Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Troubles of Writing The Troubles of Johnny Cannon, Part 2: Willie Parkins

This is a continuation of a series I'm writing giving some special features and behind the scenes looks at the process I took to write The Troubles of Johnny Cannon. Part 1 was about discovering Johnny Cannon.

One of my favorite characters in the book (and, from what I've heard, a lot of people's favorite character) is Willie Parkins, the preacher's kid and Johnny's best friend. And now, thanks to the magic that is the cover to the sequel, The Struggles of Johnny Cannon, (now available for pre-order, by the way) I can give you his picture!

Willie Parkins, everybody!

Okay, as you might remember from Part 1 of this series, the story that became The Troubles of Johnny Cannon went through a LOT of revisions and rewrites. One of the many aspects that was added in the later versions that was an obvious improvement was Willie and his family, because Willie wasn't in the original story. He was missing.

Yeah, I wasn't the smartest writer at the beginning.
See, originally Johnny went off to Washington, DC to become a member of the top secret super-kid organization. So I didn't spend a lot of time fleshing out the people in Cullman. However, based on feedback I got from some people, I eventually added more to the story. And one thing I added was the idea that Johnny was banned from the Cullman Little League team. And so I had him get recruited by the preacher's kid to join the black team instead. And, since the kid needed a name, I named him Willie Parkins.
I did a word search. Willie was in this version of the story a total of six times.
So in this version, Willie served one real purpose, and that was to get Johnny to the baseball game, which was when he would get called to go to Washington.

And, thankfully, that version of the story didn't sit well with anybody.

Back to the old drawing board with the story, and also with this character that I could sense needed a bigger role overall. 

I rewrote the story again and added an extra scene at the end where Willie informed Johnny that they'd named the team after him and that the Colony Cannons had won the local baseball championship. And the whole time, I wished that I could figure out a bigger part for Willie to play.

And, thankfully, my agent informed me that this version of the book was even worse than the last.

So, my third time down at the drawing board, I wrote the first draft of the story that you've (hopefully) all read. As I was writing the first chapter, I needed to have Pa send Johnny to ask the neighbor if she'd mind cooking dinner. Now, my original plan was for it to be an old lady or something. But then, as I was typing, I absentmindedly had Pa ask Johnny to go fetch "Mrs. Parkins."

I stopped and stared at the screen.

THIS WAS IT!!! This was the bigger role for Willie Parkins! Willie was Johnny's neighbor. Of course he was. And Willie wouldn't be too happy with Johnny taking Mrs. Parkins away from their dinner to go cook for the Cannons.

As I wrote that chapter, everything clicked. The chemistry between Johnny and Willie on paper was too perfect. I literally felt like I had accidentally stumbled across a gold mine.

Later I wrote that he walked with a crutch, and that too felt like destiny.

Plus, as I wrote this final version of the story, I found a way to incorporate one of the characters from the earlier versions that I was the most sad about losing. Mercury, who had been a mysterious super-kid in Washington, now became a story that Willie was writing.

When I wrote the last line of the book, I couldn't believe there had ever been a version of the story that hadn't had Willie in it. In a lot of ways, The Troubles of Johnny Cannon is just as much about his story as it is Johnny's.

And, without giving any spoilers, I'm happy to say that The Struggles of Johnny Cannon is even MORE of that dynamic.

I can't wait for you to read it.

Go pre-order The Struggles of Johnny Cannon!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Debut Author Experience

Two years ago today (February 14) we announced that the world English rights to The Troubles of Johnny Cannon were acquired by David Gale at Simon & Schuster.

Obviously, this was a HUGE event for me. Not only was it a dream come true, but it also transitioned me (suddenly, I might add) from the "Aspiring Author" category to the "Debut Novelist" category. It was a very long path from selling the rights to the date of publication (February 14, 2013 to October 14, 2014), and many times along that journey (and, even more so in the months AFTER publication) I felt incredibly lost and unsure of what was happening (and this was WITH the ever present guidance from my amazing agent, editor, editors assistants, and many author friends online).

So I decided to help other authors who might be entering the same journey by giving you some observations I made about the process. And, since this is a bloggity blog, I'll do it in list form with awesome animated GIFs.

