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MK lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her family and writes middle grade books. She enjoys keeping busy with many activities, which helped inspire her books. While vacationing at Hilton Head, she helped find a way to save baby sea turtles.
Her books are STEM based because she wants to inspire girls and it fits her engineering background well. Her series, Putney and the magic iPad were written with the idea of a girl MacGyver.
If kids like science and projects, these books are just the thing for them.
BookPutney and the magic iPad
[00:00:42] Stephen: today on episode 1 0, 2 of discovered Smiths. I have. Uh, VK Tuft, who is talking about her book Putney and the magic iPad, actually, it’s a Siri. And this one I really loved for multiple reasons because she is a middle grade author, just [00:01:00] like me. We had a lot to talk about. Plus she made her books based on her engineering background.
So they are stem based. They have what she kind of talks about, uh, wanting to make a female MacGyver, which are all things near and dear to my heart. So it sounds like we had a lot in common and we did, and it was a great talk and we had so much fun. So I encourage you. If you’ve got kids check out these books, listen to the interview.
If you’re an author and you’ve been wondering, how do you market middle grade listened to the second half? Because obviously that was something we could talk about and we did, and she’s done even more than I have. So there’s some great information in there for anybody. Let me get right to it. Here’s VK, Marsha.
Welcome to discovered wordsmiths. How are you this morning?
[00:01:52] MK: I’m doing really well. Thank you, Steven. How are you?
[00:01:57] Stephen: Good. Good. [00:02:00] Not too bad. Did you get caught in the snow?
[00:02:03] MK: No, I was home when it snowed, so I didn’t have the bad stuff. My, we spend time in health. And we came back, we’re traveling back new year’s day and January 1st and January 2nd.
And we got home, which is Cincinnati, Ohio for us ahead of the snow and my sister who lives in Virginia. She got on us. We dodged the bad snow bullet. And then yesterday we had more than I was expecting. Since I’m a retired engineer and I work from home on my book. I didn’t have to go out in it.
[00:02:43] Stephen: Yeah. Same here.
So you live in Cincinnati cause I live up by Kent state. So both the pile. Cool. So why don’t you tell us now that we know that where you live, why don’t you tell everybody a little bit about you and some of the things you like to do besides writing,
[00:02:59] MK: [00:03:00] as I mentioned, I’m a retired engineer and from, as a kid on.
Science art, math. I’ve done tons of artwork, watercolors doing some acrylics. Now sewing has spent a long time hobby and quilting more recently. And basically one of my favorite things to do is just design stuff and solve problems. So I come up with ideas for, okay. I’m I’m knitting now. And I also quilt.
So I made this, what I call a network. That would be like this portable platform that I could actually walk around the health with and knit and have my toll stash near me. And I don’t walk a lot while knitting, but it’s really handy for traveling in the car. So I like solving problems with fabric. And most recently for my fourth book, where I researched for one of my topics is, has a sea turtle.
[00:04:00] And when I was researching for the book and Hilton head in July, I came across this idea that instead of doing like a re hashed death and paradise hurtle coaching thing, which isn’t a thing on Hilton head, her leg poaching, I thought maybe it could help solve the real problem, which is losing baby sea turtles due to misorientation.
’cause they get attracted by artificial lights through houses. And I actually came up with a prototype. I work with Amber Koon is I’m the director and head of the turtle patrol Hilton head. And I ran it past her incorporated. Some of her feedback made a prototype and it helps save baby sea turtles from at least two nests this past season.
She’s planning to use more of it next summer. So. I was so excited because, okay. I’m actually able to make a difference in my book and model the creative problem solving process for [00:05:00] kids in story.
[00:05:02] Stephen: That’s pretty cool to be able to say that’s definitely a nice breaker when you have one of those group meetings, right?
Yeah. Okay. Marsha, you’ve mentioned your books a little bit. Oh. Before we talked specifically about them, why did you want to start writing and what made you finally sit down and.
[00:05:21] MK: I’ve taken cracks at writing throughout my life. Like in grade school, my sister and I would write lost in space episodes and we’d illustrate them.
