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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Having Fun with Writing: Author Interview with Mylisa Larsen

What inspired you to write How to Put Your Parents to Bed?  
I think it was just the huge gap between what was apparently supposed to happen at bedtime and the anarchy that seemed to be always breaking out during that time at my house. You know those articles you read in the parenting magazines while waiting in the pediatrician’s office—5 Steps To A Stress-free Bedtime? Those never quite worked at my house.

And I’ve always found The Authoritative Voice—that voice often used in parenting books or the filmstrips you saw in fifth grade—intrinsically funny. So I was goofing off and trying to spoof that voice in my writing one day and somehow it ended up with the kids putting the parents to bed instead of the other way around. Because, let’s be honest, we’re the ones who are tired.

When did you actually start writing your book? How long did it take to write your first draft?
I looked back at when I started writing this book and it was January of 2012. It was a horrible, unpublishable version at that time but that’s when the first draft was written. I wrote it quickly. That’s how it usually works for me. I write terrible drafts quickly and then turning them into anything respectable can take me a long time.

Who encouraged you along the way? 
Who encouraged me? I have a wonderfully encouraging family. I have a writing buddy who I’ve traded things with for years. Without them, I would have given up years ago.

Prior to this picture book, what was your publishing and writing background? 
This is my first picture book so I had no prior experience in this genre. I’d published a magazine article once but that was for adults. I had written for a long time. I was an English major in college. Once I got serious about writing for children, I took some classes at the The Loft in Minneapolis.

Are you active with any children’s writers groups?
I joined SCBWI. And there’s a lovely group of children’s writers and illustrators in Rochester (RACWI) that I also belong to now that I live in upstate New York.

How many submissions did it take before you either found an agent or was accepted by the publisher? What was that process like?
I don’t have the story of the hundreds of rejections, but that’s only because I didn’t submit anything for a long, long time. I promise you, if I had been submitting during the first five years that I was learning to write in the picture book genre, I could have papered my house with rejections. 

I go back and read the stuff I was writing in the beginning and they’re certifiably blush-worthy. Most of us just aren’t that good when we start trying out a new thing and I was certainly no exception.

I did get professional critiques at conferences during all that time but I didn’t submit. Then when I started to get more serious interest during some of the critiques, I started thinking about an agent.

What has frustrated you the most in putting together this book? 
I think it’s a surprise to most of us that there is so much waiting involved even after you sign a book. I think once you accept that this whole thing is going to feel like it’s measured in geologic time, it goes better. Make sure you move on to other things so you’re not just thinking about how long everything is taking.

What has pleasantly surprised you in the process? 
The pleasant surprises are many. First, the people working in children’s publishing are often quite fabulous people. And, lucky you, you get to work with them. And then it’s always interesting to see what each person on the team brings to the book. Your agent with who she thinks would be a good match for the book. Your editor’s ideas about changes. The illustrator’s take. What marketing has to say. And sometimes marketing says “we need to change your title” and you are almost 90% sure that they are wrong and then afterward you have to admit that maybe they were right. So, it’s a collaboration and you won’t always get your way but the book is better for it.

Then after a book is published, you get to hang out with preschoolers and children’s librarians and teachers and book people. Really, what could be better?

What book promotions have been the most successful?
I think it’s too early to say what has been the most successful. The book has been out less than two months and I have things planned all throughout the year. But that is something that the data wonk part of my brain is interested in so last week I had a conversation with the numbers guy that I’m married to about trying to measure that and have a shiny new spreadsheet. I may be able to answer that question later.

I think one of the best things I did was decide to work with Kirsten Cappy at Curious City to come up with a list of promotion possibilities. She had ideas that I never would have had on my own and she had access to resources that I didn’t. So I feel like that decision to collaborate was a good one. She’s done some things on the list and I’ve done others.

Kirsten had a book trailer made, sent copies of the book to bloggers and ran a contest to raise awareness and made up a library kit. And I offered programs to the libraries in my region (which have turned out to be really fun) and sent postcards to area bookstores and even children’s stores which might carry the book as a shower gift, and personally emailed an entirely ridiculous number of librarians to introduce them to the book. And then a group of agency mates who are also debut authors spent a week writing about and promoting the book on their blog when it came out.

And I’ve got a list of other things that I’ll be doing throughout the year. So we’ll see.

What’s the best writing tip you’ve learned or been given that you’d like to share?
I guess it would be one from Ira Glass -- 
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

 A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. 

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."

What other works do you have in the process?
I have a picture book called If I Were A Kangaroo coming out from Viking in 2017. I’ve always got a bundle of picture book manuscripts that I’m working on. And I’m trying to write a middle grade novel which often feels to me like some kind of surgery without anesthesia. It’s getting better. But it’s still at that stage where there’s this huge gap between what I want to do and what I have the skills to do so it’s painful. It’s like learning to write in a foreign language for me.

What message would you like parents and children to take away from your books? 
Well, if you look at my books, you’ll see that I’m not much of a message girl. I love silly. But kids love silly so it works out. I guess the underlying message of silly though is “Isn’t life grand sometimes? Wasn’t that fun?”

Any last words or tips?
Figure out what you need to learn next in your writing and then go find the person who can teach you that thing.

That's it for today's interview. If you would like to learn more about Mylisa's writing, Here's how you can do that.
Website:  Book trailer:

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