1. There is no normal debut author experience.
I have a few friends who were debut authors alongside of me, and I can attest from observation that none of us had the exact same journey. In fact, our journeys were barely even similar. 
Debut authors are the least identical twins ever.
Just picking from the litter, in the same year that The Troubles of Johnny Cannon debuted, so did these books:
Five authors, five books. And every single one of them had a different experience than I did. A couple of them were on shortlists for the Newbery Award. Some of them received rave reviews. The sales numbers varied widely. Every one of them was different. So, when you start your debut author journey, try as hard as you can to vow not to compare your journey with others. It will only cause you to self destruct. Seriously. (Trust me on this)

2. Your Publisher is as good at publishing as you are at writing. Probably better.
If you peruse a lot of the writing blogs online, you begin to get a general consensus that publishers are backwards thinking, archaic, clueless, and completely out of touch. If they actually understood the world today, they'd do X or Y, and authors can do a better job going on their own.
Tom Cruise didn't make it on his own. Think about that.
Are there examples where people found incredible success? Sure, but we all know those are the exceptions and not the rule. The reality is, having a publisher handling the publishing side of things really lets you know just how much you don't understand about sales or marketing, editing or design, and even how to set deadlines or how to deal with your own fragile ego. And the crazy thing is, you almost never hear publishing professionals talking about how they could make it on their own without authors. They get it. We don't.

3. You will be disappointed.
No, no, no, I'm not saying the entire experience will be a disappointment. (Although I suppose it could be. Like I said, everyone has their own experience) But what I am saying is that, at some point in the journey, something will happen that falls short of your unrealistic expectations. Because, trust me, you have VERY UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.
Trust me, if you're expecting Zooey Deschanel, you have unrealistic expectations.
Maybe you expected to get really chummy with your editor. Maybe you expected to be flown out for big conferences. Maybe you expected to have phone meetings with the marketing team.Maybe you expected to have more input on the cover design. Whatever it might be, you're probably not going to get everything you expected. And that's not just from the publisher, either. Here's a list of some of my (I now realize very unrealistic) expectations for Troubles:
  • I expected hundreds of people to pre-order the book. (I mean, I know a lot of people. Surely they all love me, right? Turns out love has nothing to do with it)
  • I expected at least one starred review. (This one stung a lot, not so much any more. Fact is, you can't please everybody, and your first novel especially will have trouble, because of the unfamiliarity between the author and the critics/reviewers)
  • I expected to be mentioned in awards talks. (Thankfully, I let that one go after I saw the reviews were starless)
  • I expected my first week POS sales [actual transactions at bookstores] to be at least 1,000 copies. (This was mainly because I had NO IDEA how the market works, especially for debut, non-celebrity authors)
  • I expected my book would fizzle out after the first three or four weeks. (In actuality, it wasn't until after a month or so that I finally started seeing some real action and buzz) (I'm actually glad this expectation wasn't met)
So, here's the deal, you have to focus on what you can control in the process. That's the only way you won't be disappointed too much. You have no control over the publishing process, or over sales, or over reviews. But you do have control over how you present yourself, and what you write next, and how you work to network. So put your time and energy into that.

4. Success isn't what you think it is.
This goes along with the previous point, but it's worth emphasizing. You think you know what it means to be considered successful. You're wrong.
Or you just live at peace, Harvey. What about that?
See, when you're dreaming about becoming a published author, you look at the "success stories" and put your name into them. That could be you on the NY Times Best Sellers List. That could be you that they call at 4:15 am for the Printz award. You could be the one who headlines at BEA. You could be the one that they talk about in those year end articles about standout new authors of the year.

But that stuff isn't success. Oh sure, it's awesome. And nobody is going  to say no to having those things happen to them. But those things are popularity and accolades, neither of which are necessarily part of being a successful published author.

So what does it mean to be a success? It's simple, really. You already are one. If you've sold the publishing rights to your book, you succeeded. That thing you wrote got published. Now, try to succeed again and get the next thing you write published. And the next. And the next.

So listen to your publisher and do what you can to make sure THEY succeed at selling your book to the public.

And, more than anything else, remember who you are.
It's always time for a Mufasa gif.
You're a writer. So write, whatever you can, whenever you can. Just so long as you keep getting better at it, and keep writing better and better things, you'll make it past your debut experience.

I hope. (All signs point to yes)


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

COVER REVEAL: The Struggles of Johnny Cannon

I didn't think I'd ever love a cover as much as I loved the cover to The Troubles of Johnny Cannon. It was definitely a dream come true!

And then I saw the cover to The Struggles of Johnny Cannon. And, if it's at all possible, I think I love it even more.

Here, I'll show it to you.

Look at it! Isn't it so cool? Sam Bosma really blew it out of the water with this one (as he does all the time). And Lucy Cummins, the art designer, holy cow, she is so amazing.

And there's so many little details from the story in there. And THERE'S WILLIE! And THERE'S MARTHA! And it's so perfect, it's like the best thing ever.

Oh, and if you want to, you can now pre-order The Struggles of Johnny Cannon on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

(BTW, if you haven't purchased The Troubles of Johnny Cannon yet, now's the perfect time to do it.)