22 October 2012

CONJURE author Lea Nolan combines adventure and romance in middle grade/young adult crossover

Lea Nolan
Today's featured author is Lea Nolan. Her debut YA novel, CONJURE (Entangled Teen, Oct. 16), is book one in The Hoodoo Apprentice Series. It's the story of Emma, her best friend/secret crush Cooper and brother Jack, and a "little" adventure involving a mysterious 18th-century message in a bottle, a hidden pirate bounty, an ancient flesh-eating soul-stealing curse, walking skeleton, demon dogs... you know, the usual (!!!!).

Lea writes the kinds of stories she sought as a teen—smart paranormals with bright heroines, crazy-hot heroes, diabolical plot twists, plus a dose of magic, a draft of romance, and a sprinkle of history. She has degrees in history and public policy, and spent 15 years as a health policy analyst and researcher. To learn more about Lea and her work, visit her websiteFacebookTwitter or Goodreads. (And leave a comment below to enter to win an e-copy of CONJURE!)

Q: Lea, I'm curious how your background in history and public policy led to writing YA! Can you tell us about your path to publishing––when you started writing, how CONJURE came into being, and how you found your agent and publisher? 

A: Ah it’s an interesting tale! The shortish answer is that I was once a totally gung ho DC health policy think tank wonk, but then I started having babies and my priorities shifted. It wasn’t possible (or desirable) to work 60 hour weeks anymore so I started cutting back, first to four days a week, then to three. I was also in a PhD program at the time and was seriously overwhelmed, and frankly, was beginning to get burned out on policy. You see policy is one thing–you can craft and recommend solutions to solve obvious problems—but then you come up against politics which often creates artificial obstacles to implementing all your brilliant proposals. So I’d say I was ripe for a career change.

And then I read Twilight. Like so many recent writers, I was inspired by the powerful emotional feelings Stephenie Meyers conveyed in that book. It reminded me of how earth-quaking first love can be and spurred my interest in YA fiction. When I was a teen there was no such “genre” and I ran out of books to read with teen characters by the time I was twelve. So after studying a few YA books, I figured I’d try my hand at writing.

It took me two years to write my first book. Let me explain, I didn’t take me that long to draft. Over those two years, I completely stripped it down, changed the tense, restructured scenes, etc. In total, it was reworked six times before it was good enough to query agents. Then I had to perfect my query letter which was even more difficult. I can’t tell you how many embarrassingly bad queries I sent out. But after taking a couple great query classes and running it by some fantastic betas, I finally had one that worked. I started getting responses from agents and request for partials and fulls. One of those agents asked to see what else I had. Luckily, I had the first 50 pages of what became CONJURE so I sent them off. Forty-five minutes later she offered representation, not for that first (still unpublished) book but for the partial. I still had to finish drafting the book and revising it which took several more months. About three years after I’d first started writing, we went on submission.

And that’s when things got interesting. CONJURE features a hidden 18th-century pirate treasure, demon dogs, soul snatching, and a wicked flesh-eating curse that can only be broken with Gullah hoodoo magic. There’s lots of action and adventure and there’s also a sweet romance. Several editors loved the voice and concept but they didn’t exactly know what to do with a story that had the fast-paced adventure usually found in a middle grade book, but also a sweet YA romance between a smart, brave heroine and a hunky hero. Thankfully Liz Pelletier of Entangled Publishing did. “This is a middle grade/YA cross over,” she declared, a book to fit the niche of tweens and younger teen readers who aren’t drawn to the darker/edgier/sexier upper YAs that are on the market. And even better, since the series will get progressively creepy and sinister as it goes on, it will grow with its readers. It was exactly the right way to go. So we aged the characters down a little bit, and tweaked their language a smidge but kept everything else exactly as it was and CONJURE was born.

You asked earlier how CONJURE came to be so I’ll tell you because it’s a funny story and it proves you can get inspiration from anywhere. As bizarre as it sounds, the idea for CONJURE came from a Chick Fil A kids meal bag. We’d just gone through the drive-through and my daughter was reading the little educational factoids they print on the bags. Her little voice floated up from the back seat. “Mommy, did you know pirates used to send messages in a bottle?” No, as a matter of fact, I’d never heard that. As I drove down the road I wondered, why would a pirate need to send a message in a bottle? An answer popped into my head: Maybe his ship and crew were cursed. But what could he have done to land in such trouble? The questions and answers snowballed and before I knew it, I had to set aside the novel I’d been planning to write this one instead.

Q: What has been most helpful to you as a writer, in terms of developing your craft? (writing workshops, books on writing, blogs/articles, critique partners... what has helped you?)

