Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Feature: Journeys Toward Publication and Beyond: Dianne K. Salerni

Welcome to another Friday Feature interview. I was first introduced to Dianne Salerni when my fellow WIBIJer Tina excitedly chose her as a possible host for a WIBIJ game.  I enjoyed checking out Dianne's  blog, and researching her book, WE HEAR THE DEAD for the WIBIJ clue.  The clue?

19th century america was enthralled with the sisters,
Real foxes and tricksters of mrs. and misters.
Cracking knuckles and joints, they pretended the dead
Were speaking aloud, "We hear them," they said.

Never caught in the lie until love came to call
The guilt of their life catches up with them all
Or at least with the one who stands to lose most
Is it possible to give up your life for fake ghost? 

I can't wait to read this book! Not only was Dianne a fabulous host for the scavenger type game, but she was courteous and kind. And enthusiastic.  I found myself looking her up at inkwell, and other writing forums.  I'm looking forward to getting to know her better, and I think we all will do just that, in a moment.  Everyone please give Dianne a warm welcome, and leave her an insightful question in the comments.

In her own words:   Dianne K. Salerni is an elementary school teacher, author, and online book reviewer.  She has previously published educational materials for teachers, as well as short stories.  We Hear the Dead is her first full-length novel and has been optioned for film.  Salerni, her husband, and two daughters live in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where she is at work on another novel, various short stories, writing lesson plans, and possibly grading some student papers.

Dianne, thanks so much for doing this interview with me!  I'm so glad you could be with us today. It's so exciting that your book WE HEAR THE DEAD is out.  Tell us about it!

WE HEAR THE DEAD is the true story of Maggie Fox, an adolescent girl who, along with her younger sister Kate, accidentally starts the 19th century spiritualist movement with a high-spirited prank.  When the girls pretend they can communicate with the ghost of a murdered man supposedly buried in their basement, they fool their family, their neighbors, and the entire town. The prank snowballs into something much bigger than they intended, and soon it is impossible for them to tell the truth.  Their older, divorced sister sees through the prank and, realizing that people will pay good money to contact dead relatives, she sets the girls up in business as America’s first spirit mediums.  Their fame grows, but when Maggie falls in love with a famous Arctic explorer, her unorthodox profession stands in the way of her happiness. She has to choose between her family and the love of her life.

What was writing the book like--highest high? lowest low?

There were many times when the book seemed to write itself.  The characters spoke to me – they told me their story.  I wanted to write a book that kept closely to the established facts, but since the girls were liars by profession, sometimes things didn’t add up.  I looked at the facts and I tried to figure out what really happened -- why the girls did what they did.  The highest points for me were those moments of clarity when I envisioned what could have happened – what made sense – and what fit the character of Maggie Fox.  When the older sister entered the story, I worried, because I needed to produce a character who was simultaneously overbearing and manipulative and personable and charming!  I needn’t have worried.  Leah Fox Fish burst upon the scene and took over everything.  She wrote her own part! Elisha Kane, Maggie’s love interest, also gave me some trouble.  He caused me to lay aside the manuscript for six months while I figured him out.  But once I’d learned enough about him, he also began to speak to me.  Kane took center stage – battled Leah for control of Maggie’s life – and refused to make his exit!  I think Kane’s stubborn personality doubled the length of the book I’d originally intended to write.

The lowest part of writing the book was when I had to submit to certain events that happened in real life.  Deaths were unpleasant, and yet they happened. I can’t change history.  Since I took these characters from real life, I had to accept what had already happened, and I could not give everyone the happy ending they deserved.

Tell us about how you connected with your agent, and how your writing life changed (or didn't) after that.

I don’t have an agent yet.  I’m one of those rare, un-agented authors who stumbled into a publishing deal on her own.  Sourcebooks has been wonderful – supportive and helpful and encouraging.  However, I am beginning to search for an agent now because I realize I need someone who can point me in the right direction, help me sort out my priorities and set realistic goals. To use a completely nerdy metaphor, I feel like Luke Skywalker and I need an Obi-wan to show me how to use the Force.

Dianne--it's amazing how everyone has a unique road to publication!  Tell us about your journey from manuscript to published book--what was unexpected for you during this stage?

When I finished my manuscript, I chose to self-publish it without submitting it to agents or publishers.  I wanted to see the book in print and find out if I could make a success of it – did I have any talent, or not?  I spent two years marketing the book on my own and trying to overcome the stigma of self-publishing.  The book had excellent reviews and decent sales, but everything eventually tapered off and I figured I’d come to the end of the line.

