1. Where do you write?
Jason Reynolds posted about how authors write all the time--on an airplane, in the back of a cab, in the waiting room--and how when you see an author in their studio, it’s usually for a photo shoot. That is absolutely true for me. I started Book One on a train, and Unscripted on my living room floor in the middle of the night.
But I LOVE when I get to dedicate time to writing in the space I’ve carved out for being a writer. I live in a small, old house in Minneapolis that came with this strange sort of out-building that we think used to be an exceptionally tiny one-car garage. The woman who lived in my house before us used it as a potting shed, and my husband and I converted it into a three-season room/porch and practically lived out there during the summer. We named it The Burrow after Ron Weasley’s family’s house. When I found out Unscripted was going to be published, we decided to convert the space into a 4-season studio for me! It’s a six-step walk out my back door, and it’s full of light--a major plus living in a state with long, dark winters.
2. How did you get an agent? (Also, how can I get an agent?)
Short version: Through the old-fashioned query process!
After teaching Creative Writing at the high school level for five or six years, and meeting a bunch of authors through visits arranged by my school’s librarian, I went back to graduate school and got my MA in Teaching Creative Writing and Literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University. While that program is aimed at making teachers better teachers, it also really jump-started my long-dormant love of fiction writing.
After my daughters were old enough that they weren’t going to tumble head-first off the backyard slide if I looked away, I started carving out time to write every day in the summer.
Behold! One year later, I had written and revised Book One. That summer, Nina LaCour, one of the authors who had come to my school, was back in town. We reconnected, and I told her what I was writing, and she offered to read my manuscript and give me feedback.
This is the moment when everything became real. I kind of thought I was doing this for fun and for me. But in the same breath where Nina offered to read my book, she also offered to guide me through the query process. I can never thank her enough. I don’t know that I would have believed in myself enough to try this whole thing without her push.
Fast-forward another six months. I found a critique partner (Kristi, a wonderful teacher in my district who was also writing kid lit) and started querying agents in March of 2017. I also attended Pitch Fest at the LOFT: Literary Center in Minneapolis. I pitched my book to three more agents there. I went on to query several other agents later on that summer.
While I had some really nice rejections, (though in the biz, they call them “passes”), no one wanted my book.
But it was okay. Because back in March, once I had started querying, Nina told me to start working on my next project. This turned out to be a great piece of advice, because when agents were turning down my first book, I was like, “Hey! I’ve got another one in the works! In fact, it’s almost ready to go!” Book One suddenly didn’t feel so precious. I knew I could do it again because I already had.
So after putting Book Two through many revisions (Kristi, a dozen beta readers, and Nina), I re-queried the same agents who had sent helpful passes about Book One, plus a few more.
I heard back right away from a few of them requesting the manuscript, and I crossed my fingers for good news.
A week later, I was filling in for a friend’s 11th grade class, and after I got the students going on their work, I checked my email. There was an agent’s response! I skimmed the email, waiting for the turn away from the compliments on my book to the parts that didn’t work for her, but that part never came! It was an offer of representation!
The students said, “What’s wrong?”
I said, “Nothing! It’s good news!”
They said, “What is it??”
I said, “It’s--it’s a long story.”
They said, “TELL US.”
So I did. They cheered! I cried. Teenagers are the best people.
Sara called me after school, and I accepted her offer right away. She has a wonderful reputation, and I had met two authors whom she represented, and they loved her. I was also confident she could sell my book, because she had passed on my first one. I could tell she had a sharp, savvy eye. Querying her again ended up being a great move. During our phone call, she said, “It’s good to see you have many stories inside you.” I’m so glad I reached out again with my second stab at this giant undertaking.
Getting an agent was the hardest part. Sara setting off to sell my book (after we went through a couple revisions ourselves) was hard, too, but nothing like that slog of wondering if I was foolish for even trying.
3. Where do you get your ideas?
Sometimes the inspiration fairy lands on my shoulder and whispers in my ear. But more often than that, I sit down with a notebook and some different colored pens and make lists. I make a list of things I know to be true. Things I wish I’d known earlier. Things that make me angry. Things that keep people apart. And somewhere along the way, I find a thread that seems interesting. Something about perfectionism. About being true to yourself. About gaslighting. Then I create a protagonist by writing a character sketch. The name often grounds a person for me, so I flip through my ancient name-your-baby book I bought when I was in middle school for use in my writing. Then I create a Story Circle (thanks, Dan Harmon!). I’ve learned the hard way (with the first book I wrote) that I need to have a solid plot in place with sturdy tent poles before I layer in the telling of the story. When I have a plot that hangs together, that’s when I know it’s time to commit to the idea and start writing!
