Wednesday, March 28, 2007

An Interview with Jeanne DuPrau

I am very excited to be able to introduce our next Shrinking Violet Interview with the incredibly talented Jeanne DuPrau, author of the popular (and hugely successful!) The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and Car Trouble. Her books are adored by children and adults alike and captured the reading publics imagination four years ago when she introduced The City of Ember, “the only light in the dark world.” Jeanne has written both a sequel, The People of Sparks, and a prequel, The Prophet of Yonwood. A fourth book is forthcoming.

I first “met” Jeannie on a YA writer’s list I’m on and was struck by her quiet, writing-centered life. (She has assured me that this is merely an illusion, but one I am loathe to give up.) Since I have two teen aged sons and feel like I live in the middle of what seems like a testosterone tornado most days, I was beyond envious.

What I love about Jeannie’s story is how she’s a great example of writing such a terrific book, that all of the rest of it—marketing opportunities and promotional support from her publisher—pretty much fell into place. Yes, she still has to follow through on the obligations, but she doesn’t have to hustle them up or create opportunities of her own.

RL: Do you work with an agent?

JD: Yes. She has been wonderful. She does all the things that I would be terrible at--sending manuscripts to the right places, negotiating contracts, dealing with foreign rights, and dealing with numbers in general. I don't like numbers.

RL: How many years have you been writing and publishing?

JD: I've been writing more or less since I could read. My first publication was a magazine article, back in the mid-seventies, and I've been having things published ever since--mostly non-fiction, until the Ember books.

RL: Can you tell us a little about how you sold The City of Ember? Did your publisher express their enthusiasm right from the start? Or did it grow over time?

JD: I sent the ms. to one agent who turned it down and one publisher who turned it down. Then it was accepted by an agent (the one I have now), who submitted it to several publishers, and there was enough interest for an auction. This was so exciting to me that if I'd had heart problems I would have been in trouble. Random House made the best offer, with great enthusiasm, and my relationship with my editor there has been very good from the beginning.

RL: Where would you place yourself on the introversion/extroversion continuum?

JD: Pretty close to the introvert side, although not all the way, and I've inched a bit closer toward the other end of the scale as the years go by.

RL: How do you feel about the label "shy"? Does it fit for you? Or, would you describe yourself differently?

JD: Shy was definitely how I described myself for most of my life, and it still fits, although not nearly as much. I used to be terrified to speak up in a group, to nearly have a nervous collapse over oral reports and piano recitals, and to end up lurking in corners at parties. Those things have changed, but I'd say I'm still shy at heart.

RL: Have you ever felt pressured to take on a bigger promotional role (by your editor/agent/inner demons) perhaps one you were uncomfortable with? How did that go?

JD: My publisher wanted me to do a big national tour for my second book. It loomed in my future sort of like an execution date--the closer it got, the gloomier I felt. Other things were going on, too--back pain, for one, and an aging mother. At sort of the last minute, I decided I just couldn't face the tour, and I canceled. I think this was a pretty bad thing to do. The following year, the tour proposed was even longer, and I did the whole thing. It's never quite as bad in actuality as it is ahead of time in my mind. In fact, some aspects of it were rather fun.

RL: What do you do to promote yourself and your books?

JD: I accept invitations--some, not all. I put conditions on them. I won't speak at schools where the students haven't read my books. I have certain grades I like to talk to more than others. I won't drive great distances. I am sort of a pill about all this. On the other hand, I answer all my e-mails, I send bookplates to those who request them, I do free things locally. But if I had to depend on my own promotional activities to sell my books, my books wouldn't get sold.

RL: How long did it take you to settle on this balance?

JD: It took a few years of experience--of learning what kinds of events work out well and which ones are likely not to.

RL: What promotional situations are you the most comfortable in? The least?

JD: I wouldn't sit at a table in a bookstore and hope that people would drift by to have a book signed. The school book fairs I've been to have usually not been worth the time. The best events are classroom visits where the teacher has done a good job preparing the kids.

RL: What do you do to recharge after you’ve had a big dose of public contact?

JD: Come home (or back to the hotel), have some food and a glass of wine. Or if it's daytime, and I'm at home, I go out into the garden and putter around, deadheading geraniums or pulling weeds. Or I go for a walk with my dog. Or I read, or (if I'm truly wiped out) look at pictures in magazines.

RL: How would your best friend (or spouse) complete this sentence?
"Jeanne's idea of a perfect day is..."

