Friday, March 28, 2008

Debut Author of the Month: Jody Feldman...

Debut author Jody Feldman's first book, The Gollywhopper Games was just released by Greenwillow a few weeks ago. And thanks to her experience working in the advertising industry, new author Feldman was prepared with an arsenal of promotional tools. Below she tells us about her book and what inspired her to write it (nearly two decades years ago) as well as what she's done to spread buzz for her book, how she found her agent, her thoughts on revision, and more.

For those who don’t know anything about your book, give a quick teaser/summary of The Gollywhopper Games.
Exactly 25,000 contestants will enter, but only one will win what might be the biggest, bravest, boldest kids competition the world has ever seen--The Gollywhopper Games. Gil Goodson may have more reason to win than anyone else. It was, after all, the Golly Toy & Game Company that had had his father arrested and ruined Gil’s life. If Gil can get through the questions, puzzles and stunts, he might have a chance at redemption. Does he have what it takes to win? Do you?

You first began writing Gollywhopper in 1989! What kept you interested in the story for so long? And what was the incident that inspired it so long ago?
Oh, you give me too much credit for my ability to stick with something that long. I’m a fast first-draft writer. I once wrote a novel in 10 days. (Never to be repeated except under bizarre circumstances.) The Gollywhopper Games took me about 3-4 months, puzzles and all. The thought of one 5th grade kid kept pushing me to get it done.

I was volunteering in the school library when that 5th grader rushed in, waving Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, proclaiming it the best book he ever read. When he asked the librarian for something just like it, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator was checked out, neither she nor his teacher could find anything to satisfy him. It was at that moment I decided to write a book for that kid.

As soon as I finished that first draft, I let it lie on the desk for about 20 minutes before I set about the task of revising, which, at the time, meant an equation like this:
Line Editing + Adding An Extra Character = Full Revision = Mail MS Immediately

Do I need to mention I was young and naïve, and there were no online communities to draw wisdom from at the time? Do I need to mention that no one sent me a contract right away?

I did have enough sense to return from the post office and start writing something new, another middle grade. When I finished that one, I moved on to younger YA, then on to edgier YA, back to younger, trying to find my voice. So while I have a number of manuscripts in my file cabinet, many of which I soon realized, I could file under Novel Writing 101, I always felt The Gollywhopper Games had that something.

I’m not sure what inspired me to bring it out of retirement, make some substantial revisions (I’d learned a lot in 12 years) and submit it for a critique the first time I went to the SCBWI National Conference in LA, but it was a fortuitous inspiration. When your critiquer, an editor, tells you that if, for some reason, you can’t sell the book, you should come back to her, and she’d figure out a way to serialize it to fit her imprint; when you hear that, you know/hope/pray it may just be a matter of time.

How did you find your agent? Can you tell me a little about your path to publication?
The 2002 SCBWI Conference was huge for me. It was there I met agent Jennie Dunham. I didn’t race up to tell her what I wrote. I didn’t give her a pitch. I didn’t talk about me at all. About half an hour previously, she’d finished giving her keynote speech, and I found her almost alone in the lobby outside the auditorium. I merely thanked her for her talk, asked her a quick question about it and left her to the others. I’d achieved my sole purpose in approaching her. I needed to know if I could feel comfortable handing my career over to this stranger. I submitted to Jennie as did so many anonymous others from that conference. In the end, it was the writing that won her over. I know she didn’t remember the conversation.

Before she took me on as a client, she wanted me to understand that I would need to do a rewrite for her, adjusting my main character’s age (from 15 to 12 … what was I thinking, making my MG character 15?). I also needed to understand that my story, not a perfect fit in any genre, might take a while to sell. And even with that initial rewrite, it did take a while. Three and a half years. It was only after a subsequent rewrite, my most significant rewrite in 16 years, that it sold to the fabulous people at Greenwillow the next time out.

That all goes to show, even with an agent, you shouldn’t start spending that advance check of your imagination. I’m very fortunate I have an agent who, I say in my acknowledgments, believed in me sometimes more than I believed in myself.

In a blog post, you mentioned that seven years ago, you were “introduced to the true meaning of revision and the amount of work it takes to stand a chance to succeed in this business.” What’s the true meaning of revision?
True revision means being brave enough to imagine your story could possibly be different than when you first conceived it. It’s easy for writers to believe that what they’ve put into words is the unshakeable truth. They forget that they were the ones who made up the characters, plots and settings. It’s within their power to modify or even destroy what they once thought was essential to the story.

