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!

17 October 2012

Revisiting a "Hidden" Interview with Sophie Jordan, author of the FIRELIGHT series

For nearly four years, I've been interviewing published authors for a Q&A series on the Teen Lit Authors list serve on Yahoo (which has 800+ members!). In that time, I've featured more than 40 authors, all of whom have shared wonderful insights into their journeys as authors, their writing process, promotional efforts, their ups, downs, joys, frustrations… you name it.

When I started this blog a month ago, I posted the past year's worth of interviews in the archives. But that left three more years of great interviews hidden away on the loop. I've decided to post some of my favorites (with updates) here as well, and will try to do one of these per week (or so) until I run through them all! I'm so excited to share these interviews with you.

Sophie Jordan
First up is Sophie Jordan

This interview took place in February 2011. Sophie's debut YA novel, FIRELIGHT (Sept. 2010, Harper Collins) had introduced readers to Jacinda, a fire-breathing "draki" girl (descended from dragons who could shift between human and dragon form). Since then, Jacinda and her draki friends (and not-so-friendly draki, and draki-hunters) have returned in VANISH (Sept. 2011) and HIDDEN (Sept. 2012). 

Sophie is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Avon historical romances, and also writes paranormal romances under the name Sharie Kohler. Visit her website to learn more.

Q: FIRELIGHT was your first YA, but you are multi-published in other genres. Can you tell us a little bit about the path you took and how your writing career has led you to YA?

A: Basically, I began to read YA just to get a break from what I was writing. I love writing romance, but wanted to stay fresh - wanted to keep myself from tiring of it, so I started reading outside the genre. I loved how different YA could be. I could write in first person - or not! My book could be sexy - or not. I could go in so many different directions. It was only natural for me to start coming up with ideas for my own YA. My agent was as excited as I was, so before I knew it I had a proposal ready to shop. 

Q: By my count, you've had 13 books (now 19?) published since 2006. That's a lot of writing! Could you describe your writing process, and how you handle various projects that might be in the works simultaneously?

A: I average about three books a year ... so yes, things tend to overlap. I just tackle it a day at a time, focusing on the closest deadline first. If I know I have a book due in three months, I calculate what I need to do, page-wise, every day to get it done. I build in some extra time because things always happen - revisions can come in or copyedits or ... who know? That thing called life can happen.

One thing I do now that I didn't do when I first started writing is outlining. If I'm writing a book in 2-3 months, I can't afford to wing it. I have to know where I'm going. The writing comes faster that way.

Q: I never tire of hearing authors' stories about how they found their agent or first publisher. Can you tell us yours?

A: I queried agents like mad - and entered contests focusing on getting to the agents offered as judges to the finalists. It took me close to two years to find an agent, and then she sold my first book in two weeks! Still surprises me that it took me so long to get an agent, but then she turned around and "sold" me so quickly.

Q: Author book tours are somewhat rare these days, but you did have one (in fall 2010) to kick off the release of Firelight. Can you tell us about the tour?

A: The Firelight tour was scheduled and organized by my publisher, Harper Teen. It involved several bookstore signings, as well as school visits and attendance/speaking at local teen book conferences. We even popped in for some stock signings. There were days where we may have had as many as three events. It was a busy three weeks of on/off again traveling, but a great opportunity Harper provided.

I also toured with another author, Kiersten White. In certain cities, we were joined by other bestselling YA authors to make the event even more noteworthy. I think author tours in children's books are worthwhile because you can visit schools and "kid" conferences alongside the bookstores. As a YA author you want to be on librarians' radar as much as possible, and a tour like this really helped accomplish that. It definitely helped get awareness of me and my book out there in the world.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you've discovered about the world of publishing? What has been most challenging?

A: Wow. That's tough to encapsulate. I feel like I'm constantly learning and evolving as a writer. I'm surprised all the time.

This business is a roller coaster. Some days it's all euphoria and other days you struggle with self-doubt and disappointment. I guess I just learned to be grateful for all my blessings. I remind myself how lucky I am that I've found success doing something I love for a living - this helps keep me grounded. I think you need to guard against negativity - in yourself and in those around you.

Thank you, Sophie! 

16 October 2012

Have you met Gustav Gloom?

