Please grab a cup of tea or joe, pull up a chair, and stay awhile. You'll be glad you did!
Dandi Daley Mackall is a multi-award winning author with over 450 books to her credit. Her work has been featured in 22 countries, and has inspired over 4 million readers. And after reading this interview you'll understand why!
Today, Dandi shares three key components to her success: be aggressively kind, never stop writing, and take the time to personally thank your fans.
First, thank you for inviting me onto your amazing website!
I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer—except for the years I wanted to be a horse trainer.
When I was ten, I won a contest by writing a 50-word essay on "Why I Want To Be Batboy For The Kansas City A’s"… now the Royals. The contest was “For Boys Only”, so I’d signed my entry “Dan Daley” instead of “Dandi Daley".
Hey, my dad used to call me Dan: “Dan, here comes one high and outside!”
When the A’s discovered I was a girl, they wouldn’t let me be batboy—my first taste of rejection. I should add that a few years ago I wrote "A GIRL NAMED DAN", telling my batboy story and a bit about "Title 9", the law that leveled the playing field and allowed girls to play too.
When the Royals saw my book, they invited me and my special needs daughter to Kansas City to be batboy for a night. Dreams can come true—they may take decades, but there you go.
When I started college, I thought I wanted to be a journalist and own a paper called The Dandi Daily. Only I had trouble sticking to the facts so I ended up majoring in foreign languages. Why? Because I could. And because I loved learning new language. It’s the best way to master your own language.
While in college, I wrote magazine articles and loved seeing my byline in Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, and Women’s Day. And in college, I discovered a personal relationship with Christ and was so excited about it that I became a missionary behind the Iron Curtain… back when the Berlin Wall stood strong and the KGB were everywhere. In Eva Underground, I was able to write about my experiences through the eyes of a fictional character who did basically what I did.
Back home, I married and eventually adopted two girls, each as an infant…. writing was a hobby, something fun for extra money…until my husband left me.
Suddenly, I had to support myself and my daughters—ages 9 months, with special needs; and 3 years old. That’s when writing became my profession.
I wrote everything, from fiction to nonfiction. I went to colleges and hospitals and picked up their brochures and course catalogues, then edited them and marched into administrators, offering to rewrite their materials. All the while, I was working on my first book, a non-fiction called When The Answer Is No.
The book was about what you can do when things don’t go your way. The answer was no as I submitted to publisher after publisher. Finally, I got an acceptance letter. I was so psyched that I called everyone I knew to tell them I was an author. But a year later, my editor had a heart attack, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and they decided not to honor the agreement. But it was too late—I’d started and finished another book. Eventually, When The Answer Is No became my third book—and I had another big “no” to include. For the next 7 years, I wrote adult non-fiction humor and inspirational.
Then, reading to my children, I rediscovered children’s books.
Since then, I’ve had over 400 books published for children, from infants to young adults. It’s been wonderful, with publishers like Knopf/Random; Penguin, Dutton, Harcourt, Simon and Schuster, Tyndale, Zondervan, and so many wonderful editors. I’m grateful that I get to write and that people still pay me to do that. Still can’t get over it!
I hate pitching myself! That’s probably my main reason for having an agent—she gets to do that for me. She likes me better than I like myself.
But even with an agent, I’m supposed to “pitch myself” to readers, especially via social media. And I’ll be honest… I really don’t like that stuff. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and everything in cyberspace, and I do see the need for that. Keeping up with social media is still an obstacle I need to overcome. I’ve tried making myself write something every day, but I keep letting myself down.
I do always respond to personal comments, to letters, to emails.
I love talking with my readers. I get wonderful emails from readers, especially fans of Winnie the Horse Gentler series and other animal series. Those kids are such a blessing. I still get regular letters, too. I can feel the real person behind their words.
I think if someone has taken the time to read my book and then write to me, the least I can do is write back—even if it’s on Twitter.
Twenty-three years ago, I married Joe Mackall, a wonderful author (creative non-fiction, such as Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among The Amish). It’s terrific being married to a writer—he never expects a dinner on the table or the laundry folded.