Let me put this into more real terms.

In every version of The Gollywhopper Games, until the one just before it sold, there existed Danny, a graduate student who lived next door to my MC, Gil. The two were almost like brothers. Danny was the device through whom Gil revealed his backstory. Danny was Gil’s confidante. Danny was the one who accompanied Gil to the Games. But why, a rejecting editor (one to whom I’ll always be grateful) said in her letter, why would a 22 year old have such an interest in a 12 year old? What was in Danny’s background that made this relationship work? Had his own little brother died or … ? I didn’t want the story to go there, but something needed to change. I was either brave or desperate when I gave Danny the old Delete Button. But the act of re-imagining the story without Danny, dividing his role among other characters, existing and new, gave the book a better truth.

When the time came to revise for my editor at Greenwillow, I was still scared to death, but I understood what might have to be done. More important, I understood I was capable of doing it.

You’re a member of the Class of 2k8. You’ve already begun doing school visits. You have a YouTube video and a sophisticated looking website. Just how much promotion must a first-time author do?
It’s how much this first-time author must do. My education and background are in advertising, so I am only too aware of the possibilities that exist for promotion. When I had that advance in hand, I decided to reinvest a healthy portion of it in my book. Sure, I would have liked a new sofa for my den, but I figured that would come, and maybe I could add a plasma TV, if I my promotional investment paid off.

I understand this may be unusual among writers, but I think of publishing as a business. If I can positively affect my publisher’s bottom line, I become more valuable. I don’t mean to sound cold, and I rarely think of it so clinically, but that’s how I made my reinvestment decision. I don’t know if my efforts will account for appreciably more book sales, but I do know I would have felt disappointed in myself if sales were less than stellar and I hadn’t tried.

To that end, I have two websites: my personal one and one for the book itself. I also maintian a blog, limiting my entries to the writing and author experience. I hand out bookmarks because it’s easier than spelling “Gollywhopper” and having people remember it. And because my cover lends itself to T-shirts, I couldn’t resist. To have kids be walking billboards for you? Great bang for the buck. I’m excited to cut short a weekend away to go to Des Moines and meet with the Midwest Booksellers Association who have named The Gollywhopper Games a Connections Pick. And while that’s an investment in time only, it’s still great for promotion. I do have that video on YouTube as part of the Class of 2k8 . And I also worked with a group of senior advertising students at the University of Missouri who came up with a whole advertising and marketing plan for me. I haven’t yet decided which of those elements I will use.

But back to the question: What must first-time authors do? Whatever they feel comfortable doing outside one near-essential element. It’s near-essential, today, to have at least some online presence in order to be responsive to readers. That can be as inexpensive as a free blog with weekly entries. It can merely be a simple, static website. But readers expect to find authors online.

I love being accessible to kids who are growing and learning and getting excited about the words and ideas I’ve brought to them. Everything else is just gravy.

How has membership in the Class of 2k8 been helpful?
Anytime you can bounce ideas off, gain support from, borrow the wisdom of 26 other intelligent, energetic and articulate authors, you’re going to come out stronger. We have not only used each others’ strengths and resources to try and reach the booksellers, librarians and teachers who will make our books available to a larger readership, we’ve also relied on each other to become, individually better promoters and better authors. With my background, I was probably capable of tackling all the tasks on my own, but I’ve found I’ve been taken to school a time or two or more and have a stronger promotional portfolio to show for it. And along the way, I have a cheering section, shoulders to cry on and so many new, good friends.

Was your speaking gig at the SCBWI Florida conference the first time you presented to other writers? What was your topic? How did it go?
I loved, loved, loved every minute of that experience. Yes, it was my first time, and I was thrilled to share it with fellow 2k8 member Debbie Reed Fischer (Braless in Wonderland, Dutton, April 2008), another perk of being in the class.

Our official topic title … Jumping Into Bed with the Competition: Can 27 Authors Plan a Mass Promotion and Sell Happily Ever After? We spoke as representatives of the Class of 2k8 on taking what we’ve learned from collaborative marketing and showing authors how to apply it, both on an individual basis and in group situations.

And even though I was speaking well within my comfort zone--harkening back to my advertising/promotional background--I don’t think I ever felt more like an author than I did at that January conference in Miami. I’m hooked, and when I come up for air, I’d love to do it again. And again.

