ow! readers, hold on to your pencils and put on your thinking caps because we're talking with children's award-winning author, Jody Feldman. Jody wrote The Gollywhopper Games, a story full of games and puzzles for readers to figure out alongside the characters. She talks to us about writing books for kids, her writing process, the inspiration for her first novel, school visits, and much more.
Jody holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and worked in advertising before becoming a full-time author. Her writing has appeared in newspaper and magazine ads as well as on television and radio. The Gollywhopper Games, her first children’s book, leads readers through the challenges, puzzles, and stunts of a nationally televised, once-in-a-lifetime competition, where contestants also face temptation and ethical dilemmas. Jody lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
(Illustration from The Gollywhopper Games by Victoria Jamieson)
WOW: Jody, we’re thrilled to have you with us for our children’s writing issue. Can you tell us a little bit about the type of writing you have done for children? Have you written for magazines as well as having a book published? Anything else?
Nancy: So happy to be here. WOW! is such a fabulous resource and source of inspiration.
My children’s writing has been limited to book-length fiction. While I was working on books and accumulating rejections, I always thought it might be a good idea to write for magazines to gain experience and credits; however, I found my heart wasn’t in it. Readers, especially young readers, would have seen that.
WOW: What a great point, and something we can all relate to. It is so difficult to write when your heart is not in it! When did you decide you wanted to write for children?
Jody: I was working as a copywriter at an in-house advertising agency and often found I was able to finish my daily work in half a day. Sure, I’d spend time reading the piles of industry publications circulating the office, or I’d go to meetings and try to stay productive, but there were times when my quick writing abilities left me no other choice other than to keep myself entertained. One day, I found myself fooling around with Dr. Seuss-like rhymes. I rationalized that any writing on the job would only work to make me a better writer. And because advertising is often linked to wordplay, I was simply heightening my skills. Right? Soon, I was hooked on this new creative outlet. It was like playtime every day. However, it wasn’t until a few years later, once I’d left the job, that I started actively writing children’s books.
“I always thought it might be a good idea to write for magazines to gain experience and credits…”
WOW: It’s great to hear that you were rationalizing your writing at your “real” job. Many writers seem to rationalize the fact they can call themselves “a writer” before they have the opportunity to write full time. Do you write anything else, other than stories for children?
Jody: I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Even as an advertising major, I had to take news writing and reporting classes. When an article of mine made it into the Columbia Missourian—one of the city’s two daily papers—it was the first time anyone, other than my teachers and parents, had seen anything I’d written. That all changed once I graduated and went into advertising. Since then, I’ve written too many ads, commercials, promotional pieces and training guides to count. I also co-wrote a local TV special, a travel book (CitySmart Guidebook: St. Louis), three other books, and even the message for a giant fortune cookie.
WOW: (laughs) That’s not something everyone can put on their resume—a giant fortune cookie. You have a lot of varied writing experience. So, when you first started writing for kids, what did you do? Did you read any books, take classes, join a critique group or writing organization?
Jody: In my pre-published years, I wrote the gamut of children’s literature. Well, maybe not board books. I tried picture books (both in prose and in rhyme), easy readers, early middle grades, solid middle grades, older middle grades, younger young adults and edgy young adults. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I realized I needed more than my own imagination to make me successful. I took two classes from the much-admired Pat McKissack and a workshop led by author (now owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, MO) Vicki Erwin. I continue to be involved in critique groups, both local and online. I doubt I’d be published without them.
WOW: Thanks for sharing with us all you did before you were able to find success with your recent novel. Most children’s writers have a similar story, and many join critique groups, which they find invaluable! Tell us a little about the plot of your book The Gollywhopper Games. Where did you get the idea?
Jody: I was volunteering in an elementary school library when a fifth grader came in waving a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, proclaiming it the best book he’d ever read. When he left the library disappointed that day because the librarian and his teacher couldn’t find another book to satisfy him (the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator had been checked out), I decided I needed to write that next book he’d want to check out.
After that came much brainstorming, which is such an amorphous process, I can’t pinpoint exactly how I got the central idea for the book. It did have something to do with my lifelong fascination with games and wordplay and my subscription to Games Magazine.
