Author Interview: S.T. Underdahl

Written by Claudia Kinsley | August 27, 2015

Author Overview: S.T. Underdahl is an accomplished author who began her writing career 11 years ago. In that time three of her novels have been published by Flux publishing, a Young Adult (YA) imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide, and the fourth, she self-published.

In this interview the author discusses the intricacies of getting an agent, offers advice about dealing with rejection, and compares the benefits of self-publishing to traditional publishing. In addition, and perhaps most exciting, she credits two “aspiring authors” contests for being instrumental in her success.

For more information about the author, see stunderdahl.com/. Her books are available here.

AP: Please tell us about your life and how your experiences may have contributed to you becoming an author.

S.T. Underdahl: I was born and raised in North Dakota and currently live with my husband and whatever kids are home in Grand Forks, a college town of about 50,000 along the eastern border next to Minnesota. My ‘real’ job is as a clinical neuropsychologist, which means that all of my patients have some kind of injury or disease of the brain/central nervous system. My hobby for the last eleven years is writing; I’ve written three young adult novels and one general commercial fiction novel.

Of course, the writerly advice is always to “Write what you know,” and I’ve definitely taken that to heart: everything I’ve written has had some elements from my own life.  The Other Sister is based on something that happened in my own family, and both Remember This and No Man’s Land have elements from both my own life and my work as a neuropsychologist.

On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed the new things I learn when I’m doing research for a book: in No Man’s Land, for example, the main character, Dov Howard, is a fan of the hardcore music scene. I am not, as you can imagine, an aficionado of hardcore music, but my son was in a hardcore band at the time I was writing the book. Consequently, in order to understand Dov’s character, I attended a few shows where I learned about things like ‘screamers,’ ‘scene kids’, ‘the breakdown’, etc. (I was also bruised on one occasion when I got too close to the mosh pit…it’s a good thing I finished the book around then, because it was probably only a matter of time before I was IN the mosh pit.)

I must have learned enough because I got a letter from one reader asking me if I was really a fan of the bands mentioned in the book, “because if you are, you’re the coolest writer ever.” Unfortunately, I had to confess I wasn’t, although I did develop an appreciation for the hardcore music culture.

AP: Every writer dreams of writing a best-selling novel, but few actually do. What made you decide you could/should write a book and what was the impetus to getting started?

S.T. Underdahl: To be honest, I never thought anything about being a writer until I was turning forty. More than any previous birthday, it felt like a milestone and it occurred to me that maybe I should set forth some kind of goal for ‘my forties.’ I’ve always been a voracious reader and enjoyed writing things like Christmas letters, so for some reason I decided to try to write a novel. After a few false starts, I got going on a fictionalized story based on something that had happened in my family. It seemed to flow right out of me, and I found out how much writing consumes a person: even when I wasn’t writing, my mind was on the story, developing the narrative, working out plot snags, fleshing out the characters, etc. Suddenly everything that happened to me all day long was grist for the writing mill. Before I knew it, I was writing the last line…and then revising it…but then it was finished and I knew it. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting there with a completed manuscript.

I had no idea what to do next, but came across a contest being held by Random House for “First Young Adult Novel.” Since mine was in that category/genre, I submitted it. It didn’t win, but in the process I read up on how to submit a manuscript to a publisher. I submitted it to Llewellyn Worldwide, which at that time was just starting up a YA imprint called Flux. They accepted it, and The Other Sister was published in 2007. They then asked me for another novel and Remember This was published in 2011 and No Man’s Land in 2012. In between, I wrote a general commercial fiction novel called Summer On Lake Tulaby which I self-published in 2011 because I wanted to give self-publishing a try. (It was loads of fun and a great experience, as it turned out.)

AP: As with most things in life, you have to be in the mood to do it. What are the ways you motivate yourself to write?

