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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Telling the Story for Children: Author Interview with Marissa Burt

You write middle grade fantasies where the fantasy character gets intertwined with real-life characters. What drew you to this concept?
I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I love the sensation of getting so drawn into a good story that the characters feel very real.  For me, the mark of a good book is one where I feel a sense of loss when I turn the final page, because I hate saying goodbye to favorite worlds and characters.  This general love for book-worlds sparked the idea of characters in books having separate lives of their own, carrying on about their business and training for their plot lines, which grew into the initial idea for Storybound.

When did you actually start writing your first book? How long did it take to write your first draft?
I began writing Storybound, then titled The Tale of Una Fairchild, the summer of 2007.  My first son was about a year old, and the transition to parenthood taught me many things, one being the value of discretionary time.  I began to see that if I ever wanted to write anything, I would need to budget my time wisely.  So I took an afternoon every other week and wrote.  This added up, and about nine months later I had a very rough first draft.  I like to include this part of my story to encourage other writers who feel overwhelmed at the lack of time.  Every little bit makes a difference!

Who encouraged you along the way? 
I did have some early readers, most notably my husband, a good friend Casey, and another writer-friend Emerson who was in high school at the time, and they all offered valuable initial input.  Later on in the process, other family members and friends read for me, whom I greatly appreciated, and I especially valued input from several young readers who were in my target audience. 

Prior to writing these fantasy books, what other published writing did you have? 
Storybound is the first novel I’ve written.  (Not counting the almost-novel I wrote in high school during chemistry class – so sorry Ms. Greene!)  I’ve always journaled, and I’ve found that to be a helpful discipline for shaping my voice and recording everyday incidents in written form.  Back when I first wrote Storybound, I did attend a few sessions of a local writer’s critique group, but I found that challenging because we all were working on such different projects at very different stages. 

Are you active with any writer’s critique groups?
I’ve found the online writing community to be of great help in my writing journey.  I’ll forever be grateful to the Absolute Write forums for helping me with my query letter and giving general writing advice.  Through forums like that, I’ve also “met” other writers, which has been a gift as writing can often be a lonely endeavor.  Not only has it provided support and encouragement, but it’s helped me join forces with other like-minded authors.  Friendships made on online forums eventually led to my participating in the Project Mayhem blog and joining up with The Apocalypsies, a group of debut 2012 authors, for local author appearances and the like. 

How did you go about finding an agent?
My road to publication process is pretty by the book, actually.  Once I had a completed draft that was in decent shape (or so I thought at the time!), I drafted a query letter. In the fall of 2008, researches agents and queried those who represented MG fiction and might be a good fit. 

In the first round of about twenty queries, I heard back from Laura Langlie, who is now my wonderful agent.  She took me through a few revisions before we went out on submission at the end of 2008. 

From the time you were signed by your agent how long did it take to get the publishing contract?
In spring of 2009 I heard from my now-editor Erica Sussman, who asked me if I’d be willing to work on an exclusive revision with her.  I jumped at the chance to have someone in the industry invest in my work and will forever appreciate both Laura and Erica’s encouragement and insights.  Erica took me through three or four revisions before the manuscript actually went to an acquisitions meeting in early 2010. Once Harper Collins Children’s acquired Storybound, publication was set for winter 2012, so, as you can see, it was about a five year process from writing the manuscript to seeing it on the shelves.

What has surprised you the most about getting published other than the joy of seeing your book in print?
It sounds a bit ridiculous, but I still am astonished that there are people out there actually reading my book and entering in to my imaginary world.  Of course as a writer, your goal is for others to read your work, but it’s still quite amazing to hear from readers who have loved Una or Peter or write to tell me their thoughts on plot points.  

What advice would you give someone who thinks they have the great novel in them just waiting to be told?
My advice is to not be afraid to give it a shot.  I think the two greatest hindrances to writing (and probably a lot of other endeavors) are fear and laziness.  Writing can be vulnerable, and I think it’s less scary to dream about the great novel than actually put yourself out there.  And it takes a lot of work and discipline to carve out the time to do it. 

