21 January 2013

Author/Librarian Megan Frazer Blakemore on writing, reviews, and how kids choose books

First interview of 2013! Say hello to Megan Frazer Blakemore, author of the Young Adult novel SECRETS OF TRUTH & BEAUTY (Disney-Hyperion, July 2009) and a new Middle Grade novel, THE WATER CASTLE (Walker Books for Young Readers, January 2013). Megan lives in Maine where she's a school librarian by day and writer by night. You can learn more about her on her website or Facebook page. 

Q: Hi, Megan! Can you briefly tell us about your path to publishing? How long were you writing before your debut in 2009, and how did you find your agent and/or publisher?

Megan Frazer Blakemore
A: This is a complicated to answer. I knew I wanted to be a writer in 6th grade, and I pursued it diligently through college. Interestingly, I started the writing program at my college wanting to write YA, but was subtly discouraged. So, I was writing for adults, but nearly every story or novel had teenage characters. I was at the stage of getting a lot of positive rejections from magazines for my stories, and agents for a novel. Someone in the business suggested I try writing YA, and I started by trying to rework part of a long, messy manuscript that included flashbacks to the teen years -- essentially pulling out the past and restructuring it into a standalone novel. While doing that, I had the idea for Secrets of Truth & Beauty. Here's where things pick up in pace (this is about 8 years post college). I wrote and revised that novel quickly, and then started sending it to agents (within a year!). I always tell people the best way to make it through an agent search is to simultaneously be planning a wedding. It kept me from checking my email every five minutes. I used AgentQuery to find suitable matches. I sent out five query letters at a time. If I got a rejection, I sent a new one. My agent, Sara Crowe, was in that first set of five, and she actually called the Thursday before my wedding. We revised together, and she sent it out to publishers. This was in late 2007, so before things went really sour in the economy. It sold quickly and I was on my way. Like a lot of writers, I thought that meant things would be easy from then on out, but I really struggled to find a second successful project. That project is a middle grade, The Water Castle, which came out earlier this month from Walker Books.

Q: You also work as a high school librarian, which I imagine gives you some helpful insights into how teens choose and read books. For instance, how much are teens influenced by their peers? How important is a book's cover? Librarian recommendation? Other factors we may find surprising?

A: I worked as a high school librarian for seven years, and now I am in a middle school. For both groups, you've hit upon the biggies: peer recommendations (or perceived popularity of a book), cover, and librarian and teacher recommendations. Actually the other day I had a group of kids looking for books, and one boy said, "Don't judge a book by it's cover!" And a girl responded, "Why not? That's what it's there for. They design it to tell you what the book is about." So, yes, cover matters. Kids tend to pick up based on cover, then they read the description on back. Honestly, if I know one student has read a book, and I'm trying to recommend it to a second, I ask the first to describe the book to the second because I think peer to peer recommendations carry more weight. Another interesting piece is book trailers. My fifth graders love, love, love making them, and if I show them a trailer for a book, it gets them excited to read it, but I haven't yet seen them seek out the trailers on their own. So, if you make a trailer, you need to think about how you're going to get it in front of your audience.

Q: How has your work as a librarian informed your own writing?

A: The biggest benefit of working with kids and teens is that when I am writing about them, I can't underestimate them. Plus, I see their multitudes, as it were. The Water Castle tackles some fairly complex topics in terms of science and big life questions like, if you could live forever, would you? I never doubted that kids could handle this material because every day I go to work with smart kids who are looking to grapple with just this sort of thing.

Q: You write both YA and MG. How does your approach to the two differ?

A: The Water Castle actually started out as a YA with sort of magical elements, but I couldn't make it work. As I kept pecking at it, I realized the characters needed to be younger, and that opened it up to me. The initial writing process is probably the same -- I don't outline, I know where I want to end up and a vague idea of how I want to get there, and then I just write, write, write. I find revising MG easier than YA and that, for me, mostly has to do with length. When I'm revising my YA novels -- as I'm doing right now -- I feel like Mother Ginger in the Nutcracker trying to get all the kids back under her skirt. It's a lot of work to bring all the strands together. I use Srivener, and the outlining feature has saved me on more than one occasion.

Q: THE WATER CASTLE received a starred review from Kirkus. I've always wondered how that coveted star affects a book's success. Does it help in marketing and sales efforts? How important are favorable advance reviews?

A: I am so grateful for the starred review from Kirkus. I also was able to do an interview with Vicky Smith, children's book editor. That kind of support is really helpful, especially in the library community. The star went straight onto the back of the book, so certainly it helps with marketing. As for advance reviews, maybe that depends on the kind of book, but I think books can still build a slow buzz. It doesn't need to be a big splash.

Q: What are you working on now/next?

A: My next MG will be published in 2014, also by Walker. It doesn't have a title yet. It's set during the height of the Red Scare and it's about a girl, Hazel Kaplansky, whose family runs the town graveyard. She becomes convinced that the new gravedigger is a Soviet spy, and enlists Samuel, the new boy in town with his own secret history, to help her to prove it. As I mentioned above, I'm also revising a YA that I hope to send to my agent for feedback in the next week or two.

Thank you, Megan! The historical aspects of your MG novels sound fascinating... can't wait to check them out and I know my kids will love them, too. (And I'm very curious to see what the new YA is about... keep me posted!)

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