Representing the Midwest in Fiction with J. Ryan Stradal

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Mindy:             Welcome to Writer, Writer Pants On Fire. Where authors talk about things that never happened to people who don't exist. We also cover craft, the agent hunt, query trenches, publishing industry, marketing, and more. I'm your host Mindy McGinnis. You can check out my books and social media at MindyMcGinnis.com and make sure to visit the Writer, Writer Pants On Fire blog for additional interviews, query critiques, and more at writerwriterpantsonfire.com. If the blog or podcast have been helpful to you or if you just enjoy listening, please consider donating. Visit writerwriterpantsonfire.com and click support the blog and podcast in the sidebar.

Mindy: Today’s guest is J. Ryan Stradal. His first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, was published by Viking in 2015, and reached the New York Times Hardcover Best Seller list. His short fiction has appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, and Midwestern Gothic, among others. His second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, is available now. J. Ryan joined me today to talk about representation of the Midwest in popular culture, the rising importance of microbreweries in small communities, and the lost stories of the middle class.        

Mindy:             Let's talk about the book, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. One of the things that, as I said, really appeals to me about it is that it's about the Midwest and it's setting is in the Midwest and you grew up in the Midwest. I often see, and I imagine you probably do too, writers and TV show producers and movies, always trying to do the Midwest and not quite getting it... if sometimes completely missing the mark and really corn holing us. So if you could talk a little bit about that, I would love for you to let us know your opinion.

J. Ryan:             I totally agree. I've seen some over the years, like Butter for example, which I thought was extremely condescending. The writer of that movie, I'm not gonna name names, but he's from Maryland. He's not even from the Midwest, you know, we gotta make our own art. We've gotta represent our own people. So in a lot of ways this is a response to me not seeing our people represented properly or with enough depth or imagination, but also not just a course correction or a diatribe. It's the celebration of these people. Being a Minnesotan, I'm more inclined to praise what I love than denigrate what I hate. I'm more motivated to write stories about these people because I love them, than do it as some kind of retort to culture at large, but that does play into it. I wasn't seeing enough stories about the people I consider to be my people out there in the world, in any media. There are plenty of great Midwestern writers. Don't get me wrong. Peter Guy, Nicholas Butler, Lorna Landvik Vic Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley. There's a ton of them, but in terms of writing about kind of contemporary working class suburban and kind of like the people I grew up with, I wasn't seeing a ton of that. That's kind of my sweet spot in terms of inspiration, subject matter, like people that live in these smaller towns on the outskirts of a city and live paycheck to paycheck. That's how I grew up.

Mindy:             Yeah, me too. I encourage you as an offside, check out the author, Donald Ray Pollock.

J. Ryan:           Oh, you bet. I saw him on a panel a while ago and he was really cool. I actually bought one of his books at that event and gave it directly to my brother. Said, give it to me when you're done and he's never given it back to me.

Mindy:             Take it back because that man is my idol. I mean, pure sheer Midwest. He's from the Circleville area up here, very southern Ohio, very Appalachia. Stunningly talented.

J. Ryan:           Cool. Yeah, I've heard people compare him to Dennis Johnson.

Mindy:             Absolutely. Yup. Absolutely. No doubt about that. So the other thing that you talk about, and you just mentioned it too in response to the question about the Midwest in general is middle class and it's so true that so much of our popular culture is centered on the Uber rich or Uber poor. That's what we talk about. It's like that's where the stories are and that's not true. I mean there is that grind and that struggle of just making it, it's so terrifying in itself in some ways. And I know it plays into the book. So if you could talk about that for a little bit.

J. Ryan:             Well, it's also so rich with conflict and I mean, when you're struggling to make it every day is some kind of conflict. Anytime you can't answer a problem with money, you've got conflict. And that's one of the things I find kind of amusing, uh, about the fact that so many books are written about wealthy people or, or at least financially stable people. It's like, boy, what problem do they have that they can solve with their wallet? And the people I grew up with couldn't say that. And my characters, most of them can't. Every situation could end up becoming septic for them. You know, like the smallest cut could kill them sometimes. I enjoy exploring that dynamic because you know, you grew up in a world where, you know, as Eda says in my book, you'd treat money like a motorcycle driver treats asphalt. It keeps you going, but one mistake with it can kill you. I knew a lot of people who are very risk averse, you know? Certainly very cautious, very, uh, if not stingy at the very least, you know, very conservative with money. Like I grew up in a family. We didn't eat out a lot. You know, I wanted to though, boy, I'll tell you that when I started working out out of the house and making my own money, I spent it almost all on restaurants and CD's.

Mindy:             I love that.

J. Ryan:             So those kinds of purchasing decisions, having opportunity costs when it comes to money, you know, and I explore that with my character, Diana, you know, she's got a job, she makes money doing something criminal on the side. But anyway, she's got money that she needs to sustain her and her grandma's life, but also looks at this money in her life and goes, what do I spend it on? I have a choice. I can't do both things. Boy, that's as dramatic as it gets. I'm surprised more people don't explore this realm. Talking to someone else earlier today, and, uh, we talked about this topic and it came up that, well, maybe not enough people come out of the working class to become writers. And that could be a part of it too. Is that you've gotta be in a fairly privileged situation to be able to afford the time off to write a book. At least have your mornings free. I mean, if you have kids and you're working a full time job, I mean, how many hours a day do you get to write? You can do it. I know people who do, it's a lot harder. You know, someone whose parents paid for their MFA and now they get to sit in an apartment in Brooklyn and write their novel. It's very different for them from what I came from.

