Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interview with Marcia Thornton Jones

As promised I have picked the creative brain of an author friend and will now share my findings with my faithful blog readers. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Marcia Thornton Jones, author of 132 (!!!) books for children, including the beloved ADVENTURES OF THE BAILEY SCHOOL KIDS series, co-authored with Debbie Dadey; the star-reviewed RATFINK; and CHAMP, the winner of the Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award. Fun fact: I’ve known Marcia for years because she used to be my boss in the Gifted/Talented department of Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky. Also we were in a book club together.

Marcia: Wait. Boss? That wasn’t in my job description, was it? I thought you were my boss…I was there to provide support for you! I’ve NEVER been called a boss before! Let me sit here and sort of enjoy that for a moment….

Okay…That’s over…

Jody: Marcia, you’re cracking me up. Here’s something weird you may not know: I didn’t know you were a writer until one day I happened to see a picture of you in the newspaper above the headline: “The Best Selling Author in Kentucky.”

Marcia: Really? How funny. That reminds me of a story. I was a gifted/talented teacher working on a literature project with fourth-graders. One of the students started writing a story that sounded very much like a Bailey School Kids story. I mentioned the similarities and she started talking about how they were her favorite books. On and on she went, and I figured she was putting it on pretty thick for brownie points. But, no! The student had no idea that her teacher was the writer of those books! The look on her face was unforgettable when another student clued her in.

I’ve had the same things happen with teachers who had no idea I was the author of the books they used with their students. One teacher, when being told I was the author, looked me in the face and said, “No, you’re not.” Then walked away. (Later she apologized. She thought I had been joking).

Jody: So Marcia, apparently you like to keep your success on the down low! But I could understand why after that day I kept you company at the Kentucky Book Fair, and you were mobbed by third grade fans clutching their favorite Bailey School Kids books.

Marcia: Actually, it was something that rarely came up. Teachers and students are pretty focused on sticking to their own curricula. Plus, I didn’t want anyone to feel this was some kind of conflict of interest.

Jody: You might remember that at the time I had a third grader myself who was a rabid reader of the series. One of the highlights of my daughter’s life was coming with me to my book club and sitting next to MARCIA THORNTON JONES. (Marcia, you were extremely gracious and patient with my daughter’s questions. As you are being now, in this interview!)

Marcia: Your daughter is an amazing girl with so many life highlights. It’s a highlight for me to know both your kids!

Jody: Thanks! So my first question is probably something you get all the time: where do your get our ideas? Corollary to this: what’s the back-story behind BAILEY SCHOOL KIDS?

Marcia: I love how the creative mind works. It never ceases to amaze me! Each book I write has a unique origin. VAMPIRE’S DON’T WEAR POLKA DOTS was based on a bad day I had with my students. I told the school librarian, Debbie Dadey, that I needed to grow ten-feet tall, sprout horns, and blow smoke out my nose just to get their attention. Being frustrated teachers, we thought that sounded like a great idea so, for a joke, we sat down and started writing that story. From that one ‘bad day’, we eventually developed a series based on the idea of ‘unusual’ adults in the fictional town of Bailey City called, “The Adventures of The Bailey School Kids.”

Some of my books, like CHAMP and RATFINK, are products of journaling freewrites. Both of those books started with a what-if situation. What if there was a kid that, more than anything, wanted to please his dad but ends up doing something that resulted in a horrible accident? What if there was a kid who has a secret that the school ‘bully’ finds out?

Other ideas have come from family history, my pets, fan letters and brainstorming with kids during school visits. The book I’m working on now grew out of a very vivid dream I had. I woke up and was telling my husband about it. He said, “You should use that in a book.”

To be honest, though, most ideas come from sitting down, putting my fingers on the keyboard, and just letting them flow. I usually end my writing day with the thought, “Where did THAT come from?”

Jody: Speaking of BSK, you’ve written a ton of these books with your friend Debbie, which makes me wonder how the writing process works when you’re co-authoring. A friend and I tried to write a novel together and it sort of fizzled it out in the middle and we both lost interest. Did this ever happen to you and Debbie? What are the challenges to writing with a partner? And were there challenges when you switched to writing books on your own?

Marcia: Debbie and I figured out this whole business of writing together. I think that made a huge difference. When we first started we sat side-by-side and basically ‘told’ the story; typing it in as we ‘spoke’ the character parts. That fast back-and-forth led to very natural dialogue and plot-driven stories.

After Debbie and her family moved from Lexington we had to develop a new system. We call it the hot-potato style of writing. Everyone knows that if you get caught with the hot potato you lose. Well, our manuscript becomes the hot potato to us. When working together we develop a loose outline and then take turns writing a couple chapters at a time with the understanding that we are free to make any changes in what the other person has written. We pass it back and forth via e-mail. Knowing that the other writer is waiting for it keeps us motivated and disciplined. This ‘hot potato’ method of writing with someone is both a benefit and a challenge. A benefit because it keeps me disciplined. A challenge because I have to put everything else on the back burner, especially since Debbie is a very fast writer!

