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.
We first met Grant Faulkner at one of the greatest gigs the Book Doctors ever had, presenting our writing workshops in rural Alaska. There were eagles, there were bears, there were drunken sailors, and there were lots of amazing Alaskan writers. Going through the writing process bonds you with someone, and we feel like Grant has become part of our literary family. His new book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is out now, so we picked his brain about what it’s like running the amazing National Novel Writing Month organization and writing—and publishing—his own book.
The Book Doctors: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy did you decide to become a writer?
Grant Faulkner: I’m not sure that I had a choice. I’ve always felt like I was a writer. I took a fetishist’s delight over paper and pens when I was a kid. My mom bought me a little antique rolltop desk when I was 6, and I wrote my first story on that desk. I asked for a leather bound diary for my 7th birthday, and I’ve kept a journal ever since then.
When I was 20, I was deciding whether to be an economics or an English major, and I fortunately spent a semester abroad in France before declaring. I whiled away most of my time in cafes reading novels and writing. When I returned home, I spent the summer writing stories in a little shack on my grandmother’s farm. It goes without saying that I didn’t major in economics, and the field of economics is the better for it.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid? What are you reading now, and why?
GF: The book that most changed my sense of the world as a kid was Crime and Punishment. I was too young to truly understand it, but I stumbled on it in the library when I was 13, and I picked it up because I was writing a paper on crime. Dostoyevsky showed me the many layers and paradoxes of the human soul in a way I hadn’t imagined. I truly stared into the abyss. Raskolnikov still haunts me.
I just finished Leonard Cohen’s biography, and I’m now reading his book of poems, The Book of Longing. I can never get enough of Leonard Cohen’s voice in my head. I like the way the textures of his poetry influence the textures of my prose. I’m also reading Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen. I just met her, and I thought she was a fantastic person, and it turns out she wrote a really wonderful, probing book.
TBD: What was your inspiration for writing Pep Talks for Writers?
GF: I’ve talked to so many writers who want to write year-round, who want to finish their novels after National Novel Writing Month, but it can be challenging to keep writing. I think it can be a little like a New Year’s resolution. People buy gym memberships in January and show up to exercise for a month or two, but then it’s tough to keep going regularly the rest of the year.
I want people to prioritize creativity and develop a creative mindset so that they’re not just creative in November, but every day of their lives. Creative on the page—and beyond the page. The book offers 52 different angles on creativity, so I hope people will read an essay a week and work to develop a creative habit.
TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of putting this book together, finding a publisher, and getting it out into the world?
GF: I’d never written a nonfiction book proposal, so that was a learning experience. I didn’t realize how involved the proposal would be. It was practically like writing the book itself—which was a blessing once I actually started writing the book. Fortunately, my agent, Lindsay Edgecombe, was a fantastic and generous guide.
Other than that, it was a great experience. I was fortunate to find a home for the book at Chronicle Books, which is the perfect publisher for it, and then I also had the perfect editor for it in Wynn Rankin. I hope the experience hasn’t spoiled me for upcoming book projects.
TBD: We give pep talks to writers all the time. What are some dos and don’ts of this very precarious activity?
GF: The interesting thing about being a writer is how intrinsically challenging it is, no matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. The anguish of self-doubt is always looming. The difficulty of making your ideas come alive through your words never ends. There are so many how-to-write books that deal with the nuts and bolts of craft, but the thing that matters in the end is sitting down to write, believing in yourself, taking creative risks, and writing your story.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Every writer, especially when finishing a long work like a novel, goes through cycles of despair. We all need to be reminded of why we’re doing this crazy activity of making art, putting our voice into the world. It’s easy to forget what a gift it is. It’s easy to forget that we need to constantly nourish our creative spirits.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market the book?
GF: So many things. It’s been great to write articles on different creativity topics related to the book for publications such as Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. I’ve been on a lot of podcasts and radio shows, which have been really fun. And then I’m doing bookstore events, tweet chats, presentations at colleges and companies, and then speeches at writing and publishing conferences.
