the profession, which made it a natural fit to spread the word to teachers first. Their enthusiasm has helped spread the word about the book to a wider audience.
TBD: How did you get such great blurbs?
RE: I was thrilled to have a front cover blurb from Steve Almond for Adequate Yearly Progress, and from Dave Barry for See Me After Class. Additionally, there have been some great recent write-ups for Adequate Yearly Progress, including in The Washington Post and Forbes. The most helpful takeaway from all of these experiences is less of a specific trick and more of a general mindset: most authors are our own publicists most of the time. We might as well take the job seriously. If you were paying a professional publicist upwards of $5K a month to represent you, you’d want them to at least try to approach some of your favorite authors and publications. If you do this yourself over time, you’ll get better at the job. And hopefully, you’ll get a few lucky breaks along the way.
TBD: Tell us about the comedian you’ve been following who interviews behavioral scientists wherever he goes.
RE: About halfway through writing the novel, I stumbled on a podcast called Here We Are, in which stand-up comic Shane Mauss interviews behavioral scientists in each of the cities on his comedy tours. One of my biggest goals while writing AYP was to make sure the characters rang true as people, and the scientists on Here We Are provided a constant stream of insight into why humans do what we do. Many of these insights found their way into the novel. Naturally, I was pretty thrilled to have a chance to do an episode of the Here We Are podcast about Adequate Yearly Progress. This ended up being one of the funniest conversations I’ve ever had about teacher movies. It also reinforced my theory that teachers and stand-up comics have a lot in common.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? And teachers for that matter?
RE: As a writer, you try 100 things and only two of them work. It’s tempting to wish you could go back and skip the other 98 attempts. But the truth is, it’s notjust the two things that worked. It’s the fact that you tried 100 things, learning along the way, laying the tracks as you drove the train. That’s probably good advice for teachers, too. Your trial-and-error efforts add up over time.
Roxanna Elden combines eleven years of experience as a public school teacher with a decade of speaking to audiences around the country about education issues. Her first book, See Me After Class, is a staple in school districts and educator training programs, and her work has been featured on NPR as well as in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Education Week, and many other outlets. You can learn more about her work at www.roxannaelden.com.
As The Book Doctors, we travel around the country, going to book festivals, writers conferences, and independent bookstores, and we kept hearing about Wordstock in Portland, Oregon, one of our favorite cities. When we looked at the roster of presenters this year, we were blown away: Sherman Alexie, Dianne Abu-Jaber, Carrie Brownstein. And our old friend Cathy Camper, who won our Pitchapalooza at Powell’s, the iconic bookstore in Portland, and now has two graphic novels out with Chronicle. So we thought we would pick the brain of Amanda Bullock, the festival director for Wordstock, and get some inside skinny on what makes Wordstock tick.
TBD: There are so many amazing writers and publishing professionals coming to this year’s Wordstock. We don’t mean to put you on the spot, but what are some of the things you are particularly excited about seeing?
AB: Thank you for mentioning this! We strive for diversity and inclusion in all aspects: genre, age, race, gender, geography, and so much more. It is definitely a hugely important part of our mission, both at Literary Arts and at Wordstock, and as a curator I am always working toward greater representation, diversity, and inclusiveness. I truly want there to be something for every reader at our festival.P.S. I’m also proud that we have great representation from independent publishers in our lineup!
TBD: David has performed at several Lit Crawls with the fantastic festival Litquake in San Francisco. We see you have one too. Describe the sheer exuberant fun of Lit Crawl for people who’ve never been to one.
AB: I was first introduced to Lit Crawl in New York, and it’s one of my favorite literary events. I’ve never believed that book events are boring — the cliché of a tweedy author in elbow patches droning on in front of a leather-bound library has never, ever been my experience at any kind of book event — but I love that Lit Crawl explodes that idea, that book events can be fun, and makes it super accessible by bringing literature “to the streets,” as they say. I think for readers, particularly those who don’t see themselves as a book-event type of person, it’s a wonderful introduction to the literary community. Book nerds are the most fun.
TBD: Portland has such a great tradition of artists and writers. What have you done to tap into that fantastic pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest?
AB: Half of our festival’s featured authors are Oregon writers! It’s not difficult at all to reach that goal, since, as you mentioned, we have such talented writers here. Literary Arts also presents the Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships, so we have a great pool of writers already part of the Literary Arts family. This year features past OBA&F winners or finalists Margaret Malone, Alexis Smith, Gina Ochsner, and many more!
TBD: People who’ve never put on an event like Wordstock have no idea how difficult it is. What are some of the joys and difficulties for you? And what are you going to do in terms of celebrating and collapsing once this thing is over?
AB: This sounds like I’m dodging the question but I swear it’s true: I love reading the books by the festival authors. Since I aim to program as diversely as possible, I’m often, of course, programming authors in genres I don’t read that often, and it’s great to find work I might not have come across if I wasn’t directing a festival in Portland.
I’ve mentioned a few times that the density of the festival is its strength — the sheer number of people — but of course, it’s so difficult to efficiently plan multiple venues and simultaneous events. We’ll always be learning how to do it a little better.
Last year I got a post-festival massage at Löyly, a lovely Finnish spa in Portland, and I’ll hopefully repeat that recovery plan this year… also whiskey.
TBD: We kind of hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
AB: From an events perspective: Be a good literary citizen! It’s much easier for a bookstore to say yes to an unknown or up-and-coming author if you have been a part of their culture before pitching your event. Go to events, shop there, put the time in before your book is even written so that they’ll know you. In fact, work at a bookstore if that makes sense for you. And support other writers in your area by attending their events. Engage with the community!
Amanda Bullock is the Director of Public Programs at Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary center in Portland, Oregon. She is the festival director for Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival and produces Portland Arts & Lectures. Prior to joining Literary Arts, she served as the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown New York City. She is the co-founder and –organizer of Lit Crawl Portland, of the Downtown Literary Festival in NYC, and co-founder and –organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.
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Six years ago, we went through the grueling process of launching our website in conjunction with the launch of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. It was hours and hours of work. And we had some serious blips along the way. For example, we decided to use the crowdsourcing design website 99Designs.com because we didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg. The good news was that for $500, we got a really nice looking site that functioned well. The bad news was that our designer was in Bulgaria and we couldn’t actually talk to him. So lots of things that we wanted fell by the wayside and it was, we’d say, about three-quarters baked.
This past year, with the launch of the updated edition of our book, we decided it was time to update our website as well. At the James River Writers Conference, we met a wonderful writer named Kris Spisak who had a web design company called Midlothian Web Solutions with her husband, Frank Petroski. Though they design all kinds of sites, they are partial to writers and understand the search engine optimization that is specific to author websites. We hired them and the redesign began. Again, it took countless hours of work. But this time, we had real partners and we’ve launched a site that makes us feel happy every time we look at it.
To get the site we wanted, we studied lots of other sites. Just like with your book, you need comps–comparable websites to the one you’re trying to build. On the content side, our comp site was one that wasn’t actually for an author but for a consultant in the nonprofit sector. On the visual side, we borrowed from all kinds of sites, but still kept the same color scheme and clean feel of our last site. Kris handled our keyword search, which is essentially an exercise is figuring out your audience and how to reach them. These keywords also help us with our blog posts, our newsletters and our workshops.
Why are we waxing on about our website? Because it’s crucial for you to have one as well. Check out the video to find out our Top Ten Tips for most excellent websites!