Jennifer Pullen on Chapbooks, University Publishing & Academic Publishing

Today’s guest for the SAT is Jennifer Pullen, who received her BA from Whitworth University, her MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her PhD from Ohio University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals and anthologies including: Cleaver, Phantom Drift Limited, Clockhouse, Off the Coast, Prick of the Spindle, Behind the Mask (Meerkat Press), Lunch Ticket, and F(r)iction. Her chapbook of feminist retellings of Greek myths, A Bead of Amber On Her Tongue, won the fabulist fiction contest from Omnidawn press. She grew up running wild in the forests of Washington State, but is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ohio Northern University.

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

Both, I think. I have plans for novels, I tend to know the beginning, some high points, and the end. But the in-between is mushy. Although for my current novel that I am working on with my agent, after I wrote an initial draft, we made an outline together for the revisions, which was really helpful, and I think I will start with one next time, even if it doesn’t survive the first engagement with drafting, as it were. 

With short stories I tend to just have an image, or a scene, which acts as a seed, and then it grows organically. So, definitely a Panster with stories, and a half Pantser, half Planner with novels (What is half a Panster? Shorts?  Lol).

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish? 

First draft takes about a year. Mostly because during the academic year, I am also a Professor, so I my writing time gets condensed to two days a week. After that, how long revisions take depends on how complicated the book is. My current novel is big beautiful doorstopper, so it is pretty time consuming. 

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I am a multi-tasker by necessity, since I have so many different types of writing obligations due to my dual profession. Left to my own devises, I’d probably only do one project at a time, since I tend to mono-focus if I am able. So, right now, I am writing and researching a proposal for a textbook on fantasy writing, writing a book chapter for a scholarly book, revising a novel…and some other stuff.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Oh goodness, I don’t actually remember the first time I sat down to write. As a small child, before I could write, I used to dictate stories to my parents and make them write them down (thanks / sorry Mom and Dad). As soon as I could write I was scribbling away in notebooks. The first time I tried to write for a public audience I was 12, and reading Star Wars fanfiction on TheForce.net, and decided I wanted to participate. That inaugurated about six years of sitting down essentially every day to write fanfiction for two hours (5 to 7 pm). I know I was nervous the first time, nervous no one would like what I wrote, that my feelings of being a storyteller were some sort of illusion, something that lived only in my mind. It was a delight to realize that people wanted to read what I wrote. I think that experience hooked me forever.

After that, it was a matter of learning new audiences and new modes. Learning how to write short stories for my creative writing workshops in undergrad, then learning the mores and expectations of my MFA program, and so on and so forth. But my desire to tell stories has trumped my nervousness ever since that first time, as a twelve-year-old, I decided to throw my words out into the nerdy fan-fiction internet world of the 1990s.  

Pullen.png

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented? 

About five, if you count every book I wrote since I started college in 2004. There were about four novels in there and then the short story collection I wrote for my MFA thesis, which isn’t awful, but it doesn’t really resemble the way I write now. I got an agent from the short story collection that came out of my PhD. So, five manuscripts, and 14 years. 

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Oh yes. If a book isn’t really clicking by page 100, I know it is time to quit. Basically, if I feel like the characters aren’t speaking to me yet, and I don’t even want to know what happens next by page 100, I declare it dead. 

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management. He is fantastic! I queried about three agents, sporadically over a period of years, before getting my agent. AWP started a program the year it was in Tampa where members could submit a query letter to a submission system, and three different literary agencies were going to read through all the queries, and if any agents were interested based upon your query, they would contact you. Jeff contacted me, we met, and I signed a contract.

It was a great day! When I came to the meeting, Jeff was already ready to sign me, which was incredibly flattering. My query letter resonated with him, due to his personal interesting the focus of my short story collection, which is feminist retellings of Greek myths, and some fairy tales. The sample story in my query letter submission packet was a retelling of the story of Persephone, which Jeff loved. I think, in many respects, it was a lot like submitting stories to magazines. If the right person reads your query letter and sample chapter, the door will open. 

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

3 queries over about 5 years, and then the query letter I sent to the AWP Writer to Agent program, as described above. 

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell? 

