Tags: dystopian, interview, Life as We Knew it, Susan Beth Pfeffer, The Dead and the Gone, This World We Live In, YA science fiction
YA science fiction – especially speculative &/or dystopian stuff, seems to be a rising market at the moment. And today, we have an interview with a pretty cool YA author who’s been writing some sci fi lately. You may have heard of her – she’s the author of Life As We Knew It, The Dead and the Gone, and coming soon, This World We Live In. So without further ado, presenting: Susan Beth Pfeffer!
Let’s start off with something fun. Your latest book, This World We Live In, is coming out soon. Summarize the book in twenty words – while tossing in as many alliterations as possible.
Lonely life. Laughter lingers. Longing looks. Loathing loses. Lust. Lying. Love lasts.
Very impressive – every single word! The Moon books seem to contain an element of speculative science fiction. Why this particular hypothetical future? How did these concepts come about?
I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that the moon controls the tides. And I wanted a worldwide disaster that wasn’t the fault of human beings (as so many things are) or something humans could change (since my main character was a teenage girl, and unlikely to save humanity). I also favored what I called a rolling disaster, one bad thing leading to another and another.
So I nudged the moon a bit closer to earth and tried to figure out just how bad that could make things. I have a basic sense of gravity, and I figured the moon’s gravitational pull could cause all kinds of miseries.
Which, thanks to me, it did.
Definitely original! Life as We Knew It, The Dead and the Gone, This World We Live In – all rather eloquently phrased titles. How did they come about?
My editor, or someone at the publishing house, named Life As We Knew It. My working title had been In The Sunroom.
Once I came up with the concept for The Dead and The Gone, I knew that would be its title. I zipped on over to Amazon to see if there were any other books with that title, and while there were a number of Dead And Gone(s), there weren’t any The Dead And The Gone, so I figured I was safe.
When I was trying to come up with the title for the third book, someone commented on my blog that the first two were five single syllable word titles. So I played around with various combinations until I came up with This World We Live In. Amazon didn’t show any serious conflicts, so that became my choice.
That’s smart, checking titles on Amazon first. Now, you’ve accumulated quite an impressive list of publications over the years. Is there one particular book you enjoyed writing more than the others?
I had a wonderful time writing all three moon books. I love the set up and the characters. When I wrote LAWKI it didn’t have chapters, and I think when I wrote d&g, I was reminded to put chapters in. Even with TW, the chapters were an organizing ex post facto addition.
I love writing books without chapters. There’s something liberating about not having to deal with that structure.
I wrote a book a long time ago called Courage, Dana, for younger readers. I remember really enjoying writing it. A tiny section of it is used on standardized reading tests, so I still make a little bit of money from it.
That’s really cool that it’s used for testing! If you could meet any character from any of your books, who would you chill with for a day? What would you guys do?
I introduce a new character named Charlie in This World We Live In. He’s your basic all purpose nice guy, and I think I’d enjoy spending time with him.
Since I mostly write for kids, I mostly write about kids. In real life, I tend to hang out with grownups. So I think Charlie would be the one I’d have the best time with.
I have no idea what we’d do though, since I only know him after the world has come to an end. That cuts down considerably on possible activities.
Haha, that probably would. If the apocalypse were coming tomorrow and you could only choose three books (in the entire world) to keep safe and bring into the “New World”, which ones would you pick?
Agee On Film by James Agee.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
Church, State, and Freedom by Leo Pfeffer (my father)
Words of wisdom – what do you do when the muse has gone on vacation?
I go on vacation also.
I do a lot of pre-writing, so I always have some comfort level about what I’m going to be writing from one day to the next.
If I wake up in the morning with a big I Don’t Wanna, I simply give myself the day off.
It doesn’t happen often, but I respect it when it does.
I try to clean my home before I begin a book, have things all nice and tidy at least at the getgo.
And generally, I don’t read fiction when I’m writing.
Beyond that, I pretty much keep to my regular routines.
Outline first or writing on the fly?
Outline, outline, outline.
For the most part, I don’t outline on paper. But before I begin writing a book, I do an enormous amount of thinking about it. And when I’m writing, I focus on what’s going to happen.
There’s no right way or wrong way, and in the end it probably takes the same amount of time as it would if I sat down and improvised.
But my favorite part of writing is working the story out, and I always wait until I’m comfortable with the beginning, have a very strong sense of where the story is going to end, and am reasonably confident I know the middle, before beginning the actual writing.
More great advice! Really on a roll here. (And from peachiemkey of TWFT): What’s one hard truth you’ve had to learn about writing?
That just because I think something is wonderful doesn’t mean anyone else will.
I am my own biggest fan. I write the stories I would most enjoy reading. My primary goal in writing is to entertain myself.
Alas, not everyone else on earth has my exact taste.
Anything else to add?
Just that I’m very glad the world isn’t anything like the one I created in my moon books and that I don’t have to hang out with imaginary characters!
TWFT recently got a chance to interview Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why. What a treat!
TWFT Summarize Thirteen Reasons Why in ten words or less.
Hannah committed suicide. Clay listens to her recorded reasons why.
TWFT Who is your favorite character from Thirteen Reasons Why?