Mindy:             Yeah. Exactly. Same here, same here.

J. Ryan:             And they're obviously gonna write a different kind of novel than you or I. I don't even think they should try to write a novel set in Ohio. I wouldn't want to read it.

Mindy:             No, not at all. And that's, yeah, that's the experience that I have. Um, I'm lucky enough I'm able to write full time now, but you know,.

J. Ryan:             Yeah me to too and I feel the same way. I feel lucky.

Mindy:             Yes. And always aware that it can be taken from you.

J. Ryan:             Oh yes.

Mindy:             Well, and you mentioned being risk averse as part of that middle class mentality. And I see that, I mean, you can't take a stand and say, I'm going to be an artist. I mean, that's all risk.

J. Ryan:             Oh my God. Yeah. And it was a risk my parents supported, you know, my mom's supported and understood because she always wanted to be a novelist herself. My Dad was slower. His burner on the stove is slower to heat up under that pot. He's into it now, you know. But uh, at first when I went to college, he was like, oh, you should major in, uh, in a skill like a trade. And so I majored in Radio, TV, film partially, you know, partially to make him happy, but also because I was scared shitless of the idea of writing prose at the time. I was a young dude. I didn't like to revise.

J. Ryan:             I didn't revise. Oh my God, what, what insanity was that?

Mindy:             You know, I didn't either. My very first book, I finished in college, I wrote a novel, finished it and was like, I'm sending this to publishers. And I did. And then, you know, that didn't end well. That did not work out.

J. Ryan:             Thank God. it didn't. Imagine if that had been your first book out there, you wouldn't be able, if it was still on shelves like right now you wouldn't to be able to look at it.

Mindy:             Thank God self publishing didn't exist then because, oh my God.

J. Ryan:             Oh yeah, yeah, I know. I know. I know. Just imagine. I talked to writing classes sometimes about that, but like I've sent out this story 50 or 60 times and it hasn't been accepted. Like, you know, maybe in five years you'll be glad it wasn't right? Also think of that.

Mindy:             I have a blog post, an interview with another author coming up tomorrow and she was querying for six years and I had over 500 rejections and you know, I was querying for 10 and I definitely had over 500 but I'm not sure how many, but then she says the same thing. It's like it was all on me. I was just so convinced that I was this little undiscovered genius. I wasn't revising, I wasn't putting in the work. I wasn't even rereading my own stuff. I was just like, this is awesome!

J. Ryan:             Oh no, Oh no, no. Yeah, Kerouac writing on the road. This is just my role of typewriter paper right here. I know I wrote a manuscript in my twenties that'll never see the light of day, but I was of course, you know, disappointed about that at the time. You know, like any writer would be. I didn't even get a response from agents. Yeah. I mean, once or twice I maybe got, we received it, you know, but certainly no one asking for a full. And then the cases I sent a full like no response. You know? And I look at it now and I perfectly understand it's an embarrassing piece of work, but it was the first novel I had to write more to develop the discipline of writing a novel.

Mindy:             Absolutely. I know I would get partial requests, then I would send them off and they would just be like crickets. And now I'm like, well, I mean I'm glad they didn't respond. I don't want to know what they thought.

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J. Ryan:             Me Neither. I'm glad that some of these agents are no longer in the business and they're no longer around to besmirch my good name should they check their email archive.

Mindy:             So you've mentioned writing that bad first novel and getting out of your system. How many novels did you complete? How many books I should say? Did you finish before you got an agent?

J. Ryan:             Okay, well I got an agent with my second one, but it was 10 years later and then the intervening 10 years I took extension classes at UCLA, which were great because first of all I had an instructor, Lou Matthews, best instructor I've ever had who read my work and said, you know what J. Ryan, your work's going to get a whole lot better, once you start writing about things you care about. It's like, Oh snap. He was right. Lou was right. I was like all right, okay. Waddled out of there like in shame like a toddler. But then, you know, I thought, you know, he's right, I've got to take him up on this. And so that was one thing. The other two things were a ton of reading and a lot of writing. I published my first short story in 2006 after my mom died.

J. Ryan:             It was about four years before I had another one published and that four years it was instructive too. Cause I wrote, I was writing, submitting that whole time, you know. I was burning up, Duotrope, you know, like deadliest catch captains smoking, you know, it was, you know, I just didn't let it get me down. I could feel myself getting better. I took the, I took Lou's advice, started getting short stories out in the world again and one was published in 2010 and 2011 then a couple in 2012. And it was just slowly building up a little momentum. And in 2013 I started writing Kitchens of the Great Midwest. I mean I'd been thinking about it since 2009. I'd been saving money since then to take a year off from work. I'd been working in TV production, but I just couldn't help it anymore. In February of 2013 I was working on a show called Storage Wars, Texas. I just started writing it in the morning, you know, before going into work. And um, the rest is history, I guess. It took me about a year to write writing every day. And when Storage wars, Texas was canceled for some reason. Who knows?

