Ask most published authors how much their publishing house did to market their books and they’ll probably say, “Not much.” And it’s true: Unless you’ve established that you will make your publishing house bazillions of dollars, or they’re willing to bet that you will (first-time authors with huge advances, anyone?), you’ll probably get a standard marketing plan. Though this standard plan varies greatly from house to house, I think it’s fair to generalize and say it boils down to “Not much.”
So, what can we as authors do? Market ourselves! First, let’s talk author blogs. I’m no expert in this arena, but I have in the booth today YA author and blogger, Nova Ren Suma, to lend me hand.
Nova is the author of Imaginary Girls (2011) and Dani Noir (2009), which is being reissued as Fade Out for the YA shelves in June 2012. Her next YA novel is 17 & Gone, due out from Dutton/Penguin in 2013. She can be found at novaren.com, on her blog distraction99.com, or on Twitter as @novaren, distracting herself endlessly.
Nova, your blog has such a cool name! Care to share your inspiration?
I started my blog distraction no. 99 in 2005, before I wrote YA fiction, and before I published any novels. I named the blog for the fact that I was so easily distracted, figuring the blog would be one more distraction I didn’t need (and, imagine, this was before Twitter)!
How long have you had your blog, and what was your impetus for starting it?
At the time I started blogging, I was a recent MFA graduate struggling to publish literary fiction for adults, and I used the blog as an outlet for myself and as a way to connect with other writers. I most often blogged about writing itself—the process, the low points and the high points—and sometime during those years my identity as an unknown, struggling writer shifted. The blog has been witness to me discovering YA, becoming a ghostwriter, publishing my first book under my own name, finding my first literary agent after I thought I’d never have one, publishing my first YA novel, and then promoting my books.
Promotion, you say? Can you tell us a bit more about how you use distraction no 99 for promoting yourself and the work of other writers?
It’s when promotion came into the mix that my interest in the blog and its focus shifted again. I would much rather do anything else—even a sink full of dishes—than be actively promoting myself. We all know how dirty that can feel. So when promotion started ruining blogging for me, I decided to reinvent distraction no. 99 into something else. Now I continue to talk about my writing process (as much as I can talk about, since so much now needs to be kept under wraps), and I talk about things like writers’ colonies and integral publishing moments, but what I most like to do is focus on other writers and their books. I never do book reviews. Instead I interview authors and feature them in my themed blog series.
Building a community is so integral to the process of blogging. How have you gone about working with other authors to do so?
Over the years, I’ve connected to many other writers who blog, and a community naturally formed among us. Now on distraction no. 99, you’ll find author interviews, including in-depth “writer-to-writer” interviews with authors I admire about books I’ve loved, and a new debut interview series featuring short Q&As with ten debut YA authors per season. The next round is coming up in April, featuring ten Summer 2012 debuts I’m excited to read. (I’m keeping which books I chose a secret until April!)
Plus I’m doing blog series on different topics, with featured guest blogs on themes like “What Scares You?” for October, and “What Inspires You?” during NaNoWriMo. The current blog series I’m running is called “Turning Points” and features different authors (mostly YA, but other writers, too) revealing the turning points in their writing careers. It just started this January, with inspiring posts from Gayle Forman, Sean Ferrell, Saundra Mitchell, and many more. It will be ongoing, with new guest blogs three times a week, into the spring, or for as long as I have authors’ stories to publish.
From a self-marketing perspective, how do you feel your blog has helped you build a group of potential readers and, dare I say, fans?
I didn’t expect this, but somehow all that passion and writerly angst and self-musing I pour into my blog appears to resonate with people. I’m often contacted by people who discovered me through my blog and then went out to buy my books. Somehow, some post I wrote on my blog made them think they’d like my fiction, too. How amazing is that?