Tony. When I wrote the scene where Clay “borrows” Tony’s Walkman, I didn’t have any plans for bringing Tony back later in the book. But there was something about the guy which I immediately liked, and people who read that scene early on also liked him. He turned out to be a very important character later in the book and I loved writing every scene he appears in. I could probably write a whole book about him!
TWFT When did you first start writing?
I’ve enjoyed writing ever since I learned how to spell. Regarding writing as a career, I wanted to write and illustrate my own comic strip for years. If I could draw better, that would still be my fantasy job. It wasn’t until my first year in college that I began writing children’s book in the hopes of one day getting published. For about the next nine years, I only wrote funny books for younger children. Thirteen Reasons Why was the first serious novel I attempted, and also the first book I wrote for teens.
TWFT Thirteen Reasons Why is quite a sad (but totally amazing) novel. Are any of the events that take place based on real life situations that you have experienced?
The scene in the Peer Communications class with the paperbags happened in my high school Peer Communications class almost exactly as it appears in the book. We never found out who wrote that note, but obviously the class reaction left a big impact on me. And when Clay first meets Hannah at the party, when he tries to tie his shoelace but his fingers are too cold, that happened to me at a party when I was introduced to the first girl I ever went on a date with.
TWFT Tell us about your querying process and road to publication.
From the time I first began submitting manuscripts to publishers back in 1994 to when Thirteen Reasons Why sold, twelve years had passed. So this can definitely be a game of perseverance, as well as being willing to try different styles until you find your natural voice. When my agent sent out this manuscript, it got rejected many times before it sold.
TWFT Thirteen Reasons Why is a very serious novel. Is there a message in the novel that you want readers to grasp?
As Hannah says, you never know what’s going on in anyone’s life but your own. Someone who looks like they have it all together may actually be going through quite a lot. And everyone handles life’s pressures differently. While Hannah herself is not without fault, it still all comes down to the Golden Rule. So that’s the main thing I was trying to say. Always treat people with respect because you never know what else they’re dealing with. As well, I want people who are hurting to realize how important it is for them to honestly reach out for help.
TWFT What was your inspiration for Thirteen Reasons Why?
I had a close relative attempt suicide when she was the same age as Hannah. Through talking with her over the years, I began to understand how someone could get to that place where they completely lose hope of things getting better. Around that same time, I took an audiotour and immediately thought that dual-narrative structure could be very powerful if paired with the right story. It wasn’t until nine years later that the issue of suicide matched up with the structure.
TWFT Can you describe yourself as a teen in high school?
I was normally shy. But when I got comfortable around certain groups of people, then I could be very outgoing. I worked on the newspaper staff, but I was horrible and got out as soon as I could. I played in a bunch of garage bands, playing guitar and singing, and I thought I was much better than I actually was. I only really dated one girl in high school, and that relationship lasted two years. I didn’t hate my teen years in any way, but I still wouldn’t want to redo them. Those years were rather…blah.
TWFT If you could have dinner with one author, alive or dead, who would it be?
Stephen King. Without a doubt. And since he’s alive, there’s always a chance!
TWFT Do you have any tips for aspiring young writers?
Join a critique group where everyone gives each other honest suggestions for improvements as well as points out everyone’s strengths. If you can find a group of writers like that, your writing will improve tremendously.
TWFT Are you currently working on another novel?
TWFT Lastly, a TWFT tradition, what is your favorite flavor of jellybean?
Buttered popcorn. It’s not that I can eat a ton of them…but they’re so fun to share!
Thanks for your time Jay! The last one made me crack up…
It was a beautiful day in Twifty land, as some of us (uh, Race) experienced a light snowfall, Christmas music, baking, gift wrapping… and an awesome interview with an awesome author. The writer in us could not ask for more for Christmas. That is, unless the “more” was a guest post from the same awesome author.
That is right. The incredible Steph Bowe has granted TWFT a fantastic interview today. And soon she’ll be penning a guest post on what Race believes should be a fabulous probe into the publishing industry as applies to teen writers!
Visit her at www.heyteenager.blogspot.com and enjoy the interview!
TWFT: Describe your novel in a single sentence?
SB: When Jewel saves Sacha’s life, they are both forced to confront pasts they’ve so carefully concealed – a lost brother, an empty space where a mother should be, a debilitating illness, fractured families and buried secrets.
TWFT: Do you usually try to follow an outline? Any process you normally go through?
SB: I don’t follow an outline, I just write the novel without a plan, start to finish. It works pretty well for me, though there are a lot of things that have to be cleaned up in editing (stuff like character-arcs and getting rid of pointless scenes, which are things I might have avoided had I outlined).
TWFT: Do you consider yourself a writer or a story teller?
SB: I don’t really consider myself either (I just love to write). I do tell stories, but I think that’s what a writer does, anyway.
TWFT: Do you write what you know?
SB: I do, and I don’t. I think it’s the same for a lot of writers. I write the emotions that I know well, but I don’t write my own experiences. Writing allows me to explore things I haven’t experienced first hand, but also be introspective at the same time.
TWFT: How do you discover your characters? Or do they discover you?
SB: A bit of both. Sometimes I start with a name, sometimes with a trait (garden gnome thief, science genius), sometimes the whole character appears fully-formed in my head, with a story they deman be written. It really does vary from character to character, though they always come easily.
