Interview

Interviews about writing and/or agenting

#DVPitLive Video: On Pitches, Rep, and #OwnVoices

Last night I got to participate in this live stream for #DVPit along with Stacy Whitman, Publisher of Tu Books, and fellow-agent Quressa Robinson, hosted by the brilliant author Claribel Ortega. We answer questions about pitches, representation, #ownvoices, and all sorts of cool publishing stuff.

As you watch, appreciate the fact that my cat is just off-screen trying to climb in my lap, and my awesome wife is ten feet away making a dinner that smells so good you can practically see me drooling. Thanks to Beth Phelan and the #DVPit crew for having me!

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S.K. Ali Talks with NBC News about #OwnVoices

In this interview with NBC news, S.K. Ali talks about her #MuslimShelfSpace twitter campaign, and the importance of #ownvoices authors. Her debut young adult, SAINTS AND MISFITS is coming June 13th from Salaam Reads!

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You can follow Sajidah at @sajidahwrites, and check out Sajidah’s piece on her quest to find an agent.

 Pre-order SAINTS AND MISFITS on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound, and check it out on Goodreads.

11/19 Webinar: How to Be a Writer Without Losing Your Mind


Hi all! If you’ve enjoyed some of the craft-focused and inspirational posts I’ve done on this blog, you should check out my November 19th webinar with Writers Digest, HOW TO BE A WRITER WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND: Balancing Work, Life, and CraftThere will be a Q and A as well as query critiques for all attendees. You should check it out!

ABOUT THE WEBINAR

Being a writer can make you crazy. The writer’s life is at once invigorating and exhausting, it can be isolating and wonderfully social, inspiring as well as demeaning. As writers we bring our deepest, most sensitive selves to the page, and often the world can feel like a hyper-critical and uncaring receiver, where competition, criticism, and even the success of others can make writing feel like a chore, or worse-utterly terrifying. And yet, we’re driven to return to the page and express ourselves despite the uncertainty and the demands of day-to-day life.crazy writers block

How do we deal with all these contradictions, the isolation, the rejection, the irrational joys and sorrows of being a writer? In this live webinar you’ll learn many ways to kill the fear, or, as Robert Leckie said, shoot that old bear under your desk between the eyes.

With practical tips and tricks, examples from dozens of famous writers, and inspiration culled from years of experience as both an author and agent, instructor John Cusick provides the tools for tackling the writing life with gusto, enthusiasm, and balance. Learn healthy, productive techniques for combating the inner critic, utilize envy envy, and summon motivation. With humor and insight, this webinar will give attendees the skills to conquer the maddening uncertainties of writing and publishing, and to create a space for one’s writer self in the world.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:writing-center-wordlie

  • Techniques for balancing writing time and your day-to-day life
  • Tips for staying focused when distractions demand your attention
  • How to set up a mental and physical space for your writing
  • Tricks for staying motivated and inspired
  • Techniques for coping with insecurity, uncertainty, and rejection
  • How to deal with your internal critic
  • Daily practices and meditations specifically designed for the writing life
  • How to take the measure of yourself as a writer, and keep writing!

Sit Down and StartWHO SHOULD ATTEND?

  • Anyone looking or inspiration and motivation to KEEP GOING
  • Writers feeling hounded by their inner critic
  • Sufferers of “writer’s block”
  • Long time authors in a rut
  • New writers looking to form strong writing habits
  • Writers with day jobs and families, in school
  • Writers who feel distracted
  • Anyone who feels they “don’t have time to write”
  • Writers who feel they’re on the verge of “giving up”
  • Writers who find it difficult to get started
  • Book lovers who want to pursue writing seriously
  • Any writer seeking an agent, a publisher, a first book deal, that break out novel, or feel they are ready for their craft and career to take the next big step

ABOUT THE CRITIQUE

All registrants are invited to submit a query letter to be critiqued. All submitted queries are guaranteed a written critique by Literary Agent John Cusick.

If you’re busy November 19th, no worries– the webinar will be recorded, and you can re-watch it for up to a year. So sign up today!

Courtesy of Alex Thayer Stewart, who took these notes during a live version of this talk 🙂

Happy Pub Day to Last Year’s Mistake!

A huge congrats to Gina Ciocca on the publication of her debut y.a., LAST YEAR’S MISTAKE! Called one of the most-anticipated debuts of the year by Barnes & Noble and Epic Reads…

LYMnorain

What people are saying:

“A fresh and raw love story about knowing when to hold on and when to let go. Ciocca’s voice is true and captivating, the perfect blend of angst and hope.” (Lindsey Leavitt, author of PRINCESS FOR HIRE and GOING VINTAGE)

Last Year’s Mistake hooked me from the beginning and left me with a smile at the end.” (Nicole Williams, New York Times bestselling author of the Crash series)

“A solid, thoughtful romance with plenty of angst.” (School Library Journal)

Before:
Kelsey and David became best friends the summer before freshman year and were inseparable ever after. Until the night a misunderstanding turned Kelsey into the school joke, and everything around her crumbled—including her friendship with David. So when Kelsey’s parents decided to move away, she couldn’t wait to start over and leave the past behind. Except, David wasn’t ready to let her go…

After:
Now it’s senior year and Kelsey has a new group of friends, genuine popularity, and a hot boyfriend. Her life is perfect. That is, until David’s family moves to town and he shakes up everything. Soon old feelings bubble to the surface and threaten to destroy Kelsey’s second chance at happiness. The more time she spends with David, the more she realizes she never truly let him go. And maybe she never wants to.