That’s when the unexpected and unpredictable comes in.  My book had good reviews, and so started recommending it to readers. Somewhere along the line, Amazon recommended my book to Kelly Barrales-Saylor, an editor at Sourcebooks, and Amy Green, a producer and owner of One Eye Open Films. These recommendations resulted in nearly simultaneous offers for the publishing rights and a film option on the book!

And as if this wasn’t enough, Amy Green wanted me to write the screenplay.  I tried to beg off.  I didn’t know how … I wasn’t experienced … I didn’t have the time or the skills … But she was very persuasive, and before I knew it, I was drafting a screenplay.  Ms. Green, of course, provided me with excellent guidance, and six drafts later – I’m a screenwriter!

So cool, Dianne--that's awesome! What type of marketing did you do to get the word out about the book?  What worked best?  What was hardest for you about the marketing aspect?

Most of my marketing is through the internet – social networks, discussion boards, and blogs. This is surprisingly effective, even when I was independently published. Since I am a full time teacher (as well as a mom), this is also the easiest and most convenient form of marketing for me.  Live appearances, by contrast, terrify me!  You’d think that a person who makes her living speaking all day in front of 10-year-olds would be immune to this, but I’m not.  Book signings cause me to break out in a nervous sweat, and I start looking for a place to hide.  It usually takes me the entire event to relax, and I start to enjoy myself just about the time it’s over!

What are you working on now? How have you balanced the writing life with work of getting a book to publication?

I’m collaborating with Amy Green to make some final tweaks to the screenplay for We Hear the Dead before she starts putting together a budget and going out to financiers.  I’ve submitted a paranormal novella to a pulp fiction anthology that has already published two of my short stories, and I’m waiting for feedback from the editor.  I’m also working on a second novel, which is a historical mystery with paranormal elements loosely based on true events, and this summer I hope to begin research on another one.  That’s typical for me – more oars in the water than I have hands to hold them!
Balance has been hard to achieve lately.  Book promotions take up a lot of time, but I’m also trying to survive the regular, frenetic activity that occurs at the end of every school year.  The first couple weeks in May have been particularly hard.  I have my eye on the calendar, though, and come June 19th, I see whole days of writing time dawning!

Dianne, What has blogging meant for your writing journey, and what is a favorite blog post that you have written?

I started blogging in January, and I’ve only been able to commit to posting twice a week. I do more when I can, but twice a week is usual. I like the discipline of having a deadline, even if I set it myself, and I appreciate the necessity of writing in my own voice, rather than that of a character.  I learn from it. As for a favorite blog post, I have a couple.  I have enjoyed writing about some of the strange historical graves I’ve found in Pennsylvania, including the Ticking Tomb of Landenberg, the Caged Graves of Catawissa, the multiple burials of General Anthony Wayne – and of course the precariously placed vault where Elisha Kane now resides. I hope I can find some more to add to the series!

I found that tomb series to be fascinating, Dianne!  If you had to pick one favorite blog, what would it be?

I don’t have a favorite blog; I just wish I had more time to read all the ones I regularly follow.  Again – I have my eye on mid-June!

What online resource have you found most helpful?

I absolutely depend on and – which makes it all the more irritating that their flashy ads are clogging up the site.  Lately I find the site very difficult to load, and sometimes it won’t work at all. I realize they need funding to continue – and I certainly want them to stay in business – but a little less flash would make me A LOT happier!

What has been your biggest trial, or biggest surprise in getting a book to publication?

Waiting.  Oh, the wait!  Getting a book to publication is such a long process, and like many authors, I’m pretty impatient!  There are months and months during the process where the author really has nothing to do.  Of course, these long dry spells are punctuated by weeks of frantic activity, but I actually prefer that to the l-o-n-g intervals when I have nothing to do but wonder and worry.

What tricks have you acquired to make you write or create when you don’t feel up to writing?

A long walk outside is good for brainstorming, as well as weeding in the flower bed.  If I’m really stuck, I take a bucket of sudsy water, a scrubbing brush, and tackle one of the tiled floors in my house that could use up-close-and-personal cleaning.  A few minutes of scrubbing grout – and I’ll start talking to myself.  Then I’ll start talking to my characters. Then my characters will start talking to each other.  There’s nothing like the boredom of cleaning to get the creative juices flowing – and I’ll be lucky to get the selected floor clean before I end up back on the computer!