TWFT: Did you have a soundtrack for your novel, or any particular type of music you listened to while writing?
SB: Yes! I have a soundtrack for all my major writing projects. My soundtrack for the last novel was made up of songs by The Killers, Kings Of Leon, Regina Spektor, the Kinks and Aussie band Augie March (look up One Crowded Hour on YouTube – brilliant song).
TWFT: What first inspired you to become a writer? Career-wise, did you always want to be an author?
SB: Ever since I was very small I have loved writing, and since I was about seven, I’ve aspired to sell a book so that I could buy my family a house. This has not yet happened, but it will! Someday!
TWFT: Favorite novel or writer? Why?
SB: Can’t pick one! My favorite writers are John Green, Sarah Dessen and Melina Marchetta, and my favorite book right now is a tie between Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.
TWFT: Now, I know you have a the guest post coming up (We’re so excited!), and you will be discussing the industry and teens. But, in general, if you had a few words on your experiences with querying for the first time? Any advice for our readers?
SB: My experience of querying was very quick, but still incredibly stressful. My advice to writers querying for the first time is that they should try and keep a good sense of humor through the entire process, and not automatically accept if one agent offers (it’s a big decision, there’s no rush, and if one agent offers and there are others still reading fulls, you might get another offer).
TWFT: What annoys you about the perception of teen writers?
SB: That we can’t actually write and only get published because of the novelty of our age. The reality is that age is irrelevant: it’s all about your book. Don’t let the meanies get you down.
And TWFT’s official interview question – What is your favorite flavor of jelly bean?
SB: Buttered popcorn!
Now, you have to admit to the awesome.
Recently I got the opportunity to interview Lisa Mantchev, whose AMAZING YA fantasy, EYES LIKE STARS, came out a few months ago. I thought I’d share our short conversation with you guys. :)
KB: Describe your novel in twenty words or less.
LM: Beatrice Shakespeare Smith lives in a magical theater with all the characters from every play ever written.
KB: Where did you get the idea for EYES LIKE STARS?
LM: ELS started life as a short story entitled “All Her World’s A Stage” and THAT started with Bertie’s full name… it just popped into my head one day as I was writing something else entirely.
KB: It’s a GREAT name. :) Do you usually try to follow an outline or are you a “pantser”?
LM: A little of both… I outline, and then wander all over the place as I work through a first draft. Some of my favorite scenes were never part of “the plan”… like the Tango Scene. That was inspired by a season past of So You Think You Can Dance, something I was watching in the evenings to decompress after a day of putting down new words.
KB: Haha, awesome! (That was one of my favorite scenes, actually.) There are so many fun, quirky characters in ESL – I particularly love Ophelia and her obsession with drowning. :) Did you set out to create this cast or did they kind of tackle you and demand to be in your book? (Maybe that’s just me…)
LM: The Players just showed up… the fairies, Ophelia, and Ariel all arrived as-is, with their personality quirks and in full costume, ready to go. Nate turned up in a revision, when the Sea Goddess/scrimshaw plotline was added in.
KB: I am SO glad Nate found his way into the cast. *hugs Nate* Can you tell us the story of that first call from both your agent and editor?
LM: Would it be bad to admit it’s been so long that I can only remember bits and pieces of those calls? I remember my pulse thudding in my ears, and taking lots of notes, and trying to not sound like a raving idiot (which I might have managed… I’ve blocked that part of it out!) I remember asking Jean Feiwel what her favorite scene was, and she liked the Tango Scene the best (hooray!) The thing that clinched it for my agent was the musical number “What Will Become Of Us,” which was originally a little bit longer with even more bad poetry. *L*
KB: Do you listen to music while you write?
LM: Depends on the day… some days I need absolute quite to get words down, other days I’m listening to everything from techno dance music to the soundtracks to Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo. I have friends that will verify that I have Really Awful taste in pop music. ;)
KB: Oh, so do I. *wince* Can you give us a teensy weensy summary of PERCHANCE TO DREAM, or is it very tightly under wraps right now? (The fangirl in me hopes for a small peek…)
LM: Anything I could say about Perchance To Dream is a spoiler for Eyes Like Stars, so I’m waiting for the Official Book Jacket Copy to share anything about book 2. Sorry!!
KB: Dang it. *pouts* Oh well. I guess I can wait for next year. :D Last but not least – what is your favorite flavor of jelly bean?
LM: Tangerine Jelly Bellies. My mom always put those in my Easter basket (mixed with Lemon and Lemon-Lime… that combination always makes me think of springtime.)
Thanks again for the interview, Lisa, and for your awesome book!!!
Learn more about Lisa and the players of the Theatre Illuminata at www.theatre-illuminata.com
For some strange reason, blogging about getting an agent is much harder than just talking about it. I think I have this idea that when I blog I must sound professional – whereas when I’m gushing in real life I can say something along the lines of, “OHMYGOSH she is so cool and I’m signing the contract right now and it’s freaking got my name on it and HOLY COW she’s got some really cool ideas for revisions and I just finished them and we’re doing one more round of edits and then I think we’re going to be submitting to editors EEK!!!”
I fail at professionalism.
