Sad fact: the sparkly, witty tweet convos you've shared with someone don't always transfer over well in an elevator.
Me: Hey! I think I know you from Twitter!
Twitter "friend": (looking me over) Oh? Nice to, uh, see you.
Elevator doors open and we both skitter away in opposite directions.
(Note to self: don't ever do that again.)
Every so often, however, these virtual relationships can bloom into actual, real live friendships. I'd "known" Erin Dealey because we're both represented by East West Literary and Erin's been putting together the agency newsletters. But LA was the first time we had a chance to talk in person.
Readers, I immediately loved her. And so I did what I always do when I catch a writer alone for a few minutes, I interviewed her.
Jody: Erin, you've written multiple picture books and I've just heard you write plays too. Where do you get your ideas for so many projects?
Erin: Life--all the students I’ve ever taught, my family, kids I meet at school visits, and the kid inside me who never grew up.
My latest picture book, Deck the Walls (Sleeping Bear Press), a kids'-eye view of holiday dinners, is part autobiography ("Feed the dog our peas and carrots..." Yes, we tried this a lot!), but I wrote the original for my high school Theater students to sing at a winter assembly.
Jody: That's interesting that a story grew out of a song. It makes sense, though, because most picture books have a strong rhythm. Once you've got that initial idea, what do you do next? Plan things out? Or just write and see where it goes?
Erin: When an idea pops up, I write it down to get the story out. This seems to work well for me with picture books and plays. Of course, I go back to revise and polish, which is where the planning comes in. Novels are different because I hear the voice first and meet the character (an offshoot of my theater work) and together we "plan."
Jody: How many books did you write before you got your first book deal? How many rejections did you get along the way?
Erin: Short answer: 1 and 3/4ths...
Long Answer: I didn't know anything about publishing when I started out. I was teaching high school and writing skits and plays for my students to perform, including "The Christmas Wrap Rap," which I submitted to Plays Magazine on a whim, and it became my first official publication, aside from free-lance work for newspapers.
One of my high school students told me she was working on a novel, so somehow the two of us would hole up in my office at lunch, writing. I remember Mary sitting on the floor punching out her story in Braille on these huge pages, and me with my yellow pad scribbling away. Then we would read our latest chapters aloud. Her unicorn story was much better than my first novel, believe me. (My 3/4ths of a novel is still in a "drawer" somewhere.)
That brings me to my first book deal, Goldie Locks Has Chicken Pox.
I switched to picture books because my daughter was little and we read them nightly. Writing Goldie felt familiar--like writing a skit for my theater kids. When it was ready, I followed the guidelines in Writers' Market and queried two publishers, the only two I could find that would accept rhymed verse.
Jody: Which is not easy to write and not easy to get published.
Erin: Very true. I received a rejection slip right away from one of the publishers and the other one asked me to send the manuscript, which I did. I totally forgot about it when summer started because I was busy with Sugarloaf (the Fine Arts Camp where I run the Theater Dept.).
Jody: I'm noticing a trend here, Erin. You're a song writer. You're directing theater programs. And you're drawing from these experiences to develop your stories.
Erin: "All the world's a stage," right? Lucky for me, that September, I got a call from a fabulous Senior Editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, who is now VP and Editorial Director at Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.
I am eternally thankful to Caitlyn for picking me out of the slush-pile. I now realize what a miracle that was. She truly changed my life.
Jody: I love hearing inspirational stories like that--from slush-pile to multiple book deals! And you've been a busy working writer ever since. How do you balance your writing time with other obligations?
Erin: Balance reminds me that I need to do more yoga. No seriously, every day is different. Life intervenes. I remember how hard it was to make writing a priority when I first started--partly because it wasn't providing a paycheck (or needing its diapers changed).
Jody: Your kids--like mine--are grown up now, which makes it easier.
Erin: Right, but when they were younger it was a challenge. The thing that changed my perspective was realizing how important it is for our children to see us following our own dreams. Actions speak louder than words. Instead of just telling our kids to "go for it," isn't it better to teach by example?
Jody: I'd say yes. My kids were good sports. There were many nights of chocolate chip pancakes for dinner, which they viewed as a bonus. I tried to keep a regular work schedule to make family life more consistent. Do you have a schedule?
Erin: I try, but that doesn't always work out. Chris Crutcher gave the best answer to this question once at a conference. I'm probably paraphrasing but this is me: "It's the equivalent of a squirrel on the road. You never know which way it's gonna go."
Jody: Things can get crazy when you're promoting a book--especially when it comes to staying on top of social media. What are some of the virtual ways that you promote your books?
Erin: Well, first of all there are wonderful blogs like yours, and thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this. Shameless plug: I hope everyone will check out Jody's recent appearance on my blog series, What To Expect When You're Expecting--a BOOK! at erindealey.com.
Jody: I loved doing that, by the way. There definitely are similarities between waiting for your book to come out and marking time before your baby's due.
Erin: This isn't a form of virtual promotion, but I LOVE doing school visits. Honestly, I have so much fun doing assemblies, the promotion seems secondary to the amazing opportunity to combine my other loves, teaching and acting. The same goes for workshops like the one I'm scheduled to teach at the California Reading Association's PDI in November.
Jody: And I "see" you on Twitter...
Erin: I love Twitter ( @ErinDealey ), but I don't think of it as a promotional tool either. To me, it's more like a community of like-minded, positive people who love words. (Although I admit I have been sharing Deck the Walls' wonderful KIRKUS review on everything imaginable!)
The catch is it's tricky promoting a picture book like Deck the Walls because who wants to think about the holidays in September? I'm sure you've had the same reaction I had when I saw Christmas wrapping paper and Halloween costumes in the store: WHAT? ALREADY???
Like yours, my book comes out in September but this WHAT? ALREADY??? response gives holiday books a very short window of opportunity.
Jody: I didn't even think about the holiday aspect. How are you handling the timing?
Erin: Well, this month I created a Goodreads Giveaway (now through Sept. 29th), and at the end of the month I'll be hosting a Deck-the-Walls Skype Party with 15 schools from Maine to California--plus Berlin and Amsterdam.
I also have a fun book trailer that my 2nd grade Twitter pals from St. Stephens school in Wisconsin helped me make which I can't wait to share! I wanted to air it when my publisher took it to BEA, but she wisely reminded me to pace myself.
Jody: All good ideas. I feel like I should be taking notes here... Before I let you go, Erin, what are you working on now?
Erin: I just finished a few 1st grade contributions to Pearson's new ReadyGen common core anthology, so now I'm back to a picture book biography that's been bubbling around in my head for a while. And I'm crossing fingers and toes as my agent submits my debut YA novel. (Yikes--it's scary just mentioning that!) The hardest thing I'm working on is my patience! : ) Like you, I'm counting the days until I can celebrate my Deck the Walls book birthday with your YA debut Thin Space!
Jody: Hard to believe there are only a few more days left! So glad we can count down together. Thanks, Erin, so much for chatting today while we wait.
Erin: Thank you, Jody!