Friday, February 15, 2008

Debut Author of the Month: Donna Gephart...

Donna Gephart's first book As If Being 12¾ Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! was released just days ago by Delacorte Press. Here she tells us a little about her first book, how she found her agent and shares her 10 Very Important Pieces of Advice for Unpublished Writers.

Just in case someone out there can’t get the gist of your book from its great title, please tell my readers about it.

Six-word alliterative version: Angst. Athletic (As if!). Assassination attempt.

Slightly longer version: Preparing for spelling bees, having a secret admirer, and waiting for her chest size to catch up with her enormous feet are pressure enough, but twelve-year-old Vanessa must also deal with loneliness and very real fears as her mother, Florida’s Governor, runs for President of the United States.

Tell me a little about your path to publication. How did you find your agent, Tina Wexler of I.C.M?

Several years ago, Tina put out a call for writers on the SCBWI Discussion Boards. I sent her the book I’d been working on and a cover letter, in which I wrote one sentence about a gawky, awkward spelling bee champ thrust into the spotlight because her mother is running for president. Although Tina didn’t think she could sell the book I’d sent, she did like my writing and expressed interest in my story about the girl whose mother is running for president.

Unfortunately, it was little more than a short story at the time. With Tina’s encouragement and that of my critique group, I turned that short story into a novel.

Tina had many revision suggestions, such as writing less about Vanessa’s romantic interest and more about the inside scoop on the political process. I did months more research, kept only the first two chapters of the original novel and rewrote the rest. Tina loved this version and sent it to seven publishing houses. She warned, “It might take several months till we hear anything.”

Three weeks later, I got The Call.

How did you feel when you got The Call?

I was in the middle of folding laundry (very glamorous, I know) when I saw the New York exchange on our phone’s caller I.D. I screamed, “It’s my agent. Everyone be quiet!” My son was the only one home at the time, and he was being quiet.

None-the-less, I locked myself in my closet and listened as my agent told me not one, but two editors were interested in my novel--one from Random House, the other from Scholastic. At the end of the day, Stephanie Lane from Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, sent me an e-mail telling me she was delighted to have acquired my novel.

Once your book was under contract with Delacorte, what was the editorial process like? Were there any surprises?

My experience working with my editor, Stephanie Lane, and the talented staff at Random House has been a dream come true. I learned that publishing and promoting a novel is truly a team effort.

Stephanie, of course, made excellent revision requests. This is the stage where larger issues are addressed. I added a minor character and made several changes.

Next, I was asked to go over the manuscript after a proofreader had made corrections. During this pass, I realized how many minor mistakes I hadn’t noticed. Oops!

Finally, I proofread the manuscript after it had been set for printing. I was surprised by how many new minor mistakes cropped up.

Also, it was great fun to have some say in choosing the cover model. (I don’t think this is typical.) I thought designer Kenny Holcolm did a fantastic job with my cover.

Why did you decide to use the world of election politics as a backdrop for your novel? Did anything in particular spark your book idea?

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” I believe more in the adage: “Write what interests you, what sparks your passion.” Politics interested me and still does.

At the time, there weren’t many books for children about politics. I hoped my novel would be a fun introduction to the political process for young readers. In fact, if readers want to learn more about the president and the political process, I’ve included Web sites at the back of my book and on my Web site, www.donnagephart.com.

Do you have anything in common with your main character Vanessa other than your shoe size?

Besides having large feet, Vanessa and I both love the color purple, reading, playing Scrabble and hanging out with cute boys who have big hearts. (I married mine.)

On a deeper level, this novel is about Vanessa’s warm, caring relationship with her mother. Unfortunately, Mom’s obligations as a governor who is running for president keep their time together to a minimum. In the novel, Vanessa’s mother misses a very important spelling bee and is temporarily unavailable when Vanessa gets injured. My mother, on the other hand, attended all my school functions and was available for every important childhood event, but because she was a single parent who worked full-time, she was often too busy or tired for us to spend much time together. Vanessa’s feelings of loneliness came directly from my early childhood.

Does the fact that Hillary Clinton is in the Presidential race make you happy (in terms of your book sales of course)?

