Monday, March 14, 2011

How I Got Hooked on Writing YA

“Historical fiction set in America doesn’t sell.”
This is what we kept hearing.  It was the Historical Novel Society conference in Albany, New York, and this is what every editor was telling me.  My first novel, an American historical, had failed to sell the previous year, and I was pitching a half-finished novel set in 1830’s Nantucket.  While editors liked the concept of the book, they said American historicals just don’t do well.  Americans like to read about European history - the Tudors, medieval France, Renaissance Italy - but not about their own history.  (This is true for fiction.  Americans love US History non-fiction.)
My agent Irene was also attending the conference.  She and I sat down in the lovely courtyard of the hotel where the conference was being held and had a long conversation.  “You’re so close to being published,” she said.  “Why do you want to give yourself another hurdle to get over towards that goal?  Write about Europe.”
I love European history.  I always loved it more than American history in school.  When I was writing my first novel, I tried to send my characters to Europe.  I really tried.  They just wouldn’t do it.  So I set the novel in early America, in the days when the country bordered the Atlantic Ocean and was just finding its footing in the world.  And in the process I fell in love with American history.  Now I couldn’t imagine writing about anything else.
But, I wanted to be published, so I started to look for ideas for a novel set in Europe.  One day I fell down the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia and found a page on European witch hunts - a subject that has always fascinated me.  On that page was a link to something called Benandanti.  I followed it.
And WINTER FALLS was born.
One of the other comments we got from editors about my first novel was that it felt like YA.  I hadn’t written it as YA, but the two main characters were young women and it was a bit of a coming-of-age story.  We did submit it to YA publishers but it still didn’t sell (see American historical = hard sell above). 
This was just at the burgeoning boom of YA.  Harry Potter was sweeping the bestseller list, but Twilight was barely a blip on the radar.  Irene encouraged me to go in the YA direction.  I had tried with my second novel, the Nantucket one, but the voice that came out of that main character was wiser and a little world-weary.  Then I found the Wikipedia page about the Benandanti.
When I first started writing WINTER FALLS, it was set in 16th century Italy.  (Talk about a hard sell!)  But the voice that came out on the page was young, naive…definitely YA.  After several months, I could tell something just wasn’t working.  In a conversation with my husband about it, I said off the cuff, “Maybe it just doesn’t need to be set in the 16th century.”
Once I started writing in a contemporary YA voice, I knew I had come home.
Supernatural and Fantasy YA was the genre I came of age with, reading Jane Yolen, Lois Duncan and Tamora Pierce.  I don’t think anyone else in my middle school ever read Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series while I was there because I always had it checked out.  My stepmother finally took pity on me and bought me the series - first edition hardcovers - for my Sweet Sixteen.
Maybe it’s because those years were so tumultuous for me that I can settle into that voice so easily.  Maybe I never really grew up.  Maybe it’s because that even though I love Victor Hugo and Jane Austen and Tolstoy whenever I pick up a YA book I feel like I’ve returned to an old friend.  Who knows the reason?
Someday I might return to historicals, but for now, YA is where I belong.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How I Met My Agent

