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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.

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Gimmicky vs. Personal: A Query Tip


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I normally hate query gimmicks, but this one, if you can call it a gimmick, sort of worked. So I figured I’d share it.

I just received a query letter. The introduction was personal. The author mentioned following me on twitter, having taken one of my writing webinars, etc. Always good to include such details if you can.

The synopsis was succinct, describing the protagonists and their conflicts. Okay well done.

Then in what I’ll call the “About the Author” section, this author did something novel. Rather than a long, overly-detailed c.v., she broke her “bio” into two sections: Some Interesting Things About Me, and Some Writerly Things About Me. The latter detailed, in brief, her writing credits. Good to know.

Some Interesting Things About Me was what caught my eye. The author included two or three just…well…kind of interesting autobiographical facts, totally unrelated to her writing, her project, or the business at hand. They were succinct enough not to distract, and also gave my brain something specific and personal to associate with the author. Even though I ultimately passed on this particular project, I’ll remember this person. She will stand out the next time she queries me (which I hope she does). Oh yeah, the ___ lady.

Whacky and gimmicky queries don’t work. Agents have heard every joke and we’re rarely won-over by attention-grabbing snark or goofiness. Your writing, your project, speaks for itself. But you do want your query to catch the eye. So maybe next time, after your short synopsis, try including one bizarre or interesting fact about yourself. Just one. To this agent, it won’t read as gimmicky, but personal, and it may get my eye to linger those few extra precious seconds. Will it sway my decision? Probably not. But it won’t hurt either.

Image via http://fusedlearning.com/

 

Chatting with the Middle Grade Ninja

In case you missed it this weekend, check out my interview with Middle Grade Ninja. It gets real, yo.

Question Three: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

 My ideal cninja stufflient works hard and writes a ton. He or she handles rejection like a champ, and is always striving to improve. I feel some kind of bond with all my authors; connecting on a personal level is vital for a positive professional relationship. I like to joke around too, so a sense of humor is a bonus (I feel like I’m filling out a personals ad!).

Read the whole thing here!

Dirty, Pretty Thing: Purple and Blue Language in Y.A.

I’m a sucker for purple prose. I’m not proud of it, but alliteration makes me swoon, as does a prettily described sunset or milkmaid. (Some favorite examples appear in Proust’s Swann’s Way, a five-hundred-page book about a cookie). But my love of flowery language is, I think, just another symptom of English Major-itis: the desire to write and read Great Works of Art as opposed to Stories. And though they’re often fun to write, beautiful descriptions are best avoided, *especially* in young adult literature. Teens read for plot, not for prose. My 13-year-old sister and other teens I’ve spoken to skip the “boring parts,” which are almost always the descriptions. Descriptions are the icing, and if you’ve ever eaten a jar of icing on its own, you know it only feels good at first.

On the other hand, teens love blue (profane or vulgar) language. (So do I.) It’s fun, funny, taboo, and often the way teenagers speak to one another. Raised by a mother who talks like a trucker, I have to check myself, when I speak and when I write, to ensure I don’t curse a…well, a blue streak. But fiction, and especially dialog, must be believable, which ironically is not always the same thing as true-to-life. At times “realistic’ teen dialog is so vulgar as to be distracting. And that’s the real problem with extreme language of any kind: it steals focus. I don’t want my readers thinking about my protagonist’s foul mouth when they should be thinking about her broken heart.

Today I struggled to tamp both purple and blue. In the scene I was working on, my protagonist and her boyfriend slip into the bushes for some hanky-panky. My first impulse was to pan away and describe the slowly spinning wheel of boyfriend’s bike as it glints in the sun. Yawn. Turning focus back to the kids, I found myself using the same blue language the characters themselves would have used to describe their actions, but the result was too graphic. I settled for skipping the play-by-play entirely and used suggestive post-romp details instead. This was the result:

They made it as far as Sweet Creek before a private path through the trees enticed them off the road. They let the bike fall with a crunch, the upended front wheel spinning freely. Twenty minutes later Cherry was brushing a mud stain from her slacks, and Lucas searched for his sock in the bushes.

            “You have leaves in your hair,” he said.

            “I have leaves everywhere.” She felt like a wild woods girl, a sprite. She wanted to climb into the nearest oak and fall asleep. She stretched, felt an ache above her solar plexus and winced.

How Do I Pub My Non-Fiction Book? Q&A

Some friends wrote with questions about publishing their commercial non-fiction project. Thought I’d share my answers with you all:

Should we find an agent or contact publishers ourselves?

Definitely find an agent first. For that you’ll need a book proposal, which should include a few sample chapters, an overview of your platform, any persons of note who might be tapped to write a forward, an outline of the book, your market, etc. Basically, a package describing what the book will be (with examples), who will buy it, and why.

 

How do we go about finding a trustworthy agent?

There are lots of resources online, and Writer’s Marketplace is a great print publication. You’ll want an agent specializing in commercial non-fiction. You might start by looking up who represents authors of books similar to yours (this info isn’t always public, but check the acknowledgements section, and usually the author mentions their agent).

 

As far as trustworthy agents go, Predators & Editors is an invaluable resource. They should not *pay* an agent to consider their book. In fact, they shouldn’t pay an agent anything until there’s a book deal. Standard percentage is 15%, and you want an agent who is an AAR member.

 

When we find one, what is generally the timeline to publishing a book?

Long. Assuming your first round of submissions lands you an agent: Agent considers for 30-60 days, finishing the book takes another 3 months, then revisions with the agent take another 3. Editors consider for 2 months, then more revisions, then an additional year (at least) of promotion, printing, etc, before the book hits the shelves. As far as $$$ is concerned, advances often run 1/2 on execution of the publishing agreement, 1/2 on acceptance by the Publisher of the final draft of the book. Sometimes a portion is reserved until the book is actually published.

 

Hope this helps!

 

Godspeed, pilgrims,

-J

 

Article in 2011 CWIM

Have you grabbed your copy yet? The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market is what I always recommend to authors seeking agents and publishers. It’s a fabulous and exhaustive resource (you’ll find Scott Treimel NY on page 300).

This year, my article, “An Agent / Author’s Crash Course in Getting Published,” is among the pieces from agents, editors and major authors. It features such salient tips as:

1. Surviving awkward phone calls with potential publishers.

2. Taming your writing as you tame a 100-pound American Bulldog.

3. Getting past “No,” and the far more injurious, “Hmm…

4. Coffee: infusing inspiration; removing stains.

A sample…

My career began with an American Bulldog. I’d climbed five flights to interview at S©ott Treimel NY, a boutique juvenile literary agency in the LaGrange Terrace penthouse at Astor Place. Five months previous I’d graduated college, set to dazzle the world with the profundity of metaphor in Russian literature. I wanted to be a novelist, and was also interested in the book business. Now, twenty interviews later, beat and red-eyed, I clasped my double-espresso like a scabbard and faced one hundred pounds of slobbering Cerberus. Its nametag read “Petey.”

My piece aside, this really is the guide. I always had one on my college book shelf. Go buy one!