I’ve noticed that there are some things that keep people coming back: Reveals, for one. (My blog about exploded the day I revealed the Imaginary Girls cover.) And giveaways. People love giveaways. But I don’t like having just a giveaway and throwing books at people, so I try to time them with important moments or connect them with the blog series. Many of the authors involved in the current Turning Points blog series are including giveaways with their posts, and I do hope this will entice some people to come over who may not necessarily have visited my blog otherwise. And of course it’s important to tease and publicize new content on Twitter and Facebook—otherwise, you’ll be missing many readers who might not find you.
But in general, I’ve noticed that readers seem to respond to honesty. The posts that most resonate with my blog readers aren’t the posts where I’m telling people about what book event I’m doing next or what journal reviewed my book or whatever. They’re the posts that pull the curtain aside and show the real person behind all of this. Those are also the author blogs I most love to read.
A blog is great for self-marketing, but you’ve used yours for so much more. What would you say is your favorite part about blogging?
I wouldn’t keep blogging if it was to only market myself and my books. I keep the blog because it’s been a part of my life for years, and I can’t imagine being a writer without it. Blogging is a creative outlet for me and, more and more, a way to talk about authors I love and books I want to read. I’m excited about being a part of the YA community, and these new features on my blog are my way of showing it.
That said, I hope anyone who comes across this interview will consider checking out the Turning Points series that’s currently running. I love plugging it, because these posts aren’t by me—they’re by other authors, and I have to tell you, I think they’re fantastic.
You can follow the guest blogs in the Turning Points series here.
Thank you so much for having me on Through the Tollbooth and asking me such great, thought-provoking questions!
You’re welcome, Nova. Thanks for stopping by! On Wednesday, we’ll chat with Debbie Gonzalez, who runs a business making school and discussion guides for books ranging from picture books to young adult. In the meantime, do any of you blog? If so, how do you use your blog to self-market? Or, conversely, how do you use it just to have fun and meet other authors?
This winter Vermont College of Fine Arts is lucky to have Marla Frazee joining us as a Writer of Distinction. She’s an author and illustrator of spirited and structurally exacting picture books, and her work includes The Boss Baby, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, and the Clementine series for which she did the illustrations. Marla brought to the college her thoughts and experiences in an informal talk where she demonstrated the elaborate and often miraculous way an author and illustrator can work together, dog bites and all. I interviewed her about the commonalities and collaborations between writers and illustrators during the gaps we both had between lectures, workshops and lunch (+ breakfast, dinner, snacks, wine pit …)
Firstly, I asked how she was enjoying her spell at VCFA:
Marla had heard about the college for so many years and loved being here during this frenetic residency. Living within a whole lot of writers was, of course, a little unfamiliar, but she delighted in hearing writers talk about their stuff: their work, their craft and their world.
In what ways does illustration lend itself to collaboration?
Marla believes an illustrator’s job is primarily to interpret and serve the writer’s text. But it can also go further. Marla is a lover of music, and has had some interdisciplinary collaboration with her illustrative work. For example, she collaborated on a presentation with a singer-songwriter friend on her Woody Guthrie book New Baby Train, reading the book aloud whilst songs were played beforehand.
What’s her process when illustrating and writing her own projects?
Ideas generally come to her as a “need”: she doesn’t sit around forcing them to pop out. Usually, an idea comes to her as a visual cue: sometimes as a character (as with Boot and Shoe, and The Boss Baby); as a concept (Walk On); or as a visual experience (Roller Coaster). A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever drew its life from an experience of sorts: it was a “thank you” note to good friends. However they begin, her stories evolve in much the same way: a lengthy process of outlining, storyboarding, revising and editing.
When a picture book is being devised, how does the illustrator/writer partnership generally work?
After the illustrator receives the writer’s text, it is initially worked on fairly separately from the writer’s involvement. The illustrator breaks the text down visually, interpreting it with illustrations that speak both with, and alongside, the text. Various formats and page spreads are tried, and all of this is brought back to the editor. At this stage, the editor will sometimes share the illustrator’s thinking and progress with the writer, and occasionally the writer is often inspired to make changes based on how the illustrations are interacting with the words. Here, the collaboration primarily plays out as being between the writer’s words and the emerging book’s pictures.
