New Voice: Gina Damico on Croak

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Gina Damico is the first-time author of Croak (Graphia/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Lex Bartleby has sucker-punched her last classmate. Fed up with her punkish, wild behavior, her parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape. But Uncle Mort’s true occupation is much dirtier than that of shoveling manure.

He’s a Grim Reaper. And he’s going to teach her the family business.

Lex quickly assimilates into the peculiar world of Croak, a town populated entirely by reapers who deliver souls from this life to the next. Along with her infuriating yet intriguing partner Driggs and a rockstar crew of fellow Grim apprentices, Lex is soon zapping her targets like a natural born killer.

Yet her innate ability morphs into an unchecked desire for justice—or is it vengeance?—whenever she’s forced to kill a murder victim, craving to stop the attackers before they can strike again. So when people start to die—that is, people who aren’t supposed to be dying, people who have committed grievous crimes against the innocent—Lex’s curiosity is piqued. 

Her obsession grows as the bodies pile up, and a troubling question begins to swirl through her mind: if she succeeds in tracking down the murderer, will she stop the carnage—or will she ditch Croak and join in?

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?

No cat was harmed during the writing of this book.

I met my agent, Tina Wexler of ICM, at the New York Pitch Conference. She heard my pitch that morning, and by the time I got home that afternoon, she had already emailed me with a request for the manuscript. Right after I finished squeezing the brains out of my cat in joy, I sent it off. (The manuscript, not the cat.)

I was confident that it was the pinnacle of YA literary perfection, despite the fact that up to that point I hadn’t gotten a single iota of feedback from anyone else, since I hadn’t let a single other person read it yet. But No Matter. Perfection.


Three days later (three days!) she wrote back that she loved the concept and the voice…but that there were a couple areas where she’d like to see changes. And I mean major changes.

Like, “one of the main characters is terrible in every conceivable way – fix him” and “the world-building is all wrong, you idiot” and “you are a terrible author and you’ve wasted my time and you should probably throw your computer off the highest building you can find to spare anyone else from reading this nonsense again.”

Of course, that’s what I heard in my head.

In her actual email, Tina was as polite and classy and enthusiastic and encouraging as she always is, as I would come to find out. And the amount of thought and detail she had put into her response obviously showed that she was excited about my story and wanted to make it better.

Plus, she made it very clear that the revisions would be my choice, that I should just give them a try to see if they might work out.

As it turned out, I made the right choice. Because I did make those changes, and it was the best possible thing I could have done for my book. Not only did the world-building become stronger and the characters more believable, but I got a much better feel for what the book could be.

After that, there were even more revisions, but in the end all that work paid off, because Tina sold Croak to Julie Tibbott of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in a two-book deal.

But of course, having an editor meant a new set of eyes, which meant new revisions. I held my breath and prepared for another irrational freakout…

That never came. Julie’s notes were smart, made perfect sense in terms of the manuscript, and, just like all of Tina’s input, would ultimately make it a better book. Or maybe by that point I’d just come to my senses and realized that listening to other people’s feedback is not just an option, but a necessity.

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

Visit Gina’s blog.

This is actually a fairly amusing story, the kind that I hope will one day be immortalized in a zany sitcom.

At the time, I was still living in New York City (I live in Boston now), and one of my best friends was coming to visit to celebrate the birthday of yet another best friend – the three of us were very close in college and it had been a while since we’d gotten up to any hijinks together.

So for a surprise birthday present, my friend and I decided to get in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square and get us all some half-price tickets for a Broadway show.

For those of you unfamiliar with the TKTS discount ticket booth line, let me paint you a picture. Hopeful theater-goers start gathering a couple of hours before the booths open. Barricades are set up, and you are to stand between them, single file. Flamboyant people wearing sequined hats and sandwich boards emerge from out of the mist to hand out brochures, answer any questions, and yell. Always with the yelling.

