Her bio: Kathryn Erskine spent many years as a lawyer before realizing that she’d rather write things that people might actually enjoy reading. She grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools. Erskine draws on her life stories and world events to write her novels including Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Mockingbird, 2010 National Book Award winner, The Absolute Value of Mike, a Crystal Kite winner, Seeing Red, a Jane Addams Peace Award honor book, and a Middle Ages adventure novel, The Badger Knight, a Junior Library Guild Selection. Her picture book biography, Mama Africa, is due out in 2017 and her verse novel in 2018.
1. How do you pronounce your name (only answer if appropriate)?
2. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?
Patience! Seriously, it takes a long time to improve your writing, find the right agent and editor, and actually sell a manuscript. Then it takes patience to wait for it to actually publish – sometimes years.
3. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?
Probably interviewing my characters. When I get stuck, I’ll invite my character into the living room, give him or her, the most comfortable seat, sit down with my pad of paper or laptop and start asking questions. I write down all the answers that come into my head. It’s a way of unlocking the brain, a kind of brainstorming, but it works better if you physically go through the motions of a formal interview.
4. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?
My only insight is that traditional publishers take care of a lot of the marketing for you, not to mention the artwork and design, so it’s much easier to go the traditional route. On the other hand, it’s hard getting your foot in the door so there’s nothing wrong with using the self-publish method to get your voice heard.
a. Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they?
All my publishers are in New York city. Penguin (Philomel) published Quaking, Mockingbird, and The Absolute Value of Mike. Then my editors left and I moved to Scholastic for Seeing Red and The Badger Knight. My next two books, Mama Africa and Hidden Power, are with Farrar, Straus and Giroux (part of Macmillan group) because they were particularly interested in them. I have been very fortunate to work with wonderful publishing houses and wise, talented, supportive editors.
5. Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?
I wish I knew some secrets but I don’t. I think you need to read a lot, especially the kind of writing that you want to produce, write a lot (take lots of writing classes, read lots of craft books), get feedback (from a teacher, editing service and, most importantly, a great critique group of other writers), show you’re interested in writing as a career (having a website and/or web presence, attending writing conferences—maybe even helping to start up or run those conferences, and did I mention writing a lot?), and don’t give up.
6. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?
I think it’s important to do your research. Find one who represents the kind of writing you produce. You can ask around, meet agents at writing conferences, and research them online, e.g., Preditors & Editors, pred-ed.com. Then, be persistent. You may not make a connection with your first choice or the first one you find, just keep going.
7. What was one of the most surprising things you learned your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?
The vehicle for presenting a story has a profound effect. For example, I tried writing a story in a picture book format. Multiple times. It just didn’t work. Then I tried it as a novel. Multiple times. It still didn’t work. I finally tried it as a verse novel. At first it didn’t work because I was not very good at writing a novel in verse but I could tell I’d finally found the right vehicle. As my skills at writing a verse novel improved it turned into a much more powerful story. It is now in editing and will publish in 2018.
8. How many books have you written?
I’ve written a lot of books but only some of them have been published! There are 5 in print and one older with a very small publisher that’s now out of print, and two more on the way.
9. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?
Not tricks, necessarily. I think what’s important is finding what’s right for you. For example, some people say that you’re not a writer unless you write every day. I disagree. I think you have a personality trait that makes you a writer. You may not actually write anything down for days or weeks but you’re constantly getting ideas and squirreling them away for a time when you can write. You may jot down a phrase or a sentence that belongs in your current work in progress or a future work. You’re still a writer. And you have to find what works for you. If that means using an outline and having a designated writing time and place, do it. If it means (like me) having random ideas all over the place you have to capture in some software tool like Scrivener, do that. And finally, while it’s important to listen to feedback from others, especially if what you wrote confuses them or leaves them cold, and revise your writing, don’t let them change your voice. That’s what’s unique about you. That’s what we need to hear.
10. Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story?
Ask What if? a lot. I love the quote about endings, which I think can apply to individual scenes, too: they should be unexpected but not unbelievable. Let your characters lead you somewhere unexpected. If we know them and their motivations well enough, it’ll feel real.
11. What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?
I think there are a number of ways. One is a unique idea or twist, like The Book Thief where the omniscient narrator is Death. Another is creating an engaging, magical world like in the Harry Potter series. I think voice is a big part of it. If you write a book with a great voice, e.g., anything by Kate DiCamillo, or maybe Mockingbird – and that’s usually shown through the main character – it will stand out. Note that in all of these examples the books have heart. We care about the characters. And they’re all facing huge issues so we can empathize, or at least sympathize, with them.
12. What are some ways in which you promote your work?
I have a website and make announcements there and I’m on Facebook regularly, Twitter very sporadically. Mostly I rely on word of mouth through my school, library and Skype visits, book festival, conference, teaching, and other appearances, or teachers, librarians and readers who put my books in people’s hands.
13. What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?
While you can’t ignore the publicity and business side of writing, I’d spend less time worrying about it because you just don’t know what’s going to have any effect. I’d spend more time focusing on my next book.
14. What would you like carved onto your tombstone? Or what saying or mantra do you live by?
Wow, there are so many from the greats like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. but I think for writing I’ll borrow the mantra from the movie Galaxy Quest: “Never give up! Never surrender!”
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