Told in alternating sections, LAST YEAR’S MISTAKE is a charming and romantic debut about loving, leaving, and letting go.

GinaCiocca_thumbJMC: When and how did you start writing?

Gina Ciocca:I’ve literally been writing since I knew how. In second and third grade, my friend Bridget and I would write stories about each other as the love interests to celebrity offspring during class and then swap notebooks to read them. They were long-winded and plotless, but so much fun! I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t love books and the imaginary worlds they can take you to.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

I absolutely can. It was Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. My school used to give us a half an hour or so for quiet reading time, but when I read this book I was so absorbed in the imaginary forest kingdom that thirty minutes felt more like two. I can still remember blinking and looking around as the teacher told us to close our books. It had felt so real to me – the golden trees, the rope swinging over the creek – that I was actually disoriented upon finding myself back in a sterile, fluorescently lit classroom. It was the first time I realized words could create magic.

My other childhood storytelling heroes are probably very common for my generation: Ann M. Martin’s BABYSITTERS CLUB Series (I was totally Mary Anne), Francine Pascal’s SWEET VALLEY TWINS series, Lucy Maude Montgomery’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, and anything by Christopher Pike.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

I wanted to be an author my entire life, but I didn’t write my first book until I was almost 30, despite all my bookish obsessions and the fact that I had a BA in English. The latter was probably part of the problem – I had no idea what to do with my degree, and writing so much for school sort of burned me out. Once I graduated, I took an office job that had absolutely nothing to do with what I’d studied – or loved. I didn’t read or write for ages. As a result, I was pretty miserable, but it took me a long time to make the connection. I thought I was unhappy because I worked long hours for terrible pay in a place where I was over-utilized and underappreciated (which didn’t help!). Things got a little easier when I changed jobs in 2004, but it wasn’t until I suffered a miscarriage in 2009 that I took a step back and reevaluated my life a bit. Then a light bulb went off: I’d abandoned my outlet, and I needed to get back to doing what made me happy. I decided I was finally going to write a novel.

When I did, it was truly a rookie mess. 96,000 words, and at least 25,000 of them completely unnecessary. But I had no clue; I was just so proud of myself for finally seeing a concept through from beginning to end. Unsurprisingly, this was not the novel that got my foot in the door. But it *was* the one that broke me in, that introduced me to the online writing community, and that helped me find friends and critique partners that I treasure to this day.

Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?

It was hard, though due in large part to how green I was when I started querying, and the fact that I was querying a novel that didn’t fit in anywhere. It was about college-age girls, which I had no idea was not considered YA when I wrote it, and New Adult was not yet a thing. It was also paranormal in the post-Twilight era, which meant most agents ran screaming from it.

Querying LAST YEAR’S MISTAKE was totally different. I was older and wiser, had a lot more research and experience under my belt, and knew I had a marketable story. Agent responses started off slow, but once I revised my query and started entering contests, the requests really poured in. I think I had 14 or 15 agents request material, and two offers of representation. I chose John Cusick because I loved his editorial suggestions and felt they’d make the story stronger, and because he was so genuinely enthusiastic about the manuscript. The rest is history.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

I used to write in my down time at work, but since I had my son in August 2013, I’m now a stay-at-home mom. Some people might think this makes it easier to write. They are wrong. My son cried constantly when he was first born, and I didn’t have time to shower, let alone write. Now, thank goodness, he’s mellowed out enough that I can write during his naps and after he goes to bed. Early morning and post-sunset are my time for my other kids – my stories.

Inspiration comes from everywhere: dreams, memories, people, places, songs. If one of those things makes me feel a certain way, I live for the challenge of trying to replicate it in a novel.

Can you tell us about your next book?

I have two finished manuscripts, the newest of which is a YA Contemporary that was ridiculously fun to write. The other is a YA psychological thriller that I’m currently revising, and I’m also converting a YA romance novella into a full-length novel. My writing cup runneth over, and I love it!

Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

I would kill to have dinner with V.C. Andrews. She passed away in the 80’s, but I bow to her ability to write the dark and twisted. One of these days I’m going to get brave and do a re-imagining of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC. And as I serve her wine at my dinner party, I’ll ask her to tell me on DL if she despised the ghost writer they hired after her death as much as I did.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

I have several. Do your research, don’t be afraid of critique, surround yourself with topnotch CP’s, and write even if you’re not totally feeling the love for what you’re putting on the page. To quote myself, Let Your Suck Flow. http://writersblog-gina.blogspot.com/2011/12/just-let-your-suck-flow.html

Check out Gina’s awesome blog and follow her on twitter.

LAST YEAR’S MISTAKE on Goodreads and order at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Indiebound.

A debut deal for Susie Salom with Arthur A. Levine Books!

Very excited to announce Susie Salom’s debut middle-grade, KYLE CONSTANTINI FINDS HER WAY! From Publishers Weekly:

Cheryl Klein at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books has acquired world rights toKyle Constantini Finds Her Way, a middle-grade novel by debut author Susie Salom. As Kyle participates in a problem-solving competition, she also navigates the maze of sixth-grade friendships, crushes, and trust, using T’ai chi, echolocation, twin ESP, and her lucky blue fedora. Publication is planned for fall 2016; John M. Cusick of Greenhouse Literary negotiated the deal.

Susie SalomJMC: When and how did you start writing?

