New Voice: Audrey Vernick on Water Balloon

Audrey Vernick‘s debut novel Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011) is now available. From the promotional copy:

A warm debut novel about friendship and first love, from a popular picture-book author.

Marley’s life is as precarious as an overfull water balloon—one false move and everything will burst. Her best friends are pulling away from her, and her parents, newly separated, have decided she should spend the summer with her dad in his new house, with a job she didn’t ask for and certainly doesn’t want. 

On the upside is a cute boy who loves dogs as much as Marley does . . . but young love has lots of opportunity for humiliation and misinterpreted signals. 

Luckily, Marley is a girl who trusts her instincts and knows the truth when she sees it, making her an immensely appealing character and her story funny, heartfelt, and emotionally true.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I have visions of myself in a small white rocking chair in my bedroom, an open book in my lap. That could likely describe who I’ll be in another few decades—a reading grandma—but it was also who I was at five. Sometimes I would read to my gerbil, which sickens me to my core now, as I’m not a fan of rodents. But I digress.

It was all about character for me then, as it is to this day. I didn’t mind a great adventure or a historical setting, but if the author didn’t deliver on character, forget it.

As a young reader, when I was in love with a book, I felt like the authors had written them with a reader exactly like me in mind. I celebrated the characters’ quirks. I worried when they faced difficult decisions. I felt their sadness. Being a child who read often and widely was the ultimate training ground for empathy.

I was enamored with the friendships I read about. Adult-me has realized that these wonderful, idyllic friendships may have had something to do with the real-world disappointment I felt in many of my actual childhood friendships. I found literary friends to be far more interesting, loyal, funny, and daring than most of the friends I knew at school and in the neighborhood.

As a writer, I want to deliver that kind of character-reader connection.

The view from Audrey’s office window.

Plot has never been of great importance to me as a reader, so it wasn’t a tremendous surprise to learn it wasn’t one of my strengths as a writer. I wanted enough to happen to interest my reader, but I found that one of my plot pet peeves presented a huge challenge to me as a writer.

I take great exception to the moment in a book—and it happens in so many books—when a character acts in a way that seems at odds with who he/she is. As a writer, I know we are supposed to make life difficult for our characters, throw challenges at them, let them make mistakes. But I find, so often, that the mistakes characters make read like choices an author made to take it up a notch, to ensure the plot twists and turns.

These are the books I throw across the room.

I did not want such a moment in my book. But something had to happen.

My main character has really good judgment. She can be a little self-pitying at times (as can many a thirteen-year-old), but she’s reliable, with good common sense. She doesn’t get into trouble.

The scene in which she makes a really bad decision was a pivotal one for me, part of a big revision with an eye toward making the book less quiet. I think it’s a believable moment; I hope young-Audrey would not toss Water Balloon across the room when she reached that pivotal page.

I imagine most writers set out to create the type of book they would like to read. It’s a little extra-satisfying for children’s writers, as the time spent thinking and writing is akin to a lengthy visit with our younger selves.

Audrey’s office is decorated with art by her children; this fox is by her son.

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?

My first agent primarily represented writers of adult fiction. When I was first seeking representation, I read many of her clients’ books and felt something in the undercurrent of their texts that seemed present in mine too. I was thrilled when she offered to represent me, as she had some young adult sales, loved my upper middle grade book, and was determined to sell it.

As time went on, I kept writing for younger audiences and she stopped selling in the children’s market, so we parted ways.

Lesson learned: You can make what feels like the right choice and still have it not work out in the end.

Learn more about Audrey.

I wrote a second novel. I talked to friends about their experiences, read information in books and on discussion boards, attended conferences.

I went to one conference specifically to get a critique from Erin Murphy, an agent about whom I’d heard good things. The critique went very well.

I don’t remember why I reached the conference lunch late, but by the time I got there, there were hardly any open seats. I am very much not the kind of person who sits next to the agent who critiqued her work. But it was the only open seat that didn’t require me to get everyone at a table to stand. I took the available seat next to Erin.

Before long, my future agent and I shared a very large piece of chicken.