A: All of the above! Really, I’ve learned so much from the many online writing courses I’ve taken from RWA-affiliated chapters and Savvy Authors, and from Q&A sessions like this one on Teen Lit Authors. I especially found the query/log line/synopsis classes to be invaluable as well as classes on specific topics like the Herbal Lore and Historic Medicinal Uses of Herbs course I took with Beth Trissel, and a Steampunk course I took from Savvy Authors taught by Beth Henderson. No matter what you’re interested in you can find a course that’ll help you and you’ll get great hands-on critiques from the instructors and helpful suggestions from your fellow students. I’ve also had the great fortune of working with some absolutely fabulous critique partners. There’s nothing better than a crit partner who’s not afraid to tell you, in a smart, constructive way that your hero is too stupid to live or that your heroine just violated your world building rules. Several books have also been invaluable to learning craft including about The Artful Edit by Susan Bell and Save the Cat by BlakeSnyder. I also can’t say enough about joining writer’s organizations and online discussion groups like this one, RWA and it’s local and affiliated special interest chapters.

Q: What do you have planned for THE HOODOO APPRENTICE series? 

A: There will be a total of three books in this series. The second book is called ALLURE and the third is ILLUSION. As I said earlier, the plot thickens over the next two installments, getting darker and even more creepy with sinister plot turns. Bwahahaha! I love that these books will grow with their readers and hopefully will carry them along to the final series climax.

Q: Tell us about promotional efforts for your book, including your blog tour and the new Entangled Teen blog. 

A: It started two months before release with a fantastic cover reveal event in which 130 bloggers and authors with blogs participated. CONJURE’s beautiful cover and blurb were everywhere for a couple days and really helped it get some nice visibility. About a month before release we began distributing digital ARCs to interested bloggers in exchange for their honest reviews. In addition, my publicists at Entangled have worked hard to put together an absolutely great blog tour with 40 sites over three weeks. Most of these are interviews with giveways but we’ve also got reviews scheduled and a few feature posts along the way.

I’ve also created a street team called The Apprentices which is open to anyone who’s interested in helping to spread the word about CONJURE and the rest of the books in The Hoodoo Apprentice Series. It’s a great way to get to know enthusiastic readers better. I thought hard about how I’d want to set up a street team. Some street teams award points for various tasks but that was too much for me to manage. Instead I created a Facebook group that anybody can join. I post links to blog posts and giveaways and people can tweet or Facebook about them. Also, if people want to distribute bookmarks or other book swag to libraries, local schools or book clubs, I’ll send out materials for them to distribute. In return, street team members will get access to deleted scenes from Conjure, special sneak peeks at the other books in the series and other perks. Also, they’ll be entered to win a special monthly giveaway just for street team members.

I’ve also invested in a bunch of book swag like bookmarks, posters, temporary tattoos, stickers, magnets, personalized silicone bracelets and other stuff to send to my street team members and to give away at signings, library events, and schools.

Group blogs are also an excellent marketing tool. I belong to three: Honestly YA, The Naked Hero and The Entangled Teen blog. These are a great way to reach out to readers and let them get to know a little bit about your personally. For example, the Honestly YA blogs allow us to riff on our personal experience as teens. I’ve shared my Monday Morning Walk of Shame experience there, my Summer Camp Loves and lots of other embarrassing teen moments. The Entangled Teen blog is so much fun because we chat about stuff we love (mine was fancy handbags), writing craft, fun stuff from the web, publishing experiences, etc.

Of course I’m also on Twitter, Goodreads and have a Facebook Author page and a dedicated Facebook Page for The Hoodoo Apprentice Series. Whew!

Q: What is your writing process? What is a typical day like? 

A: Since I’m a mom with youngish, school aged kids, I do most of my writing during the hours they’re at school. That’s a little tough though because my brain doesn’t really start popping until about 10:00 am at the earliest. But it’s a job and I’ve got to make it work so there’s a bit of mind over matter involved. 

As for rituals, I do most of my writing in a Panera Bread CafĂ© across the table from my best friend and fellow writer, Laura Kaye. I don’t usually write with music, unless there’s a particularly loud fellow patron nearby chomping away with their mouth open. That totally grosses me out, so when faced with such an obnoxious mouth-offender, I toss on some ear buds and listen to classical music to drown him or her out. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics otherwise I’ll lose my concentration.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: ALLURE! The book tour has required a little hiatus but I’m itching to get back to it.

Thank you, Lea! Your story of hard work paying off is inspiring, and I can't wait to see how the Hoodoo Apprentice series evolves into even more creepy and sinister territory!

Win an e-copy of CONJURE! Post a comment or question below today (or on the Teen Lit Authors Yahoo list) and you'll be entered to win!


  1. Congratulations on CONJURE, Lea! Great interview, Sharon.

    I love the inspiration for the book! And I enjoyed hearing about the middle grade/YA crossover. I think there are more of us out there not writing in edgy/sexy territory, but want characters a smidge older than most middle grade.

  2. Thanks Joy! As much as I love those edgier/sexy upper YAs I do have a soft spot in my heart for books that are geared toward younger readers. And as a mom to a precocious 12 year old reader, I want her to have a wide range of options to choose from as well. :)