J. Ryan:             I just thought, you know, most of the time I'd hop onto another production, but this time, you know, I'm gonna take this as a blessing and I'm gonna keep writing. I'm gonna use the full day now and treat it like a job. Yeah, that was another huge lesson. Was treat it like a job. Wake up, clock in, do your writing. I don't have any sort of word count or page count assigned to every day, but I do try to write every day.

Mindy:             I think what you're saying, you've got two like mini MFA courses right there - write about something you care about, which is great. And treat it like a job. That's, that's a big one. I read and I believe it was uh, Nick Cave, the singer who also writes novels and I believe that I read somewhere I have it stuck in my head that it was him. So if I'm, if I'm attributing this to the wrong person, then I apologize, Nick Cave. But, um, I read somewhere that even when he is just writing at home, he wakes up in the morning and he puts on a suit.

J. Ryan:             Oh yeah, I've heard that.

Mindy:             Yeah. And it goes to his office to write cause he has to treat it, he has to tell himself he's at work.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. My buddy Brian K. Vaughan, He rents, uh, like an office about a mile or two from his home that he goes to, you know, and so it's like going to work for him.

Mindy:             I think it's really smart because one of the things I see writers talking about all the time on Twitter, and I'm guilty of it too, is that we lay around in our pajamas all day because we can, and I think I will probably take myself a little more seriously if I had pants on.

J. Ryan:             I do notice my writing gets better if I, if I have pants on.

Mindy:             Yeah. As it should, I feel a little less sloppy if I'm actually, you know, got some support. So one of the things that actually the major theme with The Lager Queen of Minnesota is the emergence of brewery culture. And you talk a lot about how you visited breweries and you learned so much about all of the brewery process and the families and the communities that do pop up around a brewery, especially in small towns where they can be like a social hub. So if you could talk about that.

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J. Ryan:             Yeah, I've been noticing that since I was touring for Kitchens, you know, cause I did over 120 stops for Kitchens, mostly in the Midwest. That's where it so much or the brewery culture has been historically in, and is now, you know, and it's wonderful to roll into these smaller towns that were a lot less lively 10 years ago. Have this center have this epicenter. Uh, you've got some like local people working there that normally would be working elsewhere, be going to the big city or would have outright moved to the big city by now. And they're making something and keeping money in the, in the local economy, hiring locals to work the tap room and giving families, young families, couples, people with pets, quite often, a place to come hang out. That's not denominational, that's not a chain that doesn't funnel the money outside of town somewhere. It has a little bit more conviviality than a coffee shop. Also can be a little more raucous. You can have like, you know, musicians that aren't just a solo acoustic guitarist in the corner. I really love it and I love, I love seeing it and I love their uh, effect on, on small town America and the Midwest. I've been motivated to write about it since then and I wanted to marry it with this idea I had of writing the story of a, an unfairly divided farmland inheritance, which has happened a couple of times on both sides of my family. And I thought, oh, how could I marry these two things together? And Lager Queen is a result of that.

Mindy:             I find often when I'm traveling for work or I'm just visiting friends, like from college that are scattered usually around the state, they do, you know, most places have a, a semi local brewery. Everybody wants to show it to you. Everybody's proud and everybody wants you to try it and, and I'm like, no matter what, I actually think,I always tell them that it's good because you can't say...

J. Ryan:             Yeah, you got to see it's good. It's like, it's like going to your grandma's house and she makes you a pie. What are you going to say? Like grandma, your pie makes me cry. I'm going to cry to sleep thinking about this pie. No, no, funny to think of a brewery is pride of place, you know, for, for community.

Mindy:             But it really is, I went through a period of time where I was really into the microbrews and so I would tweet about it a lot. And I was traveling, I think it was a couple of years ago. I was traveling and I ended up out in California and I had a fan. She actually brought me like a six pack of the local brew.

J. Ryan:             Oh cool.

Mindy:             Yeah, it was really cool. But I, my signing ended at like 9:30 I had to fly out at five in the morning. I had like, you know, a six pack of this local brew and I'm like, oh my gosh, I can't, you know, slam these overnight.

J. Ryan:             I know. I know. That happens to me too. Sometimes people will give me beer, like tall boys or something. Like the end of the night when I've got a 5:30 AM flight or something. I'm like, well maybe I've got a buddy here that I can pass this along to and I'll take a picture of this can and next time I'm in this town I'll make a point of having this beer.

Mindy:             That is exactly what I did. I took a picture and I left it for housekeeping because I was like, I can't, I can't drink six beers tonight like that's not on the table.

J. Ryan:             Not at all. Boy. The demands on writers. Oh God, you drink all this beer. People give you so much beer.

Mindy:             Beer and coffee. That's the thing.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. Yeah. Hey, I'll take it. I love them both.

Mindy:             I do too. Do you have anything that you're working on now? What do you have coming up next or are you just still focused on pushing The Lager Queen?

