Author Jan Markley on Blogging, Anthropology, and the Road to Publication

12:43 PM Posted by Danika Dinsmore

When twin sisters Cyd and Jane are propelled into an international plot involving evil scientists and giant genetically stretched frogs, the girls are in a suspenseful and hilarious race to save the frog kingdom.
Dead Frog on the Porch by Jan Markley
ISBN: 9781926691060
Gumboot Books

Have you ever wandered onto someone’s blog and felt immediately drawn in? That’s what happened when I clicked over to debut author Jan Markley’s blog. Both her website and her blog are light and welcoming and amusing. Her personality shines through, and I think that’s what makes people gravitate towards her work.

Since she recently launched her debut middle grade mystery Dead Frog on a Porch, I figured I’d invite her to tell us about what she's learned from her journey.

DD: Before we get to your fabulous blog, I have to say that I love all the images on your website pages. Where did they come from?

JM: I purchased them off the web. I did a search on writing images and found them. They are all done by Soizick Meister, an artist from Vancouver. There were many more but I had to limit myself. I loved the colours and the images of the pens and the words flying in the air. I also loved images of the imagination taking flight, the writer curled up in her home or flying through the air.

DD: They're such fun and definitely representational of a writer's life.

JM: I think they represent the dual life of a writer. You're either at home curled up in your sasquatch writing cave with your cat and a cup of tea or you're out in the world speaking, presenting, meeting people, and being interviewed. I think writers have to be extroverted introverts - if you know what I mean. So I loved the images of being grounded at home while flying in the larger world.

Finding the illustrations was the result of a long process of soul searching about what image I wanted to present to the world, and getting feedback from creative people. I must have looked at hundreds of writers' websites before I figured out what I wanted. I wanted a site that was creative, professional and accessible to readers, teachers, librarians, writers, parents and children. Funny, I haven't thought about all of this for a year since I put up the site.

DD: I don't know how many people put that much thought into the images on their websites, but I think it paid off.

These days, just having a static website won't cut it. Having a blog as a debut author is a must. Your blog is a wonderful combination of commentary on the writing life, advice for emerging writers, and humour. Lots of humour. With visuals!

I imagine that your books are as light and fun to read as your blog. Did blogging come naturally to you? Did you do any kind of research or practice to find the right blogging style and voice?

JM: When I knew I was close to getting an offer to publish (as highlighted in a series of posts labeled 'published'). I started doing research about social media and marketing. I regularly listened to Spark - a CBC radio program about computers and new media, and read all I could about book marketing and publishing from some of the more established blogs.

I had also read enough blogs to know that a blog has to be about something - a blog about taking the garbage out and other everyday minutia is not of interest to anyone. A blog has to offer something for the reader - information, advice, insight, a few laughs, so they will come back. It can't all be about the writer. So I decided that my blog would be about where life meets writing or where writing meets life. I take incidents from my life and make analogies to elements of writing. I also share what I've learned about the writing and publishing process, and share the writing events in my life like school visits and what I learn at writing conferences.

Since I like to think I'm funny ;-j I use humour to get my point across. I think people like humour. I use a lot of images to break up the text. People are reading off computer screens all day at work, and the internet is a visual medium so I use a lot of images. It's funny because people think of me as a neo-luddite when it comes to computers, but since having a blog I've become the Empress of the Embedded link.

DD: A social-media savvy friend of mine, who is definitely not tech savvy, once said that just because someone is techno-literate doesn't make them a good social media strategist. Social media has nothing to do with knowing how to program anything, it has to do with communication, marketing and community building. And I can see that you are aces at that.

JM: Thanks Danika. That is so true. I have a vision of being part of a community of writers, readers and people who are excited about children's literature and having a blog has certainly helped to create that community, as well as being a member of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators which is an international organization. Having a blog has increased my cyber ability and computer literacy ten fold. Blogs are also great for developing your own voice. I find myself thinking - I want to talk about this issue - how can I do that in a funny, quirky, unique way that informs and is true to the voice of the blog?

DD: The funny pays off. I found myself laughing out loud while reading your blog. It made me want to buy your book. (well, it's either your humour or you've discovered some kind of social media hypnosis)

JM: You are getting sleepier ... no social media hypnosis but that's a good idea! It's good to hear that my blog gives readers a glimpse of my writing style and piques interest in the book. My debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch (and subsequent books in the Megabyte Mystery series) is funny - as well, the plot is fast paced, the voice of the protagonists is strong and unique, and the culprits are super quirky characters.

But the books also play on serious themes like our interconnectedness to the environment, navigating the many shades of right and wrong, and social and ethical issues. (Plus, I like to throw a little anthropology in since I hold a masters in cultural anthropology.) So, in the same way that humour can be mirrored with serious issues, my blog uses humour to convey some helpful tips, knowledge and insights into writing and the writing life. So I hope that's what people are getting out of it.

