Toay's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Tara Dairman. Tara is the author of the foodie middle-grade novel ALL FOUR STARS, which was published on July 10 by Putnam/Penguin.
I've become much more of a planner in recent years. For me, the scariest thing about trying to write a novel is the hugeness of the project, so if I can use an outline to trick myself into thinking that I have a handle on what's coming next, that helps.
I also find that I can write a first draft much faster if I'm working from a detailed outline. 96% faster, to be precise!
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
My first novel, ALL FOUR STARS, took about seven years from first words to polished, queryable manuscript. But I would put the project down for months at a time to focus on my day job as a magazine editor, or producing my plays in festivals, or getting married, or going on a round-the-world honeymoon.
I'm able to write much faster now, thank goodness. The sequel to AFS took about five months to draft, revise, and turn in to my editor, but there will be a few more months of edits before it's ready to be published.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?
I'm terrible at multitasking; I can't even listen to music and write at the same time. So, it's one project at a time for me.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
Oh, of course. And every time, really. But I've learned that you can't be a perfectionist, at least not while writing early drafts. And these days, fear of missing a deadline often trumps fear of failure for me, so I manage to get the work done.
How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?
Zero, though I do have a trunked screenplay.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
The manuscript I was working on in the year after I sold ALL FOUR STARS is currently in a drawer, though I hope to pull it out again eventually. I stopped working on it because it was making me dread sitting down and writing to an extent that no other project ever had. I think I was trying to write in a voice that just wasn't really mine. But I might rework it someday.
Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?
My agent is Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary. She spotted my first page in a Secret Agent contest at Miss Snark's First Victim and requested that I query her. I ended up with a few other offers through querying and another contest, but Joan was the best fit for me.
How many queries did you send?
According to Querytracker.net (awesome site for agent-hunters!), I sent 34 queries, and also had six requests from contests.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
Query in small batches (5-7 agents) so that you can pull back and revise your query and/or pages if you're not having any success. Get your query critiqued, preferably by an author who's been through query hell before (such as our own Mindy McGinnis, in her Saturday Slash series!). And, of course, make sure that your manuscript has been through many rounds of critique and revision before you start to query it.
How did it feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?
Seeing it for presale online was really exciting, and seeing friends get excited, too, and start preordering with gusto was so heartening. I can't wait to see ALL FOUR STARS on bookstore and library shelves—thanks to my last name, it should be right next to books by one of my favorite authors, Roald Dahl. :)
How much input do you have on cover art?
I expected to have zero input, so when my editor asked me for some ideas, I was pleasantly surprised. I created a short PowerPoint presentation featuring other middle-grade covers I loved and pointing out what elements I thought might work for ALL FOUR STARS. I was hoping to see a girl, food, and a city skyline on the cover, and all three of those elements are there, so I couldn't be more thrilled.
What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?
Generally, I'm a fan of learning as much as possible about the world you're working in—in this case, the world of publishing. But sometimes, I fondly remember the days when I didn't know anything about starred reviews, notable book lists, mock Newbery blogs, etc. It's surprising how crappy it can feel to have your book not be considered for certain accolades—especially when, a year ago, you didn't even know those accolades existed! But mostly I try to focus on the joy and accomplishment of actually publishing a book, and having another one on the way.
How much of your own marketing do you?
I have a blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
I've been doing a fair amount of outreach over the last few months to bloggers and reviewers, setting up a mini-blog tour. I've had new headers designed for my social media sites and swag like bookmarks and temporary tattoos designed by the terrific Amber at Me, My Shelf, and I. I also made an appointment to introduce myself to the children's staff at my local indie bookstore, and worked with my publisher to set up launch parties in New York and Colorado. And I'm attempting to line up school visits for the fall.
It always feels like there's more I can be doing, but I have to balance marketing with writing and my other work.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
I think that it's smart to be on Twitter (since so many agents are) and have a basic website while querying. The website is especially useful if you have other writing credits, or art to show off; I was able to link to mine in the bio section of my query so that agents could check out my playwriting credentials. And when we sold ALL FOUR STARS to Putnam, my editor checked out my blog and was impressed that I was already building an online presence.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
Social media has definitely helped me connect with fellow writers and form a strong community with them—which is really helpful when it comes time to launch your book. Kidlit writers are the most supportive people I know! I've also met most of my critique partners online, and connected with several librarians and book bloggers. Plus, I enjoy interacting with folks online and sharing snippets of my writing and publishing journey—so for me, being active on social media feels natural and worth the effort.