J. Ryan:             I am working on another book tentatively titled Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club. So the setting is a Midwestern supper club, like of a northern Minnesota, Wisconsin ilk with the fish fries and the brandy old fashions. So that's the primary setting, but it's really, once again more about the people about the family involved. I was writing it yesterday at a hotel in Connecticut, you know, I don't know if I'll have time to work on it today, but yeah, no, it's a world I love being in and developed some brand new characters and, but it's still a Midwestern setting. I'm not, not one talking about the Midwest. It feel like it's, it's home to me in a lot of ways and also has presented me with a lot of puzzles that I need to unpack.

Mindy:             I hear ya. All of my books are set in Ohio, small town, small town Ohio, because I don't see enough of that. One more reading recommendation if you haven't already picked it up. Steven Markley wrote a book called Ohio.

J. Ryan:             Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've heard about it.

Mindy:             It's good.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. Good, good, good. That's good to hear. It's about a group of high school friends?

Mindy:             Yeah. It follows them in high school and then also in their adult lives and uh, it really captures the Midwest. specifically Ohio. Just really good. Really good. I was all over it.

J. Ryan:             Awesome. Awesome. Thank you for the rec.

Mindy:             Absolutely. And uh, thank you for the interview. It was awesome. I'll let you go. I know you've got another one to get to, but it was a great talk. Good time.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. Oh yeah. It was invigorating.

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The Key To Writing YA Horror: Chelsea Bobulski

Mindy:             Today's guest is Chelsea Bobulski, who graduated from the Ohio State University with a degree in history. As a writer she has a soft spot for characters with broken paths, strange talents and obstacles they must overcome for a brighter future. Her debut young adult novel, The Wood is available now. Her next release, Remember Me, releases August 6th. Chelsea joined me today to talk about querying for five years, the stress of breaking up with her first agent and the importance of maintaining a polite professional attitude while in the query trenches.

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Mindy:             My listeners are always interested in learning more about the agent hunt. A lot of my listeners are aspiring writers, so tell us first of all who your agent is and how you landed them.

Chelsea:           So my agent is Andrea Somberg with Harvey Klein and she is just amazing. She's everything that I could ever want in an agent and more. She's the perfect cheerleader. She always gets back to me right away when I email her with anything, whether it's like an irrelevant question or me just freaking out about some random author things, she's always right there to answer me. So I love everything about her. Very thankful to have her. But it took a long time to find her. The Wood, which is my first book to come out, was actually my fifth book that I wrote in pursuit of publication. And that happened over a span of five years. And so in those five years and those five books, I probably queried several hundred agents, at least with the first two books. At the time I thought they were really great for what they were.

Chelsea:           And now I'm like hoping no one ever sees them. But you know, I did get some agent interests with both that ended up going nowhere. But they would say, if you ever have another manuscript, make sure to query us again. And so I would keep track of those responses. And then with my third book, I actually never even queried it because I wrote it and I loved the whole foundation of it. I loved the story behind it, but I just knew from both, like a marketing standpoint of what publishers were looking for that it really didn't fit any mold at the time. And I also just knew that even though my voice was becoming stronger as a writer, it wasn't quite there yet. So I was like, instead of querying this, I'm just going to take it as a learning experience. I don't think I'll ever pull that one back out either.

Chelsea:           Just for the same reason as I don't think it really has a place and I don't know that I'd go back to it, but it was a good learning experience. And then my fourth book was a young adult steam punk romance that I still love and someday I might go back to it and try to do something with it. It got a lot of attention. I entered it into several different contests, one of which was Miss Snark's, First Victim Baker's Dozen, which I don't think she does anymore, but at the time I think I got like, I can't remember the exact number of agent requests off of that. I want to say it was like nine to 12 and then I also at the same time I did the very first Pitch Wars contest. I was a mentee in that and I got 12 full requests off of that as well and so really great responses.

Chelsea:           I did end up getting my very first agent through Pitch Wars and he was really great. But I noticed as we went on in our relationship that we had just different professional styles and also different visions of what I should be writing and how I should be writing and different things like that. It just didn't mesh well. He's a great person, just we didn't work well together and so we ended up splitting, which was very difficult. After four books in four years you finally have this and you think this is it, it's finally happening. And then to have to pull that plug and start again was really difficult. And at that time I actually was thinking that I was never going to be an author. It just wasn't in the cards for me. And so as I'm writing my fifth book, which was The Wood my first book to be published, I was at the same time like looking up law schools and like trying to figure out how to get my life back on track.

Chelsea:           I ended up querying only my top five agents at that point because I really was in this like horrible place where I just thought this isn't meant to be for me and I wrote this book because I had to, because the characters were there and they wouldn't let me not write it. Thankfully Andrea Somberg was one of my top five. I think she got back to me within like three weeks with representation. And so to go from my first couple of books, querying hundreds of agents waiting months upon months to hear anything to get an agent within like three weeks of leaving my previous one. I think it just goes to show the importance of never giving up first and foremost, but then also just keeping up professional demeanor with agents throughout and just being a nice person because they remember that and they'll want to work with you again in the future. Hopefully.

