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.
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.