On the other hand, we share weaknesses—our kids have grown up, never asking, “What’s for dinner?” but instead, “Is there anything in this house that could conceivably become dinner?”
I adore my family time and for that reason, I never write on Sundays, and I try to put them first.
But I write all day—starting at 5:30 am and ending at about dinner time. The business stuff doesn’t get done well, I’m afraid. When I’m on a deadline, I go on “war footing,” and let everything go except that manuscript. So I guess it’s a good thing that I also love writing.
My kids grew up knowing that they COULD come into my home office to see me whenever they needed to , but they also understood that I was working.
Joe and I started out teaching at a university as adjuncts, which means you work harder than professors but get paid less. We worked “part-time” and wrote part-time, but we had so much trouble making ends meet. Then one night we splurged and went out to dinner to decide what we should do, and we ended up making a pact... Whoever was the first to make more money writing than teaching, that person could quit teaching to write full-time. The other person would go back to school for a PhD and get a teaching job that paid benefits.
Six months later, I quit teaching. But it was the right arrangement—even “Dr.” Joe would tell you that.
There are different kinds of writers. Joe actually writes more when he’s on a deadline or when he’s teaching and has to work in writing. He used to be a reporter for the Washington Post, where he had to phone-in his story and write copy fast. When he has a big block of free time to write, as in the summer, he can’t seem to use the time to write.
I’m the other kind of writer. Give me a block of time, and I’ll write like crazy. So it works for us. I guess that’s the lesson—you need to know what style of writer you are, then use your knowledge.
The best thing I do to promote my books is going to schools for author visits.
I do dozens of school visits each year, all across the U.S., and when I leave, I feel as if those students will grow with me and with my books, moving from picture books through young adult novels. It doesn’t get better than that, does it?
The second best thing I do is send a newsletter to my most loyal fans. I try for once a month, and I succeed about 5 times a year. These people on the list learn about my new books first, and often I ask for help—with character names or plot points.
The third best thing I do: Interviews like this one. This interview goes everywhere I should be going, and it’s on a great website. I’m doing a question at a time as a break from a new mystery I’m working. So that keeps both projects fun!
Fourth best thing: Blogging. This is probably fourth because I’m inconsistent with my personal blog. But blogging doesn’t necessarily lead to sales.
When I was just starting out, a wise older woman editor told me: “I think you’re going to make it in this business. Just continue to be AGGRESSIVELY NICE.”
Don’t you love that?
It pays to be nice. I’ve been publishing 25 years, and it’s a small world. That assistant I made a point to thank is now VP of a big publishing house. The intern I sent a little gift to is now an acquisitions editor at a different house. That’s not why I was nice—but there you go.
Still, nice isn’t everything.
Being aggressive doesn’t mean you need to be obnoxious, right? Be nicely aggressive—ask for things, rather than demanding. Ask if you can have unused “slicks” or book covers of your book, or if bookmarks could be made from the trim, or if they could provide you with business cards, or send you to a conference where you’re speaking. Then send a thank-you note.
I have a lovely problem here because I have 6 new books!
The Silence of Murder, Knopf/Random, comes out as a paperback in Oct, with a cool cover and the “Edgar Award Winner for Best Mystery 2012” emblem—it’s a young adult novel. I’d written mysteries before, usually as one of the books in a series and never a murder mystery. This one is a classical mystery, a whodunit, with court transcripts and suspense. But at the core, it’s about relationships—Hope and her brother, Hope and her first love. When they called my name at the Edgar Awards ceremony in NYC, I almost didn’t go up. I couldn’t believe I’d won. I was just so honored to be there, to be in the five finalists. I hadn’t written an acceptance speech, and I couldn’t tell you what I said at that microphone…although the MC later informed me that my first two words were: “Holy cow!”
There's A Baby In There! is a Marshall Cavendish picture book, release-Sept. 2012. I got the idea for the book when I was driving to a school visit in Cleveland and happened to see a very pregnant lady walking uphill. I said to myself, aloud in the car, “Wow! There’s a baby in there!” The rest of the day, the lines kept coming to me and I pictured a four or five-year-old boy pointing to his mother’s stomach and declaring, “There’s a baby in there. At least, that’s what they’re trying to tell me. But I don’t believe them. I was in there about four years ago, and I didn’t see anybody.” By the time I got home, nearly the whole piece was in my head.