Mindy:             They absolutely do. I love your journey because mine was very similar. I also, my fifth written finished novel was the first one I got published. I also had hundreds upon hundreds if not a thousand rejections. I like what you're saying though about maintaining that professionalism because while it is true that agents receive two, three, four or 500 queries in their inboxes a week. If you have been at it for years - and you were and I was as well - they will remember your name. If you are in front of them often and I had multiple agents that would email me back and say, I remember you, you have queried me before. Thank you for your continued interest. This book is not for me, but please keep reaching out because they see your determination. They remember that you are professional and that you are trying to write a query correctly and you're really putting the work into it and you're paying attention to their submission guidelines. And if you are continuous with your attempts, it's not necessarily means that you will succeed, but it does mean that they will notice you and they will remember you. They also will remember you if you are rude and not in a good way.

Chelsea:           Yes, definitely. Never be rude because that doesn't help you at all.

Mindy:             I want to talk to you a little bit about rejections. I don't think I've talked about this on the blog before, but one of the reasons I kept writing, I was at it for 10 years. I didn't achieve representation, but I did come very close in that I had an agent respond to me. It was Jennifer Laughran. Jennifer responded to my query and said, you can really write, this is a great book. If you had queried me with this book (because it was urban fantasy) if you had queried me with this book four years ago, five years ago, I would have signed you and it would have sold. Right now, it's not going to, you need to keep writing and keep querying me. And that rejection made me keep writing. I was ready to quit. I was ready to say just like you. I was looking at masters degrees. I was getting ready to enroll myself to go get my master's of library science because I was going to throw in the towel and say, I've been doing this for 10 years. It's time to quit. It was a rejection that made me keep trying. And I want to follow up a little bit more on what you were saying about letting your first agent go because yes, that had to be terrifying when you had been trying to get an agent for so long you managed it, and then because of professional differences, just not meshing personality wise, you had to let that person go. Yeah, I mean terrifying. So how did you finally make that decision?

Chelsea:           It was so hard. I remember sitting in front of my computer, I had written an email to actually like terminate the contract and my husband was standing there and I had to like have him help me push the button to send it because it was terrifying, you know, to, to have gone so long trying to get an agent for me to decide to split ways that was really, really tough. You do it and you think, I have no guarantee that I'll find another agent. Like this could be the end of my career, right here. Is what you're thinking to yourself. Now, of course, if you're determined, especially in my case, like if you've built up those relationships that you can then reach out to, then that does help. But still you're thinking, is this the biggest mistake of my life? And thankfully when I had signed with him, I had had other agents interested at the time from those different contests, all of them including Andrea sent back to me, you know, because you have an offer of representation on this right now.

Chelsea:           I'm not going to offer just because I feel like it still needs a bit of work before moving forward. But they were like literally, if you part ways at any point, please contact me and let me know. So I think they may have even been interested in hearing from me just off of that steam punk romance. But I had already written The Wood at that point. So I sent that one out. I don't know that they would've taken it on, but they would have at least remembered and acknowledged and that would have also continued to give me that push to keep going, I think. Um, so that's why that professional demeanor and being nice and just maintaining those relationships is so important.

Mindy:             Yes, absolutely. That's why you don't respond to that email saying, well I found somebody else that wants this without the work, so ha ha, I'll see you on the New York Times bestseller list, you know? No, it doesn't work that way. I want to follow up to on what you said about contests. You mentioned Miss Snark's, First Victim. That was a very popular blog about 10 years ago and no longer in operation I don't believe. But I also participated with Miss Snark and the Baker's Dozen. I did get nibbles off of that. And of course you mentioned Pitch Wars, which is very popular. Talk to me about contests and how to use those and the boost that you get from them.

Chelsea:           I think the best thing about writing contests is the fact that you can so easily network with so many different people at different stages of their writing careers. Um, cause I think you have to go into it with that attitude. I think if you go into the attitude of I'm going to get in this contest and I'm going to get a bunch of offers of representation, something amazing, like you're most likely going to have those hopes dashed at some point. Not because it doesn't happen, but just because the likelihood when there's so many people trying to get in the same contest, I think it's better to just think to yourself, okay, I'm doing this with the hope that I'll be accepted into this contest and I'll get agent requests and everything. But even if all that happens is I connect with other writers who can be possibly future critique partners or just cheerleaders along this journey, like that's such an amazing thing all on its own. So I definitely think contests are amazing things do. Um, for both of those reasons that it can get you visibility, but it can also help you network in a career and where, you know, there's no water cooler that we all go to to talk. So it can be very lonely career. And so to meet those people online is amazing. You can talk to somebody across the country who is going through the exact same journey as you and they'll understand what you're going through in a way that your family and friends just can't.

Mindy:             If you want to have a community that actually understands what it's like to be rejected when you wrote a novel, yeah, it's gotta be another writer. That's all there is to it. Coming up, learning how to balance writing the next book against the time investment of marketing, your backlist.

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Mindy:             So Remember Me is your second book. Your first was The Wood, which you mentioned, and I had a guest earlier this month that I talked to about the phrase sophomore effort, which is often used when it comes to second books or second albums, whatever the medium is and rarely is it used as a compliment. So what do you find to be the specific challenges of the second book?

Chelsea:           It definitely is a challenge and it's across the board. It's something that you hear all the time. I don't think I experienced it quite in the same way as other people do just because since The Wood was my fifth book that I'd written when it got picked up, I had already kind of gotten into this mentality of just keep writing, like just keep working on the next one. So you don't think about what's happening with the one that's on submission. So even before The Wood was picked up, I'd had Andrea as my agent and she was shopping around, but it hadn't been picked up yet. I wrote a middle grade that I loved. It was very like Tim Burton esque. I may go back to it at some point and try to polish it up. I don't think it was quite primetime ready at the time, but that kind of got me to continue writing.