Susie: I had this little tablet with a smiley-faced rainbow on it when I was six years old. I filled it with poems. Later, in third grade, I wrote a short story called ‘Nose Knows,’ in which a person (named Nose) with an enormous schoz saves the day because of his bionic sense of smell and his ability to trust where it leads him.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

Honestly, in the very beginning I was more hot and bothered by non-fiction, particularly stuff about outer space, the weather and any ‘unsolved mystery’ kind of reads that were available in the early ‘80s. I liked, and practiced, the venerable art of reading auras so the kinds of books I gravitated toward most were, like, I don’t know Esoteric 101 for Squirts. But if you put a watergun to my nostril and said, ‘Quick! Name a legendary storyteller from when you were a kid!’, I’d give props to William Sleator (Into the Dream was the first novel I hooked up to like an IV until I was done with it) and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I’d say Snyder’s The Changeling had a measurable impact on my psyche. But I also loved really down-to-earth, recognizable, funny contemporary stuff like (the honorable) Judy Blume (long live Sheila the Great,) Barthe DeClements (Nothing’s Fair in the Fifth Grade, anyone?) and this other book that I’m super stumped in my efforts to remember. It was about this girl in junior high whose parents divorce and the mom goes on a health kick and gives her food that she’s embarrassed by in her lunch sack–tofu was seen as a heckuva lot weirder circa 1985–so she forms this club that meets under the bleachers to avoid the cafeteria crowd. If this sounds familiar to anyone, can you please help me solve the mystery? I’d be fraternally grateful.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

My first novel was completed eons ago. Key to going the distance were a handful of beta readers–my sister, a former student of mine, one of my best friends–who read chapters as I was writing it and were gracious enough to let me know where they’d laughed. In fiction, as in life, if you can laugh at the same stuff, you’ve made a gorgeous, inestimable connection. Then, of course, just finishing the thing–a women’s fic piece that was at once thinly-veiled autobiography as well as an amateur, but wicked fun, exercise in wish-fulfillment–also made my confidence soar. It was like, I can totally do this. And that was indescribably rad.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

I’m a sprinter. Every novel I’ve completed, it’s been like that. I have a whole, virtual storage unit of novels I started but didn’t finish so if it’s gonna fly, it’s gotta happen quickly. I started off with Stephen King’s admonition to write 1500 words a day and I totally believe in having a metric like that. What I’d suggest, in case anyone wants unsolicited advice, is to find your pace and be true to it. For me, it’s banging out a novel before it dries up inside me. The last one I wrote came at a rate of about 3500 words a day. It was Middle Grade, so it only clocked in at around 40K words. I don’t know if I could sustain that pace for a full-length manuscript for adults, but that’s the fun in getting to know yourself creatively and productively. What are you capable of? What fuels you? Which worlds do you totally dig inhabiting when you can block out the one filled with autocrats and laundry and a ludicrously imbalanced signal-to-noise ratio. Sorry. Think I went off. Not sure I stayed on topic with your question but basically, when I’m writing, I start in the morning and I stop when I’m done for the day. Sometimes that’s around lunch time, sometimes I’m burnin’ ye olde candelabra after the sun’s gone to bed. I just have to work fast before the thing sets. It’s a lot like wet cement. Also, if I wait too long to explore a story idea, it kinda shifts, like this super-fragrant, lilac vapor (pre-cement stage,) and just goes somewhere else. Maybe to a spinal column that is better prepared to sit its coccyx down and do the work now. (No, I do not, nor have I ever, done drugs.)

Can you tell us about your next book?

Can I do that? I mean, is that kosher? Well, I’ll let you decide what to print since you’re my agent! After Kyle’s story, I wrote a novel called ACE MASTRIANO AND THE SUPERSONIC MYSTERY CARAVAN. It’s kid’s fic that is at once thinly-veiled autobiography as well as an amateur, but wicked fun, exercise in wish-fulfillment. Just jokin’. It’s about an indomitable 12-year-old girl, Alexis ‘Ace’ Mastriano who stalks the secrets of the universe. She even tries to get a club off the ground to assist her in her quest until one day … the universe answers. It’s set in 1984. Yes, kids, the cosmos were communicating even before the Internet.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

I love this part. My tip is simple: know thyself. And then be true. The amount of horse doody you’re going to have to wade through on your way to The Desired End is staggering. So. Get used to the smell, and let your Nose lead you–sometimes around but sometimes through–where (and how) you need to go. Trust yourself. You’ve got this.

What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

What a killer note to end on. I’m gonna go with Ford Prefect. Either him or Jerry Spinelli’s timeless, artless, deeply wise and alive Stargirl.

Debut Deal for Amy Brashear and her Y.A. Retelling of In Cold Blood

Now, Truman Capote’s classic non-fiction novel In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books of all time. It explores the murder and aftermath of the Clutter family in 1959 Holcomb, Kansas, the search for their killers, and the eventual trial and execution (um, spoilers). So when author Amy Brashear queried me with a y.a. retelling of ICB from the point of view of Nancy Clutter’s teenage best friend, I requested immediately. Today I’m thrilled to announce that haunting coming-of-age, CONDEMNED, will be published by SoHo Teen!

Amy Brashear Author Pic

Greenhouse: When and how did you start writing?

