How did you get into writing? What advice do you have for writers?
Like many of you, I was always a big reader, way before I ever thought of myself as a writer. I was the kid reading everything she could get her hands on, the back of the cereal box, the TV Guide (remember those?) and everything on the shelves at my small school library. Back in my day, there was literally ONE shelf for middle grade books and early readers and ONE for young adult/teen books. Now, we could fill entire bookstores with the plethora of fantastic YA literature. What a time to be alive!
So I was, and am, a reader first. I always enjoyed writing, but never entertained the idea of writing as part of my career until I was in college. Even then, I figured I’d do journalism—writing magazine and newsletter articles seemed way more doable to me than novels. (“Who can write 300 pages!?!,” I would think to myself.) For my various jobs, I learned how to write marketing and promotional copy and got really good (if I do say so myself) at writing short little, pithy things.
In college, as a reader, I moved on from YA literature to adult romance and autobiography and fiction, simply because I thought, “I’m now 19, I’ve left that kid stuff behind.”
Then, in my mid-twenties, a good friend said to me, “Hey. You have got to read these books by Stephenie Meyer. They’re teenage vampire books, which I normally wouldn’t be into and you probably wouldn’t either, but the story is SO good and I think you’d like them.”
And that, my friends, is the story of why I began to read Twilight (along with millions of others), and when I came up for air (I’m unashamedly still a Twilight fan!) my main thought was, “IS THIS WHAT YOUNG ADULT FICTION IS LIKE NOW?” And I abandoned searching the adult fiction shelves at my local library for reading everything that had popped up on the YA shelves in the past 10 years while I had been adulting. And oh, the joy I found! So many great new authors, so many great new series. I began to read YA fantasy and contemporary almost exclusively, because it was so good and I had missed it so much. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series and Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games had me completely spellbound. I couldn’t put their books down.
Then, one rainy day when my kids were little, and the house was quiet and I had nothing to do, I put down a YA novel that just wasn’t striking a chord with me, and thought, “What if I tried this? What if I could do this?” And that afternoon, in my early 30s, I sat down and started writing my first book.
[Side note: I believe Stephenie Meyer’s work is largely responsible for the huge surge in YA adult literature that bloomed in the 2000s-now. I’m so grateful. I know I’m just one of many writers who went on to find a new love for the power of story and YA literature because of her work. Side note within the side note: I’m #teamjacob forever.]
I figured I’d get 20 pages into this idea of a book and would grow bored of it and thus would never tell anyone else about it. After all, it sounded so weird to my ears to think out loud, “I’m writing a novel.” I didn’t tell my husband or my family until I’d written the whole thing, all 70,000 words. It just came out of me. That particular book will probably only ever live on as a Word doc in my computer’s file folder graveyard, but I proved something to myself then, namely that I could do this and that I liked it.
My advice for writers:
- Read. Read for fun. Read for inspiration. Read to learn. Read widely in the genre you’re interested in trying to publish in, so you know what’s going on.
- Watch. Watch other authors that you admire and see what they’re doing, what they’re trying. Follow lots of agents, authors and editors on social media and quietly watch to see what they’re talking about and what they’re looking for. Learn all you can, it’s a totally free resource to you. So is Google! The search engine is your friend. I have had to look up all kinds of things I didn’t know about at first, like querying agents, formatting manuscripts etc. and someone out there in the wide wide world of the interwebs has the answers and the droid that you’re looking for. I love following and learning from Delilah S. Dawson, she’s taught me so much!
- Write for yourself first. I’m my first audience. If I don’t like what I’m writing or what I’m working on, it’s not going to be fun for me to write, let alone fun for anyone else to read. Even if a book you’re working on never gets published, if you love the heck out of it and learned a lot and had a great time writing it, that is a creative exercise un-wasted. Go on and write the next thing.
- Persistence. Persistence is key with writing. (So is patience, but I’m still learning that one; it’s not my strong suit.) If you don’t give up, over time, your writing will improve. If you love this work and keep at it, you’ll not only grow, but your work will eventually find a home or a place to live in the world, whether it’s in traditional publishing or self-publishing. All it takes is one yes to start. I think of it sort of like a grand cosmic literary matchmaking process!
- Here are some books on writing that have rocked my world and changed my writing process, I highly recommend them if you’re looking for advice on how to be a great writer. You can buy them from my fantastic local indie bookseller (Brain Lair Books) or any major retailer:
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron
- Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
How do you find time to write?
I currently have a full-time job and am a mom full-time. So I carve out pockets of time to write. Sometimes this looks like waking up M-F and writing from 5-7 a.m. before everyone else is up. Sometimes it looks like writing from 7-11 p.m. at night or taking a whole Saturday away with my laptop to work. I fit it in when I can. I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t have a very regular writing schedule, or a daily word count goal—many authors do. But when I’m drafting, I usually have a bigger overall goal, for example, to write 80,000 words in 3-4 months and I try to break it up week by week to fit my current schedule, whatever that is at the time.
Drafting a new story is my favorite part of the process. I am trying to be less of a ‘pantser’ and spend more time following the process Lisa Cron so helpfully outlines in her books, but my brain just naturally wants to sit down with an idea and run like wildfire. That’s problematic though (and probably why my first four books did not sell!) because it means there’s lots to fix in regards to plot and story flow after the fact. Why do books even need plots anyways?!? But gosh darn it, drafting and world-building is just so much fun. Plotting/outlining sometimes feels too much like math to my brain, which has always struggled with math. I’m a word nerd.
Where do you get your ideas?
Right now, I’m super into fairy tale retellings (a phase I’ve never grown out of) and it doesn’t look like I’ll be growing out of them anytime soon. I love reading books and watching movies of fairytale and classic retellings, and sometimes those are my inspiration. I love to revisit a story everyone thinks they know, only to reveal a new character we didn’t realize was part of the story the whole time, or to tell an old story from a new point of view, making it fresh again. Sometimes, funny stuff my kids say gives me ideas, or it can be something I overhear in a coffee shop or read in the news. I keep notebooks where I doodle and hand-scribble all kinds of concepts and ideas for books and characters and I pull them out and consult them when I’m ready to work on something new. I usually know it’s the right idea for a story, because it will grab me and I won’t be able to stop thinking about it.
I spent my high school years living in Germany, and the many family trips and amazing travels with my international school that I was privileged to take, exposed me to some of Europe’s finest run-down castles, mansions, villages, museums and incredibly beautiful old forests, all of which often inspires the settings for my work.
Can you look at my writing/query/synopsis/chapters?
Sorry, but nope! Working on my own books and just living life keeps me plenty busy, and I unfortunately don’t have the extra time to devote to critiquing or editing for others. I have a small circle of trusted people who I’ve built (Hi, friends!) and I highly recommend you find a few (or even just one!) trusted folks who can read your work and give you helpful feedback. I also recommend you search online to review good samples of queries, synopses and how to format your manuscript. Writer’s Digest was a super helpful resource on this for me!
How long did it take you to land an agent and sell a book?
As soon as I finished writing that first book, I knew I wanted to query for it (something I had no experience in) and try to get it published. So in 2012, I wrote that first book and starting querying for it while I worked on writing the second one.
Fast forward to winter of 2017 (five years and several rejected manuscripts later), and I was querying for my fifth book. It was during that time that I queried my agent, Laura of TriadaUS. That book was my debut, The Puppetmaster’s Apprentice (Page Street Publishing Co., 2020). Laura responded to my query and asked to see the full manuscript. When she wrote back later saying she loved it and wanted to represent me, I was over the moon and cried literal tears of joy—getting a great agent like Laura is an important step of the process and I was so excited. I accepted her offer of representation and then we began polishing the book further. It went out on submission in spring of 2018 and was on submission for over a year when it sold in fall of 2019 to Lauren Knowles at Page Street.
So the whole process of getting published took me over seven years of writing and querying (I wrote six books during that time) for the book to sell, with my debut coming out in October of 2020, roughly eight years from when I started. In case you haven’t noticed, the wheels of publishing move slowly, but like I say above: be persistent. Cultivate LOTS of patience. And don’t be afraid to try. For me, it’s been worth the wait and I can’t wait for my book to be out in the world for people to read.
Can I get an ARC/review copy of your book? Or a signed copy?
Sorry friends, I’m not the one in charge of distributing those. You can contact Lauren Cepero at Page Street for more information on ARCs and to request a copy. Your local library is also a great resource to get a copy of my book to read, after it’s published on October 13, 2020. If they don’t have it in, if you request it, they’ll get it for you to read! (I rely heavily on my library for my personal reading list—libraries are THE ACTUAL BEST.)
Writing a report for school and found your way here to research me? Awesome! Here are my answers to common questions that might be helpful. As a mom, and someone who writes primarily for young adults, I don’t feel comfortable engaging in private correspondence with my teen readers, so you’ll find I don’t respond to reader emails or DMs. So here’s some commonly asked questions to help with your report:
- When/where were you born? Whelp, not gonna tell you my actual birthdate here folks, but I’m now approaching *GASP* 40 years old. This is fine. Being this age is actually pretty fantastic. I feel like I’m about 19 still in my mind, so it’s no problem. I grew up in Michigan and had an amazing childhood (Thanks Mom and Dad!). I am a card-carrying child of the 80s/90s. I love puffy stickers and Star Wars and Disney princesses and overalls and Lisa Frank and absolutely had the sweetest pair of hot pink parachute pants you’ve ever seen, hand-made by my grandma. I’m still on the hunt for a new fanny pack.
- Where do you live now? South Bend, Indiana. No, I can’t see cornfields from my front door, but there are lots around to be had. South Bend is a great town; I came for college and then fell in love, got married and stayed put.
- Did you always want to be a writer? See my FAQ answers above. I didn’t have a dream of becoming a writer of fiction or of being published until I was in my early 30s. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an artist—and I’m also currently a graphic designer for my day job—so I’m able to live out that dream, too. Cue the brilliant lyrics of ‘Into the Woods,’: Wishes come true…not free.
- Did anyone support you in becoming a writer? YES, 100%. My parents, first and foremost always allowed me to have an endless supply of library books and encouraged my reading. My dad would take me to Borders Bookstore (a big, special magical place to a kid in the early 90s who loved to read) and would let me choose ONE NEW BOOK every so often, for my very own. I loved it and still have great memories of those special times. I had some awesome teachers growing up, who praised my love of reading and writing and introduced me to some great new authors. (Thank you teachers!) Currently, my husband and my girls and our family and some close friends are my support system. They give me the time and space to write and are my biggest cheerleaders. I’m so lucky to have them!
- Why did you decide to write for YA? Because it’s what I love to read most. I have a whole blog post about why I love YA here.
- Do you base your characters on people you know? Some might be based on people I’ve known while growing up, but to be honest, I rarely draw from my current life/circle of friends for characters. I want to write about the dreamy hunks and twisty villains and tempestuous maidens I’ve always had the privilege of knowing in my imagination. My friends and family are all too delightfully normal.
- What’s your favorite book? That’s the impossible question. My favorite books are all from childhood/my own teen years and I still re-read many of them each year. Here they are, in no special order:
- The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter (Shoutout to another author from Indiana!)
- Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter
- EVERYTHING EVERY WRITTEN by L.M. Montgomery, but particularly The Blue Castle
- My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
- The Babysitter’s Club series by Ann M. Martin
- The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder