Mira Bartok: Write The Most Extraordinary & Beautiful Thing Possible

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 Mia Bartok, author of THE WONDERLING. Winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Mira Bartok is an artist and writer living in Massachusetts. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been noted in The Best American Essays 1999 and other anthologies. She is the author of over 28 books for children and author/illustrator of the New York Times bestselling memoir and ALA Notable book, THE MEMORY PALACE, published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

A little bit of both! I’m a planner, but am always open to sudden change. 

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

Since this is my first one, I guess there’s nothing typical about it! It took me about 2 ½ years from start to finish, including all the illustrations and rewrites. Long days of writing and intense nights of drawing! 

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

If a project is huge, like The Wonderling, I go full steam ahead on that project. However, I always have other things going on in different stages for the times when I have breaks. Right now, I have several things in the queue: a book of stories for adults, the start of a collaborative illustrated novel with a friend, a YA trilogy that’s part graphic novel, and several picture books that are half finished. And then…there’s that poetry book that’s in the drawer….and the series of collages with strange monsters….a couple podcasts and…and…now I’m nervous I won’t live long enough to finish them all!

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

I wrote the first draft of nonfiction book on the history of wonder (called The Book of Wonder) right after my memoir, The Memory Palace and before I began The Wonderling. I felt a lot of pressure to write another nonfiction book and so I gave it a rather unenthusiastic try. I knew it was time to stop when my agent left me this message, after reading some of my short stories: “Mira, I get it now. You’ve been trying to write about wonder— but these stories are wonder. You should do what’s in your heart, and it seems like what’s in your heart is fiction right now.”

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

My agent is Jennifer Gates from Aevitas Creative Management in NYC. I knew her a little before she was my agent because her ex-husband and my husband used to play in a band together. I never thought to ask her about representation because I didn’t want to seem opportunistic. (I know. That was stupid!) I called her up after I finished my first draft of The Memory Palace because I needed advice on how to gently and kindly fire my first agent who was lovely, but just not right for me. Jen gave me great advice and then immediately asked to see my manuscript. I thought she was just being nice. She wasn’t. ☺ She read it overnight and the rest is history. I simply adore her!  

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

Although I never had to query agents, I would say, knowing the business like I now do, writers really need to do their homework. They need to know what kind of work the agent represents, and also, send the most polished sample they have. There are so many great websites and books out there on this process. It’s worth taking one’s time and researching the info. Also, I know a lot of writers meet great agents at writing conferences, like Bread Loaf or other places. If you take a long time to write a book, your book deserves the same care to find the right person to represent it.

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

I had four books come out simultaneously, all nonfiction books on ancient and living cultures for middle grade children from a series I created from 1990-98. Suddenly, I saw them in every bookstore window in Chicago, my home town. I just couldn’t believe it! I had never intended to write books, so it felt like a very strange surprise. I also had another feeling, which was: who am I now? I had always been a working artist in the avant-garde gallery world and now suddenly I am writing children’s books? So I suppose I had mixed feelings. Happy, confused, concerned…but mostly happy.

How much input do you have on cover art? 

I’ve had a lot of input on every single cover. Lucky me! 

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

I learned that illustrating one’s own book is one of the hardest things on this planet! 

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I used to have a blog but don’t anymore. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I do as much as I am able to handle while living with a brain injury. I get overwhelmed by too much input, especially online. But before a book comes out, I do do a lot on Facebook and Twitter, and also send out emails. 

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

I have always approached making books not from building a platform or having a brand (I kind of cringe when I hear those words—sorry!) but from the belief that one should write the most extraordinary and beautiful thing possible. That is the most important thing of all. A strong, lyrical voice and a story full of heart come first. The rest is secondary. 

Do you think social media helps build your readership? 

I don’t really know. I know I’ve connected with some people on social media, but most of my deeper connections have happened in person—at book events, conferences, bookstores, and through friends of friends. Most of the people I connect with on twitter are medievalists, climate change scientists, folklorists, and mapmakers—all things I’m interested in. I don’t know if a single one would read my books. As for Facebook, it’s a huge mix, and probably I have many more readers there. But my favorite way to connect with readers is through the ancient art of telling someone a story, face to face. Now, that’s magic!