My kids and I are currently fighting over who gets to read this book first.

GUSTAV GLOOM AND THE PEOPLE TAKER, by Adam-Troy Castro, was illustrated by the delightful and talented Kristen Margiotta. Kristen also happens to give drawing lessons to my eight-year-old daughter at the Center for the Creative Arts. We love her. And now we have our very own copy of her book! You should get one, too. (Because, seriously, who doesn't love a book with gorgeous illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, and chapter titles like, "Watching Out for the Dinosaur Poop." Eh?

My daughter started reading in the car on the way home from her art lesson, declaring,
"I like this!" And my 12-year-old son swooped in and read a couple of chapters while she was doing her homework. I finally got my mitts on it after they went to bed. It was thrilling enough to see Kristin's beautiful illustrations and have our own signed copy, but discovering the story is GREAT, too... I had to pop on the blog to share.

Thanks, Kristen, for introducing us to Gustav. We're already looking forward to the second book in the series, GUSTAV GLOOM AND THE NIGHTMARE VAULT (coming in April 2013).

(Don't be fooled by the name of this blog, we love middle grade books here, too! Gustav Gloom is for ages 8 and up.) 

09 October 2012

Bev Katz Rosenbaum sizes up the publishing industry from dual perspectives (as author and editor)

Bev Katz Rosenbaum
I recently peppered Bev Katz Rosenbaum with questions about all things writing and editing and she provided some enlightening insights into the publishing industry. 

Bev got her start in publishing at Harlequin Books, where she worked her way up to Editor and won a Romance Writer's of America award for excellence in editing. (And, apparently, almost met Fabio twice.) Her YA novel, I WAS A TEENAGE POPSICLE, was published by Penguin in 2006. She has spent the past few years freelance critiquing and editing for children's publishers, book packagers and aspiring authors. Visit her website to learn more about her work!

Q: How has the market changed since your YA novel was published in 2006? (And, yes, I realize you could write another novel in response to this question! Can you hit on the one or two most significant changes you've seen that affect aspiring authors?)

A: Yes, the market has changed significantly since 2006 in a number of ways, but per your orders, I'll just talk about two! First off, that was a time when many new YA imprints were emerging. Too many. Consequently, soon after, the YA market was glutted and a number of imprints closed their doors. While YA is still a fairly profitable segment of the market for traditional publishers, because of the current state of the industry, only certain types of novels get published. (That's way number two that the industry has changed.) A book of mine that was shopped recently went to Acquisitions at a number of houses, only to be told by Marketing it wouldn't appeal to a wide enough segment of the market. One editorial director told my agent it was the kind of book that might develop a 'cult' following but that wasn't enough. 

To sum up, it's hard to sell either a fun, light YA today (make it an MG!), or anything that's too experimental, form- or content-wise (which was the case with that recently-shopped book of mine). Books have to feel like big bestsellers to be acquired by traditional publishers today. In North America, anyway. A light, fun YA of mine about a teen girl genie who falls for her teen guy assignee (but as part of the whole genie gig, has to help get him together with another girl) just sold to a couple European publishers.

Q: What do you see as the pros and cons of pursuing a traditional publishing route (with agent) vs. going it alone to pursue a smaller publisher or self-publish?

A: So yeah, some of those authors with big bestseller type books do very well with agents and traditional publishers. But you want to ensure you'll get A-list marketing support if you go that route. If you're on a publisher's B or C list in terms of marketing and your book doesn't get a push, the chains might not pick it up, and even if they do, if you're stacked in the shelves, your book will disappear in a few weeks, and then you'll be in trouble, because these days, you will never, ever get those rights back. And your publisher will way over-charge for the digital edition, ensuring no one will buy it. 

I'm not telling everyone to go it alone. In fact, as indicated above, I have a couple books I could do that with (even had them edited and designed!) but haven't yet, because I'm not yet confident enough in my digital, business, and marketing skills to do so. You have to really want to run a publishing business and be willing to thoroughly master all the skills running said business requires in order to do well. Especially if you're self-publishing YA. (Interestingly, my friends writing chick lit for adults are doing super well on their own. So much for publishers saying chick lit doesn't sell...) 