These are very crude things. And periodically I would come up with an idea and write down a little piece of it, but it really wasn’t until I retired that I really had time to think about it. And something that really influenced me was I’d been volunteering with GE aviation, GE volunteers, and girl Scouts of Western Ohio with their stem [00:06:00] programs.
So they have an afterschool series. That’s like six weeks of experiments. And I did that one year. And then that next summer, actually, after I retired, I was working on experiment for the first stem summer camp. And that was so much fun for me to create experiments and lead them at summer camp. So we had basically three weeks of camp.
We’d get a different week of girls each week and we had five days of experiments. So we repeated the experiments normally from each week, but I was leading like a mechanical engineering type experiment on Thursdays. And some, it was learning to work with the girls. And getting to see the excitement in their eyes when they could see, oh, this is something I can do.
Now I can design something. Now I don’t have to wait till I’m in high school or college. And especially when I did the cardboard boat experiment, [00:07:00] buoyancy, and I had pollsters with my golden retriever surfing in the ocean on a surf boat. I built and design through the process, but I was teaching them and okay.
Harry is totally drool, worthy. Pictures of him are on my website. And all the girls get engaged with this cute golden retriever and thinking that, oh, why do some things float and others don’t. And I can predict that with understanding about density and a little bit of math, and then I could design something and I could design my own cardboard boat or surfboard or surf boat, and to see the lights go on the back of their heads and think, Hey, this is something I can do now is just really.
Exciting and empowering. And it, it just took me awhile to figure out the right vehicle. And I’m still working. I’m still working to tweak my plots because if it, you probably know this, but to get middle grade kids to read a book, it [00:08:00] can’t just be educational. It’s gotta be entertaining. And so getting the right balance of a, an addictive.
And sliding in some of the empowering problem solving skills and methods. The challenge, basically one of my early mentors told me the girl has to be the protagonists. If you bring a gun out in chapter one, it’s got to go off by the end of the book and it’s the kid has to be empowered. And I realized after listening to his feedback that I needed to try and write girl MacGyver, and I wasn’t sure how to do it.
But I’m getting there. And then I’m working with some other coaches and mastermind groups and learning about what my coach, Rami calls tier ones, which are successful in the authors, in your genre, or in my case, the closest thing to my genre, because there really aren’t wildly [00:09:00] successful authors writing Pearl MacGyver.
There, we haven’t quite hit on the right magic for. So w what I’ve been learning is you have the intrigue and the suspense and the mystery, and the things that set off those chemical reactions in your brain that wants you to engage with the characters of turn the page and hear what happens next.
[00:09:26] Stephen: I love that because it’s funny.
The first book that I worked on in. Was kind of the same thing. It was inspired my daughter and some of her girl scout friends that I was a girl scout leader of. And it was exactly that I was writing a girl who was good at science and chemistry and did MacGyver like things in the book. I love that, that we did similar things and you’re right.
It’s difficult with the middle group. To engage them like that and do those things. So [00:10:00] tell us a little bit about your books and some of the things you’ve written for the Middlebury.
[00:10:06] MK: Okay. So my series is called Putney and the magic iPad, and book one is called Putney in the magic iPad. And I’m really excited because in 2021, it won the reader’s favorite gold medal award for the children adventure category.
That really lifted my spirits then helped me double down and say, okay, I know my covers. Aren’t quite right. I’ve done enough research. Now I have a better idea of what my covers need to look like to help market the books. And I found a fantastic artist. So I’ve got my covered redesigned stone. So in book one, I danced a very fine line.
So I think. My protagonist Putney Hicks is part of a coast guard family. Her dad was a rescue swimmer on the coast guard. He’s now a physician’s assistant. They’ve just spent four years in Kodiak, Alaska, [00:11:00] and are moving from Alaska to the Savannah Georgia area. But they were staying with her great aunt Gertrude on Hilton head island while they’re looking for a place to stay.
And suddenly she’s finding herself in this new experimental. With a bunch of rich kids, she’s really not had the exposure to before she hasn’t had to fit in with them before. And she’s looking at a very different social group at school and feeling like, okay, I’m an introvert, changing schools is really tough for me.