Amy: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I was always scribbling something down on paper. I blame my mom. We would watch a lot of murder shows growing up, especially Murder, She Wrote. We would sit in front of the TV and try to figure it out before Jessica did. I wanted to be a writer like Jessica Fletcher. I wanted to write about murder and solve crimes. I was a weird little girl.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. I was in the fifth grade and we had just moved from Garden City, Kansas to Nacogdoches, Texas. My class went on a field trip to Stephen F. Austin University to see a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I had never read the book before seeing the play. But after school my mom took my brother and I to the bookstore at the mall and bought a copy. I still have that worn paperback.

Growing up I read a lot and that’s due to my mom. She would always tell my brother and I stories. She would always make them up. Though they would often be about us— what we were like as kids. When I started reading on my own I would read the Little House on the Prairie books, the Boxcar Children, the Babysitters Club books, Goosebumps, really anything by R.L. Stine, Caroline B. Cooney, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, and Lois Duncan. I couldn’t get enough of those books.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

I grew up in Southwest Kansas and knew about the Clutter family murder way before I read imgres by Truman Capote, which is one of my favorite books. I was always fascinated about the case. Truman focused on Dick and Perry but I was fascinated with what it would be like to live during that time in that small town and what happens when everyone is looking at everyone else as someone who could have done something so violent. I wanted to answer the question of what happens if you’re best friend was murdered and your father ends up having to represent one of the suspects. I did so much research for this book. Newspaper articles were my saving grace.   

Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?

Yes. Yes it was. I’m a product of the slush-pile. I didn’t know anyone in publishing. Being published has been a dream for a very long time. I’ve queried many a book. But I guess this book was different. I researched many agents and queried many that I thought would be a perfect representative of my book but I ultimately signed with John, an agent that wasn’t just the perfect agent to represent this book but hopefully my future career.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

I like to write historical fiction so I spend a lot of time researching. I like to read old newspaper articles, looking at vintage photographs, old magazines, anything and everything can make a good story. I write anytime I can. I use the note app on my phone throughout the day, whenever inspiration strikes.

Can you tell us about your next book?

I’ve finished another YA historical. It’s set in 1969. I’m drafting a YA alternate history novel set in 1984 and a MG historical fantasy.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

I know it sounds silly but never number your chapters until the very last minute. Trust me it will save you a lot of hair pulling. Always backup your work in many different places. Trust me. I’ve been there. And even though it’s easier said than done try not to worry and have patience.

Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

1. Have an outline but don’t stick with it. Let the words take you where they want to go.

2. Don’t be afraid to cut characters during revisions.

3. When you get “stuck” don’t be afraid to step away and work on other things.

Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

Truman Capote. I think it would be a fun dinner party. Though he’d be doing all the talking and gossiping. But there would be laughing. And I think many secrets would be spilled.

Luna Lovegood and Amy Dunne. Two of the most different but amazing characters ever written.

Happy Pub Day! Interview with Courtney Alameda, author of SHUTTER

Happy Pub Day to Super-Writer Courtney Alameda, whose debut y.a. SHUTTER is out today!

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I met Courtney three years ago at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in Utah. There I was fortunate enough to read a ten page sample of SHUTTER and meet with Courtney for a critique.

And you know what? I loved her and her writing so much, I signed her in the room.

Well…sort of. I offered representation in the room. And told her to think about it. Because it’s a big decision.

Then the next day…I signed her in the room.

(Actually the paperwork took a few weeks but YOU GET THE IDEA.)

SHUTTER”S on all sorts of most-anticipated lists for 2015 (including B&N and Huffington Post), and just today on Bustle’s 15 of February 2015’s Best YA Books to Get You Through the Snowy, Cold Weather.

Seriously, if you’re a horror fan, go and buy SHUTTER now (on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound, for instance). And while you’re waiting for it to download, check out Courtney’s piece, today at Tor.com:
Everything I Needed to Know About Writing Monster Horror I Learned from Alien. 

Courtney_Author_Photos2013_032_thumbGHL: When and how did you start writing?

COURTNEY: When I was a child, storytelling came as naturally as breathing, and I had a penchant for both expository and creative writing as an adolescent. However, I didn’t start writing regularly until college, where I discovered YA literature quite by accident.

I don’t recall what I was actually looking for, wandering in the university library that day—but I stumbled into the children’s section and blinked stupidly. Children’s literature? In a university library? My classics-saturated brain couldn’t comprehend the explosion of colorful spines in all different shapes and sizes, picture books heaped beside the novels, their titles bouncy and enticing. But a copy of Garth Nix’s SABRIEL stuck an inch too far off one of the shelves, catching my attention. Something about the girl with the bells on the cover beckoned to me; or more likely, the shadowy creature behind her sank its claws into my imagination. I took SABRIEL home, read it in one sitting, and swore I’d found my calling. I’d always planned on writing dark fantasy/horror for adults, but Nix’s work gave me permission to write it for young people, too.

I also swore to myself that, in ten years’ time, I’d have a book deal of my own—and most everything I did for those years was in pursuit of that goal, including writing every day.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

The first novel that made a significant impact on me was Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK. I was eight, and the moment I finished it, I turned right back to the beginning and read it again. It gave me the confidence to try other novels, including J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS (at age ten), and Stephen King’s THE STAND (at twelve). I believe these works fused in my subconscious and created the foundation for the writing I do today—one part thriller, one part horror, with a dash of fantasy. (Though I do wish those authors were not also all white, male, and two-thirds dead!)