When the booths finally open for business, you are to know exactly what show you will be seeing, how many tickets you want, and how you’re paying, and must deliver this information to the clerk with the utmost speed and efficiency, lest they toss you out of line like the Soup Nazi.

Five minutes before the booth opens, my agent calls.

This sets off a madcap scramble for sanity. I try not to scream, and strain to hear what poor Tina is shouting at me – because I’m in the middle of Times Square, for heaven’s sake – all while my friend is looking very concerned, since my shocked expression is probably displaying something along the lines of “my entire family has been murdered and the moon just blew up.”

Then, of course, the line starts moving, and Oh My God They’re Going to Yell at Me and We Won’t Get the Tickets and I’m Going to Ruin My Friend’s Birthday, But I Got a Book Deal so Maybe She will Forgive Me!  

Somehow I manage to not shout all of that at some hapless sequined employee. I politely and speedily thank Tina and hang up, then tell my friend the good news and we act like idiots, all with enough time to get to the window and secure tickets without getting arrested by the Booth Police.

When we met up that evening my other friend was gracious enough to let her birthday be overshadowed by this excitement, and we all enjoyed a lovely performance of “Avenue Q” – a musical that, appropriately enough, involves a lot of yelling and puppets and shenanigans.

As a paranormal writer, how did you go about building your world?

Australian tree that inspired the Ghost Gum tree in Croak.

Croak takes place in two worlds, really – our real world and the Grimsphere – but the two overlap, so the tricky part was getting that combination just right.

The town of Croak is located in upstate New York, deep in the heart of the Adirondacks.

At first, I planned for Croak to be entered by means of some magical device – like a secret patch of trees you’d walk through and be instantly transported, like something out of Harry Potter.

But Tina didn’t think that quite fit with the story, so we played around with other possibilities until the answer emerged: don’t make it a secret at all.

Make it so that anyone who lost a map can stumble right into Croak. That really ramped up the comic possibilities – the idea that these poor, unsuspecting tourists can wander into this really odd town inhabited by really odd people who just so happen to be Grims. Wackiness ensues.

I quickly learned that less is more – the fewer paranormal elements, the cooler they will seem when they do pop up. Uncle Mort’s inventions all involve some supernatural element, but they’re rooted in real world technology – their Cuffs are like cell phones, the Lifeglass is like an hourglass that measures memories instead of time. And then there’s the Afterlife, which I wanted to leave as a mostly blank canvas. It’s very stereotypical, white and fluffy and heaven-like, because it seemed to me that that’s what dead souls would come to expect, and why stress them out any more than you have to?

Beyond that, I knew I wanted Croak to be a very homey town, since Grims aren’t bad people. Their jobs are a little grisly, but almost none of them (…except Lex) have evil streaks that match the stigma of the occupation. It’s a close-knit place – its citizens have lived and worked there for years, and by now they’re all one big family. They live astoundingly typical lives – they go to work every day, come home, eat dinner, and then go out to the bar at night to socialize. And the place is even a little hokey, as small towns can sometimes be – the store names all have death themes, like “The Morgue,” “Corpp’s,” “Bought the Farm,” and “Dead Meat.” That’s the butcher’s shop.

And though Croak is a small town, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more going on behind the scenes. Most of the action in the novel takes place in Croak, but the Grimsphere is a worldwide society, with many more places to be explored.

But you’ll have to wait for the next book, Scorch (Fall 2012) for that.

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Gina Damico on Croak

  1. Ooh!!! Want. This. Now.
    What a fun story of hearing the news in the line for Avenue Q!! And I love the little Death's Head on the cover. Sounds like so much fun.

  2. Wow, congrats so much to Gina! I love the story of her agent and her book deal a lot – especially the part about no one else having read it before her agent. Those stories DO happen and I love that she's proof of it.

    Being interested in the creepy and supernatural myself, I love the idea of Croak – the town, the world, the double meaning, all of it. I wonder if Gina loved Dead Like Me also? We've needed more Reapers-in-training ever since that show ended. Kudos, Gina!

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