Interview with J.T. Dutton

II'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 J. T. (Jen) Dutton.  J.T. is originally from Connecticut but moved to the Midwest after receiving her BA from Skidmore College and her MFA from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.  She and her husband both teach writing at Hiram College in Ohio.  Jen is the author of two novels for teens: FREAKED (HarperTeen 2009) which VOYA described as employing “a sharp wit” and being “a hoot” and STRANDED (HarperTeen 2010) which Kirkus Reviews claimed “will change the way readers think about "good" girls.” 

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I wrote the first drafts of my first two novels by the seat of my pants, which was an approach I inherited from the MFA program I attended. “Plot” was a dirty word in that environment, the idea being that if a writer understands a character than the “truth” of their story emerges organically in a literary and surprising way.

I am converting into more of a planner, though, for two reasons: I know many unpublished writers with good ideas and pages and pages of character development and no novel; and I know many successful published writers who use formulas to no detriment to the literary value of their writing. Plot arcs are hard and using models and planning methods to work through them seems like an intelligent way to finish what I start.

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

FREAKED, my first novel took 12 years, STRANDED took me 2. Realistically, I think 3 years is a good amount of time, but I’d like to whittle that number down.

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

I’m a multi-tasker. I don’t even think my thoughts one at a time. I’m cooking spaghetti and helping my son with his homework while I write my responses to this interview.

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

Yup. And the last time too.

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

FREAKED was my first novel.

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

I have switched setting, plot, or the point of view but I haven’t entirely quit on any manuscript. I think “not quitting” has helped my career.

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

My agent is Jodie Rhodes. I sent her a blind query. She read my first two chapters and asked to see more. She took and sold the manuscript in a couple of days.

I don’t think my query was very winning, to be honest. I found an agent who read through her slush pile and liked the chapters I’d attached (which I’d spent a lot of time on). She liked the whole book even more. She warned me before she took me that I had a lot to learn about marketing myself and I’ve been trying. Now that I know some of the ins and outs, I realize I placed a book with an agent despite my best efforts. I was lucky.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I sent out a bazillion queries and got a yes within two months.

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

Rejection can feel like a current pulling you under but the descent is an illusion. You are the one who gives yourself permission to succeed or fail. You. And you do that by asking the best of yourself and not giving up.

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

Oh—it’s a good feeling, believe me.

How much input do you have on cover art?

The publisher asked my thoughts on both books and I mumbled something about dancing bears and cornfields but my ideas were nowhere near as cool as the finished products. A lot of professional people go into the creation of a novel. The author is just one of them. It is pretty exciting, standing back and watching the graphic artists do their thing.

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

How similar the inside of HarperCollins Children’s was to the English Department of the Universities I’ve worked in. You can go from office to cubicle and never run out of interesting well-read people to talk to. It’s very laid back and warm.

How much of your own marketing do you do? Do you have a blog / site / Twitter? (I'll insert the links here)?

I briefly started a more related to the ups and downs of having a son with Aspergers than anything having to do with writing. I am on Twitter, MySpace, Goodreads, and Facebook —all in an effort to get my name out there a little. I also schedule readings, signings and workshops when I can fit them in.

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

Platforms are a necessary evil even though the whole marketing topic can feel like a buzz kill when all you want to be as an artist. I’d love to be a writer with no eye toward sales—a pure entity if I didn’t think my publisher/agent would drop me for the insurrection.

The part of platform building I do like is the stuff that has to do with meeting other writers and talking to people about books they’ve read and the ideas they’ve had. If only marketing could be more like a cocktail party, I’d be completely down with that.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Social media (for me) can be as a consumptive as it is productive. I’ve connected with a few readers I might not have reached, but I’ve also wasted writing time watching funny YouTube videos on Facebook. Balance is the key.