What are the commonalities between illustrators and writers?
Marla suggested the revision and editorial process is often very similar. However she is also aware of differences between the two. For one thing, the writer’s work is often pre-contract, whilst an illustrator’s work is post-contract. Marla therefore sees illustrative work as, partly, a type of “product” – involving decisions with regards front cover design, font, layout, size, and format. These aspects have a commercial component inherent in the illustrator’s work: they implicate the book’s marketing possibilities, and where the book may be placed on the bookstore’s shelf.
VCFA thanks Marla for her wondrous work, generous presentations and readings. She definitely added to the tapestry of talent present at this winter’s residency.
Tim Martin is a third semester student in VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program. He is based in Los Angeles and his background also combines illustrated and written projects. His website is: www.timothyjohnmartin.com
One of the wonderful things about residency is meeting the Writers in Residence. A few days ago, Peter talked about visiting author/illustrator Marla Frazee. Today, I will bring you highlights from a Q&A that I did with Libba Bray last week in which she talks about writing process, humor, and the well-plated NECI food.
What are some of the challenges you face when you write?
The hardest thing for me is to accept that my process is my process. Because my process is chaos. I look at someone like Holly Black, who is such a genius… She’s like the matter to my anti-matter. And I look at that and think, “Why can I not be more like Holly?” But the answer is, because I’m not Holly. This is how I write. This is how I do things.
What do you do to try to accept your process?
The number one thing that I do, and you guys are building it here, is having a community of writers that you can turn to when you’re at that point when you cannot see your way clear. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with dear friends like, Gayle Foreman or Barry Lyga or Robin Wasserman or Jo Knowles and said, “Let me just talk this out. Help me talk myself off the ledge.”* In the process of talking it through, you discover a lot more than you think that you will.
I know that people have a lot of questions about humor. We’ve had a few lectures this residency about it. In your work you have a natural tendency towards humor, how did you find your voice?
I grew up in a very funny family. Humor was so integral to who we were. If you made someone laugh, then that was a good thing. They were a tough audience. I remember reading, Woody Allen, Tom Robbins and Douglas Adams, and of course Monty Python was huge. I really enjoyed Absurdist humor and satire.
Whatever story you are writing, dictates how humor is used. So, in the Victorian Trilogy, it’s Victorian and it has a British sensibility, so the humor is, if you excuse the pun, corseted. It has to serve the story. It was really fun for me to write Bovine and Beauty Queens, which is like putting on my favorite pair of jeans. That’s more in line with how I tend to see the world on a daily basis. I tend to be over the top.
In recent semesters we’ve been discussing the writer’s responsibility when writing about someone else’s culture. How did you approach this when writing Beauty Queens?
I interviewed people, such as a friend who is African American and had gone through the pageant system. I called her up and we had a nice long conversation about everything from the pageant system and racism to African-American hair care.
Ultimately, it comes down to, as always, doing your due diligence of finding out who your characters are, finding the heart and the humanity. Be an observer of the world–can you just imagine how something feels? It always gets back to human nature.
You’ve been in Vermont for 24 hours. What were your first impressions of the college, the community, the food?
The food is well-plated.
I was jokingly saying Vermont College is like Brigadoon, because I’d heard about it but I’d never been here. It always felt like this mystical place. I know a lot of Vermont College grads, so I was really nervous about going. I didn’t know if I got game to be at Vermont College. I’m a little jealous because I’ve never had that experience, so it’s amazing to be here. It’s like being fed in this community. Everyone is so friendly and incredibly smart and there’s a sense of camaraderie. I’m so looking forward to being here for a few days.
What do you hope to bring to your discussion to the students?