And I really want to be an artist inventor. And I don’t know how, and she’s given the gift of a magic iPad from her favorite teacher back in code. So book one takes you through the introduction of getting to know this, the interface of the iPad. Her name is Sam and honey gets to know her. [00:12:00] She has to guess her name, and she appears as this princess Leia type hologram at first.
And it’s all startled. So you get this exploration of what is this device? Who is this person? And Sam’s role in book. One is more of a magical mentor. She gets her in a little bit of trouble, but it’s more of a way to provide a mentor net guide, help cut me through the self-discovery and help her settle in and handle the challenges that come her way.
So just throw a problem after problem after her. And she’s got to figure this out. She finds some really cool friends and she also makes some enemies inadvertently through her klutziness. And also because she’s very competitive and smart and she’s starting to take the limelight from the other star pupil.
So we get a little bit of that competition going on. So the book [00:13:00] starts like with there’s this design, there’s this experiment for Friday. But it ends up being this design challenge in this rivalry between Putney and her arch rival.
[00:13:12] Stephen: And you said that was a, a book tour or the rest of the series?
[00:13:17] MK: That’s book one.
So book one is you meet. She comes to Hilton head and she’s, she gets a bunch of obstacles thrown on her way and she works her way through and finds her feet. And then, and that takes place in a. So there’s a design challenge for art class, and there was a bet on it is life for a day. And also that gets resolved in book two where she actually there’s the payoff for the bet.
But book one has, who wins the challenge and the science fair. And there’s some other stuff that goes on. Then book two is one of my [00:14:00] absolute favorite projects, which is. Cardboard boat race. And it’s the point C project. And that’s what spawned my obsession with surf boats and teaching my golden retriever to write on it and design that’s been one of the favorite projects in girl Scouts, summer camp.
And my main goal with that book is yeah, there’s conflict with Sudan end up on the same team. So it’s a survivor style challenge. Three or four teams competing in this cardboard boat, race and Sue and Putney have conflicting designs and there’s conflict on the team. And there’s a bunch of other stuff happening in the background.
But the main thing I try to accomplish from a stem perspective is introduced the power and the magic of math and make it less scary. And I give the kids permission to doodle during the chapter where I introduce. The math algebra kind of [00:15:00] stuff. I just want them to see that, Hey, if you can multiply two times three and get six, we can put variables in there.
That means like length times width, and I can get an area. I can multiply that by height and get a volume. Okay. Now I can size a boat. So now I have an equation I can use to come up. Different designs and do trade studies with before I even cut cardboard or put something together. And I don’t care if they follow the math.
I just want them to see that there is power in math that really doesn’t get talked about in schools. What algebra, when it tends to be word problems and okay. Why do I care? Harry moves to the left at five miles per hour. And Sam moves to the right hand, where are they going to meet that? There’s something much more fun that you can do from a design perspective.
[00:16:00] And I found that. Okay. So one of my big goals is when I graduated with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1981 from Purdue university, we were, we had about 25% women overall. Across all fields of engineering, cammies were more like 40% women. And these were closer to 10 and the total numbers of women in engineering haven’t changed much in 40 years and that’s the best the needle I’m trying to move.
And what I’ve seen is girls and women often lack confidence in their math skills. Mm. And lack of confidence in math skills is a barrier to entry in stem fields for everyone, whether it’s boy or the greater Cincinnati stem collaborative interviewed students at the college prep high school Walnut Hills.
And they started with a softball question. You see yourself in a [00:17:00] stem field and all the kids said no. And the stem collaborative folks were like, what? We thought this wasn’t easy question. And the challenge was they’ve lacked confidence in their own math skills. So that’s a big barrier that I’m trying to change attitudes to math, through story and other common barrier women.
We tend to be perfectionist and we’re much more likely to change majors. If our grades are less than perfect and the guy’s guy gets. Well, just shrug it off. I was like, okay, that was hard. A woman gets a D it’s like, I’m not good enough. I can’t do this. And I very nearly quit engineering when I got my first D ever sophomore year.