S.T. Underdahl: Sometimes it’s easy to get motivated to write, particularly when a great story is pulling at your brain. Other times, it’s terribly difficult to find the motivation. I don’t have the pressure of people who write for a living, because my livelihood doesn’t depend on writing. It’s a hobby for me and I know there will still be a paycheck coming in even if I don’t write anything for a month or a year.

One thing, which has been motivating for me on an annual basis, is the “National Write a Novel in a Month” event (aka NaNoWriMo). It’s held every November, from midnight on October 31st to midnight on November 30th, during which each participant pledges to do their best to write an at-least 50,000 word ‘manuscript’ (first draft) of a novel. The event has grown over the past decade and it’s now an international, online event with forums, experts, plot-generators, local write-ins, prizes, critiques, etc. There’s something motivating about knowing that literally THOUSANDS of people around the world are in the same boat as you: typing furiously away in coffee shops, bedrooms, writing studios, bookshops, libraries, etc. as you all try to make it to that 50,000 word finish line. The first draft of both Remember This and No Man’s Land (as well as a couple defunct manuscripts) were written during NaNoWriMo, so it’s a good jumping off point to get a manuscript started. Anyone can sign up at www.nanowrimo.org, and best of all…it’s absolutely free!

AP: Okay, your book has been published and you need people to buy it, but first they must know about it. What are the different types of publicity and who arranges it? Also, what is the experience like for a new author?

S.T. Underdahl: If your book is being published by a publishing house, (e.g. Flux, Random House, Putnam, etc.) they handle the marketing and publicity.  Depending on the size of the publisher and how much success they think your book will have, this can include things like print advertising, author appearances and signings, radio ads, etc.

If you self-publish, you are on your own for marketing and publicity, although most print on demand publishers such as Authorhouse (mine) have different levels of publicity and marketing packages you can purchase. I didn’t do that with Summer on Lake Tulaby: I made a conscious choice to conduct a social media experiment and simply asked my Facebook friends (at the time around 700 people) to share an ad about my book on their FB page.  Using that method alone to publicize my book, Summer On Lake Tulaby climbed to the top 10,000 of the over 250,000 self-published books on Amazon.com. Of course, it was also a good book, so that might have helped…

AP: Please describe the role of the role of an agent and explain how a writer finds one. Also, please comment on if you feel having an agent is essential to getting published.

S.T. Underdahl: I have placed books with an agent and without an agent.  I think there are some real benefits to having an agent in this day and age.  First of all, the publishing world is much different today than it was when I entered it: a) there is a real movement away from paper-copy books towards downloadable book format, and b) there has been a great surge in self-publishing. As a result, publishers have become very selective about what they choose to publish, and many publishing houses only accept ‘agented submissions.’ That means that they will not even take a look at your manuscript unless it comes to them from an agent, which tells them that someone who is experienced in the world of publishing has already read your manuscript and deemed it worthy of bringing it to the publisher.

Agents know that their reputations depend on not wasting the time of publishers by bringing them crappy manuscripts, so they only agree to represent writers (or sometimes a single manuscript) that they feel is good enough. As a result, for a writer, finding an agent is somewhat the same process as finding a publisher: you find one who represents the same kind of work as you have, you submit a query letter with a few sample pages, and hope the agent asks to see more. If the agent agrees to represent you, you then negotiate terms, etc.

The other nice thing about having an agent is that they presumably have experience in negotiating with publishers on contracts, advances, percentages, etc. You can reduce the chances of working with a sketchy agent (or publisher) by researching reviews on them through a free site known as “Predators and Editors” (http://pred-ed.com/).

I do want to tell you about one agent experience I had that taught me something important: he was a great agent from a well-respected New York agency, and I was SO excited when he expressed interest in Summer On Lake Tulaby. His only concern was that he thought I should include another secondary character, a younger female.  Thinking that he must know more than I did, I rewrote the manuscript, adding in the younger female character. He then decided that the younger female character should be one of the primary characters. Less enthusiastically, I again spent months rewriting the entire manuscript, bringing that character into more of the action and making her more of a focus. He read it, and then expressed concern that all of the primary characters were too old, and that maybe I should make them a little less prominent in the story.  Exhausted and demoralized, I sat down to do a third entire rewrite and suddenly it hit me: he had an entirely different vision for the story than I did.  Neither one of us was wrong, but it just wasn’t going to work. I was sad to tell him that I didn’t think our agent/writer relationship was going to work, but he understood (and was probably relieved) and we remain on friendly terms to this day. What I learned is that, even though professional feedback is useful and you should consider it, it’s also important to know your story and the way you want to tell it.

