Interview with Dana Elmendorf

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 is Dana Elmendorf, debut author of SOUTH OF SUNSHINE, coming from Albert Whitman and Co., April 1, 2016. Born and raised in small town in Tennessee, Dana now lives in southern California with her husband, two boys and her tiny dog Sookie. When she isn’t exercising, she can be found geeking out with Mother Nature or scouring the internet for foreign indie bands.

Are you a Planner ora Pantser?

Pantser! Outlines stifle my creativity. But while pantsing, I write extensive notes then I usually end up organizing in an outline-ish form.

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

Oh man, that varies. South of Sunshine I wrote in 45 days, revised in a couple of months. But the next novel I’m working on, it took me like 90 days to write and about 8 months to revise (this book has been a beast to work with.) My family and their needs come first, so a lot of times my writing gets put on the backburner, especially during the summer.  

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

Kind of both. Once I’ve completed a novel I send it to critique partners. While that’s out I start another novel. By the time I get notes back from my CPs, I put the new novel on hold and revise the first one. So I’m never drafting two novels at the same time but I always have two novels in progress. Staggering the stages helps me rejuvenate my creativity and allows me a certain amount of distance between projects.

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

Oh Lord, yes. I’m not smart enough. I don’t have formal educaton/training so I’m not qualified. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was 36 so I’m not deserving. I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. Who’s ever going to read the crap I write? What if I write something and look like a total idiot? I’ve pretty much had every insecure fear you can think of and I just kept writing anyway. The only thing to quiet those fears is to constantly learn and grow your craft.

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

Four! I wrote four books that went from “this really sucks” to “this might not suck.” It was four years of writing and my fourth book that I discovered voice. Once I had the elusive voice, I started considering myself a writer. South of Sunshine was my fifth book that got me my agent. It wasn’t until after I wrote SOS that I started telling people I was a writer. I kept it a secret before then.

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

No, I’ve never quit on a manuscript BUT there were plenty of manuscripts I drafted but never revised. There’s no set rules that dictate how to know when to move on or when to stick it out. I think you have to evaluate how much passion you have for a story and what decision you make, either quitting or continuing a manuscript, will make you a better writer. Because ultimately, writers should always be working to honing their craft. For me, my drafts were so horrific, it would be impossible to revise, so I moved on. I took what I had learned from writing that novel and applied it to the next. That’s what made me a better writer.

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

My agent is Lauren MacLeod with The Strothman Agency. I got my agent through the traditional query process. How did I get a yes? I wrote the story she’d been looking for but of course I didn’t know that then. With my first round or two of queries, I sent it to all the heavy hitters in the business whom might like what I wrote. It wasn’t until my third round of queries that I decided to search for agents who were looking for or tended to like lighter, sweeter romance novels. That’s when I found Lauren. I emailed her my query on a Thursday. She requested a full on Friday. Called me on Monday to offer representation. I had fulls still out with other agents, but I knew I’d tell them no if they offered because Lauren had already proven to me how much she loved my story.  

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I spent 13 months, 58 queries, 20 full/partials and 1 offer.  “Never give up.  Never surrender.” was my query motto. 

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

Personal connection. Personal connection. Personal connection. I believe making a personal connection got me more requests and it also got me more personalized rejections. Agents seemed more willing to explain why my book wasn’t a fit for them and I think it’s because my personal connection said something about me as a writer.

Also, don’t query a book that’s not ready. It seems like obvious advice but I’ve encountered SO many writers who sent premature books out for query to receive nothing but rejection. If you say, “I think my book is ready.” It’s not. If you’re not sure your book is ready, it’s not. If you haven’t sent your book to some hardcore tough critique partners and made some serious revisions, you book isn’t ready to query. How will you know when your story is ready? It’s kind of like how a good cop knows when to follow a hunch. You will know for an absolute certainty that your book is ready.  

How much input do you have on cover art?

In the initial consultation for my cover, I had a lot of input. Albert Whitman gave me a detailed form to fill out about what do my characters look like, do you have pictures of them, are there underlying themes in the story, are there scenes from the book that would make a great cover, what are your favorite covers etc. It was four pages by the time I was done. Since then it’s been in the hands of the design team. For me, and a lot of my author friends, as authors we don’t get to be involved with the process. Publishers know what sells; trust them to do their job. 

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

The overall process to be honest. From selling the book to final book on shelf, it’s a game of hurry up and wait. Each stage feels like a rush to complete but then there are these long periods of waiting until it’s time for the next stage. Then the rushing happens again. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all in the same. 

How much of your own marketing do you? 

Everything. From social media, to conferences, to panels, to getting my own book blurbs, to any other marketing aspect that goes along with selling your book. I gave my publisher a four-page prospectus of how I plan to market myself. There are quite a few things in my plan that I worked around my publisher so we could market as a team. My publisher is fully supportive and backs me up where our marketing opportunities overlap but I didn’t want to wait for them to market me. No author should. Put together a marketing plan for yourself, find out where your publisher can help you out and then put your plan into action. You are the best person to market you and your book, don’t wait on someone else to do it for you.

I'm Everywhere! Site, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest.

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

Before you get an agent, for sure. Understanding and navigating social media takes time. Try them all and find out which forms of social media you prefer. Though it is not necessary to have a platform to get an agent, it does look favorably on you if you do. If in your personal life you prefer FB over Instagram, go that route. If FB seems daunting and you want something simpler, use Instagram. If you don’t know how to create a platform, then find out what your favorite authors do and how they connect with their readers. For your platform to be successful, it has to come naturally. There’s nothing more off-putting than social media that seems forced or rote. Mix it up. Give it splashes of your personality as it applies to your book, writing, and you as a person.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Absolutely! As a YA writer my readership would be teens and adults (lots of adults read YA.) Teens are very social media savvy. The social media world is ever evolving too. If you’re on top of your social media you can reach a larger readership. Teens gravitate to Instagram and Snapchat. Adults are more comfortable with Facebook. Knowing where to address your audience and how can definitely grow your readership.