My favorite part of my job is talking to people about their writing, and promoting this book has deepened those conversations, so I love it.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
GF: I learned how to be a writer mainly by writing. I unfortunately didn’t have a superhero teacher who mentored me along the way. I’ve read many writing guides and how-to books. I’ve taken writing workshops and even have a masters in creative writing. But I’ve learned most about writing just by showing up to write regularly, being in conversation with my favorite writers’ books, and experimenting in different forms.
TBD: You’ve been running National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for a few years now. What have you learned from rubbing elbows, and various other body parts, with all those writers?
GF: I’ve learned so much from the NaNoWriMo writing community. We writers tend to be solitary creatures, or that is how we often think of ourselves. And it’s true, a lot of writing tends to happen in solitude. But if you trace the history of literature, you realize how it takes a veritable village to write a book. Think of Bloomsbury, Paris in the ‘20s, the Inklings, the Beatniks. The writers in those communities created each other as they were creating themselves.
Frissons of creativity tend to happen with others. When you engage with other writers, you’re naturally combining an assortment of different concepts, elaborating and modifying each other’s thoughts. Meeting regularly with others to write or get feedback is important, and not just for your creativity— it also keeps you accountable.
The NaNoWriMo writing community is such a wondrous playground of ideas. It’s so spirited, so encouraging, so generous. It’s not only made me a better writer, it’s made me a better person.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since your book is about writing, we kind of have to ask. What advice do you have for writers?
GF: Sit down. Try to remember the first story you wrote, the glee you took in exploring your imagination on the page. Hold onto the feeling of that gift and write. Write your story, your way—as if no one is going to read it but you. Write some more. And then keep writing, never doubting that the world needs your story.
The Book Doctors will host the eighth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza beginning in 2018. One winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for their manuscript. Be the first to know about 2018 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Los Angeles Review. His essays on writing have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo with Chronicle Books. He’s also published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, two of which are included in Best Small Fictions 2016. Learn more at www.grantfaulkner.com.
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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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We at The Book Doctors love National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, they are an organization that gets together in informal ways all over the world, and in the month of November, WriMos (NaNoWriMo participants) write 50,000 words. No plot, no problem. Many, many writers have gone on to get book deals after participating. Every year, we do an online Pitchapalooza with NaNoWriMo, and we get some fantastic pitches. One of our winners, Stacy McAnulty, had such a great pitch, and wrote such a wonderful book, that she got a book deal. Her book is out now, so we wanted to check in with her to see what it was like to go from NaNoWriMo to getting a book deal. We’re doing another online NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza until March 31, 2016. See below for details.
ANY PARTICIPANT WHO BUYS THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED GETS A FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION WITH THE BOOK DOCTORS (email with proof of purchase to Sterryhead@Gmail.com)
Stacy McAnulty: We’re starting with the question that always embarrasses me because I didn’t read as a young kid. I can remember sitting in fourth grade with the book How to Eat Fried Worms open on my desk, and instead of reading the words, I literally counted them. I’d count all the words, then turn the page so the teacher would assume I was quietly reading.
Also, we didn’t have many books in the house. I remember enjoying Little Golden Books and the picture book The Fourteen Bear Summer and Winter (which was held together with duct tape).
I didn’t fall in love with a book until high school, and that was Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I never counted the words in that book. It’s about 1,000 pages; the word count must be in the mid six-figures. That novel blew me away and was also held together with tape.
TBD: What made you want to do something as ridiculous as write a book?
SM: It is ridiculous! It’s a crazy challenge similar to climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel. But I guess what appeals to me about writing a book (over climbing or swimming) is you can do it in your PJs. And while eating gummy worms. And you likely aren’t going to fall to your death or be eaten by a shark. Not much physical danger involved in writing a book. Though today my right shoulder is a little tight.
