Writing

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 Pitched as Gossip Girl meets House of Cards (I KNOW RIGHT), the novel takes the form of an unpublished manuscript written by over-achiever Reshma Kapoor as she launches a Machiavellian campaign to reclaim her valedictorian status after being caught plagiarizing.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.

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“Who sets these rules anyway?” On the Merits of Innovation

Here’s an interesting piece about Chet Baker (a favorite of mine), who, according to his critics, may have been talented, but wasn’t really an innovator. Chet was a pretty boy, playing smooth, listenable, not-particularly intellectual West Coast Jazz while his East Coast counterparts where actually honest-to-god changing music forever.

Frankly, the word “innovative,” when applied to fiction, makes me flinch. It’s my wariness of writers who break the rules before they know how to follow them (or indeed what the rules are). Appearing experimental can be a short-cut to being taken seriously. It’s the emperor’s-new-clothes problem. True innovation make look like crazy crap when it first arrives on the scene, but so does crazy crap. It can be difficult to distinguish brilliance from b.s.

I often gravitate toward more formal pieces of writing– traditional story structures– when I look for new clients or pieces for Armchair/Shotgun (and let it be said there seems to be less room, market-wise, for experimental stuff in children’s literature, though this is changing, I think). It’s so very difficult to tell a compelling story that makes your reader *feel* something– to be able to do that and *also* change the medium? Forget about it.

But amazing, totally new, experimental and innovative stuff *is* out there, recognized or not, and for our medium to thrive and grow, we need it. When I first read Dolan Morgan‘s short piece Infestation (A/S No.1), I was turned off by its odd structure– but the fault was mine for being a poor reader. Morgan truly was innovating. Upon rereading, and deeper reading, I saw he’d found a new way to talk about loss, and the result was strange and beautiful.

So whaddya think, gang? How important is it to innovate, as an artist? Do you try to innovate with your own work, push the boundaries of the medium, or no? Must all artists be innovators, or at least try to be? And what is our responsibility as readers? How far do we allow an author to draw us into uncharted waters?

My Writing Process (Blog Tour)

Guys. I am the *worst* at this blog thing.

Apologies for the long radio silence. It’s been a busy few months! Over at the Greenhouse, there have been deals, new clients, release dates, and all manner of agent-y ass-kickery. Here at my writer’s desk…well, more on that below.

My pal and occasional short-fiction publisher, the fabulous Kerri Majors, “tagged” me in her Writing Process blog post a few days ago. Kerri is the founder of and editor-in-chief at YARN (Young Adult Review Network) and the author of THIS IS NOT A WRITING MANUAL (Writer’s Digest Books, 2013), a guide for young writers. I’m delighted to answer the tour’s four burning questions (and then I get to tag two bloggers much better at blogging than I.)

A’ight let’s do this.

1. What are you working on?

Right now I’m wrapping up the final section of a new young adult novel. It’s a large, sprawling “faux-historical” (which means, I wanted to write a historical but didn’t want to do any research…kidding…sort of). It takes place in a re-imagined turn-of-the-century Manhattan. It’s the story of a girl who rises from an ethnic ghetto to the glamorous rooftops of Central Park while becoming entangled with organized crime and terrorism. Think a steampunky Boardwalk Empire.

I like to explore themes of personhood, gender, and class in my novels (I didn’t know that starting out, I just look back and it seems those ideas keep cropping up), but unlike GIRL PARTS and CHERRY MONEY BABY, this new project is a bit more sprawling in scope. I wanted to write something epic and sweeping, about family and history and culture, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s MIDDLESEX. It’s more ambitious than anything I’ve ever done and I’m very excited about it.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

As far as the current WIP goes, it’s a “steampunk” novel, but not a swashbuckling adventure. This is a character-driven story, though it takes place in a newly-imagined world. There are life and death stakes, but no robots or coal-powered giant spiders.

Generally, I’m a devotee of unreliable narrators, and there are certainly a great host of those in young adult. I also like to write narrators who are unreliable to themselves, who have only so much self-awareness. My protagonists grapple with how society has defined them and how they’ve self-defined. In GIRL PARTS, Rose is built to love one boy, and must forge an identity of her own when he rejects her. In CHERRY, the title character has an image of herself as a small-town girl, and must question that self-image when faced with the opportunity to enter a more glamorous tier of society. The protagonist of this new project, whom we’ll call Vette (because that’s what she’s called), is an infamous historical persona in her world, like Annie Oakley or Patty Hearst. She has a public persona of cruelty and danger that’s separate from who she is, or feels she is.