As for the plot, the shortest sound bite I’ve come up with is this: The Gollywhopper Games is about a once-in-a-lifetime competition and the kid who wants to win it for more than the prize at the end.
Expanded version: Twenty-five thousand contestants will enter, but only one will win the biggest, bravest, boldest kids’ competition ever. Gil, whose father was falsely accused of embezzling millions from the Golly Toy and Game Company, sees winning the contest as a way of vindicating his family. But first, he needs to get through the stunts, brainteasers and puzzles (readers can choose to figure these out as they go through the book) and deal with the personalities who form his team and his competition.
WOW: Since I’ve been lucky enough to read your book, I am fascinated with the puzzles and the plot of your novel. I tried to solve those puzzles right along with the kids, and sometimes I thought—Good thing I’m not in this competition with Gil, or I would lose. How long did it take you to write and find a publisher for The Gollywhopper Games?
Jody: I didn’t keep track of how long it took me to write the first draft of Gollywhopper, but I can estimate that it was in the range of three months. In reality, though, from first word to published copy? Eighteen and a half years. No. That’s not a typo. I was totally untrained in the art of the novel when I started writing the book. And I was too close to my words; I didn’t understand why everyone was rejecting it. I decided to move on and write something else. Something else turned into approximately 15 different novels—most of which are permanently confined to a drawer. They served their purpose, though. When I decided to dust off The Gollywhopper Games and send the first 40 pages in for a conference critique, I could see why it had been rejected. And I was better trained to revise the way it needed to be revised.
“I was too close to my words; I didn’t understand why everyone was rejecting it.”
WOW: That is a terrific story of perseverance and determination. Maybe someday you will dust off a few of those 15 novels for us to read, too. So, after all that long and hard work, describe for us what it was like when you found out The Gollywhopper Games had been accepted for publication.
Jody: I was driving down the highway in a raging thunderstorm on my way to a haircut appointment when my cell phone rang. Normally, under the conditions, I would have let it go, but I was expecting a two-second confirmation about another matter; not a call from my agent. She likes to tell the story that when she told me we had an offer, I nearly veered off the road. I don’t remember that, but I also don’t remember driving the rest of the way to my appointment. Scary.
WOW: We could say that after working on the book for 18 ½ years and receiving the greatest call ever, you might have been in a bit of shock! Congratulations! For any writers who haven’t heard this call or received this email yet, it is something everyone dreams of. The Gollywhopper Games has won awards and received honors. Did you or your publisher send your book in for these awards?
Jody: Although I’m not sure about my publisher’s direct role in making such positive things happen, I do know that the marketing and sales teams did a fabulous job of hyping my book from galley form on through release and beyond. They’ve been incredibly supportive in the book’s recognitions (Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Award Honor Book for Children’s Literature, ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults nominee, 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List). And me? I didn’t apply for any of these. They all came as a huge and wonderful shock.
WOW: Congratulations to you. That is very exciting and what great honors! What type of marketing do you do for The Gollywhopper Games, aside from the publicity that comes with the awards you mentioned?
Jody: I have two websites; accounts on Facebook, MySpace and JacketFlap; a blog on LiveJournal. I hand out business cards to anyone who asks about my book. I’ve been writing a four-part marketing article for the local SCBWI newsletter.
I’ve spoken at schools, conferences, and for organizations. Yet, most of my marketing energy was spent in a group setting with the Class of 2k8, a promotional group of 27 debut children’s novelists. Now that our year has concluded, check out the Class of 2k9.
I should have more time for additional, personal marketing, but I may spend that time another way. When I was in New York well before my book came out, I asked my editor what type of marketing I could do to complement what they had planned. “The best thing you can do,” she said, “is write your next book.” That’s what I’ve been doing lately.
WOW: Your editor sounds like she gave you good advice to keep writing; although, it does seem like everything you hear is that you have to do some of your own marketing, too. It is good to see you using all the social networking sites and joining together with other writers. Do you do school visits, too? What do these usually entail?
Jody: During normal school visits, I start by speaking about how I became a writer and how I came to write The Gollywhopper Games. Then I pull out Gil Goodson’s (my main character’s) beaten-up, red backpack. We go through the items inside to get a little insight into character-building. I also have several workshops I conduct for smaller groups. The part of school visits I love the most, though, is answering students’ questions.