On rare occasion, children’s works like Robin McKinley’s THE BLUE SWORD and Patricia C. Wrede’s DEALING WITH DRAGONS made it into my hands, head, and heart. To be honest, McKinley and Wrede may have been the only children’s authors I read by choice before my discovery of SABRIEL! I have always been drawn to strong female leads, and I attribute that affinity to McKinley’s Harry Crewe and Wrede’s Princess Cimorene. And if I had to name a forerunner for my protagonist, Micheline, I would certainly point straight to teen girl warriors like McKinley’s Harry or Nix’s Sabriel.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

My process is organic, with plots marked only by waypoints stretching from beginning to denouement. I ask my characters to design their own destinies and don’t tell them how to get from one point to the next; ergo, when the writing’s going well, characters’ choices often shatter my preconceived waypoints to build up their own.

SHUTTER was no exception: I threw out two or three drafts of the novel before Micheline accidentally called herself a Helsing, and her world and woes came spilling out so rapidly I hardly kept up with her. These accidental moments are the most inspiring—and frightening—part of my process. I can’t count on the happy accidents, but can only hope the “cock-eyed creative genius assigned to my case*” tosses a bread crumb my way, and that I’m present enough to catch that crumb and run with it.

MeandCourtneyWas it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?

Yes and no. Yes, because I refused to submit my work until I thought it worthy of an agent’s time and consideration—I wrote for years without submitting anything. Patience is one of my stronger suits. No, because I’d never even sent a query letter upon meeting (the Amazing—yes, he deserves a capital letter) John Cusick at the 2012 Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference. You can imagine my shock when he offered me representation!

I couldn’t have been luckier, because not only is John an awesome agent, but when I said, “I like weird monsters,” he asked, “Ever played SILENT HILL?” And right then and there, I knew there wasn’t anyone else who could represent my work the way John would.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

Day? My best writing comes out between the hours of eleven p.m. and four a.m., when the world (and the internet) is quiet and my cock-eyed genius is loud and caffeinated. I shut everything out while I work, blocking auditory distractions with headphones. Working alone and completely disconnected is a must if I want to get anything substantial done.

As for inspiration: I believe life experiences make the best pulp for fiction, and in order to create dynamic characters, writers must live dynamic lives. I aim to do something frightening every day. Also, I find the adage “you are what you eat,” applies to my creative life in regards to the media I consume. Books, music, documentaries, videogames, art, news stories, graphic novels—everything gets tossed into the primordial fires of my subconscious. As for what emerges, well…it usually has teeth.

Can you tell us about your next book?

Suffice to say I’m writing a first draft, have already had one false start, and am working toward a crumb big enough to run with!

tumblr_nilnqxG09O1qm7imdo1_500Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

Just this—aspiring writers should write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences scribbled down before collapsing in bed. Writing every day allows “the child in the cellar**” of your creative subconscious to breathe and stretch. Leave her cooped in the dark too long and she suffocates, taking your work with her.

And to quote Churchill: “Never, never, never give up.”

Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

Hands-down, peer critiquing has been the most important aspect of my development. Nothing has helped my hone my skills as has the careful, sensitive critique of another writer’s work. Also, having the opportunity to listen to how other readers interpret—and misinterpret—unfinished manuscripts has always been illuminating and an education in itself.

Secondly, the active deconstruction of published novels taught me what professional writing looks like, from big things like theme down to the word-by-word nitty-gritty. I have a few authors who consistently provide excellent fodder for this process—Maggie Stiefvater for characterization and beats, Holly Black for magic systems and tight plotting, Rick Yancey for lush prose and symbolism, and Neal Shusterman for voice.

Finally, nothing could replace the act of sitting down every day to write. Nothing.

Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

I should say something brilliant like Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, or Neil Gaiman, but really, I want a chance to shake Garth Nix’s hand and tell him thank you. And if I had to choose one character to wish to have invented, it would be his Sabriel.

*Elizabeth Gilbert, Your Elusive Creative Genius, TED 2009
**Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, Anchor 1995

Visit Courtney’s website, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook. You can also check out SHUTTER on Goodreads.

Interview with Author / Illustrator Julie Bayless

Julie Bayless_picI first saw Julie Bayless‘s phenomenal work at the SCBWI Oakland conference last year. She participated in the “Best Portfolio” contest, which I judged along with the other visiting editors and agents, and she was our unanimous choice. In fact, I now use some of Julie’s samples in my conference talks as examples of character, relationships, and story in illustrations. Julie’s debut picture book ROAR! (the beginnings of which were in her Oakland portfolio) is coming from Running Press Kids, Fall 2015.

When and how did you start writing?

I wrote and illustrated alphabet books starting at age eight.  “Irving Iguana Icked.” is a line from one of them, and the illustration shows Irving saying “Ick!” to several creatures offering him nasty-looking food. I like to think my writing and illustration has taken on a bit more nuance since then, though I like the sound of the line.

WildebeestwithPieCan you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

I loved If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss and  How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin  from old, politically incorrect Rudyard Kipling. I fondly remember Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina, and Rosalie the Bird Market Turtle, by Winifred and Cecil Lubell. I later got my own box turtle and named her Rosalie.

Tomi Ungerer’s Crictor the Boa Constrictor and The Three Robbers were also favorites.  Tomi has some of the most beautiful compositions, which are simple and powerful, and his drawings make me laugh, no matter how many times I look at them.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments

I remember thinking , “I’ll write a story with just a very few words; that’ll be MUCH easier!” Ha. 