JD: Work on writing for an hour or so in the morning and make wonderful progress; get lots of interesting e-mail; get a call from my agent announcing something exciting; spend the afternoon alternating between gardening and reading; and for dinner be invited to the house of a friend who's a good cook.

RL: How about favorite introverts? Who would you most like to dine with?

JD: Can't think of an answer for this one. Sometimes it's easiest for an introvert to dine with an extravert, who will take care of most of the talking.

RL: What's the best piece of promotional advice you ever got?

JD: I can't think of any. It never occurred to me when my book was published that I would have to promote it myself. Luckily, I haven't had to--that is, I haven't had to think up my own promotional campaigns and strategies.

RL: How has being an introvert helped or hindered you in the writing business?

JD: Writers have to be alone a lot, and I'm used to that and in fact need it. If I required constant company and excitement, I wouldn't get much done. I hadn't expected that having a successful book meant I would suddenly have to be a public speaker. But that has been the case--school visits and bookstore appearances and conferences have been offered, in fact more or less expected. I find that I can do them; I'm not nervous about them any more, and my teaching experience (brief) and the large amount of preparation I do helps a lot. But they are exhausting for me. I look forward to them as something to be gotten through.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Let your Characters Do the Talking

Robin and I are both doing some experimentation with using our characters to speak for us. It's innovative, fun, and, you don't even have to pay them. (Our characters work for free, rarely take smoke breaks, and always show up on time!)

Before my new book The One Where a Kid Nearly Jumped to His Death came out this month, the Publicity Department at Penguin asked me to do an on-line interview in the voice of my main character. Stump is a thirteen year old kid with a prosthetic leg who just spent an unforgettable summer coming to terms with his dad, learning how to ocean swim, compete in a big race, and surviving his First Serious Crush.

Here are a couple of sample questions. You can check out the rest of the interview here.
Q. What's the most important lesson you learned from Coach?

A. Oh, man, where do I start? I got a crash course in LIFE this past summer. Not that I hadn't learned a lot about important stuff already from Mom, but I always have to weigh anything she teaches me because, well, she's basically a girl, and I need to grow up become a man. Until this summer, everything I knew about being a man came from Aunt Clem, my lesbian stunt double mom. Not that she acts like a guy or anything, but she knows how to survive in the world. I need to know that.

Q. How's that new prosthetic working for you?

A. The new leg rocks. If I have long pants on, you can't even tell I'm short a leg. I went from an old beater to a Jaguar. Unbelievable.

Q. Colorado or California? (As in, where would you rather live-- with mom or dad?)

A. You know, wherever my mom is for now. But after college, I'm not sure. I love the mountains in Colorado, and even the snow, but, boy, the ocean calls me. Frequently. It's got me on speed dial, man.

I think hearing from Stump is so much more interesting than if I'd answered the questions in my author voice, waxing on about the "lessons" from the book.

And, in advance of her book's publication, Houghton Mifflin had Robin set up a Theodosia Throckmorton website and a blog in Theo's voice. If you haven't been there yet, check it out.

Not only does promotion technique allow you to remain behind the curtain a bit, it creates some powerful mojo between your reader and your character. And, as Robin has been talking about in her last two blogs, this is yet another way to "shift the focus". Plus, this had the the added benefit of allowing you more practice and opportunity for writing voice.

This has such great potential for all of us. Can you think of some other ways you can use your characters to do the talking for you? We'd love to hear your ideas!

Grace and peace,
Mary Hershey

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Second Favorite Piece of Marketing Advice

The most successful, comfortable marketing slogan ever (well, for me at least):

It’s Not About You

In fact, it comes with a 95% guarantee that if you repeat this to yourself often, you’re marketing efforts will go much more smoothly. And it applies to just about every aspect of marketing and promotion, from writing a short bio to giving a presentation to school visits. It’s not about you. It’s about THEM—your audience, and what you are doing FOR THEM.

Which is most often to entertain or enlighten. It’s not about talking about yourself, or ego gratification or sounding like an expert or even selling more books. It’s about connecting with them on some level and either entertaining them for a half hour or enlightening. Answering questions they might not even realized they had.

I think this is one reason giving writing workshops is (relatively) comfortable for me. Workshops are SO not about me. They’re about giving other writers useful information I’ve happened to stumble across in my own writing journey. They’re about imparting very specific information where the focus is on craft, not me as an author or person.

Author panels, too, work better for me because it’s not about me talking, it’s about a conversation on children’s writing or literature. On a panel, the conversation takes center stage, not the individuals speaking.

I hate writing author bios. I live a boring life, there’s not much to say that sounds very impressive, but they are a necessity. So if I put myself in the position of the reader of author bios, it becomes somewhat easier. What could I tell them about myself that would seem funny or amusing or make them laugh or help them sell a book?

Sometimes it can be hard to try and wrap one’s mind around what the recipient of the bio, workshop, presentation, bookmark, might want. The easiest thing to do in this case is use your mad characterization skills and put yourself in their shoes, just like you would a character you were writing about. Think back to before you were writing, or think of YOUR favorite authors—what is it you’re dying to see, hear, know about them? That’s usually a good place to start. (Unless your interest leans toward stalkerish, and then we don’t want to know!)

So a group of young school kids might need inspiration or affirmation of the revision process by a real writer instead of a teacher. Or maybe permission to write, or assurance that all voices are important. Or maybe simply to be entertained (which is not so very simple to do) or an excuse to get out of math for the afternoon.

Whereas teachers are looking for a broader, more exciting context for writing that will help motivate their students. Booksellers might need something interesting to tell their customers about why this book will work for the young reader they’re buying it for, or how the writer came to write this book or what school curriculum it touches on.

Oftentimes, the person in question might just want to feel like they’ve connected with you in someway outside the book so they can see the connection between loving your book and the person you are.

But even when it is about you, it’s not really ABOUT you. It’s about serving your readership and your audience. It’s about giving back to those people who trusted you with a few hours of their life to read your book or trusted you enough to put your book in the hands of a young reader or recommended you to a parent.

Or at least, that’s the lens through which I view the whole process the least painfully. You’re welcome to borrow those lenses and see if they work for you

Sunday, March 18, 2007

We Have a Winner!

We are very excited to announce that we have selected a WINNER for our first contest which was to complete the following sentence: You know you're a true introvert when...

Our sitting judge was the esteemed Ellen Jackson, Author Prolifica, and card-carrying Shrinking Violet. If you haven’t yet done so, make sure you read Ellen 's interview with us this month for great promotion ideas and concepts.

Aaaaand, the $25.00 Book Sense gift certificate goes to GAR for this marvelous entry: You know you're a true introvert when you cover the mirrors when you're home alone.

Congratulations, Gar! If you will contact me , I will get your prize to you. For those of you that don't know, Booksense is the independent bookstore equivalent of Independents rule. Cost a bit more, but they know and hand sell good books.

We also have five *Honorable Mentions*, which we didn't expect to have, but you all are so very clever! Each of our Honorees will receive an Official Opt Out Ticket for the next social engagement that you don’t wish to attend. (See below.)

Here are our Honorees!

From Rebecca Langston-Geoge: You know you're an introvert when you deny it's your birthday, not to avoid revealing your true age, but to avoid singing waiters bearing lit cupcakes.

From Barbara Bietz: You know you are an introvert when you run into an old friend who asks what's new, and even though your inner voice is screaming I WROTE A BOOK! your real voice says "Not much what's new with you?"

From Terry Pierce: You know you're an introvert when the Caldecott Committee calls to tell you that your picture book was chosen as this year's winner, and you say, "I'm sorry, you must have the wrong number."

From Mussel Bound: You know you're an introvert when you carry a handful of religious tracts on plane rides and long bus rides, so people will avoid you.

From Kimberly Lynn: You know you are a true introvert when you are voted employee of the year and you insist the ballots were tampered with. (Only because you know your boss will make you give a speech at the end of the year luncheon.)

Thanks, everyone, for all your entries! We love them so much we will probably create a permanent link to them.

Stay tuned here for April’s contest!



Rebecca, Barbara, Terry, Mussel Bound, Kimberly Lynn


(And absolutely no long-suffering sighs or eye-rolling from children,
pets, partners, in-laws, co-workers, other assorted extroverts)

Awarded by: Mary Hershey & Robin LaFevers March 19, 2007


Thursday, March 15, 2007

My Favorite Piece of Marketing Advice

Somewhere on my writing journey I heard a piece of marketing advice that I cling to in desperate times (like right after I’ve flubbed a public speaking opportunity.) I’ve actually heard it from more than one person, usually editors or agents, and it goes something like this:

“The best marketing advice I can give you is write the next book, and make it even better.”