I have to write. It’s almost a sickness. Plots, crazy ideas, and conversations with imaginary characters are constantly running through my head. The only way to get these persistent thoughts out of my head is to write them down (or type them up). Maybe it is a sickness?! Multiple Mass Ideas Sickness. Obsessive Writing Disorder.
TBD: Where did you get the idea for The Dino Files series?
SM: My son asked for a “real-life dinosaur” for his fifth birthday. Obviously, he was about sixty-five million years too late. I started writing the first draft for him. I’d write a chapter during karate class and read it to him immediately after. It was great motivation having someone eager to hear the next segment of the story.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing in the voice of a kid?
SM: I’ve been told I’m immature (not sure if it was meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it). I like to joke around, and I love to learn. Isn’t that the makings of a kid? Children get to be crazy. They can blow a giant bubble with gum and truly believe this is a reasonable transportation method for traveling to the moon. Their world has many rules. Don’t touch that. Don’t go there. Quiet down. Be still. But their imaginary worlds are still full of endless possibilities. Gravity? We don’t need no stinkin’ gravity. Writing for kids lets me be a kid.
As for difficulties? There are some limits to the language and sentence structure. Fortunately, I have a limited vocabulary. You don’t want to discourage a reader, but you also don’t want to talk down to a kid. They’ll pick up on that quick. The biggest challenge in The Dino Files series is the word count. My editor wanted between ten and eleven thousand words. We needed to leave room for Mike Boldt‘s pictures and teaser chapters for the next book. That meant reducing the first manuscript by twenty-five percent. Cutting can be harder than adding words. At least for me. I had to slash jokes, description, and even characters. I learned to stay true to the story and focus on the action.
TBD: Did you have kids read the book as you were developing it?
SM: In general, I only share my work with the kids I cook dinner for–which is a small group of three. As I mentioned, I read the first draft to my son as I was writing it. Unfortunately, young kids don’t appreciate revision. When I created the next draft, I asked my son if he wanted to hear it. The answer was no. Luckily, I have two other kids. My eldest is a teenager. You want honest feedback? Ask a teen to critique your work. She read the next few drafts aloud to me. It’s great to hear your words interpreted in someone else’s brain and mouth. She also loved to point out my inconsistencies, and she would yawn dramatically at the boring parts (which have all now been cut!).
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
SM: I’d published a picture book in 2013 with a small press (unagented). I knew that if I wanted a career, an agent was vital. I entered contests and went to conferences. But, in the end, I was pulled from the dreaded slush pile. I queried my now-agent with a picture book. I was sending out about a dozen queries a month. Lori Kilkelly offered representation based on that book, but I asked her to read The Dino Files before I accepted her offer. I wanted to know if she liked my longer works as well. Lori did see potential in The Dino Files. Potential is code word for needs another revision.
About seven months later, we went out with The Dino Files. Random House Kids replied a few weeks later: What a great read! Does the author have ideas for future books in the series? Those are the moments writers live for.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market your book?
SM: Marketing a book for kids is tricky. You want to connect with the reader, which, for The Dino Files, are kids ages seven to ten. But this demographic doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts, not to mention credit cards for online buying or the ability to drive the minivan to the bookstore. So I need to connect through the adults in their lives first. I offer free Skype visits for classrooms. I’ve created a website with printouts and videos that parents and teachers can share with their kids. I’ve sent postcards to libraries and bookstores. I know there are dino-loving kids out there. I want to meet them. I want them to tell me I say Deinonychus wrong. I want them to tell me what kind of dinosaur would make the best pet. I want to inspire future paleontologists (and future writers!).
TBD: It’s so exciting to get a three-book deal. Are you already working on the next book?
SM: All the books are done and hitting shelves this year! The Dino Files series is intended for kids in elementary school. We hope they fall in love with the first book. And if they do, we can’t expect them to wait a year for the next book. Kids are binge readers. They want more. We are ready to give them more.