So I’m trying to tap into what helped me get through that D and help other girls develop their own [00:18:00] resilience. And for me, it was all the creative stuff I was doing at time. That gave me the confidence to say I non-creative, I got this the, but I know I can do this. I can figure it out. So that’s, that’s just another big challenge where we’re just wired a little bit differently from the guys.
I had a friend in AA who routinely got seasoned DS. His grade point average at the end was probably a C minus. And he got a job and he was very successful, great stone, necessarily correlate to success in life.
[00:18:40] Stephen: And I agree, and I like how you’re trying to tie that in. And it’s, that’s difficult. We’re going to talk more about marketing middle graders.
If you tell them, Hey, I’ve got this great book, that’ll tell you how wonderful math is. I’m sure that doesn’t
[00:18:53] MK: go over. No, and, and I had great reviews with the plot being really fun and exciting [00:19:00] marketing. Did I do enough with the plot and part of it is getting known, but as you said, we’re going to get to the marketing piece later.
[00:19:08] Stephen: So the books, did you traditionally publish them or independently published them cell phone? Did you think about going traditional, trying to go traditional or do you always want to do self publish?
[00:19:22] MK: I had done, oh course with Michael Hyatt, the best you’re ever in goal-setting. And from affiliate marketing, I was getting emails from Chandler bolt and self publishing school.
And Brian Collins become a writer today. So I started off exploring the self publishing route because my, my mother was a journalism major and she tried really hard to write a book about our travels to Europe back when I was like 14. And it was really hard for her. She never managed to get. [00:20:00] And so my impression of traditionally published is if you’re not an experienced author, who’s gonna read your stuff.
And, and how do you even flesh out the idea? So I ended up taking a couple courses that kind of helped me flesh out the basics of story and learn that because I was an, I’ve got three degrees in engineering, mechanical aerospace, and my PhD is materials. So I know a lot about engineering. I do not have the journalism background and storytelling craft background.
So I had to learn that. And what I learned about self publishing is first of all, getting published is a crapshoot in that not all John ROAS or marketing. And traditional publishers. [00:21:00] They, they want books that are going to sell, getting something that was good enough for a first pass. I probably would never gotten off the starting blocks if I tried traditional.
And since I was working with a self publishing group, I found I did the basic steps. I learned about how to get a cover created. I found a good children’s middle-grade book, developmental editor. And my first draft was like horrible. It was like, it was so boring. I didn’t want to do the self editing on it.
So I was still learning about, okay, you can’t have these, you got to have scenes that move the plot. You gotta have more conflict. And my coach once said to me, very kindly Marsha, I think you’re a very nice person, but how to have more conflict. And you got to be mean, or to your character. And it took me a while to figure out how to develop my characters and get more engaging [00:22:00] plot.
I took my time going from first draft, a second draft. I pretty much took another year. I did all the design projects in the book. I made everything. I came up with my challenges and then the second I had some fun things that I thought of to put in the second draft. And my editor was thrilled to see how much.
That draft was it? I think the successful traditionally published authors probably have more of a journalism storytelling, educational background.
[00:22:39] Stephen: Yeah. So I didn’t really even want to, I was more interested in the self publishing because some of the things I wanted to do with it, uh, and I didn’t want to lose that.
[00:22:51] MK: I love the control you have. And as a self-published author, plus I got three books out in 20, 20, 20, [00:23:00] 21 is a crappy year and book one was set to come out before COVID hit. It was scheduled for like the end of March and then COVID hit. And I didn’t know if it wasn’t selling well because of COVID and people just didn’t have jobs and they weren’t buying books.
Or if I just didn’t have the marketing. And once I got my coach really pushed those okay. To be successful fiction writer, you’ve got to have a series and he kept pushing get book to get book three done, to try to get at least four to five books in a series. And, and once I got the first. And I got some good reviews and I was getting good feedback.
I felt a lot better about that. Once I got all three books out it’s pins and needles waiting for those reviews to come in. But once I got those out there and felt like, Hey, those are three pretty solid books. They may not be very [00:24:00] commercially marketable, but I felt, Hey, I’ve got something that I want.
