Eric Kahn Gale has just landed a book deal for his great first novel, THE BULLY BOOK!
GILDA: How would you describe your first novel, THE BULLY BOOK, to new readers?
ERIC: When you’re submitting a book to publishers, you get very good at summarizing your book; in order to get editors interested I had to get my summary down to 7 sentences:
In The Bully Book, there’s a book that teaches kids “how to be a bully” – a book that’s about to ruin Eric Haskins life. Upon entering 5th grade, he is mercilessly tormented by a group of boys who turn the entire class against him. Eric learns of a conspiracy theory about “The Bully Book,” a manual that has been passed down from 5th grader to 5th grader throughout the years, teaching how to be the coolest kid in school. The lynchpin of the system is the selection of “the Grunt,” — one kid to be “lowest of the low.” Eric investigates the mystery behind the Bully Book: like a detective, he follows a paper trail and seeks out older Grunts, hoping to discover why he was chosen to be the victim of bullying. If he can discover why he’s the Grunt, maybe he can change himself and escape from his terrible fate.
GILDA: Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for this story and your writing process?
ERIC: I was bullied pretty severely in 5th grade, and I always wanted to write about it but hesitated because I felt it would be too boring. It would just be a regular story about a kid. There was no “big concept” to make it dramatic.
Writing about yourself can be great, it’s probably where you have the most to say, but there’s a trap there because you don’t have much perspective on what you’re writing, you’re too close to it.
Listening to an episode of the radio show “This American Life” gave me the Big Concept that I needed. The episode was about “The Cruelty of Children” and in the first piece, a 2nd grader told the interviewer that he’d seen his bully with a book that taught you how to be mean to people. The interviewer was surprised that such a book could exist and asked the kids teacher and librarian about it. They both said the book was probably in the kid’s imagination.
Yeah, I thought listening to the story, that kind of book could never be published; it would be something that kids made and passed around amongst themselves. The Bully Book.
Holy crap. I pulled off my headphones, got off the street and immediately went into the nearest Starbucks. I wrote out the first paragraph of “The Bully Book” on my iPhone. It was the story of me in 5th grade but my bullies had this mysterious book.
Later that night, I talked out the entire outline with a good friend of mine. It was in that conversation that we discovered the book would be a mystery novel and crafted the twist ending.
If this sounds like one of those fairy-tale stories of a great idea coming right out of the blue—it totally is. But you need to keep in mind that I then spent the next year or so writing it. And it went through a lot more changes during that process.
GILDA: I understand you have a background in the performing arts. How has this helped you as a writer?
ERIC: The main thing I learned from writing movies and plays is how to keep things tight. In screenplay writing, “formula” is not seen as a bad thing; it’s considered an achievement to make an original and exciting story that is still tight, structured, and hits all the “beats.” (You can find countless books on screenwriting structure; my favorite is Save the Cat)
The culture of novel writing is considerably more “loose,” but most published writers still pay incredible attention to story structure. It’s just a question of perspective.
GILDA: You found a literary agent to represent you through the usual process [find more info about how to contact literary agents below], but your path to publication took an unusual turn: when your agent shopped around your novel, publishers initially failed to snap up THE BULLY BOOK. Many writers would have given up at that point, but you thought “outside the box”; you generated an e-book audience independently, and then landed a book contract with traditional publisher. Some of us are still hiding our brilliant manuscripts in the back of our closets and hoping to be discovered by virtue of our fashion sense alone (not naming any names, but we know who we are). Can you share with us exactly how you succeeded?
ERIC: My literary agent and I sent the book out to 8 publishers in the first round, and over the course of 2 painful months, they all rejected the book. They were kind about it and most professed to liking the book themselves. They often said they were on the fence about it because the book seemed too dark or mean for a young audience.
Years previous, I had read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book Blink, where he analyzes the way people make decisions. In one chapter, he describes experiments that demonstrated people’s difficulty deciding what someone else would like. Often, the act of deciding whether another person would like something altered your own view of it. Gladwell was referring to focus groups advertisers would use, but I had a feeling something similar was happening with The Bully Book.
So before we decided to send it out to a second round of 8 eight editors, I decided to put the book up for sale online.