Chasing Dream and Nightmare, Tyndale House, 2012, are from my newest horse series, BACKYARD HORSES, for kids into long chapter books. I grew up on “backyard horses,” horses you’d never find in a horseshow, horses nobody would call fancy. But a backyard horse can be beautiful on the inside and end up being a kid’s best friend. Most of my friends had backyard horses, and we rode bareback because we couldn’t afford saddles. In the series, Ellie dreams about owning a horse and ends up with a backyard horse that becomes the friend she needs. One unique part of the books comes in the character of Ellie’s younger brother—a strong character who can’t hear or speak. The whole family and their friends communicate in sign language as they speak. In the back of the books are various signs and the sign-language alphabet.
Bedtime Blessings, Tyndale House, Sept. 2012. This book is for young children, something parents can read and hopefully, soothe them to sleep with rhythm and rhyming verse. Elena Kucharik, who illustrated the Care Bears, illustrated the large format book.
Listen To The Silent Night, Penguin, a picture book, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Most picture books about the First Christmas show pastoral scenes of peace and quiet, but I’ve always imagined Christ’s birth as filled with excitement and mad-dash hurrying…and noise. This is a poetic look at that wonderful night, taken from a slightly new perspective of sound, from the hoot of an owl, to the wild bleating of sheep, the swish of camel hooves on sand, to the noisy stable and the cry of a baby.
Let me take The Silence of Murder first.
I wrote the first chapter of the book a decade before I wrote the book. I’d just turned in a long manuscript, so I gave myself a day to “play”… to write anything I wanted to, just for fun. So I wrote what would become the first chapter of this book. I saved it on my computer and transferred it when I got new computers along the way.
Every year or few months I’d take out the chapter and rewrite it. I loved the voice of the piece, but had no idea what the story would be about. Then about 2 years ago I made myself write the next chapter, refusing to leave my computer chair until I had it written. And I discovered the mystery and realized that the first chapter was being told by my main character, who was on the witness stand, testifying for the defense, trying to keep her brother from being found guilty of murder.
I think some of our best writing comes from a place inside us, a corner we don’t know much about. The only way to get there is to write, to dream, to trust the process. That first chapter “came” because I was playing with words, writing for the fun of writing. Don’t you find when you do little writing exercises, you write some of the best stuff? But the second chapter “came” because I refused to leave my chair until I had something written.
Again, I’ll talk about The Silence of Murder.
For the horse books, even though I’ve ridden my whole life, I still love to read horse books and learn more. But for my mystery, I had lots of research. I read trial transcripts and was amazed how many transcripts are available online in their entirety. I listened in on trials in local courthouses. I interviewed a judge, a prosecutor, and two defense lawyers and was able to get them to read my manuscript. They were the best help, but it wasn’t easy to get busy people to give me that kind of time. I had to talk to 50 for every one who would talk back. I also had to research selective mutism and other similar syndromes.
I guess my main tip is to use the Internet judiciously. Trial transcripts were terrific—a great service provided by the Internet. But I didn’t trust legal advice from websites. You just can’t beat a face-to-face interview with the right person.
For The Silence of Murder I’d love for people to become more sensitive to people with special needs, like Hope’s brother in the book. He’s an amazing guy trapped inside a body he can’t completely control.For Backyard Horses, I’d like readers to recognize when they judge others—and even themselves--by what’s on the outside, rather than what’s on the inside.
Thankfully, I have another novel in the works with Knopf/Random House. This one is a middle-grade set in sixties, a coming-of-age novel. I’m hard at work on another YA mystery and a funny, romantic one.My Boyfriend's Dogs is in development as a Hallmark movie. I have 2 new board books in process: I Love You, Mommy and I Love you, Daddy. And I need to write all those other books swirling around in my head! I hope you’ll do the same.
Learn more about Dandi Daley Mackall at www.dandibooks.com