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I adore that advice. It’s something I can control; learning and perfecting my craft. It’s something I’m comfortable with; the solitary immersion in my story and wrestling plot and character into submission. Or conversely, depending on the book, gently coaxing them into existence.

That marketing advice SO works for me, and makes a ton of sense besides. Especially when you consider what really sells books.

As millions of wasted dollars spent on failed marketing campaigns will attest to, the single best marketing for your book is buzz and word of mouth. Period. Better than ads in the NYT book section, better than ads in PW. Better, even than good reviews. Reader buzz is pure gold in terms of marketing dollars. (Not to mention hugely satisfying.) Yes, those other tools can be used to get your book in front of potential readers, but unless those readers fall in love with your book and are thrilled they read it and can’t wait to tell their friends, the dollars are pretty much wasted.

And the good news is, many, many books have generated buzz, starting at the ground level with no publisher support, and that buzz has carried them to the top of the sales charts.

Because they were really great books. And cream rises. Most of the time, anyway.** And yes, there are many examples of books that many don’t think are great, but that do spectacularly well in the marketplace. These books, I think, while maybe not stunningly written, tell a rousing good story that somehow touches the reading public’s nerve. Which is actually good news because this illustrates there is more than one way to define a great book: beautifully written is one, a rousing good story is another.

**[Yes, there are wonderful books that end up being ignored or never finding their audience. That is true. And it breaks my heart as well as yours. However, we can’t really learn anything by studying those examples or ranting about the unfairness of it all, which is why I’m choosing to not focus on that aspect.]

Writing a great book is also one of the things that will convince a publisher to put money into all those marketing bells and whistles I listed above. Now, not always, obviously. But it increases your chances. And it can happen two ways.

1. Right from the get go, during the submission process, your book generates buzz and has a number of editors vying for the opportunity to publish your manuscript. (And isn’t this one of every writer’s favorite dreams??) The mss goes to auction, and you settle for a six figure deal with a publishing house you chose. Cool, huh?

But there are downsides to this approach. Conventional wisdom says that because they paid this money for your book, they will fully promote it to capture their investment. But it doesn’t always pan out that way. Editors leave, marketing directors change, other books hit the market before not the publisher actually follows through with their original marketing plans. So while it’s a great start, it’s not a sure thing. And it’s only one way…

2. The editor who buys your mss (and not necessarily for an announcement-worthy sum) falls head over heels in love with your mss. It’s one of her favorite books evah. She’s given permission to buy it, and as it works its way through the publishing company, her enthusiasm is catching, and other members of the publishing team fall in love with the book so that the time it’s ready for publication, they all want to tell the world about this book they’ve fallen in love with. I think John Green’s Looking for Alaska is a good example of this approach.

But both of those approaches are just a way of trying to accelerate the chances of generating reader buzz. Which can also happen all on it's own, without any marketing fanfare or publishing dollars. Harry Potter was one such book, enthusiastically hand sold by independent booksellers for months before it made it's big splash. And that big splash occurred because those who'd read the book loved it and told their friends they simply had to read this book.

The other wonderful thing about the advice to focus on writing your next book is, it’s never too late. Just because your prior books didn’t generate this kind of attention or buzz, doesn’t mean your subsequent books can’t. Publishing is littered with stories of authors who wrote many books before their “breakout” book, the one that put them on the map.

But before either of these things can happen, you have to write a great book. It has to tell an amazing story, or be bone achingly authentic, or beautifully told or cleverly constructed.

And for me, studying my craft, pushing myself to write better, stronger, fresher is a much more comfortable place for me to spend my energies than hawking my wares.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More Thoughts About Shy vs. Introverted

Hm. I think it’s inescapable that shyness and introversion are going to be close cousins. I think it also depends on which definition of shy one is subscribing to.

Shy can mean timid, wary, or bashful, which my dictionary describes as inclined to shrink from public attention. It can also mean to show a dislike.

And with the exception of timid, I think most of those words can describe many introverts’ reaction to being around large group of people or being in the spotlight. Because, yeah, we’re wary of stepping into a situation which is not our natural element. We have to be more on our toes, aware, we’re operating outside our comfort zone, and when doing that, it’s smart to be wary! Being shy or wary or cautious when not in our natural element is a really healthy, good thing.

And if bashful means to shrink from public attention, well, most of us do that too. It’s in the specifics of why we do it that our introverted individuality will come into play. And while the internal reasons may vary--whether it’s to conserve energy, or because being around that many people is an assault to our psyche, or we’re just uncomfortable--the behavior, shrinking from public attention, is fairly demonstrable.