*takes a deep breath*
I got my first offer of representation on July 16, while I was vacationing with my family in North Carolina. A week and a half later, I had three offers from three fabulous agents – which was quite possibly the most surreal experience on the planet. However, I really felt an instant connection with Michelle, who was funny and friendly and had a vision for the book that blew my mind. So, on July 27, I officially signed with Michelle Andelman at Lynn Franklin Associates.
And that, my friends, is the short version of that story.
To get the long version, you’d have to sift through two years’ worth of journal entries; many a six a.m. writing session; and several hysterical conversations with friends in which I repeated over and over, “I SUCK! I SUCK!” You would have to flip through two writing notebooks full of character charts and plot notes, many half-finished novels, and more than one terrifying moment when I thought, “Maybe it’s true – maybe I can’t do it.”
You want the truth? You want the whole story? I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I could finish a book, or write something I was proud of, or get an agent. And even now that I have an agent who’s taking a chance on my work, there are still a lot of things I don’t know.
There is nothing wrong with not knowing. Nothing wrong with saying, “I’m not sure I like this. Maybe I don’t want to be a professional writer. I still haven’t decided yet. I don’t know if this is the genre for me…”
But there is something terribly, devastatingly wrong with telling yourself “There’s no way in hell.”
Your first book may not be published. Or even your second book. Or your third. Or your fourth. But I’m one of those annoyingly optimistic people who believes that there’s a way. There is always a way.
Feel free to question. Feel free to change your mind. But don’t ever, ever give up.
And good luck. :)
Query letter for CITY OF SHADOWS:
In a society that breeds perfect people, seventeen-year-old Dax is defective. In other words, he’s illegal, and his life depends on his ability to be invisible. But Dax has heard rumors of a place where “defects” aren’t killed for their freckles, mismatched eyes, or mental disabilities.
They call it the Promised Land.
Serenity Faire’s family calls it dangerous – a threat to national security. That’s why they allow Dax to live when he is caught stealing, forcing him instead to help them find this city that has eluded the government for centuries. Their search leads them through the tunnels of Washington D.C.’s abandoned subways, into the heart of an America that was lost years ago. But in this forgotten world, Dax and Serenity uncover their own secret – a romance even more illegal than Dax’s freckles. Their relationship has consequences that echo through the White House, drawing the attention of the oppressive ruling family and threatening both their friends and family in the city and the Promised Land. Because the only thing worse than a defect who is allowed to live is a defect who is allowed to love.
CITY OF SHADOWS is a dystopian YA with the gritty urban feel of Neal Shusterman’s UNWIND and the forbidden romance of a futuristic ROMEO & JULIET. It is complete at 82,000 words.
(Bio/ contact info)
Imagine four years.
Four years, two suicides, one death, one rape, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars–every day, a turf war–six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.
So begins the recently released YA novel, Cracked Up to Be. It’s a truly wild ride written by one truly wild, not to mention awesome, author. That author is Courtney Summers, and TWFT has snagged an interview with her, so sit back and enjoy…
Hey Courtney! Cracked Up to Be, your debut novel, has gotten some rave reviews and lots of positive attention since its release in December. Eight months after the fact, what insights have you gained on “The Published Life”?
The more I do this, the more I learn (over and over again) that it takes a village to get a book published. It constantly amazes me how many (fantastic, passionate!) people are involved in the process and how hard they work to make the final product absolutely perfect. Every decision is made toward that goal and it defines the way you listen and the way you ask your own questions. Also, publishing works on its own time. Patience is a virtue, both before and after the sale of a book. (Has it been eight months already?! Aaah!)
Okay, it’s more like seven months – I rounded up, so relax… for now! After all that exposure to the publishing world, do you still remember your querying days? What happened on your road to agentdom?
PHEW! Seven months I can deal with! But eight–that’s just crazy. ;) I do remember my querying days. I haven’t deleted a single query I’ve sent from my inbox, actually. My road to agentdom was fairly standard. I wrote the books, I polished the books, I wrote queries for those books and targeted my submissions to agents VERY carefully. Research is essential for querying. The amazing Amy Tipton of FinePrint Literary Management read the query, requested the full and shortly thereafter offered representation and we’ve been happily working together ever since!
Sounds like a happy ending! The book features Parker Fadley, a high school senior who’s gone through some seriously traumatic stuff… and whose happy ending is not so assured. How did you go about developing such a complicated character?
Once I knew what Parker’s problem was, I had her voice. She was very clear to me. And because so much of her attitude is defined by her responses to other characters and the situations around her, my approach was to write her out and see what happened, let her develop with the story. I got some pleasant surprises by doing this–I didn’t pre-plan the finger-snapping, for example. It just happened!
Are there any similarities between yourself and Parker? Finger-snapping, or maybe compulsive hair-combing?
I think Parker and I have the same need for perfection. We are hard on ourselves and sometimes it gets the better of us. But luckily (!), it hasn’t gotten the better of me in quite the same way it got the better of her…!
Good to hear, good to hear. Your second novel, Some Girls Are, is due out in January of next year. Are you more or less excited than you were for the release of your first book? More or less nervous?
I am as excited about the impending release of Some Girls Are, but much more nervous than I was for the release of Cracked Up to Be, which is something I never would have thought possible. Second books are scary; you’ve shaped reader expectations with your first novel and you hope that what you put out next lives up to those expectations. At the same time, you also hope the book is allowed to stand on its own. It’s nervewracking!