I'm a big fan of the Entangled model--authors get the higher royalties of self-publishing along with professional design, editing and marketing support. I'm wary of a lot of the other hybrid publishers, as they don't provide the kind of marketing support Entangled does (Entangled actually organizes a blog tour for each and every author!), and their staffers do not have the kind of industry experience Entangled staffers do. Unfortunately, the YA I have that didn't go is not an Entangled kind of book. But I might try a romantic/comedic novella (geared to adults) with Entangled and see how that goes.

Q: You've critiqued and edited A LOT of manuscripts. What are the most common mistakes that keep a good concept and good writing from rising to the level today's publishers demand?

A: A lot of manuscripts I see are imitative and unoriginal.Yes, paranormals and dystopians are still selling, but you have to have really fresh twists. And really work on voice. Give an editor a really fresh twist on a classic concept and an uber-original voice (but as I said above, don't get too experimental!) and you're in. 

Q: You worked briefly for Entangled. Can you tell us a little bit about their approach, how it differs from traditional publishers, and if you think we'll see more publishers going this route?

A: Yes, I think the Entangled route is the model of the future. A lot of imitators are popping up, but as I said, none of the others, to my knowledge, offers the kind of marketing support Entangled does. Their editors travel everywhere, talk about the books everywhere, and as I said earlier, each and every author gets an organized blog tour and more. And the other companies don't recruit staffers with the kind of experience everybody on the Entangled team has. There, all editors have had in-house editorial positions at big publishing houses, and all marketing staffers have had experience at large marketing companies. Many Entangled books have already hit the big bestseller lists. And their YAs get print as well as digital distribution.

Q: Since you critique books for a living, do you find it difficult to read for pleasure? How important is it for authors (and editors) to continue reading new books they're NOT working on... and how do you target what to read to keep abreast of the market?

A: Yes, I do find it difficult to read for pleasure, but I make time to read each and every night--books my friends have written, well-received books in the genre I'm currently writing in, and books I want to read just because I want to! I think it's very important to read in your genre and also to keep abreast of the deals being made in your genre (if you're going the trad route).

Q: Can you tell us what a typical day is like for you, and how you balance your editing work with your own writing work (and find time for it all)?

A: I usually try to write for a couple of hours early in the morning, before I begin editing. (I almost always have an editing job on the go.) But if I've just finished writing something, I'll focus on the editing for a while, and if I've just finished editing, I'll see if I can squeeze in a couple days of just writing.

Q: What are you working on now as an author?

A: Writing-wise, I'm currently writing a short romantic comedy (geared to adults), with the intention of submitting it to Entangled.  (I'll keep you posted!)

Thank you, Bev! (I feel so much smarter now.) Questions, anyone? Ask away in the comments below...

08 October 2012

Eight years & five manuscripts later... Jeanne Ryan hits a NERVE with tale of truth-or-dare gone wrong

When Vee is picked to be a player in NERVE, an 
anonymous game of dares broadcast live online, 
she discovers that the game knows her.
Today I'm excited to host author Jeanne Ryan, whose YA debut NERVE was published by Dial Books in September. Publisher's Weekly describes Ryan's story as "thought-provoking and unsettling" and Kirkus Reviews promises readers will "find themselves flipping madly to the very last page." (It's true! I picked up a copy this weekend and it's heart-thumpingly good.) 

To learn more about Jeanne's work, visit her website or stop by EMU's Debuts where she blogs with other debut authors about their path to publication. 

Q: I must say, your bio alone inspires lots of questions. Let's see if I can put them together into one doozie... What would you say has had the biggest influence on you as a writer: having 11 siblings, growing up in Hawaii, South Korea and Germany, or working on war game simulation? (Phew!)

Jeanne Ryan
A: Hmmm. I guess that moving around a lot probably had the most to do with inspiring me to write. I think kids who have to change schools often either develop one of those personalities that lets them make new friends quickly or a personality that observes everything and processes it. 

Q: How long have you been writing YA, and what do you enjoy most about writing for teens?

A: I started my first novel for teens in 2006. It started out as an adult novel with flashbacks to the protagonist’s youth. By page one hundred, I found that the kid’s story had overtaken the novel so I scrapped the adult parts and went from there. I wrote another manuscript after that but found I kept going back to my natural voice, which I believe is YA. What I enjoy most about this genre is the energy with which these stories burst forth.

