New Voice: Tracy Bilen on What She Left Behind

Discussion questions

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Tracy Bilen is the first-time author of What She Left Behind (Simon Pulse, 2012). From the promotional copy:

“Don’t even think of leaving…I will find you,” he whispered. “Guaranteed.”

Sara and her mom have a plan to finally escape Sara’s abusive father. But when her mom doesn’t show up as expected, Sara’s terrified. Her father says that she’s on a business trip, but Sara knows he’s lying. Her mom is missing—and her dad had something to do with it.

Each day that passes, Sara’s more on edge. Her friends know that something’s wrong, but she won’t endanger anyone else with her secret. And with her dad growing increasingly violent, Sara must figure out what happened to her mom before it’s too late…for them both.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

My “ah-ha” moment came after I had finished writing my first (unpublished) novel and had a professional critique. The person doing the critique pointed out that my protagonist needed a story goal – something that she was working toward during every chapter.

Oh. Right. That.

Such a simple concept, but one that forever changed my novel writing! 

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

From the outside, it can seem like being offered a publishing contract is a bit like winning the lotto. But the more involved I got in the writing community, the more this seemed attainable.

Taking novel writing courses taught me how to structure a novel. Joining SCBWI and RWA and attending conferences introduced me to manuscript critiques, led me to form a critique group, and taught me a lot about how to find an agent.

Entering contests gave me feedback and led to my winning a year-long mentorship with Michigan writer Shutta Crum.

When I finished my mentorship with Shutta, I knew I was ready to look for an agent, but I also knew that finding an agent wouldn’t necessarily mean that I’d actually sell my novel.

So I was cautiously optimistic when we went out on submission, yet confident that I’d done all I could to make this work. And I knew that if it didn’t work out this time, I would write another book and I’d try it again.

But it did work! The bottom line is that if you really want to publish your book and you’re willing to work hard and listen to criticism, it’s not as unattainable as it seems. That said, I’m still a bit surprised that I’m debuting at all, never mind in 2012!

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Learn more about Tracy.

I found that making a low but daily word count goal for myself really helped a lot, especially because I kept track of my progress in a notebook. In this way I forced myself to work on my writing even when I was tired from a long day at work because I knew that making my goal wouldn’t take very long. And of course, most days I was able to surpass my goal.

My advice for when it’s time to do publicity for your book is this: every day make yourself do “one” of whatever it is that you need to get done: answer one set of blog questions, contact one media source or bookseller, sign one set of bookmarks.

Otherwise it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and panicked about both your jobs!

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?

I started by using where I researched agents and then kept track of my responses (I love the smiley face sun glass guy icon you use to mark positive responses!).

In the midst of this process I met the person who would become my agent (Kevan Lyon) at a local RWA (Romance Writers of America) meeting. She seemed both easy to talk to and very knowledgeable. I queried her after the meeting which led to her offering me representation.

What stood out about Kevan was that when I talked to her about my manuscript, she had clear and well thought-out ideas for revisions and she also had a good sense of the YA market and where my novel could fit in it. I could feel she was a good match, and I haven’t been disappointed!

When talking to a prospective agent, don’t forget to listen to your gut!

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Tracy Bilen on What She Left Behind

  1. Thanks for the interesting interview! I love the idea of setting a low word count goal that you know you will achieve and maybe even surpass. What a great way to keep the writing going!

    The novel sounds intriguing and I'm definitely going to look for it.

  2. Awesome interview Cynthia and Tracy. So interesting to hear more about Tracy's journey to publication. Loved the advice on how to juggle work and writing.

    So excited for Tracy. I loved her book.

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