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.  

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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.

 

NJ Simmonds on Marketing Yourself

Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is NJ Simmonds, writer of YA fantasy, romance, and historical stuff that she totally makes up. A tiresome feminist killjoy, she's really bad at sitting still or keeping quiet. Her first book, The Path Keeper, releases today!

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

I’m a Planner Plus – because I’m also a dreamer. I spend months and months thinking about my stories before putting fingers to keyboard, imagining them like a movie in my head. It’s not until I’ve ironed out every little detail and plot-hole that I plan it chapter by chapter, and then write. It means that I don’t have that dreaded messy first draft so many people battle through, filling in gaps and spotting plot issues.

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

A lot less time now that I’m on a deadline for books two and three. My first book, The Path Keeper, took three years, but back then it was a hobby and I re-wrote it dozens of times. Book two took about nine months to final draft and the last in the series will have taken me about five months. Less I hope. I’m nearly at the end of the first draft. I did take just three months to write a YA contemporary once, but so far no publisher wants it – so maybe I should have taken more time with that one haha.

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

I’m a multi, multi, multi tasker. I am currently planning the launch of book 1, editing book 2, writing book 3, planning my next series, subbing my standalone novel, I have five half-baked book ideas in note form – oh, and a job and two kids! This may explain my tense shoulders and insomnia.

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

No. Mainly because I was doing it for cathartic reasons. I had absolutely no expectations of anyone reading it or of taking it all the way to publishing. My two children were under three years of age when I started, and I was very exhausted, unhappy and unfulfilled. I started writing as a way to express myself and to escape, it became my savior.

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

None. But that’s because I knew nothing about the publishing industry or agents and someone I knew, who was a small-time agent, snapped up my first novel and offered to rep it. I was very nonchalant about it all and said ‘OK, let’s see if you get anyone interested in it, if not I’ll self-publish’. I had zero expectations. After a year of rejections, she folded her business anyway, so I was left unagented. At that point I should have started from scratch and got another agent – but instead one of the publishers showed interest, so I continued solo.

I always wonder whether, had I subbed to top agents from the start, whether my journey would have been different or if I would have trunked the first book after a few No’s.

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

Oh lots, but in my mind they are just little buds that have been put on ice. When the time is right, I’ll tend to them properly and watch them bloom. Most are only 5-10k words in - nothing major, just a few chapters. The only reason I stopped was because I had publisher deadlines with the series so had to focus on that, or because other ideas came along that were more exciting.

My unfinished books are all YA contemporary. I plan to focus on fantasy for a bit longer so may revisit them at a later stage. 

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

I’ve had a complicated route to publication, as The Path Keeper was first published by a small UK publisher who dropped YA after a few months – so I had to find the series a new home after being out just four months.

When the first edition hit the shops back in 2017, the entire experience was overwhelmingly surreal. I was in a London Waterstones, my book all over the shop, and a queue of people waiting to have it signed. I couldn’t believe it was my life – especially when it was beside other YA greats such as The Hate U Give and Caraval!

How much input do you have on cover art?

The first time around, with my first publisher, it was quite a lot. I filled in a form, hated their first attempt, and they basically did what I asked and I loved it. Now that I’m with a new publisher, and the book is hitting the USA and the rest of the world, I’m very very nervous. My background is in branding and marketing, so covers are so important to me – in fact a lot of the negotiations before I signed with my new publishers was about positioning, to ensure that they saw the future of the series the same way I did. They’ve been amazing, listening to my ideas, research and suggestions…so we’ll see. I’ll be seeing the cover soon. It should be beautiful, it has to be, we are definitely on the same page.

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

I’ve learned so much the hard way. Having been signed by an agent in 2015, then losing her, then signed to a publisher in 2016, published 2017, then leaving that publisher and not getting a new one for nine months (unagented) has been a really steep learning curve.

Even though my series is finally getting the attention it deserved first time around, I have definitely been subjected to all the highs and lows. My biggest lesson has been that authors are expected to do a huge amount of self-promotion, and you earn very very little to begin with. I wasn’t prepared for either. I was also shocked by the fact that it’s not that easy to get into a bookshop, so don’t think just because you’re signed that your book will be in the Barnes & Noble store window. It probably won’t be.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

A huge amount. Marketing is my day job, so I have a website, a blog (although it’s not as active as I’d like it to be), Twitter, Instagram, a Facebook page and a number of groups. I’m regularly guest appearing on book club groups and other people’s blogs too, plus when the first edition of The Path Keeper came out I managed all my own PR so organized TV, radio, press and events myself across four countries.

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

As I mentioned before, I knew nothing about writing and wasn’t even on Twitter when I began the book. Had I set out to be a published writer from the onset, and what I tell people, is start building your platform NOW. Start a Twitter account and blog and document your journey. People buy people. I can’t tell you how many books I have bought because I like the person on Twitter, and they finally got published. So do it pre-agent – you’d be surprised how many agents are on there watching too.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

100%. But then I lecture on corporate storytelling and self-branding as part of my job – so I’d be crazy to say otherwise.

What social media ISN’T is a sales platform. It’s there to build your brand, connect and interact. It is not successful when all you do is sell yourself on there. No one likes that. Is there a correlation between sales and followers? No. But it IS great brand exposure/PR and it will encourage people to take you seriously, and remember you/give you a chance when they’re in a book shop.

Erin Hahn On Perseverance

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!