So, I suppose that’s something unique about my work- the exploration of multiple identities within single characters, personas, self-image, and one’s “true self,” if such a thing exists.

Sorry. I haven’t had my coffee yet…

Okay! Let’s keep going!

3. Why do you write what you do?

I love young adult fiction. I love writing it. It’s honest, and unpretentious, and relies on great story and true characters. You can’t hide behind pretty prose or brilliant metaphors in y.a.; you’ve got to make the reader *feel* something. Though I read a lot across age groups, writing y.a., and exploring that particular formation of identity that happens between 13 and 18, is where my heart is.

I’ve made the switch with my current WIP from a contemporary realistic backdrop to something more fantastical. I’m a sci-fi fan at heart, and I wanted to exercise that part of my brain this go-round. It’s been beyond fun.

4. How does your writing process work?

I go by drafts. I start with an idea, usually a series of images, or a very vague plot arc, and after taking some rough notes, I start with Chapter One, Word One. From the there the story will usually develop away from my initial concept or outline. I sometimes jump around– I like to begin chapters in the middle and then fill in the edges– but I more or less write in chronological order. I’m pushing the protagonist forward, watching her strive for her goals, and at the same time figuring out what the book is *about* as I go. In a sense, I write plot first, theme second. It usually takes a draft or two before I can say, “Ah ha! So *this* is what I’m trying to say!” From there it’s a matter of shaping and developing.

If you enjoyed reading my pre-caffeinated ramblings, and would like more, even *better* ramblings, there shall be new posts on the tour every Monday.

Next week, head on over to Sharon Biggs Waller’s. Sharon is my client and the author of the amazing and critically acclaimed y.a. historical A MAD WICKED FOLLY (Viking, 2014). Sharon does great giveaways on her blog, plus occasionally posts pictures of her beautiful farm (my favorite). Summer Heacock, aka Fizzygrrl, is one of my favorite book-bloggers and posts some of the most insightful and touching stuff about this maddening thing we do. Check ’em out!

New Webinar on Character (for Kids & Adult Books)!!!

Yes, the tabloid rumors are true. I’m doing another webinar.

Writer’s Digest Presents…

“FULL CAST: How to Enrich and Expand Every Character in Your Novel from the Leading Man to the Background Extras.” 

1 p.m., EST
Thursday, May 16, 2013

(If that time doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. The whole thing will be available to watch and rewatch for a year or so.)

Every novel is driven by character. We fall in love with heroines, cheer for heroes, and loathe our villains. Characters draw us in, and through them we experience our favorite stories. Without a compelling cast, even the most engrossing tale can fall flat. What makes some protagonists iconic, while others go up in smoke? How can we create rich motivations without burdensome back-story, or nuanced supporting characters without stealing focus from our protagonists? How can we populate our novels with an unforgettable ensemble our readers will love? The answer involves giving your characters a great blend of relationships, history and motivations.

And, also, learning a ton of cool stuff by signing up for this webinar.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:

  • How to create an unforgettable ensemble of empathetic, unforgettable characters

  • How to develop compelling motivations to drive your story

  • How to craft rich histories to inform your characters’ journeys

  • How to intensify relationships, creating intimate, intense connections within your tale

  • How to lend nuance and depth by creating “mini-arcs”

  • How to employ impressionistic details to bring background characters to life.

And there’s MORE. What? Yes. There is.

Everyone who attends is invited to submit a query letter for their novel. Every query is guaranteed a written critique by yours truly.

So, an amazing class, Q&A, and personalized query critique, all from the comfort of your living room / boudouir / computer dungeon? Yep. I can promise you this will be the greatest thing you’ve ever done that involved the word “webinar.”

So sign up!

YARN Goes to Japan with “Abandon Changes”

So this is cool.“Tokyo tower” courtesy of apple 94 (flickr.com).

As you may know, the awesome website YARN (YA Review Network) occasionally publishes short stories of mine. Last month they did my timey-wimey anti-love story, 700 Years in Heaven.

In addition to short-fiction and interviews, YARN also creates lesson plans around their publications. This month, their Japan-themed curriculum features Abandon Changes: A Girl Parts Story, originally-posted in 2011.

It’s super neat, as a writer, to see your stuff used to teach. I’m flattered to be included. The lesson plan looks super cool (I wish we had stuff like this when I was in high school). Check it out.

Thanks YARN!

 

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/

 

Why I Will No Longer Treat Writing Like a “Job”

Like this post? Then check out my November 19th webinar HOW TO BE A WRITER WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND: Balancing Work, Life, and Craft. There will be a Q and A as well as query critiques for all attendees. You should check it out!