Tell us about a book that has impacted your writing life.

Although I’ve been interested in séances and ghost stories all my life, it was the book Inamorata by Joseph Gangemi that sparked my interest in writing a story for teens about spiritualism.  Gangemi’s book is an adult historical novel focusing on the investigation of Margery, a famous Boston medium, in the 1920’s. After reading Inamorata, I started researching séances and spiritualism, trying to find an angle that might interest YA readers.  And of course, I stumbled upon the Fox sisters, who were just adolescent girls themselves when they accidentally started the entire movement.

What is your practical goal with your writing?  Do you have a reach-for-the-stars goal that you would like to share?

I would like to publish more books, of course.  Who wouldn’t?  Although I will continue to write for a Teen/YA audience, I might also like to try Middle Grade fiction – just because my students are always asking me to read my book to them, but fifth graders are a little young for We Hear the Dead.  As for a “reach-for-the-stars” goal, I still can’t believe I wrote a screenplay! Hearing my own words spoken on the big screen seems like a pipe dream, but as it gets closer and closer to actually happening, I start pinching myself to see if I’m really awake.

Dianne--that is really remarkable, about writing the screenplay!  So far, what has been the best part of your writing experience?

The best part of my writing experience has been receiving random, unexpected emails from people who read my book and wanted to tell me what they got out of it.  To know that I caught the imagination of another person, or taught someone a bit of history, or made a reader laugh or cry – that’s the pinnacle of writing.  It can’t be beat.

If you could create your perfect writing space, what would it look like?

Writing space?  You’re funny!  Thank heavens I have a laptop, because I am forced to flee from room to room around my house.  My starting point is the family room, but I am often chased out by Disney Channel re-runs and Zelda games played by my daughters on the Wii.  My next stop is the front room of the house (we grandly call it the library) but I may very well encounter my husband there, doing business on the phone.  Forced to retreat, I will go down to the finished basement, which is usually quiet, but kind of cold and uncomfortable.  Now, if the weather is good, I might head outside to sit next to the goldfish pond.  Beautiful, bright, inspiring – this place is perfect for writing. 
Perfect, that is, until the neighbor’s boy decides to ride his 4-wheeler – and until our dog Sorcia discovers me and drops a slobbery ball on my laptop, wanting to play.  What was the question?  Perfect writing space?  Doesn’t exist.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Work your craft.  Read and learn from the books you love.  Take a few risks; break a few rules.  Don’t stop dreaming, and listen to your characters when they tell you what they want to do.

And, just because I'm curious, coffee, or tea?

Coffee after breakfast.  And I don’t mean Starbucks, which I really can’t stand.  I just want my Eight O’Clock brand, Mr. Coffee-brewed cup of joe with a packet of Splenda and a little half-n-half.

And, Dianne, please tell us about upcoming events so that we might get out and see you and your book in action!

I’ll be appearing in Haverford, PA with Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown – authors of Picture the Dead – on Saturday, May 22 at Children’s Book World @ 2pm.  I also will be visiting two Barnes and Noble stores in the first week of June – the Concord Pike, Delaware store on Wednesday, June 2 @ 7 pm and the Exton, PA store on Friday, June 4 @ 7 pm.  I’ll be in West Chester, PA on Saturday, June 12 at the Chester County Book and Music Company.  And skipping ahead to fall, I’ll have a booth at the Collingwoods Book Festival in Collingswood, NJ on Saturday, October 2.

I'm appearing at The Big Blue Marble in Philadelphia tonight at 7 pm.

Oh, I wish I were in the area, so I could go tonight--I hope you have fun!  Dianne, some of those places are old haunts (no pun... okay it was intended... so lame!) for me--I love the Chester County Book and Music Company!! Everyone, remember to leave some fantastic questions in the comments. And, check out Dianne's blog, and book, WE HEAR THE DEAD


  1. Dianne, thanks again for being here today! I know you have a busy schedule. I loved your description of your roaming work space. And I love where you end up. Did you ever find out anything further about the caged graves? That blog post fascinated me. Maybe that is your next book!

  2. Great interview as always, Heather.
    Diane, I am fascinated by the way you described your characters taking over the story. I certainly experience some characters as being more forthcoming than others and find that really frustrating. What do you do with a 6 month break like that? Is that something that is easy for you to take? Or do you fight it tooth and nail as I do?