When I showed my first storyboards to my husband, I was so pleased with them, and he (who has a fabulous sense of humor) didn’t think they were amusing at all.  He thought I was telling a story about a lion cub who has a deeply flawed relationship with her own family.  I trust Doug’s taste in a number of things, but I felt the idea of the book, un-formed at that point as it was, was worthy.  So I forged ahead. Doug has since come around!

Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?

I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) in 2009. Without that organization, I doubt I’d have an agent today.  Attending talks, getting portfolio reviews, and finding critique groups for my stories and illustrations; that, and drawing like a madwoman was how I got better. 

I sent postcards of my 623542illustrations to publishers every few months for three years, but never got any response.  I decided I needed to win “Best Portfolio” at a conference in order to land an agent to promote my work, and was astonished when it worked!  I met John at the 2013 Oakland SCBWI conference, where I did win “Best Portfolio”.  He said he’d like to see a book from me, so I came up with an initial draft of Roar! in four months.  I got feedback from as many people as I could while I was creating it. When I sent it to John, he offered to represent me, which was only slightly less thrilling than when my husband asked me to marry him. 

Describe your day.   Where do you look for inspiration? 

I spend as much time as possible drawing.  I love the iterative process of refining an idea, working out the composition, the characters, the colors.  I know I’m going in the right direction when I do a drawing that makes me laugh. 

I belong to both a writing critique group and an illustration critique group, and I get a huge amount of support and inspiration from them.  Conferences also provide a great deal of information and inspiration, and remind me to keep my portfolio and website updated.

Every week, I go to the library and grab any picture book that has an appealing cover.  I steal as many ideas as I can from other authors and illustrators!

EmandRafonStump005Are there any tips you could give aspiring author/illustrators who are looking to get published?

Join SCBWI, attend the conferences, familiarize yourself with what other books are being published in your genre, and draw and write as often as you can.  Find a group of people you trust who will give you honest feedback.  When you tell yourself you suck, don’t listen.  Besides, sucking for awhile is the only way to get better!  Don’t edit yourself in your first draft, just push forward.  Send it out, hope for the best, don’t give up.

Find out which tools make you happy, and try out some new ones from time to time. Be open to accidents, in whatever form they arrive.  Art accidents are a great opportunity to surprise yourself. 

See more of Julie’s artwork on her website.

Congrats to Christian Heidicker on His Debut Deal!

A big power-up high five to Christian Heidicker, whose debut y.a. just sold to Simon & Schuster! From Publishers Weekly:

29145-1Christian Trimmer at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers has bought debut author Christian Heidicker‘s YA novel, Miles in the Infinite Sandbox. Told in “censored” blog posts, the novel follows basement-dweller Miles after he is sent to video game rehab, and touches on issues of pop culture, sexism, and human connection. Publication is slated for summer 2016; John M. Cusick at Greenhouse Literary brokered the deal for world rights.

(You read that right. Christian’s editor is also named Christian. No, that’s not going to get confusing at all.)

When and how did you start writing?

Christian: I was cleaning a deep fat fryer. It was one of those crappy fast food jobs you get in college so you can afford to buy crappy fast food.

While the charred gloop of a thousand dead French fries splatted out into the bucket, images kept popping into my head of a small girl wandering into a forest with a plastic crown and a stuffed gorilla. I had to keep snapping off my rubber gloves to scribble notes on a pizza order sheet. Hold on to your crappy jobs, kids. They can inspire miracles.

IMG_3692Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

Matilda is the first book I can remember finishing and then starting right back over again. I loved Matilda’s power over her teachers and parents. Being an only child with a New Age mother who healed my cuts with white light instead of Band-Aids, I’d always had a problem with authority figures. In fact, who are you? Why are you asking me these questions?

My childhood storytelling heroes were C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, A.A.

Milne, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, and Brian Jacques . . . But everyone knows about them. You’re here for the goods. The work that turned me into a storyteller has to be Jim Henson’s Storyteller. The Soldier and Death episode specifically. Oh, look! It’s on YouTube! You lucky devils: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvsnV0yNddc If you don’t like the crappy eighties special effects, don’t tell me.

Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?

Someone else got my agent for me. Valynne E. Maetani* and I co-wrote a book about kids that used to eat brains together. (Not really though, it was hamburger.) We worked really hard on it, and when we were finished, Valynne threw on a Safari hat, grabbed a harpoon, and set off into the publishing wilderness. Eight days later, she returned bloodied and sweaty and covered in bruises. She had a lavender sack slung over her shoulder with a man-sized object struggling and screaming inside.

“I have good news,” she said, and poured John M. Cusick out onto the floor.

I highly recommend this approach.

10689931_10152987842073888_9040703992534659725_nDescribe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

I wake up between the hours of 7 and 11 a.m. (That’s not a joke.) I don’t care where I write so long as I’m standing. People may give me funny looks at coffee shops, but I feel like hell if I sit for too long, and how else am I supposed to break into interpretive dance if I’m super excited about an idea?

When it comes to organizing time, I’m my own Nurse Ratched. I don’t let myself do things like eat or read or go out on the town until I finish an assignment or a chapter. Right now, I’m eyeballing a cup of tea and a book on the history of Scientology.

I pull inspiration from EVERYWHERE. I believe in the Ray Bradbury reading diet. I read picture books, comic books, books on science and history, the news, classics, music lyrics, anything. Lately, however, I’ve found that just listening to how people speak is crazy valuable.

The other day, I was putting on a puppet play for kindergartners. One of the little girls raised her hand and said, “I don’t know what’s a puppet.” I couldn’t make up that kind of cuteness if I tried.

