New Voices: Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman on Sirenz

See excerpt and reader guide.

Natalie Zaman and Charlotte Bennardo are the first-time authors of Sirenz (Flux, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Bickering frenemies Meg and Shar are doing some serious damage at a midnight sample sale when the fashionistas find themselves arguing over a pair of shoes-with fatal consequences. 

One innocent bystander later, the girls are suddenly at the mercy of Hades, Lord of the Underworld himself. To make them atone for what they’ve done, Hades forces the teens to become special-assignment Sirens, luring to the Underworld an individual whose unholy contract is up.

Finding that delicate balance between their fashion addiction and their new part-time job in the eternal hellfire biz turns out to be harder than Meg and Shar expected, especially when an entire pantheon of Greek deities decides to get involved. Then there’s the matter of the fine print in their own contracts…

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

We wrote a bajillion versions of Sirenz before it found its way into our editor Brian Farrey‘s hands (okay, maybe not that many—but we’re definitely talking double digits here!).

He liked what he saw, but had some changes in mind. This turned out to be nine pages of notes, mostly about the first five chapters which we would keep, but tweak. Then—wait for it—we had to rewrite the last three quarters of the book.

That was a little overwhelming at first, and after we got over the How. Are. We. Going. To. Do. This? We did it—and that new version landed us a contract.

Why Natalie is pink! Follow @Natalie_Zaman on Twitter!

After that, Sirenz went through three more rounds of revisions. We were always excited to get the notes, but then when we actually read them we were, like, Eek! But it always came down to “just do it.” Really.

It was interesting to see what we missed—typos and inconsistencies—with each pass—you think you’ve caught everything… um, no.

Two things that were extremely helpful for us:

First, having an editorial staff that was so supportive. We always felt comfortable asking questions and communicating.

The other thing is that we had each other. Rejection is more bearable, revision not so daunting, and success sweeter when you share it with someone. We realize that most books are not co-authored, but you can still have a writing buddy to team up with.

We learned quite a few things from this experience that:

  • Nothing is sacred—anything can be cut, whittled, changed, trashed…
  • As per above, just because it is cut out of the current manuscript, doesn’t mean that it’s been obliterated from the earth. We take great comfort in the fact that something we wrote that we really loved still exists somewhere, and so can potentially come out again in another form when the time is right.
  • It’s not a matter of if but when.
  • There is always at least one nugget of praise (also known as, you don’t need to change this) in every big steaming bowl of constructive criticism (also known as you really should consider changing this). And while the praise is nice—the criticism made both of us better writers.
  • There will always be something to fix—but there are also things that are just right. Recognize and be open to both—to making changes, and laughing at your own jokes (they are funny!).

As contemporary fiction writers, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Follow @charbennardo on Twitter.

Sitting at Char’s poolside, we had several brainstorming sessions as to who these two girls should be. We’re very, and obviously different; Char’s tall, blonde (gray doesn’t count), and an admittedly princessy type while Nat is a short, brunette (was brunette as of this writing—this statistic is subject to change without notice) and slightly gothy.

Yet under the surface, there are things we share. We have kids all around the same age. Writing is more than a passion. We’re funny chicks, and we live with cats.

This idea, that two people that are not alike (we’ve had many people ask, “You’re friends?”) but could still have a fulfilling, productive relationship—could be friends—passed into these characters.

We found ourselves slipping into the characters as we wrote, so the first person narrative evolved as the best means to bring out the character personalities (FYI—we tried writing Sirenz in third person—it just wasn’t the same. But it had to be tried, which illustrates an important lesson in writing. No effort is ever wasted. When something doesn’t work, it underscores when something else does.).

As for exercises, we found that reading aloud dialogue and scenes (actually the whole book) helpful—but we would read each other’s character (in character—we love role-playing!), so we could see any impediments to flow, dialogue, action, etc. And it’s always fun to slip into someone else’s Gucci’s; who wouldn’t want to be Hades?

Ah, the language of young people. We live it. Literally. Between us, we have every age covered from 11 to 19. You can pick up a lot of good material—embarrassing, funny, tender, and of course, the lingo—with kids in the house. It’s all there if you listen.

If you don’t have ready access to teens and tweens, try getting adopted by that family of 19 plus kids. Barring that, try being a mentor (Char mentored three robotics teams for our local high school).

Let’s face it, skulking in the mall might be a little risky—and don’t dress like you’re 15 ’cause that’s just creepy.

Besides all this, spending time with kids brings back memories. Some things are universal, like mean girls at school, or befriending someone you never thought you’d be friends with.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Cynsational Notes

Read Charlotte’s blog and Natalie’s blog.

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