I’m currently working on a middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old math savant. She has been homeschooled and is technically ready for college, but her grandmother insists she give public middle school a try first. And I’m always working on picture books.
TBD: How did National Novel Writing Month help you write your book and get it published?
SM: Full disclosure, the first draft of The Dino Files was not an official NaNoWriMo win. The word count was only twenty thousand. (And the printed version is under eleven thousand.) But I have completed the fifty-thousand-word NaNoWriMo marathon three times. NaNoWriMo makes you accountable. Resolutions, promises written on sticky notes, self-imposed deadlines–none of these have the power and prestige of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo could only be improved if, somehow, they could send an electric shock through your keyboard when you failed to meet a daily goal or if there was a multi-million-dollar cash prize at the end.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SM: Yep, this is a tough question. Luckily, I have a definitive answer on what all writers must do. I’ll call it Stacy’s Top Commandments on Writing.
- Never talk about your first draft. (This is actually one of Stephen King’s rules.) If you’re telling your spouse or your hairdresser or your hedgehog all about your next project, you’re wasting your breath. Unless your hedgehog can take dictation. These people likely don’t care. Or at least, don’t care as much as you do. And when you actually sit down to write your story, it’ll feel like work. So when a coworker or a neighbor asks what you’re working on, just give them a title. But be vague. Maybe something like Sunset at Dawn.
- Carry a book everywhere. No, not your phone with a book app, not your Kindle, and definitely not a tablet. Writers read. If you’re carrying a book everywhere, you’re likely to read it. And it’s good karma to “advertise” another writer’s book.
- Compare yourself to everyone. Let’s be serious. You’re going to do it anyway. I’m just giving you permission. That way, you won’t feel guilty. Compare yourself to bestselling authors. Compare yourself to the guy in your critique group that just got a six-figure deal for a memoir about camping with his three-legged dog. Compare yourself to Jennifer Lawrence (because we all secretly want to be Jennifer Lawrence or her best friend). When you’re done comparing, move on to number four.
- Write every day. I hate this rule. It’s a cliché at this point like New Year’s resolutions and diets that start tomorrow. But…I do believe this strategy (can you call three words a strategy?) works for a first draft. You must add to your work in progress each day. Or you risk your pesky muse fleeing the scene.
- Get professional help. Of course, you may need help for your physical and mental problems, but I’m talking about your plot problems. Your character problems. Your spelling problems. You need to invest in yourself. I draw this inspiration from Vin Diesel. (Aren’t we all inspired by Vin Diesel?) He told a story on a talk show about saving up forty-some thousand dollars. Instead of buying a car or something flashy, he invested that money in himself. He made a small film with a friend to showcase his talent. That little movie led to a role in Saving Private Ryan. So if you are debating between buying a BMW and taking a writing class, take the class. Deciding between buying a Tesla and hiring an editor, get the editor. (Warning: And if you have forty-thousand dollars to pay an editor, I’m totally available.)
- Celebrate good times! It’s easy to get excited when an agent offers representation or when a publisher makes a deal or when a review is accompanied by a star. We know those are the rare, exciting moments in a writer’s life. But we must also celebrate the other big moments. When you type ‘the end’ on a manuscript, you deserve a dinner out. When you come up with that ultimate plot twist after you’ve been brainstorming (and crying about it) for a week, you deserve a glass of your favorite beverage. When you recover your work in progress from a fried hard drive, you deserve a glazed donut with sprinkles. (Guess how I spent my morning?) Take the time to celebrate your victories.