Can you tell us about your next book?

It’s about a kid who’s committed to video game rehab. Or, if you want to get more specific, it’s about a kid who gets the first date of his life only to be committed to video game rehab where he must earn one million points by learning real-life skills in order to be released and make it back to his date.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

YES. Read outside of your genre. The most famous creators out there bring something new to the table. Just look at sci-fi and fantasy.

J.R.R. Tolkien studied language. J.K. Rowling studied mysteries.

George R.R. Martin studied world history. George Lucas studied Akira Kurasawa films. C.S. Lewis studied theology. Of course you should read a bit in your genre to get a feel for what’s out there . . . but I’d like to see the Young Adult romance by someone who studied corn pollination or something . . .

1958461_10152470253823888_2118769219_nCan you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

1.     Learn how to finish things. You learn more by finishing and sharing your stuff than by doing anything else. (I’m hoping to reach Nirvana at the end of this questionnaire.) If someone can look at one your work as a whole, they can point out your weaknesses and strengths. Keep a tough skin and pay attention to how they really feel about it.

2.     Give yourself permission to completely screw it up the first

time. It’s super intimidating to approach a blank page, difficult chapter, or even a questionnaire. I’ve found that if I remind myself no one’s going to read the first draft, I can take big sloppy risks and throw in whatever jaunty crabjectives I spoon like.

3.     Start working on the next thing. Writing stings. Sharing

writing stings. Having that writing rejected over and over and over* again stings. BUT if you start working on a new project as soon as the first one is finished, then you won’t think about that poor first manuscript being blown to smithereens and tumbling down to the earth as a papery carcass. Also, you can mentally tell whoever rejected it that you’ve got something WAY better on the way. In fact, I think I’ll go start another questionnaire right now.

*and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over

This is a tricky question because I think the most brilliant writers were kind of . . . well, a-holes. Salinger was a hermit. Truman Capote was in love with himself. Roald Dahl hit his wife apparently. I’m not feeding that guy dinner. So here’s my list of people whose writing I greatly admire and would actually like to hang out with:

The Living:

Toni Morrison

Alan Moore (tolerably grumpy)

Ursula K. LeGuin

Kate DiCamillo

Sherman Alexie

And FINE, Neil Gaiman, you can come. (Ug. I feel like I’m inviting the prom king that everyone’s in love with. Although . . . he is pretty handsome. Er, good at writing.)

The Dead:

Maurice Sendak (charmingly grumpy)

Ray Bradbury

David Foster Wallace

Joseph Campbell

John Steinbeck

Kurt Vonnegut

(Whoa there, all white men.)

A character I wish I’d invented?! Ooh, that’s a good question.

Matilda, The Storyteller, and Swamp Thing all jump to mind . . . But then I wouldn’t have been able to experience them as a reader. So I’ll say . . . L. Ron Hubbard. Imagine a character who could brainwash tens of thousands with a simple sci-fi story . . . WHAT? That guy’s real? I still wish I invented him.

* Valynne’s amazing debut, INK AND ASHES, is coming from Tu Books in Spring 2015. Watch for it! Also Valynne is amazing and you should follow her and check out her websites. Add INK AND ASHES on Goodreads. – JMC

Interview with Rahul Kanakia

RahulKanakiaRahul Kanakia and I started working together last year. In April his debut y.a. novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, sold to Disney-Hyperion, and will pub next fall. Pitched as Gossip Girl meets House of Cards (I KNOW RIGHT), the novel takes the form of an unpublished manuscript written by over-achiever Reshma Kapoor as she launches a Machiavellian campaign to reclaim her valedictorian status after being caught plagiarizing.

I’ve blabbed before about how awesome Rahul’s blog is, but today one of my fav writer/thinkers treats us to his insights on writing, sociability, and finding an agent:

When and how did you start writing?

Rahul: I started when I was a senior in high school. I’d always harbored a vague ambition to write stories (ever since I discovered, by reading the submissions guidelines for the official D&D magazine, DRAGON, that it was actually possible to sell a story for money to a publication), but I’d never gotten around to actually do it. I can’t say why I decided to start writing one, but I know that I finished my first story on or around December 20th, 2003, and promptly submitted it to the highest-paying science fiction magazine that I could find (where it promptly earned me the first of what are, at last count, approximately 1,240 short story rejections).

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

I’d say that it was probably Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. My mom gave it to me, saying that she’d read and enjoyed it when she was a girl my age, living in India. That novel led me to read all kinds of science fiction writers. I loved Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Mike Resnick, Mercedes Lackey, and all kinds of other writers. In terms of children’s books, I really enjoyed British boarding school books (again, this is the influence of my mom) like the works of Enid Blyton. Oh, and, of course, I enjoyed Astrid Lindgren.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

I got the idea while I was reading this Michael Lewis’ compendium of financial reportage surrounding the 2007-8 financial panic and collapse. And during one of the stories, the journalist writes about protests in Korea by students who feel like they’re being forced to study too much. During the protests, they marched down main thoroughfares, chanting “We are not study machines!”

Something about that phrase was really evocative for me, and I thought “study machines, study machines…there has to be something I can do with that.” And I started developing this sleek dystopian story involving people being forced to study really hard.

But then, as I was thinking about it, I was like, “What? This doesn’t need to be dystopian at all. This is real life. Here in this world, in our country, there are kids who feel compelled, by society, to study allll the time. So I decided to write about one of them.