Chelsea:           And then even when The Wood had been picked up before it was published, I wrote, Remember Me, I wrote the next book before The Wood was published. So I wasn't thinking about how many copies did The Wood sell and can I ever do this again? Like I just kept that mentality of keep writing and I think that that has really helped. So if I did go through the sophomore effect, I think I went through it earlier, like even before I got an agent because I just told myself to not get too wrapped up in expectations of other people. Whether it's publishing, people are readers, you know, at some point you have to remember why you love what you do and just keep doing it.

Mindy:             When it comes to expectations. Also managing your own is a really big thing. Obviously you went through five years and five novels of trying to get published. So you, your expectations had already been managed for you, right? Yeah, and I think that's really healthy, you know?

Chelsea:           Yeah. I think I'd gone through so much rejection that to me just getting published was like I'd hit my dream just in that alone. So anything that happened after that was the cherry on top moment. So to me it was like I got published, I'm good. Even though of course you want your book to be like a New York Times bestselling book, I was at a place, I was like, if that doesn't happen, I'm just thankful that this dream came true. And I think that helped a lot with that too.

Mindy:             It's funny that you mentioned that because I was just thinking earlier today, for whatever reason, in my own publishing journey, because I was querying for like 10 years, my first book that got published was a post-apocalyptic survival novel, Not A Drop to Drink. I was fortunate enough that it just slipped into that tail end of a post apoc era, but it really did just squeak in. I was on submission for six months and people kept saying, yeah, this is great. But that genre is done, so we're not gonna pick it up. I was already having conversations with my agent about the next thing. We got to write the next thing because this one isn't going to be what gets published first for you. And at one point there was an indie publisher that had expressed interest, they no longer exist. They folded shortly after, but they had expressed interest and my agent said to me, well, So-and-so is interested, but I've heard rumors about authors having difficulty getting paid and it's in the wind that they're going to be going under. I don't think we should pursue this. My first reaction was just, I don't care if I don't get paid, I just want a book published. And my agent was just like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You get paid.

Chelsea:           Yeah. I think sometimes you can get into this mentality especially when you've been trying for so long to get published and you've gotten rejection upon rejection where maybe your expectations are too low. So it does help to have your agent be like, no, your work is worth getting paid for.

Mindy:             And I really was just thinking about it this afternoon because I just remember being that naive that I was just like, no, just put a cover on it, please. They have good covers. I like that company. Going back to that idea of the sophomore experience, what about marketing appearances, social media efforts? What did you learn the first time around that helped you on the second time or was there anything that you learned that you were like, okay, I'll never do that again. This was something that was a waste of my time or just didn't work?

Chelsea:           Yeah. I was really fortunate because I had several author friends who I'd met through things like those contests. They were 2015 debuts, so their books debuted two years before The Wood did. They were very open with me about their journeys, their experience especially with marketing. And so I was very fortunate in that I got to kind of learn from them a little bit before even going into my own. And one of them was very open about the fact that she worked really hard at marketing. Like she did literally everything you could ever think to do and more marketing wise and took on so much onto herself. And in the end she couldn't tell if there was really a difference. Like if she hadn't done everything under the sun, if it would've sold any better or any worse. And in that time because she was focusing so much on marketing, she wasn't writing anything new.

Chelsea:           And so she wasn't able to do the number one piece of advice, which I think is extremely true, which is nothing sells backlist like frontlist. She had nothing to put out there for frontlist cause she'd focused so much on marketing. And so seeing her go through that already put me in a mindset of marketing is important. It's not that it's not, but it shouldn't be something that consumes you to the point where you're not working on the next book. And so I already kind of was going into it thinking, okay, I'm going to market it, but I'm not going to go too wild with it. And then I think the biggest thing I learned from marketing The Wood is that there's a lot of advice out there on everything you should do, but I think you need to find what works best for you and what doesn't drain you.

Chelsea:           So for example, Twitter and Instagram come very naturally to me. Those are fine. Facebook, I want to get better at. I'm trying to get better at it for some reason. It just doesn't come as naturally to me to check Facebook, so I'm working on that. The one thing that I know from many authors is very important is the newsletter. I would love to be amazing at newsletters. Again, I'm going to work on this, but I learned that for me it just does not come easily or naturally and I can spend half a day or even a full writing day trying to put a newsletter together and I realize that's a full writing day I just missed out on. And especially now that I'm a mom, my time is so limited that I can not be spending writing time trying to put together a newsletter. You have to figure out what works for you and it's draining you, and if it's keeping you from writing the next book, then maybe that's not the particular thing you should be doing right now. As long as you have other things that you're doing that are working for you. Like don't try to do everything.

Mindy:             Don't try to do everything. I personally used to be on every single platform out there and for the life of me, I couldn't make Tumbler work. Nobody gave a shit about the stuff I was doing on Tumblr, it didn't matter. I don't know why I couldn't figure out Tumbler. Whatever I do, whatever works for me on every other platform. On Tumblr, no, it was just this big void for me and I tried for like three years and finally I was like, okay, you know what? I'm wasting my time. Tumbler doesn't work for me and I deleted my account because whatever the magic is that works on that platform, I don't have it.

