An Interview with Alison Gutknecht

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Alison Gutknecht, author of the MG title DON'T WEAR POLKA-DOT UNDERWEAR WITH WHITE PANTS (AND OTHER LESSONS I'VE LEARNED) which will be available on November 12th from Aladdin. And on a side note, I have to say this look absolutely hilarious and I'm buying it for my middle school library right now.


Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I am a planner, but I’m not super-strict about my own plan. I do a chapter-by-chapter outline of a book before I begin it, but the outline only consists of one-sentence summaries per chapter. This way, I know what I have to accomplish in the chapter before I sit down to write it, but if the outcome turns out differently, that’s okay.

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

When I’m working on something, I write a chapter a day until I finish a first draft, which I then revise at least five times on my own. I’ve completed all first drafts within a month, but the revision process can vary widely in terms of timing – anywhere from another couple of weeks to months or even years if I end up placing the manuscript on the backburner for a while.  

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

One at a time, if left to my own devices. I like to finish something completely before moving on.

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

There is a lyric from Sunday in the Park with George which I love: “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.” I think it’s important to remember whenever you start something new that you are the only one on the planet who can tell the story in your particular way.  Stop agonizing over the result and just write it, and then, make it the best that you possibly can. Because the writing itself is the only part of the process that is unequivocally yours to control.

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

None which I would have considered trying to get published.

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

I’ve never quit on a first draft, but I’ve sometimes put aside second or third drafts if I didn’t feel that they were getting better with the subsequent revisions. Sometimes a little distance from the piece can eventually show you how to “fix” it.

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

Charlie Olsen from InkWell Management is my agent, and I found him the old-fashioned way: cold querying. I had actually queried another agent at InkWell, who passed my submission onto Charlie, and I am forever grateful that she did!

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I had been querying for about three months before signing with Charlie.

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

I think it’s important to remember, no matter where you are in the writing process, that you just have to keep going. Anytime I received a rejection on a query, I would wallow for about one minute, and then I would send out another one. A quote that I found heartening at the time is “Don’t be discouraged, it’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.”

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

It doesn’t hit the shelves until November 12th, so I haven’t seen it physically on sale yet. But few things have made me happier in the past couple of weeks than receiving “reviews” from young readers at the elementary schools I’ll be visiting, who have received preview copies of the book. Their comments all help to remind me why I wanted to write for kids in the first place.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Simon and Schuster chose the illustrator for the series, Stevie Lewis, and she has done an amazing job at capturing the spirit of Mandy Berr, both on the cover and in the chapter illustrations. I was asked for my opinion on the cover, but thankfully, I was pretty happy with the polka-dot underwear peeking through the white pants from day one!  

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

I think that especially when you write books for kids, there is a certain “mystique” around the authors who you yourself loved growing up, and this idolization is something which you never quite get over. So when you grow up and you see the passion that these authors, along with all of the behind-the-scenes people who had worked on their books with them, have for their work, it makes you realize exactly why you were so passionate about their books as a child, and why you care so much about writing today.

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I have my own website, along with a Facebook author page and a Twitter. Also, months before my publication date, I began reaching out to local papers in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area, which is where I grew up, along with arranging various school visits and two book launch parties in both New York City (where I live now) and in Philadelphia. I tried to get a head-start on as much as possible, because book releases are stressful enough without having to scramble with logistics at the last minute!

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

I think it’s a matter of personal preference. I did not create a public website, Twitter, Facebook, etc. until after I had a book deal, but I already knew how to use the social media sites, which at least made the learning curve a little less steep.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

It probably depends on who your target audience is. For the most part, young elementary school students are not on social media sites regularly, but their parents are. But in general, I think everyone needs to do what they’re comfortable with, because any sort of promotion only works if it is something you truly want to be doing – that’s the only way it will come across as genuine.