I really believe in being present and listening. Really, I don’t come to something with an agenda. One of the hardest things, is that I feel that I’m not worthy because I don’t have teaching experience and I never really feel like I have the authority. My answer would just be, “That thing you are writing is awesome. Write that thing you are writing.”
So, I hope that I can be responsive to whatever people might personally want to know. That lecture that April gave about outer yearning and inner yearning, sometimes I think that there is an outer question and underneath there is an inner question. So I hope to be useful.
Indeed, she was. Libba immersed herself in student life, participating in Q&A lunches with students, in workshops and lectures, and really got to know us one on one. By the end of her stay, she seemed to know everyone’s name. I know that people appreciated her authenticity and wisdom.
*Many thanks to Ingrid and Tristan for talking me off the ledge.
Melanie Fishbane is a third semester at VCFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adults program.
If you’re a current or former VCFA student, you probably know that faculty member Tim Wynne-Jones is a staple of each residency, and although his laughter is not ringing out in the chapel this January, there is still a lot of buzz going around about him.
His latest novel, Blink and Caution, won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. As if that wasn’t awesome enough, Tim was also made an officer of the Order of Canada. He’s also been nominated for the 2012 Hands Christian Andersen Award. Tim is in the middle of a year-long trip to Europe, where he’s having all sorts of wonderful adventures that sadly have taken him from us for a semester. Since he can’t be here in person to tell us all about his latest successes (and other useful things), we’ve come up with the next best thing: an interview.
While we’ve tried to capture as much of Tim in a single blog post as we possibly could, his accolades just seem to keep coming and coming, so if you’re looking for the latest word on his writing and other neat things about him, we encourage you to visit his website: http://www.timwynne-jones.com/
Q: 2011 was a great year for you, with awards and nominations for Blink and Caution, and being inducted into the Order of Canada. Can you tell us a little bit about your process with the development of Blink and Caution, and what about it you think resonates with so many readers?
A: Phew! That’s a lot of questions all rolled into one innocent looking sentence. Okay, where to start. I’m never sure what it is about a story that someone else will like or that will resonate with them. I only know one reader very well and that’s me, so I try to write a story that I would like to read and that resonates with me. If I’m not deeply satisfied with what I’m writing I assume no one else will be interested in it, either.
As for my process in writing B & C, I’ll refer you to my acceptance speech for The Horn Book Award, which was published in the January Horn Book.
Q: For those of us non-Canadians who aren’t familiar with the Order of Canada, can you tell us a bit about it?
A: Well, it’s pretty exciting. Not quite like a knighthood — no swords are involved — but a special honor that comes complete with a nice insignia, presented at a ceremony at the Governor General’s Official residence. the GG is the Queens representative in Canada; if she happened to be in the country, she’d be the one giving the award out. There were 66 people given the O.C. this year and there are three grades: Companion, Officer and Member. There was only one Companion named (a former politician). I’m an officer but I don’t get to wear a uniform — just this little pin I’m supposed to wear on my lapel at any official type event. Guess I’ll have to get a lapel, now. Oh, which reminds me. At the investiture I’ll have to wear a tuxedo. I promise to send out pictures!
Q: What does an honor like this mean for your career and creativity?
A: Who knows what it means for my career? But as for my creativity, it could be deadly. Accolades are very nice, don’t get me wrong, and we all long for them. But they can really get in the way of the gritty process of writing. Nobody is “important” in the writing mine. Just your characters — just the story. You don’t go into a story with your ego on.
Q: You’ll be sitting out this semester. Is there anything you’re going to miss about rez?
A: I’ll miss you guys! All of you. You’re my social life. (I’m actually a hermit when I’m at home. A hermit AND a curmudgeon.) So when I come to rez it’s party time. Okay, Being in Venice is taking the sting out of not being there. I’ll admit it. And the day of the party? We fly to Barcelona. So… But seriously, when I looked at the schedule I was pleased to find myself feeling sad. What I mean is that as much as I need and want this semester off after eleven years, I’m already looking forward to coming back next July.