Cracked Up to Be utilizes a writing style I haven’t seen before in the YA genre – I’d almost call it “punk minimalism.” (Okay, skip the punk thing, it’s just really cool.) How much of that is Parker’s voice, and how much is simply your personal style? Can readers expect something similar in Some Girls Are?
Thank you so much! That’s definitely my style. I’ve always really, really loved being economical with words. Some Girls Are is similarly spare/minimalist in style, but I feel the voices in each novel are distinctly their own. Where Parker had a biting running commentary going on and avoided her pain by being a total bitch to everyone, Regina (the main character in Some Girls Are) is much angrier and more questioning–she’s a different kind of wounded.
Right now you’re working on your third book, the plot details for which you have kept pretty secret. (I’m all right with that, really. Really.) What has been your hardest challenge in writing this particular novel?
I think the challenge of writing this particular book is that it doesn’t want to be written! And so I am trying to honour its wishes for me to LEAVE IT ALONE and am putting it away for a while and moving onto another idea. I’m simultaneously resentful and excited about this. Resentful because all that time put in, all those pages… it’s hard to let go! Sigh. But excited because I can’t wait to see what challenges the New Book 3 holds. And hopefully the Old Book 3 will become Book 4, because it is a story I’d really like to tell.
Oh wow! I can’t imagine putting all that work aside, but I’m totally sure it will turn out for the better. Did you receive any pressure from your agent or others to finish through with Old Book 3? I’m curious about what stress, if any, new authors are put through to establish their “name” by releasing books quickly.
The only pressure that is put on me is the pressure I put on myself. My agent is incredibly supportive of what I do, and the ideas I pursue. Because book three is not contracted I have the freedom and time to play around with ideas until one sticks and that’s very fun. When you write a book, you make a big commitment to it. It’s not just a one-off. You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time and a lot of work on it. It’s an investment. It is basically a relationship. And no one would ever encourage me to stay in a relationship that didn’t make me happy. :)
(Note: As of Courtney’s recent blog post, Book 3 has been given another chance. You write that thing, girl!)
Has novel writing in general gotten easier as you go along?
I wish! Oh, HOW I wish. Every novel has easy moments, but writing novels is consistently hard. And never hard the same way twice. Or maybe that’s just me… I hope it’s not just me.
What’s your number-one piece of advice to give to aspiring writers?
To just do it and to not let ANYONE talk you out of it. Writing is hard and painful but also wonderful and rewarding. It’s also one of those pursuits that has absolutely no guarantee. When you plan to do something that requires a lot of work and zero guarantees, the first thing other people will do is attempt to talk you out of it. These people generally mean well, but… don’t listen to them. Because life is short and you should be happy. And if writing is what makes you happy, you have to try it. Go straight at it.
If you met up with your sixteen-year-old self right now, what would you say to her? What would she say to you? (Ignoring any possibility of rips in the space-time continuum.)
I have a hard time with these types of questions because–whether or not this is actually the case–I feel like they sort of speak to regret and I generally don’t like doing that. If I told you my answer would be, “Start planning for the zombie apocalypse now!” That probably wouldn’t seem serious enough (although it is very sage!), but if I tried for profound, I’d likely fail. I honestly think I’d just say hello to her, and maybe she would say it back. And then I would stand aside and let her make every single mistake that I know she’s going to make because those mistakes define who I am today, and those mistakes helped me learn and they helped me to grow as a person. And I know my sixteen-year-old self makes it out okay. Mostly all of us do. :)
Your blog has been recognized as one of the quirkiest in the YA blogosphere. Do you think YA authors have a duty to blog, considering their readers? How important is blogging, really?
Those are great questions. Blogging is not for everyone. It’s a committment and it’s time-consuming and it can be hard to think up new content regularly to engage your readers with. You have to invest in it and some people simply can’t. That’s okay. But I do firmly believe that YA authors NEED to have a website at the very least. Nothing drives me crazier as a reader than hearing about a great book and discovering no author website and I honestly can’t imagine why anyone WOULDN’T take advantage of the opportunity to connect with readers in this way. And because I think blogging is a personal choice, I can only tell you that blogging is VERY important to me. I love it. I enjoy entertaining people–or attempting to–with my blog entries and I enjoy engaging with my blog readers. I value their comments and appreciate them taking the time to read the stuff I put out there. It’s a fun way to connect.
An unlimited supply of Ray-Bans OR one completely safe trip into the center of a volcano?
Well, now that I have my ~Lady Gaga~ sunglasses, I would totally take the completely safe trip into the center of a volcano! That would be amazing. All the Ray-Bans in the world could not out-amazing that. They would try, but they would fail.
A day with Edward Cullen OR a day as the hero of a zombie flick?
I have a poster of Edward Cullen in my room. I have a feeling it’s as good as having an actual Edward Cullen around, to be honest. He is quiet, broods and sparkles and sleepstalks me, JUST as he would in real life. So I definitely choose to be the hero of a zombie flick. Although that would be kind of awful because the heroes of those movies are always left with TONS of emotional baggage and about 95% of the people around them die. And usually those people are the people the hero loves the most. Wow. It must suck being a hero in that context. But wait! If it’s a zombie MOVIE none of that emotional baggage is real and the loved ones that die just go off-set, right? In that case: HERO OF A ZOMBIE FLICK ALL THE WAY.