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Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Erin Hahn, author of You'd Be Mine, a love story about Annie Mathers - America’s sweetheart and heir to a country music legacy full of all the things her Gran warned her about.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Hm. A reformed pantser, I suppose. I definitely struggle to follow an outline, no matter how meticulous and well-thought-out, but now that my work has to be approved by both an agent and an editor, I try to follow a cohesive format.

The best I can come up with on my own is a soundtrack. I can follow a song per chapter, capturing the feeling of that song and write from there. USUALLY my characters allow that and since my novels tend to rely heavily on music as a subject matter, so far so good.

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

Usually 4 months draft to revisions. I’m a binge writer so the words will pour and then nothing for months while my creative well refills.

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

Gah. ONE. AT. A. TIME. Those who can multitask their drafts? You are magical glitter unicorns with rainbow hair. I’m so jealous. I might start daydreaming a new project when I’m working on a draft, but there is just no room to switch gears in my brain.

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

Not the first time I wrote, no. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories and used to blog quite a bit back in the day. But I definitely almost threw up every time I sat down to query my first few books. I got so many rejections that I grew to expect them, which certainly made things easier. By the time I got my agent, my skin was nice and tough.

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

Four to five. A nearly completed YA SF trilogy, a YA contemporary fantasy and a YA contemporary.

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

I quit on my trilogy. It was socially problematic and I was pretty ignorant as I wrote it. I’ve recycled my favorite character into my WIP, so I think that means if I ever tried to revive the trilogy, I’d have to tear it apart and rebuild it without the messiness and I just don’t know that it would stand. Some stories just aren’t yours to tell. That was this series for me.

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

My agent is the utter badass Kate McKean, VP at Howard Morhaim Literary. She pulled me out of the good old slush pile! No contests, no pitches, nothing. I sent her a query, she asked for my full and then she scheduled a call with me to offer!

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

With You'd Be Mine, I’d been querying for two months. I’d sent ten queries off of pitch contest requests and thirty “cold queries” in that time. When I got my offer, I had 15 fulls out to other agents. Prior to that, I’d queried 3 other books over three years and sent probably 250 total queries for those books.

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

I queried like it was my job because it was. Some authors keep spreadsheets. I had one of those that a friend lent me that ranked agents and their YA sales. I also kept track of every agent I queried in a new notebook. I would track the submission requirements, the date sent and the date a request or rejection was received. If the agency had a 6-8 week limit, I would mark that as well so I knew if I should follow up or let it go.

When a rejection or request came through, I would open my notebook and make a note. Every week, I would pull out my notebook and see how many queries were outstanding and decide if I should consider revising or send out more queries. It also allowed me to tally just how many queries I’d sent and I would make a goal for myself. For example, the book before You'd Be Mine,, another contemporary, had gotten a fair number of requests early on. So I told myself to give it 85 queries. It was painful and by the end, I didn’t want to send it, but I also LOVED that book so hitting that number helped me to shelf it, knowing I gave it a real shot.

This method helped me to keep organized of course, but also allowed me to keep my emotions at bay. This was my business. Obviously, there were plenty of nights where I drank wine and pretended I was going to quit writing books, but the next morning I would pull out my notebook and send another 5 queries.

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

Um, BANANAS. The hilarious part is you have all these marketing people and editors and whoever and they are lovely and amazing but also, this is their job. This is what they do, putting books up for sale. So my editor was like, “don’t panic but your book with its cover is up on Amazon but you can’t buy it yet and we don’t want anyone to know so shhhhh…”

And on the outside, I’m all, “Of course. That’s fine. I’m very professional and cool.”

Inside, Reader, I was like, “HOLY SHIT THERE IS A BOOK WITH MY NAME ON IT ON MOTHER EFFING AMAZON.” My mom left me a voicemail the day my book went up for presale. She’s sobbing and saying, “I… just… searched… your…. name… and… you… were… there!”

It’s nuts.

How much input do you have on cover art?

It varies per book and imprint, but I was able to chat with my editor about what I thought fit the tone of the story and she brought my thoughts to the art team. After I saw the cover, I was able to give them feedback, but I was very fortunate in that I was obsessed with the art. I did ask them to tweak some things, like make my name smaller and play with the color… but in the end, I’m pretty sure I reverted back to the original scheme. I’m very pleased with my first cover!

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

Hm. How much non-book-writing is required! Obviously, writing the book is my top priority, but there is so much self-marketing and networking involved. It’s all a lot of fun and definitely the stuff of dreams, but I never realized.

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I feel like I do quite a bit. I have a websiteInstagram and Twitter. I’m also in the #novel19s debut class and partake in monthly live twitter chats… and then, of course, all the guest blog posts. My publisher is really excellent and has done a few Goodreads giveaways of early copies, so I’m very fortunate, but I feel like I need to put the work in, too!

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

I’ve been on twitter since I started querying and spent those first years building up a firm foundation in the writing community. I’ve made lots of friends and CPs and have been able to really clue-in to what is important and also, problematic. I waited until after signing with my agent to build my website or take author photos or do guest blogs… I would say I was waiting for a bit more credibility. I also waited until after selling my first book to sign up to mentor in Author Mentor Match, which is a marvelous community for new authors!

I think it’s important to always be working on your public persona, because that could come back to bite you if you’re a dick. The internet seems eternal and burning bridges there could haunt your future career. Make friends, be supportive, give back and be kind.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

It can! Holy smokes, the number of people who have preordered my book because of something I’ve written in a blog or something I’ve tweeted constantly amazes me. People who will tag you in kind reviews and share their love for your words is everything to a new author.