Q: How’s it going abroad? Can you give us some of your major highlights?
A: Let me refer you to my wife’s great blog
Q: Anything you’re working on now that you can tell us about?
A: Well, that’s the thing; I’m not writing at all. I should be worried but I’m having too much fun. And I guess I’m on a big intake thing. I wrote a blog for Write at Your Own Risk. If you didn’t see it, here’s the site
Go to the archives for October 26th. I have something to say there about what it’s like when the well runs dry, which is kind of important for a writer to know.
Q: Where does a story start in your head, with a character or a situation?
A: With one scene I can’t wait to write.
That’s it? It’s over? You’re finished with me just like that? Oh. Okay. Bye then.
Hey everybody, have a fabulous Rez. And eat a NECI cookie for me.
Rachel Lieberman is a third semester student in VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She lives in Tampa.
I am sore!
Nothing major… just an old VCFA injury acting up again. My arms are stiff, my shoulders ache, there is a kink in my neck and my back is throbbing. It seems to happen the first few days of every residency. I thought it would be better during the winter semester where I can wear large padded sweaters and an extra layer of thermal underwear… but I was wrong. The old injury flared up again.
You see, I have officially hugged more people in the last two days than I have in my entire life combined. I don’t even hug my mother this often. I hugged every one of my eighteen classmates (possibly some of them twice). I hugged the graduating class and congratulated them on getting to this point. I hugged the 4th semesters because they deserved it after surviving their critical thesis. I hugged the 1st semesters and welcomed them to the VCFA family. I hugged the 2nd semesters because I couldn’t leave them out. I hugged my advisors. I hugged my past and present critique advisors. I hugged every other faculty member because they could one day be my advisor. I hugged Melissa and Shannon for making this residency possible. I think I even hugged the President of the college but I am not sure (it may have been some stranger).
I am officially hugged out!
My arms are now stuck in a permanent circle. I look as if I have been carrying a large wooden barrel around campus. It is officially impossible for me to take notes with my arms locked in an oval.
Oh well, I guess it is simply a hazard of residency. It is nothing a warm NECI meal, a good night sleep on a tiny mattress and an evening in the wine pit can’t cure. In a few days I will be back to myself again.
That is until it is time to go home and the hugging begins again!
Jeff Schill is a third semester student in Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults program.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts winter residency is in full swing. Here at the Tollbooth we’ll post missives from the residency every day. First off Sheryl Scarborough joins us–
Brigadoon Reappears in Vermont
Stardate: January 2012… soon (this semester’s graduating class) The Keepers of the Dancing Stars will boogie their way out of our hearts and into the world of children everywhere. They are such a dynamic class we will be sorry to see them go. Meanwhile, the new fourth semester class The Secret Gardeners are sowing the seeds of a creatively themed bash as the stars of children’s books. They’re hinting at a great harvest of food for us to enjoy. Yay! The “Threes” (of which I am one) will be springing their name on the group at some pre-destined moment. All I can say is stay tuned, all will be revealed. But one clue leaked early in the form of a QR code (included, in case you’re interested.)
We arrived on campus early this time and enjoyed watching this tiny island of creative chaos awaken to the infusion of so much joy and camaraderie. It’s our private Brigadoon that only comes alive for 10 days – twice a year.
Julie Larios delivered the opening lecture “Once or Twice Upon a Time or Two: Thoughts About Revisionist Fairy Tales” in which she challenged us about the notion of living happily ever after – or even getting what you want. While she was speaking about our work, her message applies to our lives as well and particularly to our lives at VCFA. We come here with the words “I wish” etched in our hearts. But as Julie says, “It’s the journey, not the wish fulfilled that matters.”
So true, right?
For VCFA grads that have passed through before us we thank you for the traditions you’ve left behind – both somber and silly. We cherish and revere each one and prepare to pass them along with glee our journey continues. And so, another REZ begins.
