How to Reach Young Readers: Rachel Renée Russell's WD Interview Outtakes

In our bonus Q&A online, Dork Diaries author Rachel Renée Russell discusses getting an agent, connecting with her audience, and more.
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Middle-grade author Rachel Renée Russell may be a self-described dork, but it must be pretty cool to be uncool: Since its debut in 2009, her Dork Diaries series has sold more than 15 million copies, spent more than 230 weeks on The New York Times bestsellers list and been translated into almost 30 languages. To top that off, Lionsgate recently acquired the movie rights to the series, with a film set to release in 2016.

If it seems unbelievable that this type of success would burgeon in just over five years, that’s because it didn’t. Russell’s journey to becoming a bestselling author began around the age of 12.

Sometime in middle school in Saint Joseph, Mich., Russell decided to craft her first book for kids. She kept writing through college at Northwestern University. But after receiving harsh criticism from a creative writing professor there, her confidence to pursue the craft as a career waned, and she opted to go into law instead.

Russell knew, though, that the career she settled for was not the career she was meant for. In the late 2000s, after spending 20-plus years as a bankruptcy lawyer, raising two children and going through a divorce, Russell returned to her first love: writing.

The Dork Diaries are the humorous journals of Nikki Maxwell (named after Russell’s younger daughter), a socially awkward 14-year-old who’s adapting to life in a new city and a new school. Each book recounts one month of Nikki’s misadventures in the form of illustrated journal entries, which detail everything from her run-ins with resident snob MacKenzie to her desperate attempts to get her mom to buy her an iPhone—you know, typical middle-grade crises.

“The reason why I was motivated to write Dork Diaries was because of my own daughters,” Russell says. “I was in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with an upper-middle-class public school, and my kids just were weird. Actually, they weren’t weird—they were smart, they did their homework, they were really good kids. But for some reason, both of them got bullied.”

In addition to the regular series, Russell has written two companion books—Dork Diaries 3½: How to Dork Your Diary and Dork Diaries: OMG! All About Me Diary!—which encourage kids to express themselves through journaling.

Russell’s daughters, now adults, have become directly involved with creating the Dork Diaries: Erin contributes to the writing, while Nikki has taken over the illustrating.
The eighth book, Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Happily Ever After, hit shelves in September, and Book 9 is scheduled for a spring 2015 release.

In the full WD Interview with Russell, the soft-spoken 54-year-old talks about the challenges of writing for a young audience, future plans for her writing, and showing the publishing industry that it’s actually cool to be dorky. In these online exclusive outtakes, Russell discusses how she comes up with ideas, getting an agent, and why it’s important to connect with readers.

You’ve said the Dork Diaries was inspired by your daughters’ lives as middle schoolers. But wow do you come up with ideas for each book? What is your writing process like?

[My daughters and I] come up with a title, and basically the title is the theme of the book. … We’re basically pulling some of the major things that kids either go through in middle school, or their experiences, or things they would consider fun.

We work by chapters. As a matter of fact, we call them vignettes. We say vignettes more than chapters because since this is [protagonist Nikki Maxwell’s] diary, we can put in totally unrelated, crazy stuff. And that is what is really nice and refreshing about the books. We can just go off on a tangent for a chapter.

I can break it down for you: Each Dork Diary book is one month. So, technically, our books have either 30 chapters if there are 30 days in a month, or 31 chapters if there are 31 days. And, of course, there’s February. So when we begin a book, we have to end it by the 28th day, the 30th day or the 31st day, depending on how many days there are in a month. I’d say that that’s [one] challenge [of creating this series], to take whatever Dork Diaries story arc we have and present it in either 28 days, 30 days or 31 days.

How did you find your agent?

About March or April [2008], I had put together about 75 pages [of a manuscript], and I sent it off to about a dozen literary agents, and I got responses from six of them. And that’s phenomenal! Usually you don’t get a response from even one, so that just kind of knocked my socks off. This was for the [first] Dork Diaries manuscript. I sent out other drafts, but I didn’t get any [responses]. It was like crickets. But when I sent out the Dork Diaries material, Dan Lazar [of Writers House] emailed me within a day or two. I sent it to him on a Monday, and I had a response from him on Wednesday—which, again, is really, really good to get an agent to respond so quickly. Writers House was my dream, so when he said that he loved it and that he was interested in representing me, I did go with Dan Lazar, though I got offers from several.

I will add this too. I’m not affiliated with it, but Agent Query [agentquery .com] was very, very helpful. Even now when people ask me, “How’d you find a literary agent?” I always point them to Agent Query. That’s how I found Dan Lazar. I went to Agent Query and read all the material and did a search. I searched “middle-grade” and read which agents were accepting [queries and manuscripts] and which ones weren’t. I didn’t want to do the mail thing—you know, [send the manuscript] by U.S. mail—I only wanted email. So Agent Query was really helpful in helping me get the queries out.

The Dork Diaries website is very tween friendly, with a blog “written” by Nikki Maxwell, plus a video diary that features her. Fans can even email you for advice on everything, from school to family to first crushes. How important is it for you to engage with your readers?

It’s very important. We know that we’re getting children who may have challenges with being a dork or not fitting in or being bullied, so we’re trying to offer more interaction more that what we normally would. We feel that we’re attracting kids that can benefit from a website where they can write in about a problem, or read advice—the advice column is once a week—and read about other people’s experiences, and hopefully use the information they receive to help make their own lives better or a little easier.

Do you ever use any of those fan letters in your books?

No. We’re not mining material from fan letters. My daughters had so much drama growing up, so we’re still using material from their lives!

Do you answer, or at least try to answer, all of the fan mail you receive?

We would like to answer every single letter we get. But [my daughters and I] usually read them over, then pick the best one we got for that week. It’s usually a letter that we feel that represents what other kids are probably thinking or wondering or going through.

If you enjoyed these outtakes with bestselling middle-grade author Rachel Renée Russell, be sure to check out the feature-length interview—full of valuable insights about the challenges of crafting a book series, writing out of your comfort zones, and much more—in the January 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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