Q: Tell us about NERVE, and your inspiration for the novel. Did you have a particularly bad experience with a game of Truth or Dare in your youth?

A: I did a lot of daring and foolish things as a kid, too awful to talk about here. But the inspiration for the book came from watching my niece in action with her phone. Seeing how integral it was to her social life made me want to do a story where phones played a large role. The dares were kind of a metaphor for how we as a society have become willing to give up our privacy, one step at a time.

Q: What's your writing process like? Are you a plotter or pantser? Fast-drafter or edit-as-you-go? And what's a typical day like?

A: I’m a recovering pantser, but I try not to plot too much. My process is typically to start with a short blurb for the story’s premise, write a few chapters to figure out the main character and voice, and then write a ten-page synopsis before fast drafting the rest of the book. Once I’ve gotten the whole story out, I’ll go back and do as many revisions as necessary to flesh out and polish the manuscript. My typical day starts with a workout, followed by a bit of chaos as I get the kids off to school. After that, it’s my time to write for four or five hours, and then spend the rest of the day doing mom stuff.

Q: As you look back on the months (or years) of work that led to the publication of your novel, how would you describe the experience? What was most challenging? Most rewarding? Most surprising?

A: It took eight years from the time I started writing with the goal of publication until my book hit the shelves. The first six were pretty rough, fueled by stubborn, I’ll-show-‘em determination. After completing my first manuscript, I spent three years querying for an agent, and then another two years on submission before we got that first deal. There was a lot of frustration to say the least. The most challenging aspect was forcing myself to keep writing the next thing after being hit by rejection after rejection. Now I’m glad I did, because it was the fifth manuscript that sold.

The most rewarding event was the first offer. Such a relief. And the most surprising milestone was the thrill I felt when I saw my book’s cover for the first time. Finally, my tears were of joy. Definitely one of the all-time highs of the process, and I’m so looking forward to seeing the cover for my next book.

Q: What are you working on now/next?  

A: Another contemporary young adult story called CHARISMA. It’s about a girl with crippling shyness who agrees to take an experimental drug that alters her DNA. The drug delivers as promised but brings with it some dangerous side effects.

Sounds exciting! Thanks for sharing this glimpse into your life as a writer. I'm inspired!

04 October 2012

Authors Ask: More Questions for Natalie Dias Lorenzi (on surviving submissions & what kids want to read!)

One of my favorite parts of doing interviews for the Teen Lit Authors group is the follow-up questions other authors ask. When I posted my Q&A with Natalie Dias Lorenzi, a couple of great ones came up, and I've asked those authors if I can share them here. If you want to see my original interview with Natalie, it's here.

Q: It sounds like it took a while from the time the book went out on submission until you sold. I'm curious--did you start something new while you were waiting? (That's something we're always encouraged to do--keep writing. But it's hard when your mind is so focused on a project that's on submission!) How did you handle the wait? 
Amy Fellner Dominy, author of OyMG 

Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Natalie: Hi Amy! Thanks for your question--it's a good one! When my manuscript first went out on submission, it seemed like all I did when I sat down at the keyboard was to check my email. It was *so* hard to focus on anything else during those first months on submission. But eventually I did get back to writing, and I started working on my second manuscript, a YA novel. That manuscript placed in a contest that caught an editor's eye, and it came very close to a "yes," but ultimately got shot down later on. That YA manuscript is still in a drawer, but I'm hoping to go back to it one day and give it another look. But even if it stays in a drawer forever, it definitely made me a better writer. While FLYING THE DRAGON was getting one "no thanks" after the other, my YA manuscript not only was a welcome distraction, but it gave my writing chops a workout, particularly with voice. Once my agent and I pulled DRAGON from the submission list and started talking revisions, I was in a better place to do those revisions because I'd kept writing during the long submission process. I could now look at DRAGON through the lens of a more experienced writer, and that was a plus.

I know the wait is hard, but since waiting is so much a part of the path to publication, it's helpful to fill that time with another project. After awhile, days will pass with scarcely a thought about your manuscript on submission, and that's when your brain will be free to enter the world of other characters and situations. 