That I’m proud of. And I want to try to pursue it and help market it effectively, which got me into the course. I’m here in speaking and doing podcasts and, you know, okay. Learning social media. And that’s my coach, Ronald. He keeps saying you can’t do everything. And the most important thing as a new writer is you got.
And then as you have time, then you can work on the social media and ad sets found have not been very effective for mental grade marketing. And I’ve had people say as a parent, they’re just not going to buy a book because of an ad. They want it to be recommended to them by a friend or a teacher. You know, the,
[00:24:56] Stephen: yeah, we’ll talk more in marketing for the authors second half.[00:25:00]
So you mentioned. The good reviews you’ve gotten in and getting those awesome. I’m going to ask some more about that later. So you have gotten these books out, you’ve got four of them out. Is that correct?
[00:25:13] MK: I’ve got three out and finishing books currently. I’m targeting a late March release for books for.
[00:25:21] Stephen: great. And what’s that one called? I’m sorry. I missed
[00:25:24] MK: that. That’s the sea turtle. And that’s the one where I came up with an actual prototype that helped to save baby sea turtle lives this summer on Hilton head. And they’re planning to expand the use next year. I’m going to make more of the screens and it was successful in shielding nest that didn’t have natural dunes protection to help the baby see the light, reflecting off the ocean.
Turning inland towards the artificial lights of the hotels and houses on the [00:26:00] beach.
[00:26:01] Stephen: So the feedback, has it been from parents or from kids, or do you have a mixture of both?
[00:26:07] MK: Hang on a mixture of both. I’m more likely to hear from parents and especially friends or especially friends. Kids are just a whole lot more shy, so I’ll get you.
From somebody who bought my book for their kid or their grandkid or their niece or nephew and say, okay, here’s a picture of Kayden and he’s reading the book and that he’s really engrossed in it. He’s really enjoying it. And occasionally I get feedback, oh, my daughter just absolutely loved this book. Or my granddaughter loved this book and we’re doing the project and she’s just so excited about it.
And I just had some. Wrote me a nice note with an acquaintance. I exchange Christmas cards with us. What was two pages handwritten about how fantastic my book was, [00:27:00] how it’s so close to what her her children’s doing. And just some of the things that were her granddaughters, painting rocks and raised a thousand dollars and all these coincidences that she’s seen between.
My book plot in their lives and how much she’s really enjoying it. So when you get one of those, it’s like you’re dancing and celebrating. It’s like, oh, that made my week. That made my month.
[00:27:32] Stephen: Nice. That’s always good to hear. And not enough people realize how important it is to. Led an author know you like their book have a thousand people.
If you get 10, you’re lucky and you feel good. It’s one of those little things I try and mention podcast
[00:27:51] MK: and reviews are even more important because that’s the social proof for so many to consider buying a book. And they [00:28:00] say if your 15 year old K and I’ve had somebody else say. Once you get the 50, it starts becoming organic and people are more likely to leave reviews and getting to that first 50 is challenging.
[00:28:14] Stephen: So you mentioned you had some reviews. What did you do to get some of
[00:28:17] MK: those? One of the things that we’re taught with self publishing school is to build a launch team. So to ask friends and family or people who are interested in your genre or interest in your book, An early read at a pre-release copy and then buy it once it’s live and be ready with a review so that you can start getting reviews that first day.
And of course the most valuable reviews are those that are actual purchases because they’re validated, but even a, an unvalidated review, like from the U S still counts. If somebody doesn’t end valid dated review in England and only shows up on the [00:29:00] UK. Doesn’t transfer to the U S key strategy is to get your launch team, let them know what’s coming and really try to engage them and get them to read the book, leave an honest review, and that can help build some momentum with the Amazon algorithm.
[00:29:22] Stephen: A slightly different question here, Marsha. The stories, the books, would you, if you had a chance, would you rather see them turned into a TV show or a movie?
[00:29:33] MK: I think the TV show is more accessible. I think movies that’s really high expectations and a TV show can be a little bit more everyday life and okay.