Wasn’t that thoughtful of Hillary Clinton to run for president the same year my book about a mother running for president was released?

You’ve done all sorts of writing including greeting cards, articles and essays. What led you to write for young readers?

I enjoy all kinds of humorous writing, but when I’m creating funny novels for tweens, I feel like my writing voice has found a home. Seeing my words on greeting cards and in magazines like Family Circle and Highlights for Children was thrilling, but being part of the amazing collection of literature for children is a true honor.

You read a lot of books in 2007. How do you decide which titles to pick up? Any favorites?

I pay attention to what people are talking/blogging about. I read reviews. I check the “new books” section of my local library obsessively.

Unfortunately, even though I spend most evenings reading, I never seem to make a dent in my growing pile of books I hope to read.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak made a big impression on me. It’s a sad, but wonderful novel narrated by Death.

But if I had to recommend one book that I read this past year, it would be The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie [which one the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007]. This novel contains so many elements of excellent fiction. I learned about a different culture, and was moved to laughter and tears often. It’s a sparse, honest and moving read.

Lately you’ve attended an SCBWI conference in your home state of Florida and attended the ALA meeting at which the Newbery, Caldecott and other ALA awards were announced. Does it feel any different attending these events as a published author?

I was delighted when Random House sent me to my home city of Philadelphia to attend the ALA Midwinter Conference. It was exciting to talk with librarians, who were passionate about getting good books into the hands of young readers. And sitting in the audience while the Newbery, Caldecott, etc. awards were announced was surreal.

As far as the FL SCBWI conference . . . I’ve attended this wonderful conference, run by Linda Bernfeld, since it’s inception six years ago. It was an entirely different experience being behind the podium, speaking about being a first-time author, though, than sitting in the audience, listening. I was also able to give a workshop during the conference – a great experience for my first time presenting at a conference.

Both events were possible only because of the publication of my book, so I’m grateful for the new experiences I’m having.

Your book release date was just a few days ago (February 12). What have you done in the way of promotion?

I’m very lucky because Random House has an excellent publicity department, and the person in charge of promoting my book has been very busy. They’ve sent out review copies of my novel, written press releases and created “Mom for President” buttons to promote my novel. There is also a big promotion at www.itsafirst.net, where the novels of first-time authors are showcased.

On my own, I hired a Web site designer, Lisa Firke at www.hitthosekeys.com, to create my Web site, www.donnagephart.com. Seven months before my book’s release, I began a blog at www.donnagephart.blogspot.com. I’ve had business cards, postcards, T-shirts, etc. printed.

I’ve done some interviews and speaking at local schools as well.

You’ve spoken to groups about not giving up on their writing. Please offer some advice to unpublished writers.

10 Very Important Pieces of Advice for Unpublished Writers:

  1. Turn off the TV. Open a book.
  2. Write even on days when you don’t feel like it, especially on days when you don’t feel like it.
  3. Find or start a critique group. (Try to give more than you take.)
  4. First drafts are never as perfect as you think they are, nor are they as horrible. But they are all you need to begin revisions.
  5. Don’t compare yourself with other writers. Write the best book, story, poem, etc. that YOU can write.
  6. Revision is important. Um. Revision is vital to creating good writing. Er. Being willing to make significant revisions time and again will be the difference between being unpublished and being published. (That was certainly the case for me.)
  7. Act professionally, whether you’ve been published or not, in all correspondence, submissions, etc.
  8. Don’t write about what you think you should or what topic is hot at the moment. Write about what matters most to you.
  9. Read my article, “Six Reasons You Should Quit Writing and One Very Important Reason You Shouldn’t!” in the 2009 CWIM.
  10. Don’t listen to writing advice.
Good luck!

5 comments:

Jessica Burkhart said...

Great interview! I'm in FL too and I've been meaning to go to a FL SCBWI convention soon. I'll be picking up this book for sure. :)

The Diaper Diva said...

I just found your blog ... what a wonderful treat. As an aspiring children's book author, any tips/info/advice from those who have tried/failed/then succeeded is like oxygen for me. Thanks for filling cyberspace with such vital O2.

Donna J. Shepherd said...

Great interview. Thanks! And you got me with #10. :)

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