Chelsea:           I haven't even tried Tumbler just because even as somebody like just looking at Tumbler, I don't always understand it so I just haven't even tried it. I'm sure it's amazing. I just, it doesn't come naturally to me.

Mindy:             No, me neither. And Pinterest is the same way. I don't have any interest in figuring out how to use Pinterest as an author. I know some people have luck with it. It seems to me like if you're going to do that, you're going to have to really lean into it and give it a lot of effort and I'm not going to do that. I have a really healthy Facebook page. I don't know why, but for whatever reason Facebook - cause I always hear everybody saying Facebook is pointless. Now I have a really effective Facebook author page and I guess it's just, I think maybe the librarian outreach that I've done and from being a librarian for so long, so it's not a teen crowd. It's an adult crowd that I have on Facebook. But Facebook and Twitter and I'm starting to understand how a wonderful Instagram is. So that is my bread and butter.

Mindy:             You mentioned newsletters and I'm going to tell you, I just spoke with another guest right before I started talking to you and we had a long conversation about email newsletters. I told her, and I'll repeat the story, that I have been doing it wrong for a very long time. For years and years I've been doing newsletters wrong. Everyone kept saying you have to have a newsletter, you have to have a newsletter, and my newsletters were just bombing. Every time I would send one out, my open rate was like 5% my click rate was like one, it was terrible and I'm like, why? Why do people say you need to have this? And finally a friend of mine who was a fellow author who is on my mailing list, emailed me back like off of my email, my promotional email list, and was like, Mindy, you are doing this wrong.

Mindy:             I was just like, oh I am? And she said yes. And she recommended a book to me called Newsletter Ninja is by Tammy Labrecque. She's like, buy this, read it. You will be amazed. Read it in like an afternoon and applied the things that she recommended. And now my newsletter has like a 50 or 60% open rate and like a 20% click rate. Like it's insane and they're very, very simple steps. So I highly recommended to you. And once you learn the really simple steps, you're just like, oh, it really makes a difference. So I highly recommended that to you. Newsletter Ninja.

Mindy:             Lastly, the key to writing horror, especially for younger audiences.

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Chelsea Bobulski.png

Mindy:             So I want to talk to you for a little bit about genre and specifically about horror because that is the area that you write in. And I think it's a tricky one because I always see readers clamoring for it, shows like Stranger Things have millions of watchers. But horror has yet to be the thing in publishing. I've never seen it blow up the way that other genres have. And in fact I even see publishers veering away from it and commenting that it's difficult to market. So as a horror author, what is your take on that? Like specifically as a YA horror author? What's your take on that?

Chelsea:           Yeah, I'm glad we're talking about this cause I have so many thoughts. To use Stranger Things as an example because it is huge - I think the biggest thing is that horror, while it's at the center of Stranger Things, I don't think that's actually what draws people in. I think the very first people to watch it when it probably were for the most part fanatics who saw it and thought, oh great, like something for me. And then they told all of their friends about it, whether their friends were into horror, not, not because of the horror aspect. I think the majority of people pushed it as you have to see this show. I've never seen a better representation of the 80s. So it was the nostalgia of the 80s and how beautifully they captured it I mean down to every little detail that I think drew most of the audience in.

Chelsea:           And then the fact that horror was a part of it for people, whether they loved horror or not, they just went with it. They were like, this is great, I'm into it. You also have the human element that's so important of people relating to these characters and wanting to see where these characters go. But I think it is important to have something else that your readers outside of your horror audience can really grab onto. So for example, with Remember Me, we pitched it to editors as the horror of The Shining meets the romance of Titanic. So while horror is a big part of it, the romance is actually just as big of a part and so it can actually reach larger audiences in that sense. Another big thing in terms of marketing that genre that can be so difficult is I think you have to get your cover design right.

Chelsea:           So for example, The Wood, I love the cover, it's everything I could have ever wanted to be in more. But the thing that surprised me was when I was doing school visits, the number of middle school readers who were reading up, who tend to say this to me. They would look at the book cover and say it looks too scary for me. The cover, it's a white cover with an autumn leaf on it. And it looks like there's blood dripping off the leaf. The blood is actually kind of metaphorical. Cause if you read the book, you'll know that the wood is this magical place where instead of out of like the leaves just changing color in the autumn, it's almost like they're painted and the paint rolls off the leaves. And so it's red paint rolling off this autumn leaf. So that's like what it actually is.

Chelsea:           But it's also alluding to the fact that the wood has this sinister side. So I would explain to them, well it's more of an atmospheric creepiness as opposed to really scary. But that just opened my eyes to the fact that a cover in the horror genre can turn off a lot of readers who might think, oh that's too scary for me. Even if it's actually isn't. It was really important to me that my Remember Me cover convey the fact that there is this darker element to the book, but that that's not all there is. And when I actually got the first cover concept it was exactly the same as it is now. It has these beautiful chandelier's, it's a little dark, it feels very like gothic Romancey but the girl on the cover who is kind of see through, so you can tell she's kind of ghostly.

