Tuesday, March 30, 2010

FEATURED SWEETHEART - Verla Kay

We're so excited to feature Verla Kay this week here on THE TEXAS SWEETHEARTS blog. Verla is the genius behind the "Blueboards" which is the go-to place for writers at any stage of their careers—published, querying, just starting out. She is amazing and is a true sweetheart in our eyes!


Here is her bio:
Verla Kay lives on the eastern side of the state of Washington, just two miles from Idaho. She is a former instructor for the Institute of Children's Literature's "Writing for Children" correspondence course.
She writes historical picture books in her own style of writing that she calls, "cryptic rhyme.” She has had eight books published and has three more “in the works.”
Her books have earned numerous accolades, including Best Books of the Year by Bank Street College of Education in New York, Society of School Librarians' International Honor Books, Children's Book Council's Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People lists, and "Children's Best Book of the Year" by Child Magazine.
Her most recent picture book, a non-fiction biography of a stagecoach driver from the 1850’s and 1860’s, “Rough, Tough Charley,” was placed on the 2008 Amelia Bloomer Project list of recommended feminist literature for young readers. Her newest book, “Whatever Happened to the Pony Express” will be released on May 13, 2010, and it’s already gotten a favorable review from Kirkus.
Verla was one of eleven finalists in the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators contest for giving presentations to children at their yearly conference in Los Angeles a number of years ago. She loves traveling and doing author talks at schools and conferences.
Verla Kay's website, which she designed and maintains herself, has twice been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer's Digest and her message board is very active with over 2500 members. It gets an average of over one million hits each month.

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TXS: What prompted you to establish such a wonderful online community? How did you get the Blueboards started?

VK: It was a total accident, at first. I put up my website, and then looked at it. It had information about me and about my upcoming books on it. That's it. And I said to myself, "Who would want to come read that? Only people who knew me already, and possibly a few people that happened to see one of my books and loved itl"

The next question was obvious. "What would make other people want to come to my site? What would make ME come to my site if it wasn't my site?" And the answer was simple for me. "Information about writing." And so my site was born.

I was an active participant in a live chat room that was started by the owner of "The Yellow Board." In trying to find the right venue for that chat room, he moved it to a server that I couldn't get to with my Mac. Only Windows machines could get into the chat room. So I kept the old server and started my own chat room under the name #Kidlit. It became very active. We had workshops in the chat room weekly, and lots of people starting hanging out in it, having a great time sharing writing experiences, brainstorming books, etc. But everyone couldn't get to the chat room nightly, so I decided to start a message board. It was a dismal failure.

In about six months, it had gotten -- oh, three or four messages on it. That wasn't very useful, so I took it down. A few months later, I reanalyzed the message board idea. The previous board had been so filled with popup ads, it took way too long for anyone to get anywhere on it, or read or post messages. So I looked for an alternative way to have a message board. My search brought me to the Simple Machines website. It was the perfect venue for the message board I wanted. I tried it out, and it worked great. It was fast, efficient, and I could alter the look of it to fit my website. As soon as I knew it was a good thing, I paid for a license, so I could have it without any popup ads.

Two days before I was ready to put it up, the Old Yeller board crashed. I was an active participant in that message board already. It was more "open" than I wanted my board to be, though, and catered mostly to brand new writers. I wanted my board to be totally flame-free and to attract mostly people who were past the basics of writing skills. That way it would compliment the Yellow Board, and not compete with it. People who were used to visiting the Yellow Board were screaming all over the internet, "I need my Yeller FIX!" The opportunity to give them a chance to come and try out my new message board was just too good to pass up, so I put my board up two days early and announced over the Children's Writer's Email List I was on that it was "up" and "open for use."

About 20 people swarmed over to it and posted. They liked it. They told their friends, who came and posted. It ended up with about 100 people on it. I was thrilled. People were posting daily, and that's what makes a message board work - active posts on it. That was in September of 2003. I had no clue that the board would grow to have over 2800 members and get an average of over one million hits every month, which is its current status on the web.

