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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Taking Humor from the Stage to the Page, Author Interview with John Bonk

Your bio say you are a musical comedy performer turned author. What changed you from a performer of words to a novelist?
Oh, tricky question right out of the gate. It was more of a gradual thing than a hasty decision. I had been doing a ton of tap dance shows (Singin' in the Rain, George M!, 42nd Street, etc.) and after a certain age it just gets a lot harder to survive through eight shows a week. Then there's the constant traveling that comes with show biz. I suppose it was all beginning to take its toll and I thought, "Geez, I wish there was some other creative career I could pursue that doesn't involve a lot of hopping around and living out of a suitcase."

One day I was at a temp office job transcribing a radio show featuring The Trumpet Club in which children's book authors were reading from their published works for classrooms. Some of it was fantastic! I remember thinking, "I wonder if I can do that." So, on the way home from work that day, I started composing my first poem that would eventually be published in a children's magazine. That was the beginning. I was hooked. Now I'm "performing on the page" as I like to call it.

The title of your current book, Madhattan Mystery, caught my attention with its bit of whimsy. What do you think readers should expect from your book based on that title? What drew you to writing this story? Is the storyline drawn from any part of your own life or friendships?
Craziness. Humor. A madcap adventure through New York City. What sparked the story idea for me was my fascination with the Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal. It's the coolest thing. Just outside of the Oyster Bar & Restaurant, the arched ceilings create an acoustic effect where you can clearly hear a whisper from the opposite side of the hallway.

I thought, "Wow, what if there were some criminals standing here plotting out a crime and unknowingly broadcasting it to an innocent bystander?" That's what sparked Madhattan Mystery. The direct storyline isn't drawn directly from a personal experience but my stories are always chockfull of chunks from my own nutty life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I wouldn't know how to write any other way.

This isn’t your first foray into writing novels. You’ve previously written two middle-grade novels with your protagonist, Dustin Grubbs. What made you decide to write for the middle grade market? The Dustin Grubbs character was are based on my younger self longing to be an actor. My earliest and most vibrant memory of this is when I spearheaded an effort to put on a play in elementary school, which at the time, never put on plays. (Shocking! I know.) Since this occurred in fifth grade, the books automatically fell into the middle-grade category, so voila, I became a middle-grade author.

Was the 2nd book easier or harder to write?
The second book was easier in the sense that most of the characters, back story, etc. had already been created; the hard part was not being repetitive and giving the story enough "oomph" so it could stand on its own.

Are there more Dustin Grubbs books in the pipeline?
Right now there aren't more Dustin books in the pipeline, but there may be another thigh-slappingly funny theatrical novel in the works with an equally lovable protagonist. Stay tuned!

Writing humor is supposedly one of the hardest forms of writing to do successfully. Since the book is considered “humorous fiction” how has that humor worked when others have read your book? Do they get your type of humor? Luckily, humor is in my DNA. It tends to pour out of me on a regular basis. I think most people "get it" as far as my brand of humor is concerned--but I'm sure that many people don't. You can't please everyone and you shouldn't try to please everyone.  But nothing tickles me more than getting feedback from a reader saying, "Your book made me laugh out loud!"

Do your readers find things humorous that you didn’t write with that expectation?
I don't know if anyone's ever laughed at something I've written that wasn't intended to be funny--but if they did, more power to them. That means their funny-bone is working overtime and there's nothing wrong with that.

How long did it take you to write each of your books? How many rewrites did you do prior to sending it out to publishers?
Another tricky question. I honestly don't know how long it took to write each novel because there's usually a lot of other stuff going on in the process and it's hard to keep track. With the help of my writing critique group, I went through several drafts of each book before sending them to my agent. Three or four drafts maybe, depending on the book.

My agent then submitted them to various publishers and I would continually be revising things as we received feedback from the houses who had turned them down. After the books were accepted for publication was when the real editing began, working one-on-one with my editor. I never hired anyone to help with the editing.

How did you go about looking for an agent?
To avoid the dreaded "slush pile" in publishing houses where unsolicited manuscripts supposedly wind up, I elected to send out query letters directly to agents and go that route. A woman in my critique group snagged an agent first and wound up recommending me to him. He liked what he saw of my first book, offered me a contract, and we never looked back. Of course it wasn't as easy as that sounds. Pepper in a lot of angst, endless waiting, head-banging, and hair-ripping-out and you've pretty much got the picture.

What has frustrated you the most in the publishing process?
Probably the aforementioned waiting game. Everything. Seems. To. Take. For –Ev -- Er.

What have you found the most rewarding – outside of seeing your book in print?
Well, there really is nothing like seeing your book sitting proudly on the shelf of a bookstore or a library--especially for the very first time. But other than that, I'd have to go with positive feedback from happy readers. One home-schooled boy, after reading Dustin Grubbs: One-Man Show, wrote, "John J. Bonk, please, please write another book!" So I did.

What surprised you the most about the publishing process?
How thrilling it can be. There are so many head-rushing moments along the way. When your agent calls to tell you "We have a deal!" When you sign the contract. When your agent takes you to lunch. When your editor takes you to lunch. When your assistant editor takes you to lunch. (Publishing people are a hungry lot!) When you see your cover illustration for the first time--not to mention the very first copy of your actual book. There are a lot of down moments along the way as well but the good stuff definitely outweighs the bad.

What has been the most productive promotion that you’ve had with marketing your books?
Oh, it's hard to measure. I wish I was a lot better at promotion, that's for sure. I'm guessing the most productive has been the giveaways I did for Madhattan Mystery on GoodReads. I did two so far: one where I gave away two ARCs or Advance Reading Copies, and  another where I gave away two hardcover copies of the book. Over 1,200 people signed up for the giveaways in total, and over 230 people added the book to their "to-read" list. That's a lot of exposure, even if folks don't follow-through with purchasing the book.

Writing seminars are always telling us about building a marketing platform. What have you learned from using social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others?
Well, let's see…I've met some fascinating people via social media--virtually, if not in the flesh. I've picked up how incredibly hard people in the publishing profession work at it--including authors, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, teachers, etc.

I've learned that marketing to the middle-grade market via Twitter and Facebook isn't as direct as marketing to, say, the YA crowd since we're targeting the gatekeepers mostly, who purchase the books (meaning, parents, librarians, etc.) and not the actual middle-graders themselves. I've also learned that if I didn't physically pry myself away from social media sites, I'd be staring at my computer screen 24 hours a day.

What is the best advice you’ve received on writing? Or what is the best advice you could give other aspiring authors from your experience?
I'm always reading books on the craft and half the time the advice is exactly the opposite from one writer to the next. Some say, "Write what you know"; others say, "Write what you want to learn about--not what you already know." Some say, "Write a fast and dirty first draft"; others say, "Try to get it as polished as possible the first time around."

It's enough to drive you wacko.   I think my point here is that there are no hard and fast rules. Find out what works best FOR YOU, then lather, rinse, repeat. Most of all, have fun!

I hope you enjoyed today’s interview and feel led to learn more about John and his writing – maybe even buy his books! Here’s the way to make contact…
John’s website:    John’s blog:
Link to his books:     Book trailer:

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