- You need writer friends. Of all my rules, this is a must. I would not be a published author without the support of my writerly friends. Your family won’t understand your problems and frustrations. Unless you are a family of writers. Your non-author friends won’t understand plot arcs and rejection letters. Your neighbors don’t understand these acronyms: WIP, YA, ARC. Writer friends can empathize like no others. They will listen for hours about rejection letters while your mom will give you two minutes (tops!) and then she’ll suggest you try something new like painting because you always liked to color when you were a child. Just today, a writer friend convinced me not to quit a project I’ve already sunk a year of my life into. Writer friends have given me advice on everything from how you organize an author visit, to how long should I wait before following up with an editor, to does this author photo make me look fun or crazy? Writers, while not exactly a rare breed (nine out of ten retirees are working on a memoir, and the other one has a picture book called The Adventures of [insert some animal that her grandson just loves]), work best in a nurturing, warm community. Just like bacteria.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
Beginning February 1, 2016, you can email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not attach your pitch, just embed it in the email. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 29, 2016. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 14, 2016. Winners will be announced on April 1, 2016. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
Learn more about the sixth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza here.
Stacy McAnulty grew up outside of Albany, New York and received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo. She currently lives in Kernersville, NC with her three children and two dogs. The Dino Files chapter book series follows a nine-year-old dinosaur expert, his paleontologist grandparents, a cat named Saurus, and fossils that might not be so extinct!
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We first met Roxanna Elden at Miami Dade College where we were teaching a class on publishing. From the second she opened her mouth (which she did frequently) it was obvious she was a published author waiting to happen. She asked so many questions. And they were good questions. She was funny, she was engaged, and she had a great idea for a book. In fact, after many trials and tribulations, she got that book published, and now she has a second book coming out. So we thought we’d check in on her and see how the process went.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: After the success of your first book, See Me After Class, what made you want to write a picture book for kids?
Roxanna Elden: The idea came from watching my dog, Rudy, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. Like a lot of dogs, Rudy was the “baby” of our family before we had kids. Ever since, he’s had to deal with all kinds of indignities–pulled ears, missed walks, and lots of interruptions to his couch naps. And, of course, he has had to learn to share the spotlight. A little after Rudy’s first new human was born, I was suffering pangs of “pet parent guilt,” and called my friend, Ginger. She already had two kids at the time, and she noted the similarities between Rudy’s situation and what older siblings go through when a baby comes along. She also just happens to be one of the Chicago-land area’s top illustrators. By the end of that conversation we had a book in the works.
TBD: Since your first book was nonfiction, did you have to find a new agent, develop new social media outlets, or find a new publisher?
RE: Same agent: magnificent Rita Rosenkranz. New publisher: marvelous Sky Pony Press. There is a bit of crossover from the audience of See Me After Class, because some elementary teachers have told me that they’re reading the book with their students, and high school writing teachers sometimes do picture book projects. And, of course, lots of teachers are moms and dads and dog lovers. We are in the process of posting lesson materials on a popular lesson-sharing site called Teachers Pay Teachers. Despite the name of the site, everything in Rudy the Dog’s “store” will be free.
TBD: Obviously your two books are in very different categories, but what did you learn from your first book that you were able to apply to this new book?
RE: The whole publishing process, from pitching the book to working with editors to looking for ways to connect with readers, was actually similar for both books. The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published was my road map through the process the first time, saving me years of trial and error. For this book, I reread the sections I needed to review and also ordered a copy for Ginger. The main lesson I learned from my first publishing experience is that marketing a book is (a) ongoing, and (b) unpredictable. With See Me After Class, I’ve done hundreds of different things over the past ten years to get the book into the hands of teachers who would love and benefit from it. These efforts ranged from epic to tiny, and the results ranged from total wash to big break. There hasn’t been a recognizable pattern. For authors, if you do 100 things and only 6 pay off, the temptation is to wish you could have saved the time of doing the other 94 things. But it’s important to remember that what “worked” wasn’t the six lucky breaks you got. It was the fact that you tried 100 different approaches.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal for your new book?