Name your top three favorite plot elements to write:
Secrets, haunted pasts and small towns.
Name the top three loves of your life:
My family, my friends and my pets.
And finally, the TWFT’s most important question: what’s your favorite flavor of jellybean?
GREEN. The best colour AND flavour of them all. I will hear no arguments against this.
Thanks so much for the interview, Courtney! TWFT mission: pick up Cracked Up to Be now and Some Girls Are on January 5th (it’s pitched as Mean Girls meets Heathers). You can read the first chapter of Cracked Up to Be HERE.
Networking. It is by far the scariest word in the publishing world. Query? Oh yeah – the word “query” makes amateur novelists break into a cold sweat. Speak the name of a writer’s dream agent and she gets inevitable goosebumps. But nothing compares to the dreaded N word.
I was terrified of this “networking” concept mostly because I had no clue what it meant. I had a vague idea that it involved stalking well-known writers, sending them candy and pink paper hearts, and begging them to be my friend. This idea appealed to my inner fangirl, but not my sense of dignity, so I eventually decided against it.
Instead, I started a blog.
At first it was a bit of a joke. “Right – because the world really wants to read about a college kid’s journey to publication.” And at first, no one really did. A comment here, a comment there – mostly from long-time friends or family members. I shrugged it off and decided that my original assessment was correct. Nobody cared.
And then an extraordinary thing happened. I stopped caring too. At least, I stopped caring about the popularity of my blog, and I started paying more attention to other things. Like the other amateur writers blogging their way through the publication process. Like the talented teens who were pounding out their first query letter for a fabulous fantasy novel. Like the debut authors hosting contests on their websites. I started talking with these amazing people. I started commenting on their websites, celebrating their victories with them, promoting their books.
And they returned the favor. My blog suddenly had readers. I had friends helping to edit my manuscript, giving me agent advice, asking about the status of my WIPs. In short – I was networking.
The internet has made the world a very small place. Nowadays you don’t necessarily have to go to conferences or live in New York City to make contacts in the publishing industry. Sometimes it’s as simple as reviewing a debut author’s book, or offering to critique a friend’s manuscript, or editing a new writer’s query letter. Sometimes it’s simply about looking beyond yourself and asking what you can offer the world. You might be surprised what you receive in return.
Okay, so I was asked by a few of my fellow Twifties to type up a post about my experience over the past few weeks. When I asked what to write about, they told me just to write a story, so that’s what I’m going to do. Here’s my story for any who might be interested.
Here’s the short version: I got an agent!
But, come on, let’s face it—no one wants the short version in these matters, now do they? So let’s get on with the story, shall we?
Let me start by saying that this did not just happen over night. I didn’t just write a novel and suddenly get an agent, as many might believe when learning that I’m just a few months shy of eighteen. On the contrary, I’ve been writing for many, many years. Since I’ve been able to spell, I’ve been writing stories. I wrote my first full novel at ten, which I later realized was a Harry Potter rip off. I wrote another at thirteen (also a Harry Potter rip off), and there were several unfinished manuscripts littering that path along the way. But let’s fast forward, shall we? Kids are cute and all, but you’re not reading this to learn about my childhood. So, at sixteen, I wrote my first non-rip off novel, A Face In the Crowd. It was contemporary YA, and I was so proud of it when I finished. For that novel, I started doing research about publishing. I learned about the dreaded query letter, I discovered that to be published by a big house you need this elusive thing called an agent, and I found a little website called AbsoluteWrite that helped me along the way.
I sent out a few poorly written queries for A Face in the Crowd, but not that many. Each and every response was a rejection—not a single request. So I quit and decided to revise my query letter to try again later. In the mean time, I started a new project called The Duff. I posted a few of my sample chapters on AbsoluteWrite, and the response was fantastic. So much helpful criticism! And I was quickly falling in love with my main characters, and I had others telling me they loved them too. This support pushed me to write more. Looking back and rereading, I realize that A Face in the Crowd, while not bad, is not up to par. Perhaps I’ll revise and rewrite in a few years, but I’m not planning on it yet. Besides, Lauren Myracle claims to have written five novels before getting her debut, Kissing Kate published, so I’m very happy I didn’t get discouraged back then.
Anyway, I finished The Duff, which, in case someone missed the memo, stands for designated ugly, fat friend (horrible, right? Seriously, I know guys who use this term!), and I quickly sent it off to three fantastic beta readers I found on AbsoluteWrite, as well as forcing two of my best friends to read it. Most of the feedback I got was positive, but they did have a lot of construction, and I spent about a month editing everything before I started to query. This time, my query letter was better. I had lots of help from AbsoluteWrite members in polishing it. Believe me, without them it never would have gotten out of the slushpile. Just thinking of my early drafts makes me want to cry and hide under a chair. But once I felt confident in it, and in my manuscript, I started to send to agents.