Here’s the first, here’s the first session. Here’s the next session. And I think. Especially middle grades to keep their attention and keep them engaged. I’d rather [00:30:00] see more serialized segments so that they want to come back next week and learn more and see what’s going on next and continue to grow and get to know the character.
[00:30:10] Stephen: Okay. And I agree with that. I think a lot of people think that, and I think it’s different now than it was years ago. I’m not sure how.
[00:30:20] MK: The way I watch TV is so totally different. Growing up. I used to watch, I look at what NBC and CBS and ABC had, and I’d pick my favorite shows and I try to catch them each week and I don’t watch TV that way anymore. I find the series and maybe I’ll watch it on Amazon prime or oral. I’ll even buy one of my favorite series from the past.
[00:30:47] Stephen: Yes. Yeah. I think a lot of people do that now. Way different than it was when we were younger. So Marsha, where can people, the iPad series of books it’s
[00:30:58] MK: available [00:31:00] in electronic paperback and hard copy format through Amazon, you can also order like Barnes and Nobles. I’ve got hard cover available through Ingram.
So book sellers can get it and libraries can get it through Ingram spark, but it’s a special order. So there, it’s not really stocked in stores. So if I start really getting, getting home, run with book four and start getting more demand, maybe I can get it into, um, more stores. But at this point it’s most readily available through Amazon for the average person.
[00:31:39] Stephen: And do you have a website?
[00:31:43] MK: My website is Putney designs.com and I have the stem experiments on the website, which compliment the book. And there’s a pen, a blog. There’s also a book page. And if you go to the books menu, [00:32:00] it’s got all, actually it’s got all four books, so it’s got the cover of book four and.
Coming later this year, but it’s got links to the first three books. That’ll take you directly to Amazon.
[00:32:13] Stephen: Okay, good. And so let me ask you this for yourself. Do you have any, it doesn’t have to be middle-grade but do you have any favorite books and authors that you like to read?
[00:32:30] MK: Jane Austin is one of my favorite authors and I only discovered her relatively late in life. Sarah would burry is an independent author who has this amazing after kill Mary series. It’s about going back in time and changing history for the better. And it’s just really cool. And she does a lot of other medieval mysteries.
Stephen K. Smith is one of my favorite. Um, middle-grade off. He writes the Virginia [00:33:00] mysteries, which is like national treasure for middle grade kids. So he’s my idol for a successful in the middle grade author that he’s got fun action oriented cliffhanger, adventurous plots. And he weaves in some of the history in all these cool sites in Virginia.
And those that inspire the plot. So he gives you this little taste of history with a really fun adventure and Agatha Christie, and I’ve got other mystery. So Susan Boyer, and I’m trying to think they’re just some fun. Oh, Catana de Leon, the misfortune series. Who’s like an ex CIA assassin who goes to. This place in simple Louisiana to hide out and eventually creates a new [00:34:00] life there and becomes a pie.
So there, and those books have action, adventure, mystery, and humor. There’s F out loud moments in those.
[00:34:11] Stephen: What about in Cincinnati where you live? Do you have any favorite bookstores close by?
[00:34:17] MK: I do most of my reading through. Yeah, but the borders used to be a favorite. They’ve gone out of business. So Barnes and noble is really the local bookstore for me.
Although half price books can be a cool place to browse because you can find some really interesting books for low prices. And I found some really cool finds at half price books.
[00:34:41] Stephen: Okay. All right, Marshall, before we go onto some authors stuff for the second half, give, tell readers, hopefully some. What would be the reason you would tell them that they should buy your books?
[00:34:56] MK: If you want to inspire your [00:35:00] kids to be creative, become problem solvers, heal confidence, try something new, maybe consider a stem field. My books will introduce them to stem and problem solving and design in a. And it will show them some ways to tackle challenges and build their self-confidence and resilience.
And one of my real goals has been to get kids to do their own thing, to create and design, and I try to model that through story.
[00:35:40] Stephen: Okay, great. Thank you for talking to us today and telling us about your books.
[00:35:45] MK: Thanks for having me on your podcast.