Now, I'm very well known for my message board. Sometimes I wonder what kind of monster I started! I'd rather be very well known for my writing - for my books, you know? But I love knowing how many people have been helped by my website and especially by the message board. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling deep inside every time I hear someone's success story about how they "found their agent" or "got their book published" or "learned something important that helped them in their publishing journey" because of my website and/or message board.



TXS: What are the demands of such a wildly popular message board? How do you balance this with your writing and with everything else?

VK: The most important thing about my message board (to me) is that it stays a "clean and safe" place for writers and illustrators to share information. That can be a tough job, and it's an impossible one for just one person to do. Because of the very nature of message boards, people are on it 24/7. There's someone, somewhere in the world, all the time who is up and roaming around the web. Flame wars on message boards, and spam posters can erupt at any moment of the day or night, and they can really cause a mess in a matter of minutes. If it's days, or even a few hours before those unwanted posts are noticed, they can turn into nightmares of horrendous proportions.

Steady monitoring is what keeps a board clean and safe. So at the beginning of the board's creation, I looked long and hard at the people who were posting on it, noticing which people were the most helpful to others in their posts. Which people were the most active on it and appeared to be the most tactful in their posts. I sent emails to several of them, asking them if they would like to be Moderators on the message board. I explained there was no pay, as I didn't make any money from the board, but if they were going to be on it anyway, and if they wanted to, I'd love to have them be Moderators for the board. Some said, "No thanks," but most said, "Sure! I'd love to!"

As the board grew in size, I added more Moderators and moved some of my most faithful and active Moderators up to Administrators, so they could help me run the entire board. At present, there are 5 active Administrators for the message board and 15 active Moderators. Without their constant vigilance on the message board, there is no way it would be the wonderful place it is today.

Even with all the help I have, I still check ALL new message topics almost every day in order to see if there are any that might need my personal attention. The first ones I check are messages from my other Administrators. After dealing with any problems or concerns that they have, then I look at the Moderator's messages. Most of the time, any issues that came up with them have already been taken care of by one of the other Administrators, but often I end up right in the thick of things, too.

I normally spend several hours each day keeping up with things on the board. Once in a while, I take a break. When I do, I let the other Administrators know, so they can "cover" things for me. There have been a few interesting board decisions made when I was taking a break. But I trust the people who help me run this message board totally, and really, it's THEIR board, not mine, so I don't have any problem with them running it the way they want to.

As far as balancing my website with my writing? I don't, really. Some days I do NOTHING but work with the board all day long. Occasionally, I've worked all night long, too, when a serious problem has come up and I was trying unsuccessfully to fix it. I've spent days battling problems that seemed like they had no solutions, but each time, I've eventually fixed the problems, and the board has gone back to working smoothly again.

When my editor needs me to do edits on a book, or rewrites, or more research (which happens frequently when we get down to the last few months before a book is sent to the printer) then I let everyone else take over the board while I work on the writing issues my editor needs from me. So I guess the balance depends totally on which part of my writing life needs me the most at the moment.



TXS: What are some things that writers can do to build a sense of community and companionship?

VK: Interact with people. Get them talking, and discussing relevant subjects. Talk to teachers and librarians. Get on email lists and actively participate, so people begin to recognize your name and learn your worth. Join message boards that will benefit you and that you can participate actively in, helping other people, too.

Be very careful about joining any new community "just for what you can get out of it," though. That's NOT the way to build good community companionship or an "author presence." When you first join a group of any kind, look and listen to others. Get a feel for the type of community it is. Do participants joke with each other a lot or are they very serious in their discussions? How do they share their good news with each other? Before you share yours, be sure you have "given" something of yourself to the community. People will be much more likely to be happy for you if they know something about you and how hard you have had to work to reach the place where you are sharing good news.


TXS: You’re quite generous to writers by providing advice and mentorship. What are some tips that you frequently suggest?

VK: Most new writers want to know where they can get published, how they can find an illustrator for their stories, and where to get an agent. I tell them to join or start a critique group, and to get ahold of the most recent Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market guidebook to find a reputable place to send their work. I explain they don't find their own illustrator - their editor will want to pick one for their book, and that they don't have to have an agent, that sometimes that's harder than finding a publisher at first.