I’m not sure this is for everyone. I’m lucky because some of my best friends have an insanely popular youtube channel that they graciously allowed me to sell my book through. The Bully Book (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPvgXKX9Szo)
We got some impressive sales data and a lot of really nice blogging/twittering from readers that we sent out with the next round of publishers. Half of the editors didn’t even have time to read the manuscript before we had 2 publishing houses making offers.
GILDA: Backing up a bit, what advice would you have for young writers who have a finished manuscript and feel they are ready to get published, but don’t know how to go about it? What should I (ahem, I mean *they*) do first?
ERIC: The first thing you should do is try to take a few writing workshops – ideally with a published author. My workshop with Jennifer Allison at the University of Michigan turned out to be really helpful to me in navigating the publishing process, for example.
GILDA: Never heard of her.
ERIC: You should check her books out; you’d probably like them.
GILDA: Will do.
ERIC: The next thing is to try to get a literary agent. There are a ton of books on how to do this; just ask your librarian if you need help.
GILDA: Other than wearing stiletto heels, what is the key to confidence as a writer? In other words, how did you know that you had a book on your hands that was worth investing so much of your time in even after being told “NO!”
ERIC: Since deciding that I wanted to be a writer 7 years ago, I’ve had 4 of what I consider to be Good ideas. I’ve had a lot of Bad ideas. But in those 7 years just 4 were good.
For each idea, I’ve had prophetic and, borderline maniacal, faith that:
1. This was something I COULD write.
2. This was something I WOULD write.
3. This would be a SUCCESS.
GILDA: Sounds like my approach to becoming a psychic investigator.
ERIC: Exactly. Each time I spent a little more or less than a year of my life on the project and each ended up being a success. But it always took an insane amount of time.
My 1st good idea was a play called Marlin and the Jaguar. All my friends loved it, but it didn’t even place in the University of Michigan’s (insanely big money) annual writing contest, The Hopwoods.
The next year, I changed ONE WORD of the manuscript (which implied a different ending) and the play won TOP PRIZE, the most money any play had won in the Hopwood’s history up to that point.
My 2nd good idea was a play that went through several incarnations and only became realized YEARS after the original concept. (There are now plans to stage this play in New York.)
My 3rd good idea was a webseries called Little White Lie my friends and I made with money we’d won in a contest hosted by Disney. We spent our entire senior year of college writing, shooting and editing this monster, and in the end Disney didn’t even put it up on their website. It languished on youtube for 2 years until something else my friends made became popular, (again Starkid) and now the series has millions of views and thousands of fans have bought the sound track.
The 4th good idea was The Bully Book, and you already know that story. So I guess the point is, if you don’t like the idea enough to spend a year working on it and years waiting for it to be successful, you should maybe look for another idea.
GILDA: You’ve said that you like reading the Gilda Joyce mysteries (otherwise I would have gently escorted you to the exit – haha), so I’m guessing that lots of my friends will also enjoy checking out The Bully Book! What other books would you recommend to young readers? Any favorites?
ERIC: I love kid detectives. I wish I had been one. That’s what makes Gilda so cool (aside from being psychic and a writer, of course). There are so many restrictions placed on you when you’re a kid and the world can seem like a closed-off place. I love the way that Gilda dives into the mysteries of the world, (especially of her school in Ladies of the Lake) and takes charge of her own experience.
As far as other great books about kids, Harry Potter is a favorite, as well as A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Graveyard Book, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Thanks for chatting with us, Eric, and sharing your interesting perspective on the writing and publishing process! I’m sure lots of Gilda Joyce readers who are working on their own stories and books will be grateful for the time you took to share this helpful info! We’re all excited to see THE BULLY BOOK in our favorite libraries and bookstores!
P.S. For more information on approaching literary agents and book publishers, we recommend asking the ever-helpful (really! Don’t be scared!) reference librarian at your local library and/or taking a look at the following resources:
\”How to Write a Bad Query Letter\” (article by a young literary agent-in-training)
Literary Marketplace 2011(this directory of literary agents and publishers is available at most public libraries) http://books.infotoday.com/directories/lmp.shtml
Society of Children\’s Book Writers and Illustrators (the children’s book author’s source of information on workshops, conferences, and publishers: