New Voice: Ashley Hope Pérez on What Can’t Wait

Ashley Hope Pérez is the first-time author of What Can’t Wait (Carolrhoda Lab, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Seventeen-year-old Marisa Moreno has smarts and plenty of promise, but she’s marooned in a broken-down Houston neighborhood—and in a Mexican immigrant family where making ends meet matters more than making it to college.

When her home life becomes unbearable, Marisa looks for comfort in a dangerous place, and suddenly neither her best friend nor her boyfriend can get through to her. Because she has a secret that makes it impossible to walk through the crowded school halls without cringing, a secret that will grow darker until she faces it.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

Ultimately, this is the single most important piece of the writing puzzle—all the talent in the world doesn’t do a lick of good if we can’t figure out how to get ourselves to put in the time to write.

In 2006, when I first started working on What Can’t Wait, I was teaching high-school English full-time in Houston. I decided that year to set two big goals for myself: to write a YA novel and to complete a marathon. In many ways, writing and long-distance running are forever paired in my mind. In both cases, it’s the training day after day that makes success possible.

Finishing the Houston Marathon in January of 2007 gave a tremendous boost to my writing efforts. Because I’m not a natural athlete, to see that my body could learn to travel such long distances—precisely because I stuck to my training plan—brought home the importance of being faithful in my daily exercise as a writer. The sense of satisfaction I felt crossing the finish line of the marathon gave me a kind of “body knowledge” of success that I used to help myself imagine what it would be like to actually finish the book.

I also turned to many of the same motivational and time-management techniques that I developed working with teenagers to get myself to do the hard work of writing.

(Really, my writer self is very much like a teenager—always trying to get out of work, afraid of failure, and way too concerned with what everyone else will think.)

In the classroom, I worked hard to help my students value every minute and make it productive. I also encouraged them to break large tasks (writing a research paper, developing an original Shakespeare interpretation, applying to college) into manageable chunks.

When I felt tempted to get up and make a snack or otherwise distract myself from writing, I imagined my students collectively crossing their arms and raising their eyebrows. Where would my moral authority go—all that talk of delayed gratification, working toward a goal, knowing that something is hard an doing it anyway—if I couldn’t or wouldn’t do what I asked them to do every time they came to class?

To this day, if I am having a hard time following through on my writing schedule, I break out the teacher timer and lock myself to the desk until it goes off.

For me, the hardest part about writing is getting that crappy first draft out. I’m not a very fluid writer; I tend to agonize over every sentence. Sometimes I set word goals instead of time goals to just generate pages and to try to “get around” the word-Nazi editor I have in my brain.

The fun, in my opinion, starts once I have something with characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end that I can revise and revise and revise. In between drafting and revising, I read lots of books on craft to help myself identify the problems and opportunities in the draft. I do things like writing down the first and last sentences of every chapter so that I can “catch” chapters that aren’t pulling their weight and so that I can get a feel for the larger movements of the novel.

With every draft—and for What Can’t Wait I think there were probably ten substantial revisions—I start typing in a new document rather than just making changes to the old file.

This is very important psychologically because it helps me to get back into a story, both at the level of the sentence and in terms of the characters’ emotions and relationships. At this point, it is sometimes surprisingly easy for me to write new scenes or rewrite ones that aren’t working. I guess I thrive on the freedom that comes with having a clear purpose; once I know a little better what I’m up to, the writing isn’t so scary.

I also switch between using the computer and working longhand. I find it helpful to jot down a problem or question I have on an open page of my notebook; the blank space around it seems to serve as an invitation to solutions. These “solutions” tend to come in little half-thoughts and ideas that sprout up in clumps all over the page.

My other tricks for solving problems in my writing involve reading drafts aloud and “talking” through plotting issues or character concerns with an MP3 recorder. I usually listen to audio books while I exercise, but sometimes I talk my ideas out into the recorder instead (this results in some very breathy brainstorming). I’m sure the people on the trail where I run think I am craaazy. They are probably right.

These are just some of the things that have worked for me. The bottom line, when it comes down to getting published, is for a writer to find whatever strategies she or he needs to keep developing the story and polishing the writing.

With every revision, I distinctly remember thinking, “Okay, now I’ve really done everything I can with this.” And then I’d take time away from the book, come back to it, and discover that I still had real work to do. For me, that was exciting, not discouraging. But now that What Can’t Wait is in print, I have to let it go, and I get to turn to new projects.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

The most important factor in getting quality representation is having a strong manuscript. This seems so obvious that it often doesn’t even get said, but I know firsthand how tempting it can be to look for an agent before your work is ready for that stage.

Back in 2007, early in a very premature agent search, I was fortunate enough to have someone tell me, “Look, you’ve got something here, but you still have work to do on the writing front.” So I put away my query letters and went back to work on my manuscript.

A year later, I made a fresh and more focused effort. In getting the lay of the land, I found Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Great Query Letter: Inside Tips and Techniques for Success (Kindle, 2009) and Nathan Bransford’s blog very helpful.

I also read The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit by Elizabeth Lyon (Perigree, 2002) and implemented Lyon’s idea of Marketing Mondays. The concept is that you dedicate your writing time on one day to doing all the “business” stuff related to getting published—researching agents, writing query letters, packaging requested manuscripts, mailing packets out.

This compartmentalization helped me to be more strategic in my quest for representation and kept that quest from overshadowing my real work of writing. Once you get an agent, you get that Monday back because she takes over the labor of handling business.

To find agents who might be a good fit for my work, I spent a lot of time reading the acknowledgment pages of books by YA authors I admire. I also read author interviews and looked for mentions of agents.

In a few cases, when I couldn’t find out the information I wanted from standard Internet stalking, I emailed the author to ask about his or her representation. Many agents also provide information about their interests and favorite books on their websites, which in some ways is more helpful than knowing who they are actually representing, since agents may not want to take on a client whose work is too similar to the novels of an author they already represent.

I researched every agent I queried and tailored my letter to that individual. Even when you have an awesome basic query letter worked out with the help of Brandsford, Lyon, and Lukeman’s advice, this personalization takes time. Still, it’s a critical step. Referring to specifics in the agent’s interests, clients she or he represents, or other details relevant to her is one way to signal your genuine interest—not just in securing representation—but in her particular talents as an agent.

Once I started looking for an agent in earnest, I sent out between three and five new query letters each Monday for about two months. By the end of that time, I started hearing back from agents. While I did get some form rejections, I also got a lot of manuscript requests and, eventually, personal responses to my novel.

I attribute this less to any particular awesomeness on my part than to the fact that I handpicked the agents to whom I submitted, so they were more likely to be interested in my work—or at least to wish me well. After about five months, I got to the dating stage with a couple of agents.

I’m thankful to have chosen and been chosen by my wonderful agent, Steven Chudney. One of the things that sold me on his representation is that he is focused almost exclusively on young-adult and children’s books. It was important for me that Steven had a long list of relevant contacts in the world of YA publishing since it was something of a slow process for us to find the right editor for What Can’t Wait.

Thanks to Steven, we eventually did, and I’ve loved working with Andrew Karre and Carolrhoda Lab. In both an agent and an editor, personality does matter. I tend to be a bit obsessive about details, and I’m fortunate that Steven and Andrew have been tremendously patient with my endless requests for clarifications and specifics. They are wonderful colleagues.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt of What Can’t Wait, and check out related teaching resources.

5 thoughts on “New Voice: Ashley Hope Pérez on What Can’t Wait

  1. Hi Tracey, I was sort of tricked into running the marathon by my students, who thought that writing a novel wasn't "hard" enough for me since I liked to write!

    But I did end up enjoying it a lot. And when I felt like quitting when the training was rough, I thought of my kids and how they didn't quit in my class even when it was challenging.

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