The actual writing took place over 31 days, from the end of December to the end of January. I wrote most of it while I was on a family vacation in India. A significant chunk, maybe a third, was written while we were at a rented villa in Sri Lanka that had its own beach and private chef. Now that’s a writing retreat.

Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?

I wrote ETH in January of 2013. At that point, I had another novel that I’d submitted to a contest for YA novels by people of color. I lost that contest, but I did become a finalist. And the winner of the contest, Valynne Maetani, knew John (she was about to sign with him) and offered, out of the blue, to put me in touch with him. I think it’s the most thoughtful writing-related thing that anything has offered to do for me. Anyway, he liked that book and wanted to sell it. I revised it throughout summer of 2013 and it went on submission to five editors in October/November of 2014, and was rejected by all of them. At that point, John had read ETH and both he and I were more excited about that, so we revised it and it sold in May of 2014.

Getting an agent was definitely happenstance. I’d previously queried 93 agents with that first book. I’m still surprised that John saw something in it that 93 other agents didn’t.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

In general, I think writers really overstate how much time they actually spend writing. I was recently talking to a group of YA writers and one of them brought up her brother, who’s a restaranteur and works sixteen hours a day, and someone else said, “Yeah, but that’s how it is in creative professions, right?”

And I was like, “Alright. Come on. Let’s level. None of us work sixteen hours a day? It’s more like two, right?”

Then everyone looked at me like I was crazy and someone stepped in to change the subject. But I am still firm in my belief that most writers either really exaggerate how much time they spend writing, or their writing time also involves a lot of internet-browsing and Twitter time.

Each Thursday, I decide how many hours of writing I want to do on each of the coming seven days. Then I keep track of whether or not I actually do that many hours and how many days in a row I’ve managed to meet my goal. In terms of actual goals, I usually try to go for 15 hours in a week, though sometimes I hit 18 or 20. When I write, I use the Freedom app to turn off my internet, and I wedge my phone into the folds of the could cushion, so I can’t see it or easily extract it.

Inspiration is tricky. I’m not sure about that. Often I’m inspired by garish stories that I read in the Lifestyles section of the newspaper. Other times I’m inspired by books that I’ve read.

Can you tell us about your next book?

Nope. I have no idea what it’ll be.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

Yes. Write hard. Read good. Keep trying. All of that is good advice.

I’d also say that it’s not a bad idea to try to meet other writers. Now, this is not necessary. I didn’t know that many other writers before I started publishing, and writing is one of the few creative professions where it’s possible to get really far even if you have zero connections. In fact, most writers get their agents through blind querying.

But if you go out and meet other writers and befriend them, either in person or on twitter, they can be of help to you. First of all, you’ll often find that if you stay friends with aspiring writers for a few years, then some will break out, find agents, get book deals, etc. And the ones who move ahead can help the ones who’re still struggling to make it. Also, the more contacts you have in the book / publishing world, the more anticipation there’ll be for your book when it actually releases. It’s hard to overstate how many books there are. And most of them are just a name, a title, and a blurb. If, on the other hand, even a few people look at that name and say, “Hey, I know that person,” then that helps.

Now I know that someone out there will read what I wrote and get super-depressed because many writers are anxious and depressive and introverted. Please don’t. I’m not saying that you need to be the coolest and most popular person in the YA world. You don’t. I’m saying to take baby steps. Get on Twitter. Follow other YA writers. Tweet at them once in awhile. I think you’ll be surprised by how little time it takes before you start to get somewhat friendly with them.

Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

Write in scene. It took me years to learn this. Narrative summary can be bold and have a good voice and be interesting, but it’s rarely surprising. It doesn’t include those chance side-characters and little bits of setting and gesture that take the book in surprising directions. If you write in scene, you’re giving yourself a chance for something to happen.

Choosing what tense to write in has become an extremely maddening problem. People will tell you to write in past tense like it’s extremely simple, but I find it maddening. If I’m writing in past tense (particularly in the first person), then when is the narration situated? Why is the narration proceeding chronologically? Why isn’t the narrator living up things with bits of future knowledge? Also, how can there be any character change: the person telling the tale is, throughout, the person who’s already changed.

On the other hand, present tense isn’t more satisfying. It’s too artificial and too constricting. It feels like it limits you too much to a given moment. It doesn’t allow you to break out of the moment and float more freely through the character’s psyche and their life.

Finally, I have a continued problem with description. Things are important. Objects are important. They’re an important part of life: our choice of objects and surroundings tremendously influences our mood. And they’re also intrinsically interesting. No one wants to just be with heads and words all the time. What I like about novels is that they affirm the importance of the physical world. They affirm the importance of tiny details and little gestures. They’re about what it’s like to be living life in a particular body in a particular place at a particular time. However, I’m terrible at describing things. I just don’t see them in my mind’s eye very well. It’s something I’m working on

Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?

I’d invite Ayn Rand to a dinner party, because I read Old School, which describes a dinner meeting with Ayn Rand, and it seems magnificent. She just so totally believed in her own philosophy. How could that fail to be endearing?

I’d also invite Tolstoy, because, judging by his essays, he always had something interesting to say. I don’t know whether I’d invite bearded old prophet Tolstoy or younger more literary Tolstoy, though. Maybe I’d invite them both.

ENTER TITLE HERE (Disney-Hyperion, Fall 2015) on Goodreads.

Read some of Rahul’s short fiction at Clarkesworld and Birkensnake.