Q: I'm curious about whether you think about specific students in your library as you make your plans for your next project. For example, you see a lot of kids demanding a type of story that is hard to find, or you think about a particular student who you know would be the perfect reader for your idea. And for those who don't know, FLYING THE DRAGON is a great story, well worth the read!
Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE FALSE PRINSE 

Natalie: Thanks, Jen. Being a school librarian, I try to pay close attention to what kids are asking for, and I find it so interesting to see what really grabs them. We have a high immigrant population at our school with about half of our kids reading below grade level. Graphic novels fly off the shelves, but I do see lots of kids who can't necessarily read them yet, but think it's cool to carry them around. :-) The most telling part of a library session, for me, is not while I'm teaching or even while the kids are looking for and checking books out--it's that 5-8 minutes they have between check-out and the time their teacher comes to pick them up and take them back to class. We have bean bags and chairs where kids can get comfortable, and I can always tell when kids get "into the zone," as we like to call it. Those are the kids who are so into their books that they don't hear me when I say it's time to line up because their teacher has arrived. These are the books I pay attention to, and I often ask kids why a particular book brought them into that magical zone.

For some kids it's graphic novels, for other it's fantasy. We have about 4 or 5 copies of your ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR, Jen, and those consistently put kids into the zone, I'm happy to report. :-) One interesting trend I've noticed lately is with 9-, 10-, and 11-year-old girls, many of whom come up to me and whisper, "Um, Mrs. Lorenzi? Do you have any books with, you know, some romance?" ;-) So middle grade characters with a crush or two will keep readers turning pages. Ultimately, readers love books that have characters with whom they connect. And since kids have such different tastes, we need authors to write books with a wide, wide variety of characters--those with different quirks, ethnicities, and life experiences. So keep writing, all of you!

Thank you, Natalie, and Amy, and Jennifer! 

More questions are always welcome... post them in the comments below.  

01 October 2012

Author/Librarian Natalie Dias Lorenzi takes the teaching-traveling-total-rewrite path to publication

Is this cover gorgeous, or what? 
Kudos to illustrator Kelly Murphy.
Today's interview features Natalie Diaz Lorenzi, author of FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge Publishing, July 2012), a middle-grade novel (ages 8-12) about family, kite-fighting, and finding your place in the world. If you'd like to learn more about Natalie and her work, visit her website here. You can also find her blogging along with other debut authors at EMU's Debuts.

Q: Natalie, your bio reads like an adventure novel-- teacher, world traveler, freelance writer, reviewer and librarian! When did you decide to add children's author to that list, and what inspired you to write FLYING THE DRAGON?

A: I was a voracious reader as a kid, and I loved writing stories when I was in elementary school. After that, however, the only writing I did was for school assignments in middle school, high school, and on into college. Once I became a teacher, reading and writing were my favorite things to teach, and that's when I started to wonder if I could write a book for kids. I attended a workshop on teaching writing to kids, and the instructor had us take apart text in picture books and really examine how authors use word choice to create theme, emotion and atmosphere. The one title I remember from that workshop was OWL MOON, by Jane Yolen. I'd read that book countless times, but I felt like I was really seeing it for the first time. I saw the purpose in every word choice and the cadence that Yolen had created to achieve rhythm and emotion and awe, and I was hooked. I decided then that I wanted to give writing a try--not just in my classroom, but for me. 

Natalie Dias Lorenzi
I jotted down some story ideas over the next two years, but it wasn't until we moved to Italy and was I able to stay home with my own kids that I really had time to explore writing more seriously. I joined SCBWI and the Blueboard forums at Verla Kay's website, and enrolled in an online class in writing for children. The kernel for FLYING THE DRAGON really started then. I'd lived in Japan for two years and was fascinated by the culture, and I'd taught ESL students who had come to the US knowing no English. I wanted to combine those two elements and explore the immigrant experience from a child's point of view. One of the assignments for the online class was to write a scene showing dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist in my story, and that was when I wrote the scene where Hiroshi, one of my main characters, meets a Japanese-American boy in class on his first day of school. In later drafts, the boy eventually became a classmate named Susan, who eventually became Hiroshi's cousin, Skye. I learned that writing isn't necessarily linear; there are a lot of stops and starts along the way!