I started writing towards publication sometime around 1999-2000. I had always written when I was younger - poems, short stories, even a romance novel when I was in high school. (It took up two notebooks. I still have it. It will never see the light of day.) But then I decided to be an actor (because, you know, writing is just such a difficult career to break into) and focused on that throughout college and in my first few years post-graduation.
I think I returned to writing to fill the creative void that I felt in between shows. To be an actor, someone has to give you permission to act. You have to audition and win the job before you can even begin the creative process. But to be a writer, you just have to show up to the page. The only person who has to give you permission to write is yourself. Yes, someone has to give you permission to be published (unless you self-publish, which is a whole ‘nother subject I’m not covering on this blog). But the actual act of writing - that’s all you.
So in those early days of finding my way back into writing, I wrote what I’d been reading: historical fiction. I love historical fiction. And I love writing historical fiction. I love the research and the mental time travel involved. So it was natural that I would gravitate towards that genre.
My first novel is an epic American historical that is like a female Huck Finn. You can read more about it HERE. It wasn’t good enough to get published but it was good enough to get me an agent. And here’s how that happened.
I met my agent, Irene Goodman, through a conference. I believe that conferences are, hands-down, the best way to find an agent. Yes, they can be expensive, but if you are truly serious about being published, they are a worthwhile investment.
In Spring 2005 I signed up to attend the Historical Novel Society’s first North American conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the sign-up packet was a sheet to fill out if you wanted to get a pitch appointment with an agent (Irene). Basically, you had to pitch your book on the sheet and Irene would decide from that whether or not she wanted to hear about the book in person.
I filled out the sheet, using the “back cover blurb” pitch I had formulated in Mary Buckham’s online Query & Synopsis class. (Mary’s an awesome writing teacher whose classes I highly recommend. Visit her website for more information.) I sent the packet off, thinking I’d find out whether or not I landed an appointment when I got to the conference.
A couple of weeks later, I got an email from Irene. She wanted the first three chapters and a synopsis. This was about a month before the actual conference. I sent those off to her, again thinking I’d hear back from her at the conference.
About a week later, I got a request for the full manuscript.
There was a problem. THE MANUSCRIPT WASN’T FINISHED. Yes, I had pitched an incomplete novel which is kind of a no-no but everyone does it anyway. I had half a manuscript of good stuff and half a manuscript of utter mess. And when I say utter mess, I mean it. I literally had fragments of scenes with bracketed notes like “[major moment with love interest].” But I had a request from an agent! I couldn’t ignore it!
Luckily for me, Irene was going on vacation, so I had about a week to whip the manuscript into shape. It wasn’t enough time. I got an email from her the day she got back from vacation asking where the manuscript was. At that point, I had to ‘fess up. I told her I had 250 pages I could send her while I was “tweaking” the rest. She said fine, send the 250 pages, which I did.
Two days later, she called and told me she wanted to represent me. This was all BEFORE the actual conference that had brought us together!
We met in person for the first time at the conference in Salt Lake City. She’s been my agent now for almost six years - through one rejected book, one abandoned manuscript, one major genre change and finally a sale. She was the second agent I ever queried. The first I had also met at a conference. He rejected it - good thing, too, because it REALLY wasn’t finished at that point.
I realize that this may be an atypical road to representation and that those writers out there who have gone through hundreds of queries probably want to throw tomatoes at me. Everyone’s journey is different. And while my journey to my agent was a relatively easy path, my road to the Call has not been.
If it wasn’t for that conference, landing an agent would probably have been a much harder path. So I’ll say it again - conferences are the best way to find an agent. Meeting them face-to-face gets you off the slush pile, which can help you immensely. It also helps you narrow down whether an agent is right for you or not; maybe on paper they seem like the dream agent, but in person they’re totally wrong for you.
So save up your money and attend a conference. It just might be the start of a beautiful friendship (with an agent).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Purpose of this Blog

It finally happens.  That long-awaited Call from your agent, making your dream come true.  You have a book contract.
You pop champagne, you celebrate with your significant other, your critique group, your friends, your family, your pets, your dentist, the guy on the treadmill next to you, strangers you meet in the grocery store, the homeless guy on the corner, the tollbooth attendant, and just about everyone and their mother, father, sister, brother, cousin and dog.
The dust settles and you trudge back into your office, turn on your computer and sit down.  Now what?
This blog endeavors to answer that question.  What happens between getting the Call and seeing your Book on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble?
Well, a whole lot happens.  And I’m in the middle of it right now.
I got the call on May 21st, 2010.  My debut novel, SHIFT, is due to be released Summer 2012 by HarperTeen.  That’s two whole years between the Call and the Book, and they’re not spent twiddling thumbs.  There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes action.  The purpose of this blog is to cover that action.
Maybe you’re in the middle of it too.  Maybe you’re hoping to be in the middle of it soon.  Or maybe you went through the middle of it already and want to relive it.  (And if so, please feel free to share your experience or post some advice in the Comments!)  Whatever stage you’re at, I hope this blog will be helpful, or at least a fun read.
My first few entries will cover my road to the Call.  Then I’ll discuss the editorial process.  As I progress towards that looming TBA release date, you’ll hear about it.  And in between, maybe we’ll chat about the process of writing, too.
So turn UP the ringer on your phone, because when the Call comes, you want to be ready.