Couple ‘a things. First of all: I love my job. Being an agent, that is. I don’t mean to brag, but seriously. I love it. It makes me happy even when it makes me want to rip my hair out (an agent friend and I have a term for this feeling: BlissPissed). I don’t associate “work” with negative things, but with excitement, challenge, adventure. I even like the word “work.” I like to say it. It makes me feel good.

Yes, I know. There’s something wrong with me.

I also love writing. But I love it in a deeper, less freewheeling way. Writing doesn’t come as naturally. More like pulling teeth. My muse is stingy, and if I only wrote when I felt like it, I wouldn’t have written a word since seventh grade.

And so, for nearly a decade, I’ve treated writing like a job. By which I mean sitting down at a regular time, five days a week (I always shoot for six, usually hit somewhere around four). You do it when you don’t feel like it. You do it when the muse isn’t present. You even do it when you’re feeling under the weather. You don’t make excuses. You set the appointment and you keep it, damn it.

But maybe writing shouldn’t be treated so brutishly. Maybe writing shouldn’t be treated like work. Work is the meat n’ potatoes of your week. It’s the everyday thing. What you do when you’re on. But maybe writing should feel a little separate, not like a job, but something more like, well…church.

I’m not a religious guy. I went to church when I was a kid, and that was it. But when I did attend, my understanding was that church was a time to put aside the weekly concerns, the getting-by stuff, and focus on something that was not the everyday, but more fundamental, more important, more basic. It was a time to check in with oneself, to put aside a few hours to prioritize something deeper, more personal, quieter, and away from the outside world of production.

I used to want to bring my writing into harsh daylight. To force it to take the bus, teach it to thrive under halogens. To toughen it up in the workplace. But now I want to treat writing more delicately. I still want to write everyday (some people go to church everyday right?), but when I sit down at my writing desk, I refuse to do so mechanically. I want to stop what I’m doing, stop life, stop work, stop job, and get in touch with something that’s a little more personal, a little more Kumbaya I guess, but essentially a little more special than work.

Maybe my passion for my job is why I’m sensitive to the difference between Work: something I love, and Writing: something I love that requires more of me than intelligence and effort. It requires I be a little quiet, that I make time to— hell, indulge in— a little silence. I will allow writing to be an important and sacred (there, I said it) part of my life. Something that dives deep to the root of me, who I am, not just as a worker, but as a human being, as a creature sensitive to the universe and sentient. Not just a pair of hands and a brain, but an animal with a soul.

Stephen King said come to the page however you want, but do not come lightly. There’s a difference between every day and everyday. Make space. Make a space. Make it count.

The Greenhouse Funny Prize


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Hey gang, check it out. The Greenhouse Funny Prize is back. And guess what: this year, it’s open to North American writers!

Last year’s competition saw over 700 entries, and Pip Jones was our winner. Julia Churchill quickly sold Pip’s book, SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT, to Faber Children’s Books in a 4 book pre-empt.

So we’re putting out a call for funny stuff, from quirky picture books to wry y.a. The winner will receive an offer of representation from Greenhouse.

Wait, what?

That’s right. The winner gets rep’d people. Not bad.

Entry guidelines:

The Greenhouse Funny prize is open to un-agented writers writing funny fiction for children of all ages.

To get a good sense of the voice and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 5,000 words PLUS a short description (a few lines) of the book AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the plot. Please send this as a Word doc attachment.

If you’re submitting a picture book (or shorter fiction that comes in under 5,000 words), then send the complete text.

Please send your entries to funny@greenhouseliterary.com

If you’re writing from the US or Canada (ie, North America), please put NA in subject line. If you’re writing from UK or the rest of the world, please put UK in subject line.

The deadline for submissions is Monday, 29 July.

The shortlist will be announced Monday, 12 August.

The winner will be announced Monday, 19 August.

The US/Canada and the UK will have separate judging and shortlists and we will choose a winner in each territory.

Entrants will receive an acknowledgement on receipt of script, but only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

North American entries will be judged by myself and guest judge Jill Santopolo, Executive Editor at Philomel, Penguin. UK entries will be judged by Julia and guest judge Leah Thaxton, Publisher of Faber Children’s Books.

Winners will receive an offer of representation from the Greenhouse and the UK winner will also get full weekend ticket to the wonderful Festival of Writing (worth £525). The runners up will each get five of Greenhouse’s favourite funny books.

So get writing!