New Voices: Writing Partners Katy Loutzenhiser & Nicole Panteleakos Discuss Their Paths to Publication

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Writers spend a lot of time alone which is why it’s so important that writers find communities and support. There are lots of ways to do that.

It just so happens that the debut authors we are celebrating today are writing partners and have shared with each other the struggles and joys of the writing life.

Meet Katy Loutzenhiser, author of If You’re Out There (Balzer + Bray, 2019), and Nicole Panteleakos, author of Planet Earth is Blue (Wendy Lamb Books, 2019).

Katy Loutzenhiser

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I can actually tell you the precise moment I decided to try writing YA. A few years out of college, pursuing comedy in Chicago, I’d co-written a musical that heavily featured teenage characters, and someone from the publishing industry came to see it.

It’s a longer, more complicated story than we have time for here, but the gist was this: afterwards, the person told me, “You should write YA books.”

And I said, “Okay!”

I didn’t really question it, maybe because the second I started reading E. Lockhart and John Green and Jenny Han, I was like, yep, yep, this is for me. 

That first attempt didn’t turn into a published book, but my second one did! And I think, without realizing it, I’d already been on my way toward writing for this audience.

I’ve always loved stories that focus on the teen experience. It’s something about that feeling of being right on the cusp. You’re not a grown-up, and there are still people telling you what to do and where to go and when. But you’re also starting to see real glimmers of where your life might be headed. The stakes feel so high—it’s exciting!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The idea for If You’re Out There  popped into my head after a friend really did ghost me. It was incredibly strange and sad, and it took me a long time to process. But in the end, I had to accept it as one of my life’s little mysteries.

Still, this one thought kept bugging me. What if this had happened to a friendship I’d been more secure in? A soul mate friend? A rock? I got sort of obsessed with this question. I think this book was my attempt at answering it.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

One thing that was tricky for me while writing If You’re Out There was defining for myself what it was.

It hugs the line between light and dark, and there were times when I asked myself: “Is this allowed? Can I really write this?” 

Before you get that agent or book deal to validate you, it can be hard to tell if anyone else is going to see what you do.

I think learning to tune out that doubt and just follow those gut instincts became the most critical part of the process for me.

Later, after the book sold, an author pal referred to it fondly as a “mystery-love-story-friendship-thriller-comedy,” and I felt understood. See? That can be a thing!

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

The funniest moment was probably the day I got my deal. My critique partner, Nicole Panteleakos, and I were on the phone, both talking sort of vaguely about our days. We’d been down a long road together—both of us having scrapped old projects around the time we first met, writing our new books often side by side in cafes, only to get agents within a few months of each other.

I was still on a high from the offer, and completely stunned. And while I knew she would be happy for me, I also knew she was out on submission with her own book, and I didn’t want to bum her out.

So I kept slowly dancing around the subject. And it turned out she was doing the exact same thing. Because yep—we’d both just received offers on our debut novels. On the same day!

Katy and Nicole

How did the outside (non-children’s-YA-lit) world react to the news of your sale?

There was so much joy around the announcement—lots of screaming, happy tears, and hugs from friends and family. (Or, in the case of my husband when I first told him, just very calm, elated swearing.) I’ve been floored by all the support around this moment of my life. I know I’m extremely lucky. …Aw. Thank you for that question. Now I feel all warm and fuzzy.

Katy’s New York City Book Launch

 Nicole Panteleakos

 What first inspired you to write for young readers?

A few years after I earned my BA in Theatre: Scriptwriting, I took a class at Eastern Connecticut State University in writing for children, taught by Lisa Rowe Fraustino. I had signed up because I enjoy writing classes in general and also because she had written a Dear America book I liked, but I ended up loving it so much that when she suggested I look into Hollins University’s MFA program in Children’s Literature, I did.

My first summer at Hollins solidified my desire to write middle grade lit, and I’ve been working on it since. Now I only have one summer semester left and I’ve loved every minute of it.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

Planet Earth is Blue is historical fiction set over ten days in 1986, so probably the hardest part of the process involved historical research.

I couldn’t rely solely on my memories or those of people around me, because we don’t always remember things exactly as they were, and there haven’t been a lot of history books written about that period yet because it was so recent.

One thing I found invaluable was textbooks from the late ‘70s and early-mid ‘80s. My protagonist, Nova, loves space and space travel and knows a lot about it, but I had to make sure her knowledge was on par with what kids would have known then–for example, she ‘knew’ that Pluto was a planet, and Neptune only had a couple of moons.

In an author’s note, we explain a couple of those things so today’s kids know I wasn’t just confused about the number of planets!

Nova is also autistic and nonverbal in the days before iPad communication programs and our current understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I researched the special education and diagnoses of the time both online and by talking to people who were working in the field starting in the early ‘80s, though I made her class a bit better than it was for many kids by giving her a teacher who truly wanted to work to understand her and didn’t view her meltdowns as tantrums, because I wanted school to be a mostly positive place, as I felt she had enough challenges in other areas already, as a foster child with a missing older sister.

Research aside, one of the tough parts of writing Planet Earth is Blue was keeping it from getting too sad. While most kids won’t know the fate of the Challenger when they first start reading, I did, and adults will, and I was worried about there being a permeating melancholy settled over the entire manuscript because the protagonist is literally counting down to a horrible tragedy, but she doesn’t know it.

I tried to make sure to put a lot of good in, funny moments with friends, happy times connecting with her new foster family, positive memories she shares with her sister….

When I was worried about the ending, my friend Tonya told me, “If you can’t make it happy, make it hopeful.” And that carried me through the rest of the writing process.