Q: I'm curious about the behind-the-scenes of book publishing. Could you take us on a brief step-by-step of the process with FLYING THE DRAGON, from "I have this idea..." to "Oh, look! There's my book on the shelf!" 

A: Before I'd finished the first draft, I'd already started researching publishers and agents who might be interested in a multicultural story like FLYING THE DRAGON. I joined a critique group, finished the manuscript, and thought I was ready to go. I queried agents, but didn't get many requests for the partial or full manuscript. That's when I realized how important the query letter really was, so I pulled back and spent many hours revising and rewriting the query.

Soon after that, I saw that SCBWI was having an online chat with agent Erin Murphy, someone I'd heard wonderful things about. She wasn't open to outside queries, but those who participated in the chat with her would get the chance to send in a query to her. Since I was in Italy and she was in Arizona, it meant staying up from 1:00 to 2:00 in the morning my time, but it was worth it, because I signed with her a few weeks later and have been her client for almost six years. 

I revised a bit with Erin before it went out to editors, but the responses we were getting all said the same thing: "Lovely writing, but too quiet for the market." After about a year of this, we pulled back and started talking revisions. I'd told Erin that if this manuscript ever sold, I'd like to write a companion book from Susan's point of view. That's when Erin said that maybe it was time to add Susan's story into this one, so that's what I did, and FLYING THE DRAGON went from one to two main character viewpoints. That revision was more like a total rewrite, and took over a year as we were moving back to the US from Italy. Once it was done, though, we had interest from Charlesbridge within a few months.

The official offer took another few months to finalize, which felt like ages! But once that contract was signed, things moved fairly quickly. My editor's first revision letter came about 6 weeks later, and both rounds of revisions were finished within a few months. Then came copyedits, page proofs, the lovely cover by the talented Kelly Murphy, and then it was a real book! It was such a thrill to hold those first ARCs, and later the hardback copies. It still feels surreal when I see it on the shelf in a bookstore or library.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work as a school librarian? How does it inform your work as an author?

A: I'm a part-time ESL teacher and part-time librarian at an elementary school near Washington, DC. For the past few years, I've been taking courses towards a school librarian endorsement on my teaching license, and my last course will be in the spring--hooray! Next year I'll finally be able to apply for a full-time librarian job.

This year and last year, though, I've felt very lucky to be in the library at least half-time and learn the ropes with another full-time librarian alongside me. As an author, it's been fascinating to watch kids' reactions from everything to plot, to characters, book covers to illustrations. At the elementary level, kids are creatures of habit when it comes to genre. I have Kindergarten students who ask me for princess books every. Single. Week. And upper grade kids who want another adventure book or fantasy book or funny book time after time. 

One conclusion I've come to is that the books kids reach for aren't always the ones that we adults deem as "good" literature. And that's okay. As a librarian, I've seen kids cheer when the book they want is on the shelves--they grin and pump their fists and shout, "YYYes!" Whether that book's cover sports a cartoon captain in underpants or a Newbery medal doesn't really matter. Kids want characters they can connect with, and, just like kids, those characters come in a variety of forms.

Q: What are some ways you would suggest that authors can work with librarians to engage readers?

A: We have a librarian list-serve in my school system, and librarians definitely talk about authors who do school visits. I would recommend that authors really take some time to plan an engaging program for students of various ages, and to offer more than one type of program (one that's more of a writing workshop, another that's focused on how books go from idea to bookstore, that kind of thing). When an author visit is well-done, word gets around fairly quickly. 

Also, with so many schools dealing with budget cuts, it's also helpful to offer Skype visits. Some authors do free 20-minute Skype visits for small groups, like book clubs or single classrooms, and that can be a great way to make that initial connection. 

Q: What's next for you? Are you working on another novel? 

A: I'm currently working on another middle grade novel. I'll let you know if I have any good news to share!

Thank you, Natalie, for all your great ideas and insights! 

More questions, anyone? (Post in the comments and Natalie will check in to provide answers.)

UPDATED: Read a follow-up to this interview with questions from other YA authors, here.