Be distinctive. My query letter worked because I made my work, my vision, and who I am, sound interesting, sound different from the crowd. Also, even it takes time, you are just trying until the right person reads your query, and it resonates with them.

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

 Unbelievable. I cried. It was the product of so many years of longing. My chapbook, A Bead of Amber on Her Tongue, from Omnidawn Press, just came out this April. It still feels surreal.

How much input do you have on cover art?

A lot actually. But that is because everyone at Omnidawn is really really nice, and it is a small press. They gave me a form about aesthetics to fill out and asked me for sample images. In the end, I ended up with the cover of my dreams. It is an image by Stephanie Law, and artist I have loved since I was very young. She used to do covers for Cricket magazine, which I adored as a kid, and now is a really respected artist. So, having a painting by her as my cover is a dream come true. However, I know the degree of input I had was unusual.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I was surprised by how much talking about the cover really helped me clarify, in a short concise way, the vision of the book. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much input I got.  

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I do have Twitter. I started it before I got published, during graduate school. But, I am really at the start of this process. Jeff told me to mostly worry about it after we finish the novel, and he sells it. But I have set up some of my own readings for my chapbook, etc. which Omnidawn will then publicize. I am actually doing a reading in Perrysburg OH at Gathering Volumes June 16th. And another reading at Auntie’s Books in Spokane WA July 26th. Who knows what my answer to this question will be later, once my novel is out in the world?  

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before? 

I think that depends. The people who are buying my chapbook are people who I have gotten to know organically over time being in the academic creative writing world. I have a vast network of people I know well or distantly, who I have met at conferences and readings all over the country. That is the product of seven years of graduate school. I also have seven years’ worth of students, who I know have been buying A Bead of Amber on Her Tongue. However, I think this is particular to being both an academic, and writer. I do believe though, that regardless, one must be a writer first. Meaning, don’t be so focused on your platform, that you don’t actually write the book. I have known people that that has happened to.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Only insofar as it is related to my network of professional peers. However, I know it has been more crucial for others, and may very well be more crucial for me in the future.

 

Continuing To Write For Yourself... Seven Years After Publication: Jodi Meadows

It’s time for a new interview series… like NOW. No really, actually it’s called NOW (Newly Omniscient Authors). This blog has been publishing since 2011, and some of the earlier posts feel dated. To honor the relaunch of the site, I thought I’d invite some of my past guests to read and ruminate on their answers to questions from oh-so-long-ago to see what’s changed between then and now.

 Today’s guest is Jodi Meadows, who debuted in 2012 with Incarnate. She wants to be a ferret when she grows up and she has no self-control when it comes to yarn, ink, or outer space. Still, she manages to write books. She has also authored the Orphan Queen Duology, and the Fallen Isles Trilogy, and is a coauthor of My Lady Jane.

Has how you think (and talk) about writing and publishing changed, further into your career?

Definitely!  

Over the years, my perspective on writing and publishing has absolutely changed. It’s had to. I’ve had books my publisher has gotten behind and supported . . . and books they have not. I’ve said good-bye to editors and publicists, and gotten to know and appreciate new ones. I’ve written books I thought would be my next book, only to find out they would not, and later found myself writing books I hadn’t imagined would be on my Also By page. 

The seven years since my first book came out haven’t killed my hopefulness, nor my love of writing, but some days it takes more of an effort to find my optimism. I have a lot better sense of things that can go wrong (and right!).

Now, the way I talk about writing and publishing is still hopeful, but tempered with carefully measured reality.

Let’s talk about the balance between the creative versus the business side of the industry. Do you think of yourself as an artiste or are you analyzing every aspect of your story for marketability? Has that changed from your early perspective?

 Both. Can I choose both?

When I have multiple ideas I’m excited about, I often consider which one will be easier to sell—which one might be the best next move for my career.  

There’s a book I’ve been working on off and on for years, but I won’t dig into it and finish it until I don’t need money anymore; the book is unlikely to bring me riches . . . or even pay a few bills. I joke about it, but it’s also not a joke.  

When I decide what to work on, I follow the characters as I’m writing and editing, but I also keep in mind what I want the book to be. It’s my job to find a balance between those two things.