WOW: As writers, we could probably learn from your red backpack lecture since building realistic and well-rounded characters can make or break a book. Can you give some of our shy children’s writers out there a couple pieces of advice about school visits, and what to make sure to do to have successful events?
Jody: If you’re shy, I urge you to read past the next sentence, one that may make you turn away because of my seeming lack of understanding. My biggest piece of advice for shy people: Forget you’re shy. I know it’s hard. I know it can feel impossible. I know that because I am very shy. So are many comedians and actors. When they make appearances, they become the characters the audience expects them to be. When I make appearances, I take a deep breath, go out there and become Jody Feldman the Author. And that means I give the appearance of knowledge and confidence and energy. Funny thing, it works. It works for two main reasons: 1) I’ve thoroughly prepared, so that I know I’m the expert of my experiences. 2) My audience is rooting for me to succeed up there because when I do, they get a great experience. Besides, they don’t know I’m a quivering mass of goo on my way to the podium.
WOW: That is great advice: to become another character—“The Author.” I think that would really help anyone suffering from nerves, or as you put it walking to the podium as a “quivering mass of goo.” Tell us more about your websites. How do you use them?
Jody: I have a personal website and one for my book. I didn’t necessarily plan it that way. I registered the Gollywhopper site just so that no one else could claim it. But when I mentioned that to my web guy (the amazing Theo Black), he ran with it and designed this amazing site without any input from me.
The intent is to update the site every time I add an appearance or receive some recognition, but I have to admit I’ve been totally negligent of my sites lately. I need to remedy that. Thanks for asking.
“The best thing you can do,” she said, “is write your next book.” That’s what I’ve been doing lately.
WOW: Jody, we are happy to help! It is amazing all the things to keep up with and continue to write your next book. What about social networking that you mentioned? How do you use it with your marketing, if you do? Do many children’s writers use social networking, too?
Jody: I know a lot of people spend much time on MySpace, Facebook and all the other social networks. I’m not that active. I do acknowledge the benefits of being out there (I’ve had a couple schools contact me through Facebook), but I prefer spending what work-related time I have—after, of course, writing/revising—keeping up with a couple of children’s writing listservs, scanning the SCBWI Discussion Boards and the Blue Boards. I also blog and read the blogs of my author friends.
WOW: Thanks for mentioning the discussion boards. These are great places to find insider information on response times from publishers, what agents may be accepting new clients, and so on. Tell us about your agent, and how you signed with her.
Jody: You know how there are some people who you can talk to quite easily as opposed to others who you have no chemistry with? If I was ever going to have an agent, I knew I needed to find one who wouldn’t intimidate me when I needed to call and ask the difficult questions. (We shy people aren’t always comfortable doing that.) In 2002, I attended my first national SCBWI conference, and agent Jennie Dunham was one of the keynote speakers. I liked her calm demeanor on stage. At one point during the conference, I found her all alone, so I approached her to see how that felt. I didn’t talk about my work; rather, I asked her a question about her speech and felt totally at ease standing there with her for those ninety seconds. I decided to send her a query. She’s been my agent ever since.
WOW: It is great that you got that one-on-one contact with her at a conference, and thanks for passing on a good tip to ask an agent something about her keynote speech instead of talking about your own work. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages, in your opinion, of having an agent if you are a children’s writer?
Jody: For me, the main advantages (beside the obvious advantage—through reputable agents, every editor’s door is open to you):
- I can concentrate on my writing instead of both learning the art of the contract and keeping up with the changing addresses and preferences of editors.
- I can keep the relationship with my editor on a creative basis. We’re fully free to discuss character, plot and setting and all the fun stuff without money or business terms getting in the way.
- My agent offers another set of critical eyes to make sure my next book is worthy of following the last—before it gets to the editors.
- The obvious: you give up a percentage of your earnings. Then again, you may make more if your agent can negotiate better terms.
- There really is no #2 for me, but I was taught you need at least two points in a list or outline format.
“If I was ever going to have an agent, I knew I needed to find one who wouldn’t intimidate me when I needed to call and ask the difficult questions.”
