Q&A with Tracey Dils

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

To write is better than not to write. In other words, even if you are suffering from “writer’s block” or “just don’t feel like it,” get something down on paper everyday so that you will have something to revise. Anne Lamott calls this technique “Shi**y” First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Submit, submit, submit. I hear from writers all the time that they are still revising or just not ready or just can’t get something published. When I ask the magical question: Have you submitted your work? The answer is usually “no.” I have standard advice for writer’s groups. Instead of simply critiquing each other’s work, take one meeting and all submit something as a group. Go to the post office together. Then celebrate over a nice dinner or glass of wine.

What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

Lack of professionalism. As my book emphasizes, publishing is a business. When you submit your work, you are looking for a business partner. Treat that relationship as business-like as you can.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

My laptop. I have a traditional PC, but my laptop goes with me everywhere so I can “write on the fly” when I have ideas (or projects that I am working on that have due dates closely looming.)

What does a typical day look like for you?

If I am actively working on a project, I am generally at my desk at 9, work until lunch, and then until around 4 in the afternoon. I tend to be very reclusive when I am working on something—and I tend to get very lonely. I don’t initiate get-togethers with friends (because it makes me feel guilty about not getting my work done) but if someone calls me for lunch, I’m right there!

When I don’t have an active project, I tend to spend my time prospecting and trying not to go shopping.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

My grandest wish is that publishing would return to the days of smaller publishers, more boutique publishers who make more careful decisions about what they choose to publish. Even though my book explains that publishing is a business, I truly wish that it was more art than business.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

The largest change—and it’s a very large one—after working for 9 years for McGraw-Hill Children’s Publishing, I was down-sized (actually a happy situation) and was faced with building a career in writing once again. I had done so once before in the 1990s for 7 years and had been successful, but it hadn’t been easy. I had a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, both of whom I kept in day care. And actually, when they started school, it was harder to juggle. I was up at 5 writing, getting them off to school, and then ending my writing day at 3. Don’t even ask about summer or snow days! Today, I enjoy a normal 9-5 schedule, as the two of them are college and high school graduates respectively.

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

Go to as many writer’s conferences as you can. Don’t take any relationship that you develop casually. In other words, don’t just ask a writer to read your manuscript and tell you what they think. Writer are professionals—ask if they do critiques and what their fee is. And never ask to use another writer’s contact if you don’t have permission to do so. And lastly, get some knowledge first. (My book is a great place to start!)

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

There are two. The first is winning the Ohioana Alice Wood Medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature. (Pretty funny because I think I was 38 at the time.) And the other is a program I developed for young single mothers on how important it is to read to their infants—and what the methods were for doing so.

Any final thoughts?

My final thoughts have to do with the second accomplishment that I mentioned above. I believe strongly that writers owe back to their community. It’s important for writers to volunteer, for instance. Literacy is a good place to start—without readers, we would have no “customers” for our books. A school library is another great place to volunteer. And whatever you choose to do, you’ll find your writing life is much enriched, just as mine was when I worked on reading with my single mothers.

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