In a way, I learned this lesson pretty early on in my career. Incarnate was my first published book, but it was the seventeenth novel I finished writing. I’d spent a lot of time before that writing to trends, following whims, and trying to produce what I thought other people wanted – instead of writing what is the most me. And I always, always remember that when I’m making choices. Ultimately, I am my own target audience. If I’m not happy with the book, no one else will be either.

The bloom is off the rose… what’s faded for you, this far out from debut? 

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career so far, and because of those, I’ve had to learn how to do a lot more than just write a book; I’ve had to learn how to sell it, too.

In some ways, I like feeling as though I have even a crumb of control over how my book performs, but it’s also upsetting to realize that I have to do so much of my own promotion and marketing, or it just won’t happen. (Most authors are in the same boat.) It’s also made me aware of just how limited my reach is. 

Sometimes, I think about that time our debut group had a chat with the group ahead of us. It struck me how disheartened – how world weary – the other group sounded when they talked about the business, and I couldn’t understand it. They had books out! Their dreams had been realized! But even just a few months after my first book released, I completely understood how the shine rubbed off the dream.

Likewise, is there anything you’ve grown to love (or at least accept) that you never thought you would?

Travel and public appearances.

I’ve always been a shy introvert, much more comfortable at home than anywhere else. But over the years I’ve overcome a lot of travel anxiety (I do not miss those sleepless, panic-filled nights before the airport) and figured out how to speak in front of people without wanting to curl up and die. I’ve learned how to fake being an extrovert for a little while (and how long I need to recover).  

All that was not easy for me, but absolutely worth the effort. I still get nervous, but the reward is seeing readers and other authors. That is truly one of the coolest parts of being an author. 

And lastly, what did getting published mean for you and how has it changed (or not changed!) your life? 

Before I got published, I believed having a book or nine out in the world would make my life different. Maybe even better in some ways. But so far, my life is relatively unchanged. I do travel more, people read my books, and when I’m anxious it’s pretty easy to trace it back to publishing now (thanks, publishing!), but as I answer these questions, I’m still in my pajamas (they have holes in them), I want more coffee, and the cat box needs to be cleaned. My life did not spontaneously morph into movie deals and people who are paid to clean the cat box for me.

 And really, I’m glad about that. It keeps me grounded. 

Shannon Schuren On Inspiration & Rewriting

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest is Shannon Schuren, author of The Virtue of Sin, releasing June 25th. Her short stories have been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Big Pulp, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and The Binnacle Ultra-Short Edition, among others

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Two, actually. The first was a vacation to Koreshan State Park in Florida, which is the site of an abandoned Utopian community. Many of the buildings are still standing, and I wandered around the grounds and took a lot of pictures and made notes for a story idea which I filed away and promptly forgot. Then a couple of months later, I had a very vivid dream that ended up becoming one of the first scenes in the book. It wasn’t until I was almost through the first draft that I found those old story notes. Of course, the plot of the novel bears almost no resemblance to that original idea, but the roots—closed community, cult leader, toxic patriarchy—are all there.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Lots and lots of brainstorming and writing. And rewriting. And rewriting again. Honestly, I had a very hard time nailing down this plot. In fact, I originally thought the story might be dystopian. I abandoned that idea early on, mostly because the thought of building an entire society was too overwhelming. Little did I know that creating my own cult was going to be almost as hard! 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

The story changed from draft to draft. But I didn’t a firm plot in mind when I started writing. I began with the spark of an idea and a couple of characters, and just wrote. Had I plotted first, it might not have taken me so many drafts, but then I wouldn’t have had the fun of unraveling those plot twists! Lucky for me, I also have a fantastic editor who has a gift for zeroing in on the important plot points.

Schuren.png

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Ideas come to me frequently, but whether or not they are novel-worthy is another question.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I do struggle with this. I’ve even started the wrong story a few times, only to abandon it a few weeks in. I’m learning to listen to my gut and go with the idea that I am most curious about. That’s usually the one that is going to keep me entertained and yield the richest story.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

Up until this week, the answer was no. But we just adopted a kitten for my daughter’s birthday, and he is serious and adorable and quite curious about everything, so I foresee a writing buddy in my future!