AP: Although getting your book published has to be an exhilarating experience, there must be frustrations along the way. What have been some of your biggest ones?

S.T. Underdahl: Like any writer, I’ve had frustrations. Of course the main frustration for any writer is finding lots of rejection letters in the mailbox, but that’s just something one has to get used to experiencing. Even the most successful writers tell tales of the piles of rejection letters they receive before achieving success: Stephen King tells one about a story that was rejected by a magazine in his early years of writing and then accepted and heralded by the same publication once he became successful.

Other frustration can come with working with traditional publishers: the minute you sign the contract, your book is no longer your property, and any changes requested by the publisher are out of your control. I’ve twice had to wrangle over cover art that was not consistent with my depiction of the character, and in both cases the publisher acquiesced (or at least we were able to find a compromise.) I lost a battle to have my son’s pictures included in No Man’s Land as Dov’s artwork. I am very bitter over the fact that there are several typos in one of my books (isn’t it someone’s job to make sure there are no typos?) because finding even ONE typo cheapens my opinion of a book.

And the final frustration is, with a full-time job and a bunch of kids, just finding TIME to write.

AP: Give us your thoughts on self-publishing versus traditional publishing.

S.T. Underdahl: Having obviously done both, I have good things to say about either process. There is definitely convenience to working with a traditional publisher: they have the expertise and the resources to develop your manuscript to become the best book that it can be. There is an editor to work with you on revisions, an artist to design and lay out the physical book, a marketing department and a publicist to get your book to the masses…you just sit back and wait for your box of author copies and your royalty checks.

I would also have to say, however, that I greatly enjoyed the one self-publishing experience I had with Authorhouse, which offered different levels of assistance in developing Summer on Lake Tulaby. Because I already had experience with writing books and the publishing process, it was perhaps a bit easier for me to know what I wanted and needed to put the book together; things like cover art, author bio, jacket synopsis, blurbs for the back, etc. It was a pretty smooth process and a great deal of fun.    I would definitely do it again.

AP: Please finish these two sentences: If I had it to do all over, I would (fill in the blank). It would have been so much (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank).

S.T. Underdahl: “If I had to do it all over, I would have started writing earlier in life.  It would have been so much more fun, because I didn’t know what I was missing.”

Who knew writing would be so enjoyable and bring such creative balance to my life?  Certainly not I!  I never feel as alive and engaged (while simultaneously constantly distracted) as when I’m actively working on a project.

AP: What’s next

S.T. Underdahl: Funny you should ask!  My writing is ‘on hold’ right now while I wait for my husband to finish rehabbing a 1959 vintage travel trailer I’m planning to park in my backyard and use as a writing studio. Meanwhile, my brain is crowded with two manuscripts that are impatiently waiting to be written: a partially finished 2014 NaNoWriMo manuscript which is a sequel to Summer on Lake Tulaby, and another young adult novel that is based on the long-ago summers that I spent at my grandmother’s motel. Just before this interview, in fact, I wrote a couple of paragraphs that I expect will make their way into the latter.

But I guess we’ll all see what’s next: I’ll probably be just as surprised as anyone.

AP: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy, busy schedule to give us a personal account of your life as an author! We almost feel as if we know you!

Hopefully this will give our readers inspiration and direction as they pursue their own journeys in writing.

Note to Readers: The Random House “First Young Adult Novel” contest appears to have been discontinued, however the annual “National Novel Writing Month” event is set to begin at the stroke of midnight, November 1st.