WOW: (laughs) And writers don’t like to be rule breakers, do we? What is the current project you are working on?
Jody: By the time you read this, I should have just submitted to my agent what I hope will be my second book. Like The Gollywhopper Games, this has puzzles, a male main character, and is targeted to tween readers. I’d love to tell you more, but last time I spilled too much, and I was sent back to the drawing board.
WOW: That is a great lesson to learn—don’t spill too much of the plot until your book is out, and even then, we want people to read it to the end. What is your writing routine each day? Are you able to write every day?
Jody: My goal is to write every day, Monday through Friday, from first thing in the morning until lunch which is usually around 1:00 p.m. That’s when I’m most productive. It doesn’t always work that way. It rarely works that way. In fact, one morning, I documented my time:
7:20 Turned on computer; read or deleted emails that accumulated overnight.
7:30 Pasted blog entry (I wrote it last night) into my LiveJournal; posted.
8:10 Answered question from phone caller: How do you get water out of your ear?
10:40 - 11:10 Stretched then walked my 2 miles, which is really like working. Good news. While walking, I realized the scene I’m currently writing might not be as boring as I thought it was when I left my computer in mild disgust.
11:15 Read two more emails; took notice of three others.
11:24 Answered the phone again. This time the topic concerned a question about the former Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris. (Note to self: stop answering phone.)
11:30 Found answer about Katherine Harris; returned phone call.
11:45 Stomach growled; went to refrigerator and snagged a bite of chicken salad.
12:10 Despite all that, word count before lunch: 1335.
WOW: (laughs) That’s something I can relate to, especially the emails! I am impressed that in spite of all those interruptions you wrote over 1,000 words. Great job! Do you ever have a problem with writer’s block?
Jody: While I do understand that people get writer’s block, I refuse to believe it exists for me. I know I am capable of writing at least the next word, the next sentence, then the next paragraph at any given point. I may not keep any of those thoughts in a finished manuscript, but even the misguided words may lead to the golden ones. And if I believe in writer’s block, I have a good excuse to drop my writing for a given time. And I don’t need any more reasons to procrastinate (see above answer, which does not include Snood, Spider Solitaire, and dusting my keyboard).
WOW: Maybe we should start a group on Facebook—writers who refuse to believe in writers’ block! I love it. I am going to refuse to believe in it, too. Thanks for the great advice. If someone came up to you at a book signing and said, “I really want to be a children’s writer. What should I do?” What would be the first three pieces of advice you would give this writer?
Jody: I’d hope the lines were so long that I only had time to say: 1.) Read a lot in your preferred genre; 2.) Write a lot; 3.) Learn a lot about the industry through any of the readily available books or websites (and I’d give them some examples).
What I’d really like to tell them:
- Learn what it takes to write a publishable book. Take classes. Read books on writing. Do the homework. Examine published books to understand why the authors have made certain decisions with particular characters and scenes.
- Find courage. Realize that only the rare person can jot down a story that’s instantly publishable. You’ll need courage to kill characters, throw out scenes, and re-imagine plots.
- Be patient. Give yourself time to brainstorm, to find the new idea, to create the right characters, to discover the brilliant plot twists. Give yourself time to learn how to write. Give your manuscript drawer time. Let it breathe. Let yourself breathe. Come back to it with fresh eyes. The publishing industry often moves at a glacial pace, and editors would rather wait for a perfect story than get a mediocre one faster.
WOW: Letting your work sit for a while and coming back with fresh eyes is so important. I’m sure many of us have said to ourselves after reading past work, “What was I thinking when I wrote this?” In this issue, our Editors’ Desk Number 2 is about SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) I know you are a member and have attended the L.A. Conference. Why did you join SCBWI?
Jody: I’m a strong believer in the advantages of being immersed in my chosen industry. When I was gainfully employed in advertising for a shoe company, I read Women’s Wear Daily, W, Footwear News, Advertising Age and a plethora of fashion magazines, religiously. So, when I decided I wanted to make a career of writing for children, I took the same tactic. SCBWI, a worldwide industry organization, has so much to offer in terms of education, information and especially support. And that support often comes from some of the biggest names in the industry.