RE: Our agent, Rita Rosenkranz, showed it to Jenny Pierson at Sky Pony, and she made an offer on it immediately. Having gone through the publishing process already, I knew this was pretty rare. We all had a conversation and by the end of it, Ginger and I both agreed that Sky Pony would be a great fit for the book.
TBD: How are you planning to promote and market this book?
RE: We have a website, www.rudythedog.net, where people can sign up to have Rudy send birthday cards to their favorite little humans and pet birthday cards to their pets. Also, because Rudy the canine-narrator is based on my real-life dog, we made a stamp out of Rudy’s paw so he can “paw-tograph” books at book signings. We’ve authorized kids in six different cities to be paw-thorized paw-tograhers. They have a stamp and a notarized letter that lets them sign copies on behalf of Rudy. And I spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking of dog-related puns.
TBD: Have you learned anything about picture books from being a teacher?
RE: No one knows better than teachers how important it is to read to kids as often and as early as possible. I’m hoping that as both a teacher and children’s book author, I can find creative ways to help more parents read to their children in ways that encourage a love of books and develop early reading skills. We’ve already put a reading guide on the website that describe some skills any adult can help kids develop, and we’re working on more materials now.
TBD: What was it like working with an illustrator?
RE: In most cases, the publisher buys the book and then chooses the illustrator, so our experience is unusual, but in this case I pitched the book as a team with illustrator, Ginger Seehafer. The two of us are longtime friends–we met about 20 years ago as the only female caricature artists at a Six Flags theme park. That was the end of my career as an artist, but Ginger went on to become a top professional illustrator, doing work for big companies like Glade, Tropicana, and Hotels.com, all the way down to small companies just getting started. She had done my sample cover art when I was pitching See Me After Class, so I knew how good she was at turning verbal ideas into pictures without losing anything in translation. While discussing the book, we kicked ideas back and forth in both text and visual form until we came up with a final product. My description or text might spark an idea for Ginger, or she might send a picture that gave me an idea for a line in the book.
TBD: How did you determine how much text and how much picture would be on every page?
RE: We have a pretty good sample size of kids in the 2-6 year old age range, so for early drafts we just thought about what they would understand. Then we worked with the editors at Sky Pony, Jenny Pierson and Julie Matysik, who had experience with children’s books and helped get the book into its final form.
TBD: What you want readers to take away from this book?
RE: We hope it will help older siblings adjust to having a new baby in the house–and reassure them that it’s okay to have mixed feelings about sharing attention with another little human. (From what I’ve heard, I was horrible when my sister was born, and now we are best friends.) We also want to calm the nerves of new parents whose dogs used to be the baby of the family and who are now experiencing “pet parent guilt” as they find themselves juggling vet and pediatrician visits, dog feeding and baby feeding, and yeah… maybe have forgotten to clip the dog’s nails for a while, okay?
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for picture book writers?
RE: Young children read books differently than adults do. Adults form a mental picture of the action as they read the words. Kids mostly look at the pictures while someone reads the words aloud to them, so the picture has to tell part of the story. Ginger and I learned this the hard way. There was a page in the book where we had put an exclamation point over Rudy’s head to show that he was surprised. In the first round of comments, the editors pointed out that punctuation marks don’t mean anything to kids who can’t read yet.
Roxanna Elden has been a teacher for eleven years and is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Her inspiration for Rudy’s New Human came from watching her dog, Rudy Elden, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. She lives in Miami, Florida, with Rudy and his (now two!) little humans.
Ginger Seehafer is an illustrator who works as a commercial storyboard and
concept artist in the Chicagoland area. She studied at the American Academy of Art and started her art career as a caricature artist at Six Flags Great America. Ginger loves making art that inspires joy and creativity, especially in children who may become future artists themselves. She lives with her husband, two little humans, and two cats in Roselle, Illinois.
Rudy Elden has been a professional dog for eight years and is making his literary debut as the canine narrator of Rudy’s New Human. He likes lunchmeat, cheese, long naps, and medium-length walks.
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