I am kind of a conference nightmare. I don’t want to be that annoying schmoozing person. I realize that networking is not generally considered annoying at a conference, but it is so far out of my comfort zone, the self-promoting schmooze. Just taking the seat next to Erin felt hideous.

Despite my discomfort, we had an instant and very natural rapport. We were comfortable. We laughed. We went halfsies on an entree.

I don’t think poultry sharing is a requirement when seeking representation. But it is important to do research, to know as much as can be known. In the end though, you can’t know everything.

It’s impossible to know with certainty whether or not, say, your agent’s enthusiasm will wane if your first manuscript doesn’t sell. Or if he will like your next project. Or turn out to be a reasonable communicator.

When possible, I’d urge people to find ways to get specific information from clients. When I relied upon reputation, I barked up a few wrong trees. There are some agents many consider top-tier whom I know would not be a good fit for me. One such agent considered my work very seriously. I had occasion to see that agent at a conference while still under consideration and it was plainly evident to me: it wouldn’t work. I felt the weight of the word “representation” and knew that person could not be the one to represent me.

Find out what you can and then use your best judgment. From there, it’s a leap of faith.

Spending that time eating chicken with Erin made me fairly desperate to have her as my agent, so I’m very grateful it worked out. Our senses of humor overlap. She connected to the emotional heart of my story. And I can’t say enough about her enthusiasm – what’s better than your agent being wildly enthusiastic about your work? I also like that she focuses on my career.

This depiction of Cookie Monster is by Audrey’s daughter.

One insight especially stayed with me…

Sometime in the past year or two, I told Erin that I felt like I was in a zone, which likely wouldn’t last. It felt like a tiny window in which the picture books I was writing were matching up reasonably well with what the market wanted. It seemed crazy to turn my attention to another novel, as they are so hard and I tend to write quiet ones, which are hard to sell.

I’ve also always been mindful of the way novels consume me—the way they pull me out of family life for a while. I’m ever-mindful of the fact that my kids will only live with my husband and me for a finite time, and it seemed crazy to make myself so much less available.

Erin pointed out that it would be a good idea to look beyond now, to think ahead to when my kids don’t live here, and how well novel-writing will fit into my life then. She added that I should probably continue to nurture the skills required to write a novel, not let them go dormant. She further made the point that if I sold Water Balloon, the acquiring editor would likely want to see another novel at some point, which has turned out to be true.

Lesson learned: when a piece of chicken is clearly too large for one person to consume by herself, sharing can sometimes lead in unexpected and wonderful directions.

Cynsational Notes

From IndieBound: “Audrey Vernick is the author of the picture books Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?, She Loved Baseball, and Brothers at Bat (Clarion, 2012), as well as the novel Water Balloon. She has published short stories for adults and twice received the New Jersey State Council of the Arts‘ fiction fellowship. She lives with her family in New Jersey.”

Literary Friendships: Musings on Writing, Children’s Books, Stalking Strangers’ Dogs, and Friends: a blog from Audrey Vernick.

See also Audrey Vernick on Getting to the Funny (Writing Humorous Picture Books) from Cynsations.

7 thoughts on “New Voice: Audrey Vernick on Water Balloon

  1. I love the story about how you and Erin met, Audrey! It's hard to balance "write what you love" with "write what has the best chance of selling," but it sounds like you and Erin hit on what works best. And I'm glad, because
    I love, love, love Water Balloon. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Stacy and Natalie, for the lovely comments. And a big old THANK YOU SO MUCH to you, Cynthia, for allowing me to be your New Voices guest. It was a pleasure, one deeply appreciated.

  3. Thanks for the interesting interview, Audrey and Cynthia. I met Erin a couple of weeks ago at a conference, and was definitely impressed. Loved hearing about your shared chicken experience. Aud. Water Balloon sounds like a great story–which I've now added to my to-read list. Your buffalo book was delightful. (Of course, since I used to teach kindergarten, I might be biased. 🙂 ) Best wishes to you, Ev

  4. Audrey, thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and congratulations on your success!

    Evelyn, I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview. Isn't Erin a gem? And both Audrey's Water Balloon and buffalo books are fantastic!

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