“…editors would rather wait for a perfect story than get a mediocre one faster.”
WOW: It is so important to be educated in the children’s writing world—especially today’s ever-changing children’s writing world—if you want to write for kids. Would you recommend other writers attend the L.A. SCBWI conference?
Jody: Definitely. However, I wouldn’t make it your first conference. It’s large (usually 1000 attendees), long (four days jam-packed with speakers), and it puts you on sensory overload. I’d build up to that with any of a number of local or regional conferences. I’ve been to our local Missouri events; also to the conferences in New England and Miami. Even if you don’t know anyone when you get there, you will when you leave. It’s in SCBWI’s nature to be very welcoming and inclusive.
WOW: More great advice, Jody. I’ve been to the L.A. Conference also, and it is definitely overwhelming and provides a full schedule of events. Tiring four days, but totally worth it! What are two main benefits, in your opinion, of joining SCBWI or another writing group for children’s writers, like a critique group?
- As writers, we often work in isolation. It’s important to crawl out of our caves from time to time to hear other thoughts and opinions—many of which can enrich our writing.
- It’s so easy to fall in love with a character, a scene or even a phrase that doesn’t serve your story. It’s so easy to be blinded by your words and not see if they have meaning for the reader. A good, honest critique group makes you face all the blemishes that are hiding behind the beautiful veil you’ve constructed around your manuscript.
WOW: A good critique group can really help your manuscript and your confidence as a writer. What are your favorite parts about being a children’s writer?
Jody: Brainstorming. Line editing. Always having something creative to think about. Those times when I close my eyes and type the words I hear my characters narrating to me. Answering student questions. Hearing kids tell me they’ve read my book two or three or four times.
WOW: As a former elementary school teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of attending many author talks with children. I love to hear authors’ answers to “How old are you?” and “Are you rich?” What are your least favorite parts about being a children’s writer?
Jody: It’s so frustrating when I know there’s something wrong with my story, and I feel incapable of fixing it. Even though I know I’ll figure something out, there’s always a period of self-doubt I can do without.
WOW: Self-doubt seems to follow us writers around! Can you share a couple of your writing goals with us for 2009? Many of us have been setting goals during the month of January and are starting to pursue them this month.
Jody: I only set goals, which are within my control. So while I’d love to say my goal is to have two new books under contract, I can’t make that happen by myself. What I can say is that I’d love to finish one submit-ready book by Halloween. I’m also pondering another goal, which has to do with overall career development, but I haven’t had time to define that yet.
WOW: Thanks for pointing out that it is important to be able to have the power to reach our goals. We can’t say we will have an agent by the end of the year, but we can say we will query five agents a month until we sign with one. To close the interview, let’s ask a couple questions that many writers are asked in interviews. Where do you get your story ideas? How do you keep track of them?
Jody: I once heard an author say he travels to Africa and fishes his ideas from a river. That’s sort of how I get mine. They shoot invisibly from the air and enter my brain. Or I read a magazine or newspaper article that has a fact I start to ponder. Or I hear a word or a phrase that raises my pulse rate ever so slightly. And when those ghosts of ideas appear to me and when I’m ready to work on something new, I’ll let them roll around in my imagination to see if they begin taking on more solid shapes. Sometimes they do; sometimes they return to my idea files. Some of these files are on my computers, and others are hard copy in real file folders. Funny thing is, though, I rarely look at those files. The more exciting ideas stay with me.
WOW: I like how you allow yourself time to develop ideas and breathe while you are writing. I think that is something we can all learn from in this fast-paced world. What are a couple of your favorite writing tools that you just can’t live without (or rather create without)?
Jody: Just give me a short stack of 11” x 14” pieces of paper and some gel pens; plus a comfy couch and some space to doodle, brainstorm, draw settings, jot down words and form ideas.
WOW: Thank you, Jody, for sharing your knowledge, experience, and creativity with us today. Please check out Jody’s websites at:
Margo L. Dill (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and elementary school teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. She is a columnist for WOW! Women On Writing. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids in 2009. She has her own blog for teachers, parents, and librarians called “Read These Books and Use Them” at http://margodill.com/blog/ . When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Charlie, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound. You can read more about Margo at http://www.margodill.com.