Many people think that since we’ve been so successful as a team that we must have similar writing styles. We’re actually very different writers, but together we formed a third writing style and voice.

When I work independently, my process is much slower because I delve more deeply into character development and theme. Writing, to me, is like sculpting. First I start with a big chunk of raw material; those vague ideas, characters, images, and snippets of words. Then I begin to add more to shape its form and provide support through structure. Usually I do too much and have to shave off pieces or lop off big chunks. Sometimes I have to mush it all together and start over from scratch because it ‘just isn’t right’.

The entire time I’m focused on molding the raw material, supported with a stable structure, into something both meaningful and aesthetic. I’m also thinking of the intended readers. I want them to feel a connection to the character and an understanding of the character’s predicaments. Above all, I want them to have fun--to enjoy spending time in the world of my characters!

Jody: I love that sculpting idea. Lately I’ve been thinking of writing as digging up a fossil, but your metaphor shows that the writer has a little more control. Not that I feel that way about the process all the time…. Something I always wonder about successful writers is the up and down stuff that happens on the way to success. Like, I’ve heard stories of JK Rowling getting a bunch of rejections before hitting it big with Harry Potter, and every writer I know has at least one forever-to-be-unpublished novel hidden in a drawer somewhere. Did BSK rack up any rejections before Scholastic snapped it up? Do you have a book or two that has never sold? Any advice for us “pre”-published writers out here who are still plugging away?

Marcia: I have enough rejections to wallpaper my walls. BSK was sold to the third publisher, and we collected quite a collection on other stories before selling VAMPIRES.

I continue to be a ‘collector’ of rejections (can they be sold on e-bay?). I have no secret words of wisdom other than to develop a thick-skin, always have chocolate on hand, and to remember that there is power in persistence. I live by the motto that the only true failure is to never try at all. With that in mind, I view my hefty pile of rejection letters as a symbol of my success because each letter means I did what so many people only talk about doing--I completed a story and sent it out into the world.

Jody: So true. That's what we have to hold onto. But those rejections... Bleh! I know you write full-time now, but you’ve had a “day job” in the past (teaching, and when you were my awesome boss!) and you have lots of speaking engagements/school visits taking up your time, so how do you balance out your writing with your other commitments?

Marcia: Balance, discipline, and confidence are three things I constantly struggle with. Sometimes I do pretty well. Other times, well, other times I do really well at napping, reading, and watching TV!

Something that works for me is to set goals. By setting goals, I mean I write them down, review them everyday, and then check them off. That helps keep me focused.

The number one best piece of advice I have comes from Jeff Davis in his book THE JOURNEY FROM THE CENTER TO THE PAGE. Davis challenges writers to make writing appointments…and keep them. “If you keep appointments with your hairstylist or with that friend who hounds you to have lunch each Wednesday, then why not keep regular weekly, if not daily, appointments with your muse? (She’s probably more fun and less gossipy. Maybe)” (page 16)

Davis’s whole idea of giving your time ‘shape’ led me back to doing what I did as a teacher. Like most teachers, I completed weekly lesson plans. I always started by putting in the non-negotiables (like recess and lunch J ). Then I blocked in times for specific lessons. By doing this, time had a definite shape. There was that big block for math and one for reading and music and art, etc..

Now I do the same thing for writing. I give my time shape by starting with a weekly blank schedule and then blocking in the non-negotiables (like appointments and family responsibilities). After that, I start filling in exactly when and how I’m going to complete my stated writing goals. I do all this in a Word document, and I use different colors to highlight categories of activities. By the end of the week, I have a visual that shows definite shape to how I spent all my time. I always strive to have more ‘writing shapes’ then anything else.

I don’t always do this, though if I did I would be much more productive. I definitely fall back to ‘shaping my time’ when I find myself drifting away from writing for whatever reason.

Jody: Love these ideas and will definitely need to check out Davis’s book. I’m always searching for ways to be more productive! Okay, lastly, you and I both know the publishing industry is changing—with e-books and publishers expecting more from their authors in terms of promotion and use of social media. What’s your take on that?

Marcia: The publishing world is changing so fast that I think everyone is scrambling for a foothold. One thing that worries me is how easy it is for people to self-publish in the e-world. Reader beware on this one since self-publishing makes it more and more difficult to find quality literature. Many people (both readers and writers) don’t truly understand the value of the editing process. That’s when many mediocre stories are made to shine.

Another problem that needs to be addressed is ethical publishing practices. There needs to be a system in place that protects writers and readers from various forms of piracy.

However, I can see where e-publishing is tempting considering legendary publishers can take years to publish a book; or even years to reject a book. That’s pretty hard, as a writer trying to make a living, to accept. So I think the process of legendary publishing will need to adapt in order to compete.