    And the cover and title of your book is lovely! Did that change when you published with Sourcebooks? How did the cover come to be?

  3. Fabulous interview, Heather. Love Dianne. Such a nice lady and wonderful writer.

    I'm so intrigued by the cover of the book. Ordered it. ";-)

  4. What a great interview. Thanks Dianne for sharing your very inspiring story. I can't believe how successful your book has turned out and you were so brave to tackle the screenplay. I'm glad to hear that social networking can work so well in marketing. I'm an attorney but the thought of school visits & public speaking terrifies me.

  5. I'm sold! I can't wait to read We Here the Dead, and I'm now so excited about my own writing that I'll likely get little done today because I'll be mentally working on WIPs...

    Dianne, you have to come down to VA, it's not that far! After reading this, I'm really glad that I've nver tried to self publish. It's definitely not something for me.

    Congrats on everything Dianne! I love that you've already had the chance to branch out with screenwriting.

    And because I can't resist, does Sorcia by chance have red hair (Irish Setter?) or was that name inspired by Willow?

  6. What a cool publication story, you've got a lot of guts. Since you self-published, did you pick out the cover and style of the novel and is the current edition the same as the first?

  7. Gang--Dianne is speaking THROUGH ME today--how SPOOKY is that!

    Well, actually, she's having trouble posting comments from her phone, while at work. But I thought I would have a go with the ghost theme! Anyway, here are her replies to our questions!

    Dianne writes:

    Heather -- I'm still researching the caged graves and other historical tidbits from that area of the Poconos. I definitely want to weave a fictional story around them!

    Tina -- I despaired during the 6 month break, and I wasn't sure I could finish the book. But my husband located a copy of Elisha Kane's own book, Arctic Explorations, and suggested if I learned more about him, maybe I could write him. And it worked!

    Tina and Jon -- The original title was High Spirits and it had a dull, monotone cover designed by iUniverse. Sourcebooks wanted to give it a new image. The title We Hear the Dead was suggested by one of my 5th grade students, and it inspired Sourcebooks to design a cover with a spooky title but an illustration that let you know the whole thing was "a show." The new edition has been trimmed by 30,000 words -- but still has more pages than the original because of font size, margins, layout, etc.

    A. Gray -- Sorcia is a German Shepherd. She already had the name when we got her, but we did appreciate the Willow reference! Sorcia was a kick-ass character, plus she got to kiss Val Kilmer!

    Heather again: Dianne--you get extra points for foiling blogger today by emailing me your answers! Thanks, Dianne!!

  8. Thanks for a great interview, Heather. And thank you, Diane, for spending some time with us. I really enjoyed how your book turned into a screenplay. What a journey you're on!! My question is, what was the major difference between writing your book and writing the sceenplay.

  9. Oooo, I like Jon's question! I am dying to read this book - thanks for the awesome interview.

    Heather, this was great!! :-)

  10. Hey, I made it!
    Although speaking through Heather was pretty cool, too!

    Kittie, the main difference is structure and format. The entire story must be told through dialogue and sparse description of action. The description must be short, to keep the page count of script down, but interesting enough for a person reading the script to visualize the scene. A screenplay is READ before it is ever filmed.

    Also, there is no way to convey the thoughts of the characters except through action and dialogue -- unless you want to do voice-over, which in my mind is used way too much because it's *easy.* I don't like voice-overs in movies I watch, so I didn't put any in my script.

    We also had to condense action and introduce the romantic lead much earlier than he really appeared in Maggie's life. So, we took some liberties with Elisha, but I really like how they worked!

  11. Heather, I love the Friday Feature! Dianne, thank you for such a wonderful interview. Hearing about your process was really interesting. Also, I saw your fabulous cover on someone else's blog (can't remember who). I'm excited to read this one.

  12. HEATHER and DIANNE - BRILLIANT interview!

    It seems that a lot of writers these days are also teachers...encouraging for me!

    This is one book I'm definitely going to read!

    These Friday feature interviews are fascinating Heather!


  13. Lori--I love these interviews too. I love knowing that everybody comes into writing with their own journey! And I love feeling like I get to know these writers!

    Ann Marie--I definitely think you are in the right profession! I can't wait to read Dianne's book too!

  14. What an amazing story! This is awesome! Congratulations, Diane :)