You'd probably be surprised at how many people contact me asking for help publishing their books. They seem to think I'm a publisher myself or that I have an "in" with publishers. If I did, I wouldn't have so much trouble selling my own stories!



TXS: You’re also proactive when it comes to marketing. Do you have any pieces of marketing advice you could share?

VK: For me, the best "marketing" has been attending library and school conferences. Find out when your local area will be holding theirs, and then what you have to do to be able to participate as an AUTHOR speaker. DO NOT PARTICIPATE AS A REGULAR SPEAKER! You will be "lumped" in with all the educators, and will be totally lost in the conference schedule, and you won't have an author signing time scheduled, either. By telling them you are an author, (or illustrator) you will get special "billing" on the conference schedule and they will usually set up a signing time for you, as well. When you arrive at the conference, make a beeline to the booksellers booths. Make sure they know you are there and that you will be signing books at the conference. Sometimes, they will want you to sign books in their booth, too, so they can sell them as autographed books to attendees.

Try to pick a subject that will excite librarians and teachers. Since my books are all history based, I like to give a talk about Bringing History Alive in the Classroom. I prepare a comprehensive list of other people's books that teachers have shared with me that are good for use in the classroom. I share some of the artifacts I used when doing school visits to bring my books to life for kids - gold and a gold pan, an iron spike and a replica of a golden spike, and a replica Nez Perce indian bag are just a few of the things that I've taken with me for my talks.

Sometimes, you can just do a "mini" school demonstration, too. Many of the teachers and librarians that attend these conferences are there looking for good speakers to bring in to excite their children about reading and writing.

The most important part of marketing is getting yourself and your books in front of as many people as possible. It really does help book sales! (But don't be discouraged if not many books sell right away or if you don't have educators beating down your door to bring you in to do talks. I've found most of my contact results come weeks or months or sometimes a year or two after my efforts at publicity. But they DO come.)


TXS: Thank you, Verla! We were so happy to feature you!

*****

Please email us your nominations for featured sweethearts.



12 comments:

  1. Verla and TS- great interview and I loved the marketing advice. There have been many days I have gone to the Blueboards for support and encouragement. Thanks for taking the time make them safe and helpful.

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  2. It is so cool how much the Blueboards have done for writers, Christina! The safety aspect is huge!

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  3. GREAT interview. Thanks to Verla for all she does for writers every day. I can't imagine life w/o the BB's!

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  4. Verla Kay is a godsend for writers and I loooove Rough, Tough Charley...such a great twist! Back in the day, I used the Blue Boards for everything. Thanks, Verla!

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  5. Verla forgot to mention that she has a NEW BOOK coming out MAY.

    If anyone wants to show how much they appreciate her hard work (and high expense...not something she mentions) of her website and the Blue Board, order her new book
    now! It's called WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE PONY EXPRESS? Ask your local bookstore for it NOW! Pre-orders show publishers that people are eager to read an author's new book.

    To see the cover and get ISBN info for ordering from your local bookstore, check out this link:
    http://www.amazon.com/Whatever-Happened-Pony-Express-Verla/dp/0399244832/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270050746&sr=1-3

    Let's start a I APPRECIATE VERLA KAY'S BLUE BOARD! movement and order her PONY EXPRESS book now! If you don't need it personally, donate a copy to your local library -- libaries need help and books. And Verla Kay needs her friends to make this new book a HUGE success.

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  6. I love the idea, Linda! Verla deserves every bit of success she can get.

    Thanks for visiting, Rachel!

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  7. Thanks for a well of information Ladies! It took me a while to read it but I learnt a lot of great information. I know that your fans appreciate all your hard work!

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  8. Thanks for choosing Verla. I had no idea how much time she spends on her site. And she spreads so much helpful information.

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  9. Thanks for visiting, Anne Marie and Natalie! I found the interview fascinating!

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  10. I love Verla's site! It's interesting to read how it all got started! Verla is amazing. Great interview!

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  11. Thanks for all of the comments--Verla is just amazing! Great suggestion, Linda!

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