4. What’s your process?
After I get my plot together, I talk to my critique partner and my husband and my close friends and my students to see if it has legs. Often, these people I trust will offer suggestions or ask questions or poke holes in my idea. I shore up the problem areas--a much easier thing to do when it’s just a list or a chart as opposed to thousands of words.
Then I write out an outline (from which I will end up deviating wildly), but it gets me through the ugly middle. That’s when I feel like I’m in the weeds: the feeling that this book is too hard for me to write, or the idea is too stupid, or that I should just give up. The outline pushes me to remember that I just have to get some words on the paper--that’s the goal of my first version. It’s okay that it’s terrible. It just has to Be.
I write my first versions longhand in college-ruled notebooks in different colored pens--I switch colors each time I sit to write so I can see my progress. Once the whole thing is down, I type it up and revise as I type it. As soon as I have a couple chapters revised, I start sharing them with Kristi and we begin our back-and-forth revision process. If you count my handwriting as v.1, the typing as v.2, and Kristi’s feedback as v.3, I send out v.4 to half of my beta readers, revise again, and send out v.5 to the other half. Kristi reads it AGAIN, and I send the best thing I can manage to my agent. Then we revise. It’s a good thing I love revision so much, because that is a huge part of the process.
5. Are your books about you?
Yes and no. Every character has something of me in them, but no one is entirely me. For example, I did a lot of improv (both in school and as a professional), but I’ve never been to an improv camp. I’ve dealt with gaslighting dudes, but none of them were my boyfriend. Writing is a combination of personal revelation and brand new creation. It’s imagination plus reality.
6. Are your students in your books?
I teach high school English and by now have had thousands of students. They inspire me every day, but there is no character who is a replica of an existing person. Sometimes I use students’ names, or a quality of a student inspires a character, but I always tell them. If you’re reading this and you’re wondering if one of my characters is inspired by you, if I haven’t talked to you about it, then the answer is nope. ;-)
For example, I met three tuba players and a trombone player the first day of school one year in my senior English class. I loved the way they shared unspoken jokes and always drew tubas on the backs of their quizzes. I didn’t know what my next book was going to be about, but I knew it was going to be about four low-brass players who were a tight-knit group of friends. It became the book I wrote after Unscripted, but the quartet of characters in that book in no way resembles my four former students.
7. Who gives you feedback on your work?
I have a brilliant critique partner named Kristi. We found each other by accident at a meeting after school one day. The meeting was unrelated to creative writing, but I can’t ever stop talking about writing. It turned out, she was also a writer and was looking for a critique partner. We’ve been meeting every-other-week to share our writing ever since.
I also ask fellow teachers and librarians and former students and other specific people whose experiences are related to my book. Also my husband. Also some friends.
My husband is my canary in the coal mine. I’ll give him an opening chapter and say, “Eh? Is this it?” If he scrunches up his face and says, “Maybeeee?” I know I haven’t hit it. He can’t ever tell me what’s wrong specifically, but it’s enough to know I need to go back to the drawing board. He also knows when I’m firing on all cylinders. (He’s a motorcycle guy. I think that’s a car reference.) Then I know I’m onto something!
Then it’s off to an author friend of mine, then my agent, then my editor!
The bottom line is LOTS of people read my work once I’ve shaped it to the best place I can by myself.
8. What other jobs have you had?
I babysat and worked in a bookstore in high school. In college, I sewed in the costume shop for four years, but also sprinkled in work as a waitress in a brew pub, dishwasher in a country club, and video store employee. (That job was awesome--since I could take home three videos for free at any given time, it was like my personal Netflix before there was Netflix.)
Once I graduated with my theatre degree, I worked at another video store, another costume shop, a pile of theatres as an actor, improvisor, costume designer, and dialect coach, and then I went back to grad school and got my teaching license. I’ve been teaching high school English ever since.
9. What writers inspire you?
Firstly, my students. I spent ten years reading and giving feedback to teenagers about their writing before I really took myself seriously as a writer. They did--and do--inspire me every day with their vulnerability and openness to revision and imaginations. They’re my favorites.
There are authors who write the kind of thing I aspire to write--in my current world of contemporary YA fiction, I love Rainbow Rowell. I keep her books on my writing desk when I’m working and open them up and read chapters when I’m slumping. I love her sense of humor paired with the serious topics she tackles.
John Green’s Looking for Alaska was the first YA book I read as a brand-new baby teacher, and I fell head-first in love. I made John Green laugh when we met in 2008 at a NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference, and that remains a point of pride for me!