I think this is further exacerbated by the fact that introverts are in the minority, and many extroverts won’t have the internal reference for understanding the reasons behind our actions; all they will see is the manifestation of the shy behavior. And thus we’re labeled shy. But it’s only one, very surface component of what being an introvert entails.


The Shy vs. Introverted Question

Robin and I have been chatting off-line a bit with one of one of our very cool readers who has posted the intriguing question: Are introverts always shy? And conversely-- are shy people always introverts?

And the answer is a resounding ... not necessarily! But possibly! I know, that's about as helpful as hairspray in a hurricane.
Introversion is defined by the way in which a person gathers energy for themselves-- either in solitude or in the company of others. To put it in more practical terms, after a demanding day, what is your favorite way to unwind? By yourself or with friends? Would we be more likely to find you headed out for a walk by yourself, or to a packed kick boxing class at your gym?
Introverts crave and need time alone to reconnect to their power source. An extrovert needs the energy of others to recharge.

The term shy is used in a number of different ways, but it is really a behavior you can observe. You can see 'shy'. We all know what it looks like, right? But when people use it as an adjective, or a trait to describe someone, it is most often because they have observed that person behaving that way, perhaps over a period of time. We are what we repeatedly do, or so it is said.

I've been called shy all my life, and I suppose that was true when I was younger. I think that its introversion now that really fuels my social shrinking behavior. It's not that I feel apprehensive or nervous about engaging with someone or a group (not too often anyway), it's just that I know that it will drain my energy. So, I've become much more selective about my activities.

We'd love to hear from some of you on this! Any un-shy introverts out there? Or shy extroverts?

And, if we haven't already said this, Robin and I welcome private posts for any of you that don't feel comfortable addressing the whole group. Feel free to email me at or Robin at

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Comfort Level Inventory

Here’s a Comfort Level Inventory exercise you might be interested in doing, just to lay the foundation as you go forward to determine your marketing and promotional strengths and begin to lay a core strategy around them.

Below is a list of as many marketing and promotional activities as I could come up with. (Feel free to add more in the comments if you think of any!) Now, take a piece of paper and make four columns and label them:

Feels Comfortable
Could Get Used to It
Definitely Uncomfortable
Cold Day In Hell

Now take a moment and place all of the promotional and marketing activities listed below into one of those columns.

Radio interviews – in studio
Radio interviews – by phone hook up
One on one interviews
Interviews via email
TV appearances – local
TV appearances – National
Targeted Postcard mailings (schools, libraries, booksellers)
Targeted Press Release mailings (local media)
School Visits – individual classrooms
School Visits – assemblies
Book Fairs
Attending Conferences
Speaking at Conferences
Conference Panels
Book Festivals
Author Spotlight at local SCBWI Writer’s Day
Speaking in front of local teachers’ group
Book signings
Book launch party
Drive By signings at bookstores (basically signing shelf stock the store has on hand)
Message Boards
Online Forum participation
Targeted emailings

When you’ve done that, tear the sheet in half and put the Definitely Uncomfortable and Cold Day In Hell columns away. You’re not even going to think about them right now. They’re off you’re radar for the time being, possibly even permanently. (The only exception to this would be if you have nothing in those first two columns. If that’s the case then you need to go back and try again, this time picking the three least terrifying items on the list.)

The two columns you have left will be your core promotional focus, and doesn’t that feel more doable? Let alone comfortable? It will also be a much more efficient investment of your energies, concentrating on the things you feel confident about.

Because the truth is, very few writers will have the time, resources, and energy to do all of the things on that master list. Therefore it only makes sense to prioritize and concentrate on the items that are inside your comfort zone.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Our First Contest

Okay, friends, put on your Smarty Pants, and get your creative juices flowing! Robin and I have a $25.00 gift certificate for to the individual that comes up with the best answer to the following Jeff Foxworthy-ism.

"You know you're a true introvert when (or if)..."
Here's a couple from us.

You know you're a true introvert when the Publisher's Clearinghouse van pulls up in front of your house, and you hope like hell they didn't see you duck behind the drapes. (Mary)

You know you're a true introvert if you're thrilled to have caught a big, honkin' head cold that means you have to stay home from the Annual Office Christmas Party. (Robin)

Get ready, set, and look out! Contest ends on St. Patrick's Day. Good luck!

Mary Hershey