To say my querying experience was, um, interesting, might be an understatement. I began to send out queries in early, early April. I sent out seventeen in total. But I hardly got any responses. I waited and waited, but not even a rejection popped into my constantly checked inbox. I was starting to think my queries weren’t sending properly, and I was so worried! Then I got the first response—a request for the partial! But don’t get excited just yet. That’s not the end of my story, kids. While waiting to hear back about the partial, I received 3 rejections. Then another request from an agent I hadn’t even sent sample pages to. I was feeling good! Feeling great, in fact! Two requests!
Then, the very next day, the same agent asked to see my full manuscript, so I was very, very upbeat…until the weekend. The day after sending off my full, I was rejected by the first agent, who didn’t connect with my main character based on the partial I’d sent. I was heartbroken, but I tried not to show it. So when I had an email on Monday from the agent with the full, I was sure she was rejecting me, too. I just knew it.
Well, you see, I’m a writer. Not a psychic.
Let me sum up what would likely turn out to be a rambling fit of giddiness by saying that I got a phone call the next afternoon with an offer of representation. From a great agent, at a great agency, who DID connect with my main character.
Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. For a slight bit of perspective on The Duff, I’ll say that I started the first draft on January 6, 2009 and was offered representation on May 12, 2009. Coincidently, May 12 is the birthday of one of my best friends who read, and loved, The Duff, so that was a present to both of us. But I can’t help thinking of all those unanswered queries. At last count, 12 still hadn’t been replied to. Now, I almost look at it as fate. Only a few agents seemed to receive my query, and one of them happened to be the right one. I never thought I’d be grateful for a server malfunction (which is what I’m chalking this up to), but stranger things have happened, I guess. So you want to know how the story ends? Honestly, it hasn’t yet. I signed the contract and just finished up some revisions on The Duff, though nothing major. Actually, my agent didn’t want me to cut anything, which was a relief, but also a surprise. The revisions were just added scenes and extended subplots, really, and I sent the new version to her this weekend. I’m waiting on her reactions to the new version now. Once it’s approved, we’re off to a quick polish edit, then she wants to start submitting to editors.
But I have plenty to occupy me while I wait. My high school graduation is this Friday (May 29), and I’m working on a new project, The Outcast Society. I leave for college this fall, and I’m excited to say that I’ve been accepted into the Honors Program at Ithaca College in New York, where I’ll be majoring in Writing. I plan to work my way up and get my PhD so that I can teach Creative Writing or Literature on a college level, like a lot of modern novelists do. So, anyway, that’s my story as it stands so far. I’m not published yet. It will be two years before that happens, but I’m a step closer than I ever expected to be. Like I said, this didn’t just happen over night. There were a lot of hills to climb, and still more ahead, but I’m getting there. Just remember, all of you aspiring writers, that for every million “No’s” you get, there is a “Yes!” waiting out there for you.
Best of luck!
~Blind Writer (Kody Mekell Keplinger)
Seventeen-year-old Bianca knows she’s the Duff (the designated ugly, fat friend). So when Wesley, a notorious womanizer, approaches her at a party, she knows he wants to score with one—or both—of her hot friends. God, the man-whore’s arrogance really pisses her off! But Bianca needs to escape from some personal drama, like her mom’s abandonment and her dad’s denial, and a steamy fling with Wesley seems like the perfect distraction. Bianca makes it clear she’s only using Wesley, as if he cares. He’ll sleep with anything that moves after all. Unfortunately, the enemies-with-benefits plan totally backfires.
When her mom files for divorce and her father stumbles into a downward spiral of drinking and depression, Wesley proves to be a surprisingly good listener, and Bianca finds out that his family is pretty screwed up, too. As sickening as it sounds, she has to admit that she and Wesley are a lot alike. Soon she becomes jealous of the pretty girls he flirts with and his cocky grin begins to grow on her. Suddenly Bianca realizes—with absolute horror—that she’s falling for the guy she thought she hated.
THE DUFF, my contemporary YA novel, is complete at 53,000 words. The manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Kody Mekell Keplinger
Since I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light when I was ten, I have been religiously quoting John Donne. “No man is an island!” I say, and I automatically get brownie points with teachers. “No man is an island,” and my sister gives me that blank goldfish stare. “No man is an island, Mom!” and she rolls her eyes and tells me that I read too much.
But you know what I realized today?
Tonight my friend invited me to a poetry reading given by her and her writing group. We live in a small town, and as my friend laughingly admitted, “This wasn’t very well publicized.” And it wasn’t. There were only a handful of family members in that room, munching on chips and salsa while their nieces and sons and cousins recited poetry. But my friend was genuinely happy to see me, happy that I took time out of my day to watch some incredibly talented kids read their essays and poems. And while I was sitting there, something occurred to me.
This is what life is about.
I think we, as writers, are more prone than others to become “islands.” We justify our loneliness as hard work and determination. “We are WRITERS,” we say. “We’re working on the next great American novel! We’re finishing up our short story anthology! We’re trying to become the next J. K. Rowling, dang it!”
Guess what? It’s not all about that.
Sometimes it’s about giving back. Going to a poetry reading to support local writers in your area. Taking time to critique a friend’s manuscript. Encouraging a kid’s dream even when no one else thinks he’s got it in him.
You’re not an island. You’re a human being. You’re part of a community of human beings that is full of dreams and passions and beautiful gifts to give. Don’t isolate yourself by saying, “I’m too busy for community. I’m trying to get published.” Publication will send a book out into the world. But generosity and love? That will produce life.