Chelsea:           She looked a lot more like the ghost from The Ring, which is very creepy. So I emailed my design team back and I said, this is amazing. I love it. I'm just worried that people are going to see it and assume it's like a collection of ghost stories or that, that the horror aspect is all there is because it really takes away from the romance aspect. My cover designer came back with five brand new covers including the same cover, but with the ghost girl changed to be less, less creepy. And that's the one we ended up going with. So I was very happy with it cause I love the cover overall. I just wanted to make sure it didn't turn people off who might think, oh that's too scary for me. So I think it's important to have more than just horror as a part of it.

Chelsea:           So for example, like Stephen King I think is the big name, you know, an adult horror that everyone knows. And I think the reason, there's several reasons he was so successful and I think part of it was just timing. When his first books came out, I mean that's when I'm pretty sure like The Exorcist and Poltergeist and all these huge movies were coming out. And so it was kind of perfect timing. But he's also very edgy and at the same time very literary. And I think that that drew a larger crowd into his books than maybe would have otherwise. And then on the opposite end, you have young adult in between, you have Stephen King on the adult end and then in the middle grade end you have authors like RL Stine who were very popular when I was a kid. I'm not sure if he's as popular now.

Chelsea:           I think he is, but I think that horror for younger markets works well because a lot of kids have a lot of fears. And to address them in a fun way is actually very appealing to them. I think the young adult market is harder because you need something special about it to really push it over the edge to reach those audiences who otherwise wouldn't pick it up just like Stranger Things did. It had this special nostalgia for the 80s that really captured audience attention and I think you need that in young adult market too. So I do think the next Stephen King of young adult is out there. I think they just need to figure out what makes their book special. Just like every author has to do that across every genre.

Mindy:             So the thing that gets me about Stephen King is that yes, he is the iconic horror writer and I love him and I've read everything he's written, but his first book, the one that broke through is Carrie. And that is technically YA.

Chelsea:           Yes, very true.

Mindy:        And I think that's really funny because I hear so often - and I do think it's true -that why YA is a difficult place for horror and I think it's hilarious even though it is true because the iconic horror novel from the King of horror is a YA novel.

Chelsea:           Definitely. I think that, you know, at the time I don't think they even had the category of YA. And even today, I don't know. I mean it might get placed with YA if it came out today, but I don't know if it would have just because some of the content of it. Publishers might've pushed it into the adult realm. I'm not quite sure, even though it centers on a teenage girl.

Mindy:             No, I definitely think that, um, at the time adult was the place to go, but I think it could work as as YA today. The other thing I want to follow up on, you mentioned the covers for horror, which is very true. It is tricky when we're talking about marketing. Your cover is the face of your book. That is the first thing people are going to see and decide whether or not they're going to pick up and actually look at the writing and the blurb on the inside covers. I've always heard, and I don't know if this is true, but I've always heard that if you have a horror novel and it is a creature feature that you never ever put the monster on the cover.

Chelsea:           I haven't heard that, but it makes sense just for the same reason of you don't want to alienate those readers who might look at that cover and think, oh, that's too scary for me because there might be other things in the book that they would really love and then they would kind of jump onto the creature feature train, and be like, oh, this is actually kind of cool. So I can definitely definitely see that for sure. I mean I think it's totally fine if as long as you specifically want to hit that horror market, or like I don't care whether it reaches a broad audience or not. Like I want to take care of the readers who actually really love the genre, then I think it's great. But I think in order to cross over into other audiences, I could see why you wouldn't necessarily want to feature that. And for my personal writing, my horror aspects of my books tend to be more atmospheric than like jump out and scare you. I mean I certainly have a couple of those moments, but because of that it's really important to me that the cover conveys that it's, it's more of that atmosphere at core just so that readers know what they're getting.

Mindy:             What are you working on right now and where can readers find you online?

Chelsea:           I have a middle grade that's finished and then I also have one young adult book that I'm plotting, so it's in very beginning stages. Who knows if it'll go anywhere. And I have another young adult that I am in the beginning stages of drafting with a co-writer. Um, so that's really exciting and fun just to try something different. And then I have an adult Edwardian Romance, which is so different from what I typically write, but I'm really enjoying it just as something to just have fun with. I think sometimes you need a pet project that's just for fun and that's kind of what I'm doing with that one and we'll see where it goes. But especially right now I have one child and I'm preparing for my next baby to be born in August. And so I think it's good for me to have several different projects that I can just kind of pick up or leave because my brain is just not in that space to like really dedicate to one book. So I have several different projects up in the air right now. Where people can find me, they can find me at my website, https://chelseabobulski.com/ as well as on Twitter or Instagram and Facebook all under Chelsea Bobulski.

 

Selling Your Novel Yourself & The Marriage of Business And Creativity in Publishing With Beth Kander

Today’s guest is Beth Kander, an award-winning playwright and author, the second book in her dystopian epic Original Syn comes out this fall from Owl House Books. Beth joined me today to talk selling a novel to a smaller publishing house on her own, and the risks of writing to the trend, if the trend might stick you in a niche. Also covered: the marriage of business and creativity necessary to make it in publishing, also, how to know which creative medium your story is best suited for.