It’s kind of refreshing to see in your bio that you indeed can remember a time when you didn’t want to be a writer, and that you once found writing boring and difficult. Why the change?
You do need to understand that while I never, ever, ever, ever saw myself being a writer, I was always good at it in school. I could write fast. I’d get A's. So I knew I was capable of being a competent writer, but as an occupation? No way. No, thank you. Kill me first.

So I entered college as a psychology major, but found those classes even more unsuited for me than writing. The night I realized I needed to change majors, I sat on the dorm desk, staring into the night from my 8th-floor window. Fifteen minutes later, I had decided that as long as I was at the University of Missouri, on the campus of the one of the world’s top Journalism Schools, I should take advantage of it. I didn’t need to write long, involved articles, either. I could write advertising. It couldn’t be hard to write a few lines to sell something. It wouldn’t even feel like writing. I found it easy and surprisingly fun.

But how did I go from writing 50-word ads to 50,000-word novels? The short version of the time line goes like this.

  1. Degree in advertising.
  2. Job as a copywriter.
  3. Fast writer = spare time most afternoons = boredom at office.
  4. Wordplay doodling looks like I’m still working.
  5. Decision to be next Dr. Seuss.
  6. Realization I’m not Dr. Seuss.
  7. Stab at other picture books.
  8. Previously mentioned incident of 5th grader in library.

Puzzles are featured throughout your book. Can you remember a time when you didn’t like puzzles?
Some early memories:
  • Watching, fascinated as my mom worked crossword puzzles.
  • Being home sick from school, trying to keep my eyes open to watch the morning round of game shows.
  • Asking my parents to set up a follow-the-clue treasure hunt with my birthday present at the end of it. (How many kids want to delay getting presents?)
  • Figuring out a puzzle-type problem in two minutes when our first-grade teacher Mrs. Gabriel was probably trying to keep us occupied for at least ten. (That’s when she introduced me to Venn diagrams because I couldn’t explain how I came up with answer. The whole process thrilled and fascinated me.)

Kirkus references Roald Dahl’s Charlie books in a review of The Gollywhopper Games. What do you admire about Dahl as an author? How did it feel to read that comparison?
I admire Roald Dahl’s imagination, his ability to go deep and dark, but make much of it seem light and funny. Just as I realized I wasn’t Dr. Seuss, I tell the kids in school presentations, I’m not Roald Dahl, and I never will be. I do, however, hope to find a fragment of his audience.

As for the comparison, I pretty much set myself up for that. It all started with my wanting to write a book for that 5th grader, and it continued with my first submission letter where I mentioned the inspiration. I assume, also, because it’s a strong identifier, the Charlie reference filtered down and fit naturally into the publisher’s marketing of the book.

Kirkus hasn’t been the only one to use the reference. Some haven’t been quite as kind in their comparison; others, though, have been very favorable. Just to have reviewers pick up on that, and show The Gollywhopper Games playing in the same ballpark as Roald Dahl, is, indeed, an honor.

Are there any other projects you’d like the mention? Any works in progress?
I’d love to mention several projects, and I’d love to give you exact publishing dates, one a year for the next ten years. But … considering I’m not writing fiction in this interview, I can’t. I do have a completed story under review with my agent. I hope that will be my next official book. I have a very terrible first draft completed for Potential Book #3. And I’m halfway through another not-as-terrible first draft of Potential Book #4.

All three of those should find an audience with the same type of readers who will love The Gollywhopper Games. Stay tuned!

What’s your advice to authors trying to get published?
Find your own 5th grader. She may be 3 years old. He may be 17. Now, write your story with that person at the edges of your mind. Who should be in the forefront? You. You as a kid. What made you choose a book? What propelled you to turn the pages? How did you feel at the end? Use the memories.

Find a way to fit writing into a hectic life on a regular basis. Make a daily date with your manuscript file. Even when you’re sick, you can manage a paragraph on the back of an envelope. A snippet of conversation. A thought. A connection. An idea.

Be open to criticism. Save the defensiveness for the football field or the courtroom. Listen. Absorb. Read. Write. Experiment. Pull out an important scene. Write it a different way. Maybe from a different point of view. What have you learned? How can you make it stronger?

Realize, you need to really want this. You need to have enough passion to push you through yet another rewrite. And another. And another. You need to write because you can’t see yourself doing anything else.

Writing takes time. Writing takes effort. And if you don’t know exactly how to take that next step, remember, the children’s writing community is one of the most supportive group of professionals I’ve ever seen. Ask. Then listen. Then act.


Jessica Burkhart said...

Great interview, Alice. Jody, I enjoyed hearing about your story. Perseverance obviously pays off! :)

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