So. The query letter. If you have been a writer for any period of time, you have probably heard about these literary torture devices.
A query letter is basically your book’s college application, in which you describe the amazing, beautiful, talented, and desirable nature of said book. In other words – sell it, kid! You’re trying to make money off this jumbled mess of words – you can’t blush and stammer and say, “Um, yeah…so I wrote this book…and I think it’s kind of good…” No. Just no. Would you hire an employee who says, “Um, yeah…so, I’m kind of a hard worker”? Would you go see a play that was just kind of entertaining?
Of course not. (And if you would, then you’re weird. Just sayin’.)
If you want to make your query sparkle like a certain 108-year-old virgin vampire, there are a few steps you should take note of.
Step 1: Spell the agent’s name right.
No, seriously – this is a biggie. I made the mistake of copy-and-pasting a few queries once and completely forgot to change the salutation from “Dear Mr. Billy-Bob Agent” to “Dear Ms. Sarah-Jane Agent.” Got a rejection in two minutes flat. And you know what? I don’t blame them. People who misspell your name = people who don’t care enough to look it up. People who do not care = people you don’t want to work with.
So. Check your spelling. Check your grammar. And if the agent is a woman, DO NOT address it to “Mr. Billy-Bob.”
Step 2: Be specific.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean, and I’ll do it by publicly humiliating myself with my crappy query-writing skills. In the first draft of my query for City of Shadows/Ghostland/Still-don’t-know-what-I’m-calling-this-thing I was trying to describe the Promised Land, which is a legendary secret city where defects can live in peace and safety. So I wrote this:
The door to a lost civilization lies just under the city’s surface, and Dax is uniquely equipped to find it. But as they follow the clues to the underground city, Dax begins to suspect that this is more than an archaeology trip, and the lost civilization might not be lost – just hidden. And this hidden world could threaten everything Serenity and Dax have ever known.
See any problems with this? Well, I do. One: That part at the end? About the hidden world threatening everything they’ve ever known? Yeah, well, that isn’t actually in the book. I just thought it sounded cool. Note to self: Cool hooks are only cool if they’re true.
Another problem with this little snippet is that it doesn’t tell the agent anything. Hidden worlds? Lost civilizations? How many fantasy and sci-fi books can you think of that have one or both of these elements? You can probably name at least five off the top of your head. This snippet, while somewhat interesting, is not in the least bit unique. I need to be more specific, describe the details of the Promised Land to explain what sets it apart from the Smoke in Uglies or Jared’s rebel cell in The Host or… you get the idea.
So, here is draft 2:
The Faires are seeking the truth about a dangerous rumor: a group of rebel defects hidden in the abandoned subways of New D.C. As a ghost, Dax knows the hidden corners of the city like no one else.
Aha! So the story is set in a futuristic D.C.! So the Promised Land is really the flooded-out tunnels of the D.C. metro! This is better – it suddenly makes the story unique (or more unique, anyway). That is absolutely vital in writing a query letter. BE SPECIFIC. BE SPECIFIC. BE SPECIFIC. Tattoo it on your forehead. Write it on your hand. Post it above your desk. It is that important.
Step 3: Keep the mini-synopsis under 300 words.
Be warned: It’s going to be hard. You’re going to want to talk about your main character’s dog – because really, he’s an important part of the plot since he helps the MC realize his own need for love and affection. You’re going to want to talk about the crackhead next-door neighbor who randomly dispenses wise information. You’re going to want to explain that your MC is from an abusive family made up of a shapeshifter, a wizard, a werewolf, and a vampire, and that’s why he can only eat rare beef sprinkled with fairydust and dog hair…
Let me give you a piece of advice: Don’t.
Queries are the equivalent of the blurb on the back of a book. You want to engage the agent, not tell them the whole story before they read it. Keep it under 300 words.
Step 4: Proofread
And by “proofread” I mean “grab someone who knows the business and have them read and re-read and re-re-read your query letter until it is perfect.”
Another personal example for your entertainment: With my first novel I did not ask anyone to critique my query. I edited it myself, decided it was “good enough,” and sent it out. Five months later, I had sent approximately 70 letters and gotten about 6 positive responses.
With CoS, I must have rewritten the query ten times (with the advice of the fabulous Twifties and my super-hot, super-smart boyfriend). I’m at a 25% request rate so far.
Do yourself a favor – don’t go this alone. Querying is tough enough without a good support group who can help you polish your work until it shines. Don’t try to prove your genius by getting all huffy and saying, “I don’t need your help; I’m a genius.” Life is going to kick you in your pompous a$$, I promise.
Step 5: Send that sucker out!
By now you are starting to hate that mini-synopsis with a passion. You’ve probably gone so far as to hate your little signature at the bottom. This is a good sign – it means your query has sat on your desk for so long that it’s probably time to send it out into the world. So do it! Pick a handful of agents (whose names you can spell) and kick that query out the door!
Good luck, aspiring writers, and may the muse be with you.
- Teens Writing for Teens is a community of young adult authors writing YA fiction. We're here to offer insight, encouragement and amusement as we live the lives of young novelists and deal with that ever-popular question, "So...aren't you a little young to write a book?"
Agented!: The Stories
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