I understand that using social media can be beneficial. I have a Web site; I’m on Facebook, but let me be honest. I write for kids. I really don’t think social media reaches my audience, and it shouldn’t, should it? I feel very uncomfortable when an elementary-aged student contacts me using social media, and for liability purposes, I do not engage in online conversations with them.

I truly enjoy traveling to schools, bookstores, and conferences to sign books and to speak about writing in workshops and teacher professional development sessions. But I have to be honest, those types of promotional tours are GREAT for getting reader and writing conversations, but they don’t usually result in sales spikes. The ones I see that can truly make a difference in the sales of traditionally published books are the publishers. They’re big enough to reach readers all over the world, especially young readers.

Not to say it can’t happen. I would love for some of my writing to ‘go viral’. If you can make that happen, please do! But in reality, the chances of that are similar to my chances of winning a mega-lottery. Yeah, It could happen…

I’ve also known writers who do a tremendous amount of promotions. They spend hours of their time on it. While few have seen a difference in their sales numbers (unless their work has been offered as a free e-book or at a very low rate), they HAVE commented that they’ve spent so much time on their promotions that they haven’t had a chance to, um, actually write anything.

I think it all goes back to your question on balance and purpose. I’m a writer, and I’m trying to be the best writer I can be. I know part of that is to connect with my young readers, and the best way for me to do that right now is through personal interactions during school visits, conference appearances, workshops and signings. That…and by sitting in front of my computer, putting my fingers on the keyboard, and letting the words flow!

Which reminds me...I left one of my characters locked in a room after being kidnapped by goons while visiting the grave of her mother...I better go figure out a way to get her out of there!

Jody: Uh oh, Marcia, then I'll let you get back to work! Thanks so much for talking with me. You were a great first interview specimen and I know my blog readers learned a lot!


  1. Well, must thank my tech support, uh, my brilliant computer programmer son for help on this! Not sure what I'm going to do next year when he's away at school...

    1. I SO know this feeling! My son helped me design my website and taught me a little html to maintain it. Then he went off to college! Eight years later, he can still pretty much count on some computer time with Mom every time he comes home, to help answer my list of questions I've generated since the last visit. :)

    2. Evelyn, thanks for commenting. I feel like I met you once. Maybe at the Midsouth SCBWI conf in Nashville one year?

  2. Super interview with a great writer!!

  3. Enjoyed her comments on sculpting and on shaping time. I think once you start shaping your time around writing you are finally acknowledging this is not a hobby anymore!

  4. What a friend we have in Marcia. It's been a quarter of a century that we've known her and written beside and with her and presented with her. She is a real Kentucky jewel that the world has discovered!!!! Great questions in the interview which sparked outstanding responses!!!! I miss our whole writers' group.

    Paul and Jerrie Oughton, Washington NC (formerly Lex.,KY)

  5. Wonderful interview, Marcia! Thanks for hosting, Jody. I look forward to saying 'Hi' to you at the SOKY Book Fest next month, Marcia. You're an inspiration to all of us. Thank you for writing so many fun books for kids.

    Ev Christensen

  6. I just read Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots with my 3rd grader and my heart sank reading a paragraph in the book. With the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I plea to the author to change a paragraph in the book. I hope that this post is read and people agree with me to petition the author and publisher.

    On page 14 the paragraph reads: Eddie reached over and pulled Melody's ponytail. "Yeah, she could even be a murderer," he snickered. "I bet she murdered all the kids in her last class!"

    I think this is not appropriate to be in the book. This is a scholastic book that will be read by many children, including those that attended Sandy Hook Elementary school. The image of murdering kids in a class is now just so inappropriate to be in any classroom book.

    Please take the word "murderer and murdered and the like" out of all scholastic books.

    1. Thanks for your comment and I will pass it on to Marcia. It's such a different world these days from when this book was written! I just looked it up. 1991--more than 20 years ago!

  7. Thanks so very much for passing it on to Marcia. I respect Marcia and hope she may consider the request. I wanted to email her but could not find an email address. If she would consider it, may you please ask her to email me.

    It is sad that it is such a different world. So much innocence of being a kid has been lost. I live in Massachusetts so if it could happen in a small Connecticut town then it can happen anywhere.

    Thank you again and Happy New Year. Let's hope 2013 is better.

    1. Thanks again for your comments. I've really been thinking about this idea--of a writer being retroactively responsible for something that ends up being inappropriate at a later date. Once a book ends up out in the world, the writer can't change it or gather all the copies of a book back. Of course, if newer editions are released they can be tweaked to reflect changing times. I think the publisher did that with the Nancy Drew books.

      Anyway, I DID speak to Marsha about it and she mentioned that the next time she sits down with her editors at Scholastic to discuss a new printing, they'd look at that passage again.

      Not sure if this helps, but all best.