Sheryl Scarborough is in her third VCFA semester in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program and even though she barely remembers getting through last year she thinks of it as the most wonderful experience of her life.
May your happiness grow exponentially in 2012. I’m not sure mine will and, anyway, predicting the future feels jinxy. But one can be optimistic at the New Year. Heliotropic, say. A professor of mine once called Anne Elliot in Austen’s “Persuasion” heliotropic; Anne always turned toward the light, she said. I would like to be heliotropic.
This should be a big interim year for me. My book won’t be out until 2013, but I plan to use this unwanted time to investigate creating an eBook to go along with the physical one and perhaps to redo my website – at least to revise it to include fun activities for children when they visit in 2013. Otherwise, I hope to write more. Writing gave way to illustration in 2011, and I’d like to strike a better balance in 2012. I’m working on a (mostly) wordless picture book. Does the story-telling aspect of that project count as writing? I will optimistically, heliotropically, say that it does.
I have a solo art exhibit this month at my local library. It features many – but not all – of the illustrations from my book. It’s been a lot of fun to watch people try to figure out the story from the pictures I did include. I’ve been meaning to make a short video of the art on the wall and will post it here if I film it in the next day or so.
I have a woodworker in the family who hand carves wooden spoons. Such a simple tool, yet so evocative. People seem drawn to these spoons. They pick them up and fondle them. Rub their thumb in the polished wood bowl. Handle them like a charm.
Perhaps spoons are elemental, and mean more to us than the object itself. Aren’t spoons the first tool we’re handed as a child? Our baby selves bang it on the high chair tray. Dip it in the bowl put out for us. Bring it to our mouths on our own. Then, wonder of wonders, with Mom and Dad watching, we can feed them, too.
In this way, spoons are an expression of becoming ourselves.
For writers, words are like spoons. They shape us, even as we shape them. They’re elemental, yet stay with us forever. They feed us so we may one day hold them out as nourishment to others. And yes, we can use them to bang on our highchair trays.
I’d like to suggest my favorite New Year’s writing goal. Mold a spoonful of words into a short story. Writing a short story can help you find your sea legs when you’re a novice, and be a homecoming when you’re a pro. You can return to the form again and again to learn more about your art. It’s small but it’s a grand experiment. And in a few short weeks you can hold it in your hands.
Short stories are the ground where you can borrow, you can weave, you can practice and you can breathe. You can be edgy, soulful, playful, and sad. You can uncover character, setting, and scene. Follow the thread of a single theme. Manipulate myth. Extend a metaphor. Pick a poetic palate. And find the roundness of plot and finite satisfaction.
A short story can tilt your world. Call it the wordsmith’s equivalent of jazz, in writing a short story you are the musician, sending out a call and waiting for the response. It’s the writer’s listening place. Hang out here and see what moves you.
For me writing short stories has been tough yet magical. In their pages I’ve learned and practiced craft, since the form is truly, as Rust Hills says in Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, the place where “Everything must work with everything else.” They’ve given me another avenue of published work. And they’re a place to sometimes stumble upon the start of a novel.
The characters in my novel The Lucky Place began as a short story (morphed to be sure), but nonetheless first came to life in 12 pages. And in the odd twist of fictional fate, this just published piece started as a few lines six years ago. The characters themselves have since gone on to become another novel, but my original inspiration languished until I pulled it out this December. I knew it wasn’t a story then, it was barely an idea, but when I read those few lines I felt that tug. The one you get when you know you’ve got the seed.
Not every seed can be a novel, but you can grow just as much as a writer through writing short stories. This one allowed me to experiment with imagery and non-linear time jumps. It allowed me to consider an element that intrigues me, the difference between writing for children and writing about them, since my protagonist is a child who isn’t telling a story for kids. Best of all it allowed me to go to that listening place we all journey to as writers.
So consider ringing in 2012 with this resolution, write at least one short story this year. It’s a great tool, not really so simple, that can bring you to a listening place of your own.
art by jody brooken