When other writers ask me for writing advice I usually tell them to READ as much as they can and as widely as they can and to WRITE as often as they can.  Any books you read – especially those outside your own genre – will help inform your writing, and any writing you can do – journaling, short stories, character sketches – will develop your craft.

What is the best advice you’ve been given from either an editor or your agent?
What comes to mind is some advice my agent gave me early on about online presence.  Back then I was toying with the idea of blogging, and she told me to do it if only if I had something unique to say.  She said something along the lines of, “Find your niche.”  This has proved invaluable advice for across the board social networking.  For writers I think there can be a long list of ways we ought to be present online, and we can feel obligated and end up doing a lot of them poorly.  Laura’s advice has helped me be selective in where I invest my online time.

Did you have any input at all into the beautiful cover designs?

Aren’t they gorgeous?  Alison Klapthor and the wonderful design team at Harper Collins worked in tandem with the very talented Brandon Dorman to create these covers.  I saw early drafts of them and absolutely loved them, but I had really nothing to do with them.  I am very thankful and think I hit the cover jackpot.  :)

I see your books are going to be published in Chinese and Italian. Will anything be changed in the story telling to work more culturally?
That’s a great question!  And I don’t really know the answer.  As far as I know, translators work with the original text.  I did wonder if they would change Una’s name in the Italian version (since una is an article in Italian), but they kept it.  Maybe a reader fluent in Italian or Mandarin will stop by and let me know.? :)

How do you manage to raise three children and still find time to write? How much time daily do you have for writing?
Ha-ha!  Well, that has changed a great deal over the years.  As I mentioned earlier, I wrote Storybound when my first son was a year old.  Then I had two more babies in the years between querying the book and seeing it on the shelves.  Needless to say, a lot of my creative energy went in to making people and not books – ha!

How much time daily do you have for writing?
I’ve found each writing project to be fluid and my approach to finding work time changes with the rhythm of our family life.  I wrote Story’s End when I had three boys four-and-under, and it was very stressful and intense.  I wrote a draft in two months to meet my deadline, and I promised myself I’d never do that again. 

Now, my children are a little older, and on this newest project, I try and write 3K one day a week.  That seems to work well for now.

Your next book, There Was a Crooked Man, which will be out in early 2015 is it a continuation of the first two books?
There Was a Crooked Man, is the beginning of a new story.  Una’s Tale comes to a conclusion in Story’s End, and, while I’d love to revisit the Land of Story some day in the future, this new book will be set in an entirely different fantasy world. In fact, it’s turning out to be a bit more of a sci-fi fantasy blend, which has been really fun.

Could you give me some details of that book?
A little bit about There Was a Crooked Man: Eleven-year-old Wren Matthews has always known she’s weird.  Unschooled, happily solitary, and obsessed with astronomy, the only place Wren fits in is the regional home school conference.  When a mysterious visitor appears and invites Wren and her long-time science-rival Simon Barker to join the ancient guild of magicians known as the Fiddlers, things get a whole lot weirder.  As apprentice Fiddlers, Wren and Simon have a lot to learn, but their ordinary alchemy lessons are soon overshadowed by tainted legends of Mother Goose, battling alchemists, and dreams of the dangerous otherworld, the Land of Nod.

What message would you like parents and children to take away from your books?
Well, I kind of shy away from messages-in-books, perhaps because I think adults, forgetting what it’s like to be a child, inevitably try to teach children something in books.

I will say that I absolutely love to hear from readers, especially when they tell me that they’ve stayed up way too late reading my books.  I was forever doing that as a girl, and I get a secret thrill knowing that my books are giving readers that delightful experience.

That’s all for today’s interview. I hope you are encouraged to learn more about Marissa’s writing. Here’s some options to do so.  website         Project Mayhem            Facebook        

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