Elementary student with ARC of Planet Earth is Blue which her class read together

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I was incredibly fortunate to be selected as Ellie Terry’s mentee for PitchWars 2016, through which I edited my manuscript and worked on a query letter. After PW closed, I cold queried Katie Grimm at Don Congdon & Associates because I’d read her Manuscript Wish List and felt like my book would be right up her alley. She read the entire thing in one night, which was super exciting for me to hear, and I signed with her two weeks to the day after our first phone call.

When it was time for the manuscript to go on submission to publishing houses, Katie asked if I had a “dream editor” that I wanted to send to.

I said yes, Wendy Lamb–I had met Wendy once at an SCBWI talk, and she edited my all-time favorite book, When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009) by Rebecca Stead.

There’s a part of me that still can’t believe Wendy even read Planet Earth is Blue, but she did, and she liked it, and she offered to publish it through Wendy Lamb Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House). I couldn’t have been luckier or happier or better off!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Build a community! Being an author can be incredibly isolating, especially if it’s a person’s full time job or college major.

I have had an awesome critique partner, Katy Loutzenhiser for the last several years. We met while caring for kids who live in the same apartment building. They were having a playdate, we got to talking, and were happily surprised to discover we were both writing books for young people (her: teens, me: tweens).

We started meeting up at cafes around Brooklyn, NY, and writing until it was time to pick up the kids from school. Not only were we in the drafting and early revision stages together, we entered the querying trenches around the same time and got our publication offers on the same day.

Her debut came out in March, mine is May, and we’re currently both working on Book 2. In addition to exchanging work, we’ve been able to commiserate and celebrate together, to offer advice or a listening ear, and to keep each other working when we might have felt like curling up alone at home with everybody’s good friend Netflix.

Last year, I attended a Highlights retreat with other debut middle grade authors–Rajani LaRocca, Joshua Levy, Naomi Milliner, Gillian McDunn, Chris Baron, Cory Leonardo, and J. Kasper Kramer.

We quickly hit it off and have become a close-knit group, supporting each other from our different states, planning to do future panels or signings together, and bouncing ideas off each other for future books and for marketing, school visits, and other related things.

I’ve gotten to meet or otherwise get to know other authors thanks to PitchWars and/or Novel19s (including Ellie Terry, Remy Lai, Helen Hoang, Kristina Forest, Susan Vizurraga, Cindy Baldwin, and Katie Zhao, among others) and each one is important to me–plus, they’re all fantabulous writers, and I can’t wait to have all of their books on my shelves!

Highlights retreat with Cory Leonardo, Naomi Milliner, Nicole, Rajani LaRocca, Josh Levy, Gillian McDunn, Chris Baron, J. Kasper Kramer

To find ‘your people,’ I recommend following PitchWars, using MeetUps (if there are any in your area), Facebook groups, other writing contests, and Twitter.

If in college or high school, those are bound to be other aspiring kidlit or YA writers there, too–ask around, put up a sign, start a club!

Sappy as it may sound, having a community of other writers, especially those who are also starting out, is invaluable, especially when times get hard. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and since most of the time the interaction is online instead of in person, it’s great for introverts and/or autistic people. And then, when you do go to a busy place like BookCon or Yallwest, you’re bound to have friends going, too!

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

 I think (hope) I brought an extra level of authenticity to Nova. I did not base her on myself or anyone else in particular, but I gave her little pieces of me (in particular the sensory issues, overactive imagination, and OCD) and little pieces of different kids I’ve cared for (for example, the way she says yes and no is borrowed from one child, while her feelings about peanut butter and fluff–good taste, weird texture – come from another). All of that is mixed together with purely fictional character traits, like her love of space travel trivia, which required lots of research.

Above all, I was determined not to create an autistic stereotype, which is why I wanted to show her creativity, love, empathy, and imagination–a pervasive, but incorrect belief based on outdated information is that people on the Autism Spectrum lack these traits, which has been detrimental to autistic kids and adults in multiple ways.

One way is that there are autistic people who are highly imaginative and/or very loving (etc) and have gone undiagnosed because of it–I once heard a teacher say of a tween boy, “He has all the usual autism traits except that he’s really loving, so we think he must have something else.” He was not officially diagnosed with Autism until his late teens as a result.

Another time a BCBA said of my nonverbal godson, who liked to gallop and whiny like a horse, “He doesn’t actually have an imagination. When it seems like he’s pretend playing, he’s just copying what he’s seen someone else do.”

In reality, that godchild is one of the most fun (and funny) imaginative people I know.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “That kid can’t be autistic! They (talk/don’t talk/ are smart/suck at math/pretend play/seem so loving/enjoy hugs/self-injure/want friends/have a job/speak two languages…” as if any one of these things automatically negates a diagnosis of ASD.

I want all kids–whether neurotypical or neurodiverse–who read Nova’s story to feel she is real, relatable, empathetic, intelligent, expressive, and someone they’d want to be friends with.

Cynsational Notes

Katy Loutzenhiser grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dabbling in many art forms and watching age-inappropriate movies. After college, she found an unlikely home in the Chicago comedy scene and regularly sang improvised musicals in public. Now she writes YA books in Brooklyn.

Nicole Panteleakos is an author, playwright, thespian, and Ravenclaw. Her debut novel Plant Earth is Blue (Wendy Lamb Books, Penguin Random House) will be released on May 14, 2019. She is represented by agent Katie Grimm at Don Congdon Associates and belongs to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: Metro NY.

She names her cats after writers: Shakespeare, (Mary) Shelley, Dickens, Beckett, and Poe, and when not writing, she can usually be found reading fanfiction, playing board games, doing community theatre, or adding to her Alice in Wonderland coffee cup collection.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.