There are also authors who don’t write the same kind of thing I do, and they inspire me in other ways. Nina LaCour, naturally, but even if she wasn’t my friend and mentor, I would love her writing. I love the way she handles difficult emotions like grief with beauty. I can’t stop thinking about those yellow bowls in We Are Okay.
It feels silly to write it, because neither of these geniuses need my shout-out, but if I were on a deserted island and could take two compilations with me, they’d be the complete works of Jane Austen and the entire Harry Potter series. (Tiny print. Plus a magnifying glass. Can I bring that, too?) I studied abroad in London for a semester in college, and with my last 15 pounds before I flew home, I bought Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the airport bookshop, two books I’d never read. Talk about an auspicious purchase.
Some of my other favorites also include (but are not limited to): Laurie Halse Anderson and Jennifer Donnelly and Jasper Fforde and Maureen Johnson and Mackenzi Lee and E. Lockhart and Karen McManus and Jandy Nelson and Patrick Ness and Stephanie Perkins and Kate Racculia and Jason Reynolds and Gene Luen Yang and Nicola Yoon and Ibi Zoboi.
10. What advice do you have for me as a writer?
Here’s my collection of the best writing advice I’ve gotten:
On first getting through that first version:
Stephen King says in his masterful book On Writing to write your first version with the door closed. Don’t think about anybody else reading it--that first version is for you and literally no one else. Subsequent versions, write with the door open. It’s THEN that you need to think about your audience. But if you think about them too early, you’ll never finish anything.
E. Lockhart of We Were Liars-fame makes little goals. When she was writing WWL, she would say to herself, “Today, all I’ve got to do is get the kids on the boat. I’m going to write this scene, and get the kids on the boat, and that’s all I have to do.” Then the next day, she’d be like, “Okay. Today, I just have to get the kids on the island. This writing might suck, but that’s for future me to worry about. Today, it’s just getting the kids on the island.”
You have to revise. Citation: every writer ever. Think about it this way: as human beings, we’re not really meant to read and write. We’re meant to speak. Most of us have to be taught how to read and write, but most of us figure out speaking without any special help. So your writing is never going to be perfect because we are imperfect beings with this writing thing. Get help. Give your writing (when you’re ready--some stuff is just for you. *coughcoughmybabysittersclubfanfictioncoughcough*) to someone whose opinion you respect. Ask them to look for specific things. For example, believable motivations, life-like dialogue, use of setting, etc. Or you can ask specific people for their specific life experiences. If you’re writing a book with a character who’s a chemist at 3M, and your neighbor is a chemist at 3M (What up, Karl?) you can ask them to read for details you wouldn’t see yourself.
Be willing to be bold with your revisions. Sometimes I hear/read the feedback from a reader and I feel kind of emotional about it. (You’ve attacked my baby!) Usually, I need a few days to wrap my head and heart around it. If, when the emotions die down, I see that the feedback has merit, I follow it. If several people say the same thing, holy cow--I go with it. There’s definitely something to be said for the fact that not all readers will like all books. But if there’s a way you can add something or change something to broaden your potential readership, sometimes that’s not a bad thing.
Read your writing out loud. You’ll hear things your eye glosses over. (If it was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.)
On the publishing business
Pre-adults: If you really want my advice, it’s this: Read a lot, write a lot, and don’t be overly-focused on product right now. Take advantage of opportunities to meet people and have experiences. Pay attention to what emotions feel like in your body when you’re having them. Notice the world around you--all of your senses. David Sedaris (and a bunch of other writers) keep a little notebook and write down things they notice or ideas for stories as they move through the world. Do that. Don’t rush to have a publishing experience. Just fill yourself up with reading and writing.
Post-teenagers: When you have your manuscript in the best possible shape you can make it, (you’ve revised multiple times, other people have read it and given you feedback, etc.), then it’s time to do a bunch of research. Look at the acknowledgements of books you love in your genre--most writers thank their agents, and that’s a great place to find the name of agents that represent the thing you’re writing. You can also google “Literary agent” plus your genre. Writer’s Digest is a great resource, too. Only query people who represent what you’re writing. Google how to write a query letter. Write and revise the crap out of it. A synopsis is another thing you have to learn how to write (and revise). The good news is all of this is available on the internet--you just have to look for it. Read agency requirements very carefully and follow them. Most of all, friends--be patient. So patient. And keep writing--don’t put all your hope and expectations in one manuscript. I’ll tell you what Nina LaCour told me: as soon as you start querying that first manuscript, start writing the next one. It was the second manuscript that got me my agent.