DD: Speaking of your MA in cultural anthropology (!), I was going to ask you about that. I can see that as being a fabulous background for a writer, although I wouldn’t expect one to become a children’s mystery book writer. How does that influence your work or writing life?

JM: Good question. I asked that question of one of my professors before I started the program and she said that it changes the way you look at life. I agree with that, you look at life through a lens of curiosity and understanding, and you want to know everything about someone and their culture. It makes you wonder what motivates people - which is a good question for a writer to ask. I think at heart I was always a writer and an anthropologist because I love to travel and experience other cultures. I started this book long before I did my degree.

In my professional life I've worked as a journalist and worked a lot in the Aboriginal community as well. I hope to weave the anthropology more into future books in this series. As well, I've been working on a manuscript for a long time based loosely on the life of my late grandmother who came to Canada from Ukraine back in the beginning of the last century. That book has gone through many iterations from time travel to y/a and I'm still working on telling that story.

DD: You could try telling it as a graphic novel!

BTW, I love that a reviewer called your book "Nancy Drew for the iPod generation." I'm so jealous. How do I go about getting a nifty soundbite like that?

JM: I love that one as well. It's a back of the book cover quote that came from Shenaaz Nanji who was a Governor General Award Finalist in 2008 for her y/a novel Child of Dandelions which tells the story of two friends during the time when Idi Amin expelled the Indian Nationals from Uganda. Shenaaz is also a writer friend and we've been in the same critiquing group for over a decade. She had seen a couple of drafts of the story as it came to the group for feedback. I asked her for a quote and that's what she came up.

Dead Frog on the Porch is a new twist on the old favourite genre of mysteries - modern characters with attitude who use old fashioned curiosity, new technology, and draw on Nancy Drew for inspiration from time to time. Every now and then they have a 'what would Nancy Drew do' moment.

DD: Our audience probably wants to hear about your path to publication, and they can read a lot of great info on that in your blog. You write that your blog highlights the “three keys to getting published: rewriting, persistence, and stalking.” With that in mind, what do you think is the greatest piece of advice you can give our readers about this process? (no pressure here).

JM: I think the biggest mistake writers make (and we've all done this) is sending out a manuscript too soon. You do one draft, type 'The End' and then run for a manila envelope and search the junk drawer for stamps. That's the end of draft one and hurrah for you! - have a glass of vino - but you're not done.

DD: I’ve made that same mistake. It takes diligence and patience. Sometimes it’s difficult to know how much better it can be until you go through the process. What’s yours?

JM: For me, it goes through another couple of substantive re-writes, then to my writers' critiquing group and to my young readers group. Then it's back to me for another couple of re-writes. Then and only then does it see the inside of an envelope. I'm sure your readers are familiar with agent Janet Reid's blog. Janet goes further. She suggests writing and polishing at least two books before you start the query process: “After you've written your first novel; you wait, write a second, revise, then query.”

DD: What's something you learned along the way that you wish you had known before?

JM: I suggest writers learn about the industry that they hope to be a part of. With Nathan Bransford's and Janet Reid's blogs, just to name a couple, it is so much easier to learn about the publishing industry today than it was even five years ago.

I hate to get all anthropological on you, but in any society there is tension between tradition and innovation (i.e., keeping things the same and change) the publishing industry is no different. Learn about the industry, trends, changes in technology, understand copyright and distribution etc., I'm not saying become an expert, just learn enough to understand the industry and the changes going on in it.

Also, learn as much as you can about the submission process (writing cover letters and synopsis) so that when you do start submitting you are taking the best shot you can. I'm a big fan of writers doing their homework.

DD: Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like working with Gumboot? I know they are a independent publisher with a small staff, but I also know they put out quality books. Our Indie Debut focus is on small / indie presses and the positive aspects of working with them.

JM: I've enjoyed my experience with Gumboot from the beginning. The publisher Crystal Stranaghan (who is a big Nancy Drew fan btw) has been great from the beginning. She has a vision for her publishing company and a passion for publishing, and she's probably the busiest woman on the planet.

The beauty of working with her as a small publisher is that she's been very consultative along the way. She asked me for my ideas for a cover way back when and I didn't take her seriously because of all I had heard about writers not having a say in cover design. And she was like, 'no really, I want your great ideas'. So I consulted with my young readers and friends with great esthetics and gave her my feedback. She showed me a number of different sketches the artist Mike Linton did before the cover was finalized.

Working with Senior Editor Jared Hunt was a breeze and consultative, and his suggestions made the manuscript stronger which is exactly what you want an editor to do. Melanie Jackson, who is a multi-published award winning author, was the copy editor and I had the opportunity to meet her at the launch last November. The good thing with working with an small independent is the access to the publisher and senior editor. There isn't a lot of bureaucracy which is great, and there is the nimbleness that you likely won't get with larger publishers.

Thanks so much, Jan, for taking time out to have this virtual conversation with me! Check out Jan's website, blog, or buy her debut novel Dead Frog on a Porch through Gumboot Books.

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